The word “legend” is often used way too loosely, but with regards to the vastly influential country music artist George Jones (a.k.a. The Possum) it is certainly appropriate. Jones, who passed away today at age 81, was as infamous as he was famous, with stories and legends surrounding the legend himself. You don’t need to be a fan of country music to know that his impact as a singer, stylist, personality and star are undeniable.
The New York Times hailed Jones as “the definitive country singer of the last half-century” and CMT‘s website refers to him as “the finest vocalist in the recorded history of country music.” With 14 singles reaching #1, he had more top 40 hits than any other country artist, songs that include: “The Grand Tour”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” and three #1 recordings with “Queen of Country” Tammy Wynette.
He firmly cemented his legendary status with the release of 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The song’s uniquely surprising perspective is that of of a man whose devotion to his true love could only be stopped by his own death. The track is thought by many to be one of the (if not the) greatest country songs ever recorded.
His immensely traditional vocal style influenced many top country singers, including, Randy Travis, Vice Gill, Jamey Johnson and countless other artists. His singing was country music itself, the art-form’s purest vocalization.
Jones’ infamous side is a huge part of his legend and country music lore is filled with many tales. Perhaps the most famous came while Jones was married to Tammy Wynette. As she recounted in her memoirs, she had hidden her inebriated husband’s keys to prevent him from driving to a bar. With no watering holes in walking distance and the car’s keys sequestered, Jones was forced to improvise. Wynette awoke to find Jones and his John Deere riding lawnmower missing. After a short drive, Wynette found both parked at a nearby bar. The tale became instant legend, and found its way into three popular country music videos, most famously, Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance.” The video centers around Gill and company clowning on golf carts and at the end we see Jones driving a John Deere towards Gill (on a larger John Deere). As they passed each other, “Hey sweetpea,” (Jones’ nickname for Gill), “Hey Possum,” …those who knew the inside joke grew exponentially after its lionization.
The moniker “No Show Jones” stuck as the singer canceled many concerts in the 70s and 80s — some resulting from issues with substance abuse and some attributable to Jones’ ability to be just plain ornery. A musician friend once told me about being backstage at a George Jones concert promoted by a man previously “stiffed” by Jones. Jones was told he would only get paid in cash as he walked on the stage. As the story goes, Jones walked by the promoter, collected his money, walked onto the stage, waived to the crowd and proceeded to leave without so much as a single 1-4-5 chord progression.
As a child growing up in Nashville in the 70s and 80s, Jones was an omnipresent figure both for the greatness of his music and his seemingly uncontrollable antics. I remember the local news reporting these stories quite often with a “well, old George Jones is at it again” approach. These tales were common fodder for dinner table discussion and laughter — not laughing at Jones but instead at his ability to get away with it while the public continued to embrace him as if he was their crazy redneck uncle who “just won’t do right.” Even though these antics were at times due to negative forces in Jones’ life, he always remained endeared to his legion of fans, whether country music lovers or not.
While Jones was married four times, one ponders what remained of his tumultuous connection to Tammy Wynette. I like the vision of the Grand Ole Opry stage (for country artists who have passed on) being set tonight for a special reunion show — a command performance reuniting two of country’s best and greatest voices. One can only hope that Hank Sr., The Man in Black, and Waylon Jennings are preparing a special show where the great George and Tammy will render (in perfect country twanginess) their hits “Hold On,” “The Golden Ring” and “Near You”. No doubt the good ol’ boys that invented good ol’ boys will smile, nod their heads in time and sing along in perfectly twanged harmony.
An eerie feeling arises as one realizes the self-fulfilling nature of my favorite of his hits. George loved many women, and whether it was Tammy, one of his other three wives or a nameless love whose name we never knew, unfortunately, he has (on earth anyway) stopped loving her today.