At least this whole story has a happy ending, right? Of course, whether or not that’s true depends a lot on your personal definitions of both “happy ending” and “whole story” but, either way, today we reach the final chapter of George Jones’ life. Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Primary sources for this episode can be found in The Main Library and the Season 2 Library.
Transcript of Episode
Dressed in Success
There’s a saying children often hear from a parent or teacher: if a thing is worth doing, then it’s worth doing well. One common humorous twist on the adage, frequently attributed to various 20th century quotable figures from Mick Jagger to David Letterman to Robert A. Heinlein but, really, dating all the way back to the 19th century goes: whatever is worth doing is worth overdoing.
Like virtually anything else, rhinestone suits are a point of contention among country music fans. Were they an iconic contribution to fashion or a dated trend? One more example of country artists blazing their own trail or one more example of country artists trying to sell out to pop audiences?
In 1911, near the end of a three decade run for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the Society of American Indians became the first national organization advocating for the unification, rights and interests of all the various American Indian tribes. One early stance the Society took was against any tribe appearing in movies, vaudeville programs or Wild West shows that perpetuated the kind of demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes which helped make Buffalo Bill Cody perhaps the most famous American of his time and which he never abandoned at any point of his entertainment career. While it’s true Cody did fight and kill American Indians in battles and skirmishes, this was not out of personal hatred, sworn enmity or ambitions toward genocide. Many more of his interactions were diplomatic than militant and it was precisely because of all these experiences that he knew for a fact American Indians were no more “savage” than White men. Speaking candidly in private, Bill Cody would tell you every so-called “Indian uprising” he’d ever seen was the result of broken promises and broken treaties by the U.S. government. Where most post-war attitudes held the Native ways of life as inferior and hoped to keep such societies confined to reservations until Indians learned to live like White people, Cody regarded the Lakota hired for his show as equal to all other talent. They were paid the same amount of money as everyone else and no degree of discrimination was tolerated against the group of people Cody took to addressing as, simply, Americans. Many of the Lakota credited Cody for helping to preserve aspects of their culture. In his Wild West show, they were paid to perform ceremonial dances which were banned on reservations. He did not only hire men and take them away from their families but urged their wives and children to also leave the reservation and travel with the tour. Whenever the show reached a new town, Lakota employees pitched tipi villages and local townsfolk were encouraged to go interact with perhaps the only American Indians they’d ever seen in real life, meet their families, learn things about their culture. Cody supplied Lakota men and women with materials at cost to make moccasins, satchels and other crafts (often featuring beadwork), which they then sold as souvenirs, keeping the profits for themselves. By the end of Wild West’s run and Buffalo Bill’s life in 1917, American Indian beadwork, leatherwork, patchwork, turquoise jewelry and various other items including such imagery as arrowheads and thunderbirds were all integrated with contemporary concepts of Western wear. And by that time, Hollywood had taken up the reins of playing to America’s obsession with romanticized notions of the wild West.
Within a few years of getting into the entertainment business (and becoming rich), Buffalo Bill had embraced his new role as a showman and his personal taste in Western wear ran to the flashiest directions then possible: bright red shirts; fringed leather riding gloves with a large 5-pointed star inlaid on the back of each hand; all kinds of velvety fabrics which shone in the sun or spotlight; golden chains strung through the belt loops of his military-style pants; a diamond-covered buffalo head pin gifted to him by a Russian grand duke; custom saddles accented with liberal amounts of silverwork and a full-body portrait of himself tooled into the leather fender on each side; shirts, vest, jackets, even felt cowboy hats absolutely saturated with floral embroidery.
But when Hollywood began making Westerns near the start of the 20th century, they went in the opposite direction, forsaking the appearance of showbiz in hopes of fostering a more realistic vibe by dressing actors as close as possible to the way working cowboys dressed. One of the first Western stars of the silent film era was William S. Hart. You’ll find stills from only a couple movies where he wore anything flashier than a dented ranger or cowboy hat, bandana tied around his neck, gingham shirt, leather arm cuffs, a gun belt, work pants, plain cowboy boots and dirty spurs. In one movie, he wore a sombrero which happens to appear gaudy in contrast to the rest of his regular outfit but it was actually just a traditional sombrero with the accompanying embellishments. In another movie, the only change to his regular outfit was the gingham shirt being replaced by one with a flashier pattern bearing simple circles and squares. This was about as wild as the first-wave Hollywood cowboys got with their fashion choices onscreen. Then a bunch of European immigrants and a guy named Tom Mix came to Tinseltown.
A Different Lens
When he was a little kid, Tom Mix hoped to grow up and join the circus and that’s kind of what he did. By the time he turned 30, around the year 1910, Mix was working as a hand on Oklahoma’s 101 Ranch and good enough at shooting, riding and roping to’ve won multiple national rodeo contests. Now, taking first place at major rodeos has always been a big deal to people who live in this world, so most anyone who could would usually start dressing like they were a big deal. (See: Prairie Rose Henderson, who began winning rodeo championships in the 1890s, then started designing and making her own extraordinary costumes, like a riding suit with billowing pants and maybe a twelve inch band of fur around the knees. Or a shirt bearing a massive embroidered rose across most of her chest and so on.) Therefore, it’s pretty likely Tom Mix had already developed a taste for fashion that would’ve made even Buffalo Bill blush by the time he was put in the nationally touring Wild West show launched by 101 Ranch. But when selected to star in a short documentary about the life of a ranch hand in 1910, they wanted him dressed in everyday work clothing, not as a rodeo star. And when the documentary was a hit, opening the door for Tom to start playing bit parts in silent Westerns, he continued dressing like an ordinary cowboy, as did everyone else in Hollywood movies at the time. Unlike nearly everyone else in Hollywood movies at the time, Tom Mix was able to do all of his own stunts. It only took a few years for close-up shots on his roping, riding and shooting skills to make him a movie star and only a few more before he started dressing like one in the movies themselves. For 1916’s $5,000 Reward, the only item in Tom’s outfit you’d be surprised to see on William S. Hart years earlier was a button-up shirt with smile pockets and simple white piping along the shoulder yoke. By 1918’s Fame and Fortune, he’d added the comically large cowboy hat which would remain synonymous with his image forever. And by 1920’s The Untamed, the uppers of his dark cowboy boots were covered in white stitching that by 1922’s Do and Dare was replaced by dozens of white flowers and green grass inlays. Because, by 1922, Tom Mix had met the man who would help him revolutionize the way cowboys were portrayed on the silver screen.
Edward Bohlin was born in Sweden and came to the United States in 1910 when he was only 15 years old. As soon as he was able, he headed west and found work on ranches in Montana and Wyoming, eventually landing in Cody – the Wyoming town named after co-founder Buffalo Bill, who spent his final years living there on a ranch. Bohlin got a job at this ranch and, perhaps inspired by pieces which had belonged to Buffalo Bill, began to learn the craft of leatherwork. Fast forward to the beginning of the 1920s, Bohlin’s on tour doing lasso tricks and shooting off revolvers in a Wild West show that makes a stop in Los Angeles, where Tom Mix attends a performance. Mix gets one look at the leather coat and alligator boots worn by this guy and decides to approach him after the show to demand Bohlin a) sell the items to Mix on the spot and b) tell Mix where to get more clothes from the same person who made those. When Bohlin says the leather work is his own, Mix insists he must move to L.A. at once to craft more fantastic custom clothing worthy of a Western movie star. In 1922, Bohlin opens the Hollywood Novelty Leather Shop. While modern scholars tend to associate his name with his legendary horse saddles, which incorporated more intricate leatherwork and metalwork than anyone in ranching, rodeo or Westerns had ever seen, Bohlin took the same approach to all his pieces and his influence touched nearly everything made from leather. For example, his relationship with Tom Mix is largely responsible for popularizing both leather belts and flashy belt buckles in Western culture. (Pants were not even mass produced with belt loops until Levi’s blue jeans added them right here in the 1920s because, in the 19th century and early 20th century, nearly all American men wore suspenders. The exception to this were military men, ex-military men or others posturing toward the military look. And, make no mistake, it was always more about the look than anything else. Sure, men who carried a sword needed a scabbard and it only makes sense to hang something like that from a belt. But that’s the same reason gun belts exist and in every picture of Wild Bill Hickok wearing a gun belt, if he’s also wearing a waistcoat, then you can bet money there were suspenders under his jacket. 19th century military personnel in America and Europe wore belts as another visual indicator of rank – either via the cloth belt’s color, the buckle’s grade of metal or both – and to enforce good posture while causing a man’s waist to appear slimmer than his chest, giving him a more muscular and intimidating look. This is the same reason many military officers wore corsets under their clothing and why early professional baseball players wore belts.) Tom Mix served four years in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Being an ex-military man and playing one so often on-screen, he did typically wear belts, though they were basic and unadorned prior to his meeting Ed Bohlin. After he saw the art Bohlin could create from leather and metal, Tom lost his taste for plain leather and requested ornately tooled pieces of leather with silver and gold accents, along with inlays of diamonds, rubies or U.S. currency. The buckles on Bohlin’s early belts were frame-style horseshoes in silver or gold but he quickly became interested in the medium of plate-style buckles, which he treated as something of a blank canvas. Previously a rectangular or oval field for some basic emblem or logo, the plate buckle soon became a centerpiece of Western wear. The coveted grand prize at several major rodeos in the 1920s was a custom Bohlin belt buckle, which helped establish the tradition of buckles-as-rodeo-trophies still standing today. Bohlin’s shop also offered cloth fashions but, in this department, Tom Mix was able to select from a range of specialists.
Bernard Lichtenstein was born in Poland and apprenticed with a tailor as a young boy before coming to the United States when he was only 14 years old, somewhere around 1907. Upon reaching adulthood, Bernard (or Ben, as he came to be known) found work in America as a traveling cloth salesman based out of Philadelphia. One day a local tailor called looking for fabrics in the loudest combination of colors anyone had ever requested – bright purples, blues and greens – so Ben got curious about what it was for. After being told a Wild West show had just arrived in town and the performers wanted these materials to make their own costumes, Ben said he could get the colors and would love to also try making the costumes. When the performers (and everyone else) saw the outfits, they were so thrilled it resulted in Ben being flooded with enough orders from Wild West shows, rodeo riders and Hollywood cowboys that everyone started calling him “Rodeo Ben.” In 1930, he opened a storefront in Philadelphia, known as The East’s Most Western Store. The following year he started using basic metal snaps meant for women’s gloves in place of buttons on shirts made for cowboys, soon upgrading to ivory and mother-of-pearl to match the extravagant piping and floral chain-stitch embroidery on many of his pieces, thereby giving the modern Western shirt one of its foundational elements. Though Rodeo Ben stayed in Philadelphia his whole career, he had thousands of clients around the world, including movie stars in Hollywood. When asked why he didn’t open a location in Texas or L.A., Ben replied, “As long as I make the right stuff in the East, they’ll buy it in the West.” One of Ben’s first famous clients was Tom Mix and he went on to make outfits for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Such big-name customers placing orders from the other side of the continent is a testament to Rodeo Ben’s craft, as it’s not like there was any shortage of magnificent rodeo tailors in Hollywood…
Nathan Turk was also born in Poland and apprenticed with a tailor as a young boy before emigrating with his parents to the United States as a teenager. In 1923, he opened a dry cleaning business that could also do alterations in an area of L.A. which happened to be near several of the ranches where Western movies were filmed. Actors, stuntmen and rodeo riders weren’t his only clients but the clothes they brought in were his favorites to work on and there were enough of them to eventually make it worth pivoting out of the dull dry-cleaning business into the much more exciting enterprise of designing and fabricating high-end Western wear. What Ed Bohlin did for leatherwork around the same time, Turk’s shop did for immaculate embroidery produced at a level nobody had ever seen before. His wife Bessie also perfected symmetrical smile pockets with arrows stitched around the openings. Turk made outfits for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers but he is also responsible for the most surreal costumes worn by The Maddox Brothers and Rose in the 1940s, including what they wore for their only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. If you’ve never done an image search on those outfits, now would be a good time to do it because it’s important to recognize the trailblazers before we get to the man who, on this side of history, overshadows every other name in Western wear.
Nutya Kotlyrenko was born in Kiev in 1902. The son of a bootmaker, he apprenticed with a tailor as a young boy before his parents sent him to the United States at the age of 11. Supposedly, he gained the name “Nudie” when an immigration officer at Ellis Island misheard his first name but there are a lot of reasons to question whether that’s true. For one thing, despite the long life of this particular cultural myth, nearly no immigrants had their names changed by officers at Ellis Island. For another, Nudie Cohn was the kind of guy who, after becoming the most famous Western wear tailor in history, would drive around poor neighborhoods passing out cash with photos of his own face pasted atop those of the U.S. presidents on the bills. So either an immigration officer gave a flamboyant self-marketer the most prophetic of all the very rare nicknames to ever come out of Ellis Island or Nutya later earned the nickname by employing his skills as a tailor to make costumes for performers in burlesque shows.
By the time he started doing this – between the late 1920s and early 1930s, the tail-end of illegal speakeasy culture during federal Prohibition – the striptease (or “nudie”) portion of burlesque shows had become the main attraction. Performers and venue owners, like New York City’s Minsky brothers, chased dollars by pushing up against the boundaries of social limitations (and laws) which dictated how much of a woman’s body could be revealed on a stage. Believe it or not, in the mid-1920s in New York, it was actually legal for a woman to appear topless in a show… as long as she stood still – no dancing or other titillating dynamic movements. So dancing was relegated to the first, say, 90% of a performance, the part where women artfully removed pieces of their outfit in a gradual buildup to the grand finale: a static presentation of naked breasts. Toward the end of showing as much skin as legally possible, this art form is what led to the rise of the g-string, usually the last article of clothing still worn by a showgirl as she stood topless at the end of a routine. By the time Nudie Cohn opened his Manhattan storefront, Nudie’s for the Ladies, in 1934, he knew there was an opportunity for the g-string to put just as much of an exclamation mark on the end of a performance as the reveal of a nearly-naked woman. However, toward the end of showing as much skin as legally possible, there really wasn’t much fabric to work with on such a skimpy garment. So Nudie did what eventually made him famous – the absolute most extra thing possible – and covered as much of the fabric as he could in rhinestones (essentially, fake diamonds made of glass which strongly reflect beams of light from every facet). To say the least, the effect of basically strapping a disco ball over the vagina of an otherwise-naked and spotlit woman turned out to be a crowdpleaser. Nudie devoted attention to the rest of each client’s outfit but the rhinestone g-string was always the star of the show and brought him great business… right up until New York City outlawed burlesque. See, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was never a fan, calling burlesque shows “a corrupting moral influence,” and he started raiding striptease venues in 1936, about 5 years before he got around to banning pinball. In 1937, after a stripper at Abe Minsky’s place in Harlem decided to punch up the end of her act by not wearing a g-string (or anything else), burlesque was immediately banned in New York City and Nudie Cohn, having lost all of his clients, left town. After a few years spent wandering, he popped back up in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. But the reputation he’d made for himself in New York City meant approximately nothing on this coast and, speaking frankly, his skills as a tailor couldn’t produce anything comparable to the finest work of the already-successful Nathan Turk or Rodeo Ben. What he could do was pump out approximations of their most basic outfits and, while apprenticing at Turk’s shop, Nudie mentioned this often to one of the first friends he made in L.A.
Tex Williams had departed from a star-making role as the singer of Spade Cooley’s Western Swing Band in 1947 and was looking to start booking his own gigs, just as soon as someone made a dozen or so stage outfits for him and his band. Nudie said he could do the job if he only had the right sewing machine, so Tex sold a horse to buy the machine and Nudie was in business. They carried out the measuring session for the costumes in a celebratory manner and, everyone being drunk, the arm and leg measurements accidentally got switched around. So Nudie wound up making all the suits with the arms as long as the legs should have been and vice versa. He had to go back to the fabric guy who’d given him all this fabric on credit and demand to be given more fabric on credit or else he wouldn’t be able to fix the suits and Tex wouldn’t be able to go play the shows to be able to pay Nudie so he could pay the fabric guy any money. By the end of the decade, Nudie had a storefront in L.A. – first called Nudie’s of Hollywood, then Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors – with the tags on all his garments featuring a topless cowgirl, a tribute to his past in burlesque.
One of the first things he’d fallen in love with about American culture was Western movies but he never understood why the starring cowboys didn’t wear more dazzling outfits to visually set themselves apart from the rest of the cast the way matadors dressed to stand out from their team of bullfighters. In 1951, flush with cash from a #1 hit on “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve got the Time),” Lefty Frizzell came to Nudie for a new stage outfit. And anyone who thinks they know what the words “Nudie suit” mean should really go look up the first stage clothes he made for Lefty Frizzell. Because this was not the precisely symmetrical abstract embroidery Nathan Turk borrowed from Slavic folk art, not the brightly-colored embroidered flowers Rodeo Ben borrowed from Polish folk art and nothing to do with el traje de luces, a primary visual and teleological influence on every showbiz rodeo tailor. Lefty’s Nudie suits are what Buffalo Bill Cody would have worn if a 1930s comic book super hero. One looks like someone took Rodeo Ben’s most basic template of a Western suit, attached a dense curtain of fringe around the entire shoulder yoke (and, for some reason, beneath the front pants pockets), then put Lefty’s initials on the front and back of the shirt in crude leather patches bordered by a sloppy frame of rhinestones. This is what people originally meant when they referred to “a Nudie suit” and they did do this a lot because Lefty’s first suits were a big hit. Each time he came back for more, he asked Nudie to use more and more rhinestones. There’s a green one from a couple years later with a more sensible amount of fringe, some more crude leather patches (like a wagon wheel on the chest and a horse on each pants leg) along with maybe 4x as many rhinestones, again bordering the leather patches but also covering the entire shirt collar, tagging along the piping on the shirt cuffs and belt loops and formed into sloppy horseshoes beneath sloppy smile pockets. That’s a Nudie suit. And other country artists who saw Lefty’s Nudie suits ordered their own. Little Jimmy Dickens, supposedly the first person to wear a rhinestone suit on the Grand Ole Opry, was another early customer. His earliest Nudie pieces also look like first-generation superhero couture. Again starting with the most basic template of a Western suit, Nudie then put a triangular bib front on the shirt, lined the inside of the bib with rhinestones and stitched Jimmy’s initials inside a large circle taking up most of his chest. He looks like Hillbilly Superman. When you’re pondering such amateur designs and craft, wondering what happened to turn Nudie into the genius tailor capable of stitching the famous suits we’ve all seen with embroidered imagery as photorealistic as an oil painting, you can stop wondering because he never did. There was no quantum leap in his abilities. What he did was find people who were creating such work and hire them to create it in the backroom of his shop.
The two most important people who deserve credit for the pieces of art which eventually began coming out of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors were Viola Grae and Manuel Cuevas. Manuel was born and raised in Mexico and learned to sew from his older brother. By the time he was a teenager, he’d become so good that all the girls in his town wanted their prom dresses to be made by Manuel. Around the age of 19, he came to L.A. and took whatever tailoring work he could find, quickly landing a job with Sy Devore, suit maker to the Rat Pack. With such wealthy clients, Manuel could probably have stayed in this job for decades and even spun it into making a name for himself. But then someone took him to see the Rose Parade in Pasadena. After one look at all those horse saddles designed by Ed Bohlin and all those pieces of Western wear from Nathan Turk, Manuel knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Upon visiting Turk’s store and discovering it was Viola Grae who’d performed the most intricate embroidery in the parade, Viola Grae who Nudie hired whenever a customer asked for such embroidery, Manuel arranged to become her apprentice. The practice of adorning Western wear with symbols of import to the owner dates back at least to the first custom-ordered cowboy boots and moved over to fabric long before Prairie Rose Henderson started embroidering roses on clothing she wore in the rodeo ring. But when we’re tracing the tradition of country singers wearing outfits covered in masterfully-embroidered images which refer to hit songs, the artist’s name or some other pertinent theme, then we’re mostly looking at Viola Grae. Nathan Turk was very good at embroidery but his style was abstract, those patterns that look like a dozen sets of deer antlers somehow jumbled up into a symmetrical design. When someone like Rose Maddox came around asking for the most realistic roses anyone in the shop could put on her outfit, that was a job for Viola Grae. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Viola, except that she came to L.A. from Minnesota and Nathan Turk, Nudie Cohn and Manuel would all tell you she was simply the best of her time. When we’re looking at pieces that came out of Nudie’s shop, it’s very easy to tell which embellishments were added by whom. If it looks like someone patched on a piece of clip art from some other material or haphazardly threw on a bunch of gemstones, that’s Nudie. If you can take a magnifying glass to it and find the detailed work of someone who spent years honing a craft 99% of people could never master in a lifetime – we’re talking Webb Pierce’s “In the Jailhouse Now” suit, Gram Parsons’ “Drugs and Jesus” suit, the myriad illustrated rhinestone suits of Hank Snow and Porter Wagoner – that’s someone Nudie hired, like Viola or Manuel, who was promoted to head tailor and lead designer at Nudie’s by the early 1960s.
What landed Nudie in the history books was not being a competent tailor of basic designs, which he was, but finding gimmicks, branding a business and promoting himself as the face of that business while leaving the creation of art to true artists. Around the same time Nudie invented rhinestone suits, he and Manuel began customizing the longest convertibles they could find into automobiles worthy of cowboy superstars. They replaced the entire interiors with hand-tooled and -painted leather, affixed bandoliers and holsters all over the place (stocked with bullets and guns, of course), threw a set of giant bull horns on every grill, a horse saddle in the place of every console and silver dollars pretty much any free spot where a coin could be embedded. Driving one of these cars around town and claiming some of the gaudiest suits to come from the back room of the shop for his own personal wardrobe, everywhere Nudie went was inherently a sales pitch for both his business and his own status as a celebrity. He was equally skilled at targeting famous clients who he knew would bring in business by wearing his product onstage. The Porter Wagoner Show first aired on TV in 1960. If you go watch the video of Porter performing “Misery Loves Company” in 1961, you’ll find him wearing such a basic suit and tie it looks like he’s gonna work a shift as a bank teller after the show. The video of Porter and Grandpa Jones performing the moonshine anthem “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” on TV hardly a year later in 1962? His jacket must weigh close to 15 pounds because it has an uninterrupted sheet of rhinestones covering every inch of the fabric. What happened in the interim? Well, Nudie offered the host of one of TV’s most popular country music programs a free rhinestone suit, thereby gaining one of his most loyal customers ever, a decades-long living billboard for the Nudie brand, as well as an excuse to pump out dozens of iterations of the old wagon wheel motif from those early Lefty Frizzell suits. Nudie was happy to go along with the publicity stunts of others, too. Col. Tom Parker famously claimed to’ve paid $10,000 for Elvis Presley’s gold lamé Nudie suit, which made for a great story but Nudie revealed some years later he hadn’t charged anywhere near that amount. By the way, Elvis wore this suit on the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong in 1957, when his singles were still topping the country charts prior to the formation of the CMA.
So the next time you hear someone talk about how they only listen to country music from back before artists started dressing up in cowboy drag, make sure to ask them exactly when that was because the answer is sure to be entertaining. Sometimes you’ll hear complaints about the Wranglers and Stetsons which evidently became mandatory for every male country artist in the 1990s. But, more often, it’ll be a derogatory rant on rhinestone suits from someone who probably wouldn’t be happy with the results of running an image search to see what Merle Haggard looks like trying one on. If you bring up the fondness for cowboy hats displayed by Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and pretty much any country artist who came from or rose to fame anywhere near Texas (not to mention any artist even tangentially related to Western Swing), you’ll likely see the goalposts move east of the Mississippi because you’re talking to someone who just doesn’t understand why Appalachian artists started dressing up like cowboys in, well, whatever decade they believe that happened. Maybe in the 1930s, when Bill Monroe wore jodhpurs and Western-style hats? Or perhaps it was the 1920s, when Stanley Hicks, The Possum Hunters, The Gully Jumpers, The Dixie Clodhoppers and maybe half the regular lineup of the Grand Ole Opry wore the gingham shirts and/or cowboy hats and/or cowboy boots then being worn by actors in Western movies. And the next time you see some pop or rock music journalist with a college degree talking about how much “authenticity” matters to country music fans, make sure to ask how many sharecroppers they’ve seen hoe a row or pick cotton while wearing their initials across the chest of a rhinestoned shirt the way Lefty Frizzell and Little Jimmy Dickens began appearing onstage about a decade after young Gene Autry fans were able to buy a little cowboy costume with Gene’s name similarly plastered all over it. As for why someone like country artist Hank Thompson would want to walk out of Nudie’s shop with rhinestoned fringe shirts and jackets nearly identical to those already being worn in Westerns by Rex Allen and Roy Rogers, that’s easy…
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
Still Doin’ Time
In early 1982, record label executive Rick Blackburn said, “It would not surprise me to get a phone call any day saying that George [Jones] had been found dead or had had a fatal car accident.” After his trainwreck of a performance on the CMA awards telecast a few months earlier, it’s fair to say nobody would have been shocked to receive such a phone call. Regardless of claims a stay in rehab had put him back on track, everyone paying attention could see the truth and Jones’ records made no attempt to disguise it, doubling down on the sentiment of “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” by following it up with “Still Doin’ Time.” Released in September of 1981, the single went all the way to #1, his second to do so in as many years. Despite the CMA fiasco in October, come November, Epic renewed his contract with a ten-albums-in-five-years deal, giving him a 20% royalty rate on sales and the option to take up to a $300,000 advance per LP. Some may have worried that quality control would suffer under such a high output deal but 1982 brought a double-LP greatest hits and a full-length collaboration with Merle Haggard. The compilation featured no previously-unreleased material but it was the first real greatest hits collection gathered from his first decade on Epic, so it did very well. As for the album with Merle Haggard, the title track was their version of the Willie Nelson song, “Yesterday’s Wine,” the next single bearing George Jones’ name to reach #1. Haggard being perhaps the second-most-popular nominee for Greatest Country Singer Ever, many fans were thrilled with the pairing, even if those hoping to settle the debate were dismayed to hear Jones hadn’t yet won his voice back from cocaine. But, again, it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise. A few months before this album’s release, Jones was pulled over just south of Nashville for swerving all over the interstate in a car with POSSUM 3 scribbled on a piece of cardboard where the license plate should have been. When a local news crew showed up to film the roadside arrest, Jones got angry and fought against the police officer in an attempt to kick the cameraman, which was enough to tack a resisting arrest charge on top of the DUI and give the media some footage worth broadcasting far and wide, which they did. And two months prior to that, Jones had been arrested for possession of cocaine. To some fans, knowledge of these events actually lent credibility to his subpar-but-passable performances on the album with Merle, especially considering most of the songs were about getting, being and staying fucked up, then giving the finger to anyone who didn’t like it. While not as bad as his appearances on the My Very Special Guests LP or the Double Trouble LP with Johnny PayCheck, Jones’s voice here sounds thinner and loses pitch in places it never would when at his best. Where A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine succeeds is in striking targets those other albums missed: the selection and arrangements of the songs. Everything here serves the function of recording two of the most country voices ever, even if only one was operating at 100%. There are no attempts to sketch outside the frame by cutting rock standards or borrowing arrangements from genres unfamiliar to either artist. Haggard pulled from his deep Dixieland jazz influences to write the second single, “C.C. Waterback,” a tale about partying at Jones’ house. The record went #10. While both singles were hits, several album cuts are at least as good and have proven at least as enduring with fans, which is a trend we will see in most of Jones’ remaining work with Billy Sherrill. Written by Max Barnes and Vern Gosdin, “Must’ve Been Drunk” is the best example of the swaggering and unapologetic aesthetic of the project. Then there’s “No Show Jones,” which Glenn Martin helped Jones write, taking what could have remained a disparaging nickname and (again, unapologetically) turning it into what would serve from then on as something of a theme song.
By the following year, Jones had mostly stopped doing cocaine and the improvement to his voice was instant. The title track and lead single of his next solo LP (Shine On) went #3, despite being the worst song on what is otherwise one of the best albums in his discography – from Bobby Braddock’s “She Hung the Moon,” through a re-recording of “Almost Persuaded,” to O.B. McClinton’s “Ol’ George Stopped Drinkin’ Today.” The followup single showed off the return of his voice so dramatically, Epic’s marketing department tried calling it the first time George Jones ever slipped into falsetto on record, though Billy Sherrill later dismissed this as hype, saying Jones was just spreading it on a little thick that day. Since he cut Merle Haggard’s “I Always Get Lucky with You” in December of ’82, weeks earlier than the rest of the album, it’s likely Jones felt a bit adventurous from hearing something close to his own voice for the first time in a long time. Even though this proved to be his final #1 record, Jones was unmistakably back and his next single hit #2. For everyone who’s only familiar with the lyrics, Jones’ cut presents one of the best melodies ever written in country music, “Tennessee Whiskey” by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove. It’s unclear whether Billy Sherrill had Jones record Eddy Raven’s #13 hit “I Should’ve Called” as an homage to a fantastic record or a potshot toward producer Jimmy Bowen’s evolution of the Nashville Sound but, either way, the result was great. Chuck Howard’s “The Show’s Almost Over” introduced a “love me while I’m here ‘cuz I won’t be for long” theme Jones would successfully revisit time and again in the following decades.
Because three huge hits from Shine On kept him on the radio through the end of the year, there were no singles released from his other, equally great 1983 album, Jones Country. But since it was sequenced as the opening song and Epic backtracked to rerelease it as a single six years later, we can safely assume they originally pegged “Radio Lover” as the lead-off hit. (This isn’t one I would want to spoil with a summary or further description but do make sure to pay close attention to the lyrics when you go listen to it.) Given the engaging plot and DJ-centric storyline, there’s no chance this record would have bombed in the early ‘80s. Guessing at a follow-up single, this version of John Anderson’s “Girl at the End of the Bar” seems a likely candidate, there being no better man than George Jones to describe the title character with sympathy. Another reason no singles came from Jones Country was because his track on Ray Charles’ crossover duets album became yet another Top 10 hit when shipped to country radio in 1983. Written by Gary Gentry, “We Didn’t See a Thing” played on Ray Charles’ blindness (a thing Ray often did) for a story about two up-to-no-good pals always willing to provide each other with an alibi. His next solo single was another possible dig toward Jimmy Bowen, the producer on Dean Martin’s original hit recording of “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart,” all the way back in the late ‘60s. Billy Sherrill’s arrangement is almost certainly what he’d have given the best singer in the Rat Pack, selecting strings and an inviting piano over Bowen’s shrill organ, then relaxing the tempo to give a star vocalist some room to really stretch out. Released in March 1984, the record went #3 and was followed in August by another #2 hit, “She’s My Rock,” the lone non-duet track on Ladies Choice, Jones’ second “special guests” LP, this time pairing him only with women artists. The album’s other two singles (one with Brenda Lee and one with Lacy J. Dalton) were minor hits but also his first records since “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to not go Top 10. More interesting, though, is “Best Friends,” the album’s closing track, which was a duet with Leona Williams, who wrote the song with Hank Cochran and gave it to Jones for the same reason “She’s My Rock” (originally recorded by Stoney Edwards over a decade earlier) had been chosen as the opening track for Ladies Choice: to make sure his audience understood George Jones wasn’t actually available as a choice to any of the ladies on this album. For all the fans who were unaware of his marriage to Nancy Sepulvado the previous year, the first verse of “Best Friends” has Leona sing “but you’re on your way to recovery and you’re not alone / ‘cuz Nancy sure loves you and she’s gonna take care of ol’ Jones.” This is the same sentiment implied by the line “she took me in and made me everything I am today” in the chorus of “She’s My Rock,” thereby book-ending Ladies Choice with summarized versions of what instantly became as much a part of the George Jones mythology as anything else: his life being saved by Nancy Jones. It was essentially a reboot of the story they’d been sold before, only this time the role of savior was played by an unknown instead of another country music star. Once more, George Jones’ record-buying fans were told a woman had rescued him with her love. This narrative was reinforced by the audible return of his singing ability and it was more or less supported by the first George Jones biographies – Ragged But Right by Dolly Carlisle and The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend by Bob Allen, both published in 1984, the year Ladies Choice came out. To a certain extent, it is the truth. George Jones would probably have died in the early 1980s if not for Nancy Sepulvado. However, the full details of his personal life during the years we just went over are not so simple as “he only needed someone to love him and that fixed him up right away.” Fans who looked beyond the albums to the biographies and continued following the story as more was revealed found a more complicated reality, one which includes the most horrific events and despicable behavior in George Jones’ life.
Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name
He first met Nancy through a road manager’s girlfriend, who was asked to bring a friend for Jones when she flew from Shreveport, LA to meet her boyfriend while the tour was in New York City. At the time, Nancy was a single mother who worked on the assembly line of a telephone factory. There weren’t many exciting things happening down in Shreveport and her daughters happened to be visiting their father when a friend asked if she’d like to see New York City in the style of a country music star, so she said yes to the brief trip. According to Jones, this was November of 1981, the month after his disastrous appearance at the CMAs. But Nancy hadn’t seen or heard about the show and didn’t really know much about him. She didn’t know this was a man who tried to murder one of his best friends after spending a few months arguing with the multiple personalities in his mind. And she didn’t see the self-destructive side at all while hanging out with him in New York City. They just talked through the night, watched the sun come up over the city, then went their separate ways. Only, he couldn’t stop thinking about her, how nice she was, her determined optimism and work ethic, the way spending time with her made everything seem it would be alright. Pretty soon, he showed up in Shreveport to spend more time with Nancy. She didn’t know he was bailing on scheduled concerts, leaving himself open to lawsuits and costing many people many thousands of dollars in order to spend this time with her, taking her to dinners and movies. It just felt like they were in their own private world. But then Jones’ road manager figured out where he was and convinced him to come back to the tour.
In his autobiography, Jones admits Linda Welborn was still living in his Alabama home but claims they were no longer a couple. Whether or not the division between his relationships with Linda and Nancy really was so clean – and there are several other sources plus what seems like deliberately confusing chronological jumps in this section of Jones’ book to suggest it was not – it is true he practically lived on tour at the beginning of 1982. The previous year’s winter hadn’t yet turned to spring when George called Nancy, asked her to quit her job, leave Shreveport and come join him on the road. She decided to go for it. Leaving her youngest daughter with the ex-husband, Nancy brought her fourteen-year-old, Adina, and moved into the RV Jones had purchased for them to travel separately from his band and crew. It was only then she realized the extent of Jones’ alcoholism, learned what cocaine even was, met DeeDoodle and The Old Man and decided Jones must be possessed by what she called a “devil,” a devil she made up her mind to drive away. It wasn’t long before he started hitting her. He’s alleged to’ve slapped Shirley Jones once. He admitted to slapping Tammy Wynette once. Linda Welborn once had an arrest warrant taken out against him for assault but dropped the charge and later said, “George never beat me, though it seemed to come out that way in the papers later. Oh… He did bite my lip once and it bled real, real bad. And he did slap my face a few times, too. But who didn’t do that when they’re married or living together and get themselves into an argument?” Well, by anyone’s definition, he beat Nancy. He was blacked out at the time, never remembered doing it, appalled in disbelief to later learn of his actions – you know, all the things abusive addicts always say – but he beat her. And she stayed. Later, whenever asked why she stayed, she always gave the same explanation: George Jones was the best man she ever knew when he was sober and she had to find a way to keep him sober so they could spend the rest of their lives together. She also seems to’ve believed Jones when he said there were other sinister forces at play.
According to both George and Nancy, they were fighting against a full-fledged conspiracy involving drug dealers, gangsters and local law enforcement, all working to keep George Jones hooked on cocaine against his will. Almost nothing about the way Jones presents this alleged conspiracy in his autobiography makes any kind of sense but there’s also no reason to expect accuracy in whatever memories he had or believed he had from the year 1982. To say he was confused, delusional, drunk or high would all be gigantic understatements. This was still the drug-induced collective of multiple personalities who spent much of 1979 hallucinating a Romero monster movie onto reality, made lists of the people they wanted to kill and tried to follow through on one entry. And Jones was still ingesting the same substances at the same volume which had fueled such deranged thinking and behavior. In this new conspiracy, the movie monsters were supplemented with malevolent, human gangsters, which may seem like at least a less scary thing to hallucinate but, in fact, it only became more difficult to tell which beings were really there or not. And instead of living this nightmare alone in a car parked in an alley, Jones now lived with a woman and her teenage daughter.
His version goes something like this: since his drinking and cocaine use were always worse on tour, he and Nancy and Adina didn’t live in the R.V. for very long before deciding to get off the road and try to get him off the drugs. He bought a house in Muscle Shoals, across the river from Florence in Alabama, where Nancy did her damndest to get Jones sober only to become furious after learning the man who ran a popular rec center in town, where they and their friends were always hanging out, was secretly Jones’ cocaine dealer. She gave the guy what for, then did everything in her power to keep them apart. This is when Jones guesses the dealer put spies on him – apparently 24/7 – because it seemed like anytime Nancy left the house to run an errand, the dealer or someone from his crew would show up, take Jones away and make him do cocaine. So Nancy somehow turned a person on the inside of this drug operation into her own personal informant and was sometimes given a tip on his whereabouts but only ever in time to rush in and find him, “helpless,” being forced to do cocaine. Nancy soon got wise and taught Adina how to drive before she was legally old enough, then sent her daughter to run any errands so Nancy never had to leave George’s side. Once the dealer and his crew understood they weren’t going to catch Jones alone anymore, several men at a time they’d force entry to the home and let Nancy do all her yelling and screaming while one guy snuck off, found Jones and forced him to do cocaine. Any single instance of blow entering Jones’s body held the potential to send him off on a binge with DeeDoodle and The Old Man for a couple weeks or more. Worse, it could lead to all three of ’em hanging around at home for a couple weeks, forcing Nancy and Adina to stay there, too, because of the “platoons of criminals” Jones imagined had the house surrounded to hold them under siege. There’s obviously no way to put a timeline on most of this but near the end of March 1982, Jones agreed to let Nancy and Adina drive him to see one of his sisters in Texas before admitting himself to rehab. He brought a sack of cocaine for the trip down and was using in the car but, a few hours into the drive, Nancy talked him into tossing the drugs out the window. They were somewhere around Jackson, Mississippi and Nancy was behind the wheel when Jones, upset because he wanted his bag of drugs back, slammed his foot down over Nancy’s on the gas pedal and kept it floored, leaving her no choice but to try using only the steering wheel to stay on the road as they sped over 90mph with her daughter in the car. Thankfully, when a cop pulled behind them and threw on a siren, Jones took his foot off the gas and allowed the car to be stopped. The police brought in a K9 unit and the dog found enough spilled cocaine in the car to arrest Jones for possession on top of all the other charges. After being booked, he spent a few hours in jail, then spent the night getting drunk in a motel room. The next morning, since he now had the car keys, they headed back in the direction of home. A few hours into the return trip, though, Jones decided Nancy had somehow set him up to be arrested the day before, so he pulled over, kicked Nancy and Adina out of the car and sped away. Only a few miles down the road, still traveling at high speed, he wrecked, flipping the car several times and earning himself a visit to the hospital. From there, Nancy got his family to commit him and Jones was transferred to a mental hospital. The asylum kicked him out a couple weeks later when he tested positive for the cocaine he was having smuggled in. That DUI arrest captured on camera by a Nashville news crew happened about a month later. Meanwhile, back in Florence, Nancy had started hearing talk this drug dealer and his gangster friends wanted her out of the picture for good and were planning to do something about it. One night, she and Adina were driving across the bridge between Florence and Muscle Shoals when a car sped up from behind and repeatedly rammed into their vehicle, trying to run the car off the bridge and, presumably, cause them to drown in the river below. The only way Nancy was able to get herself and her terrified daughter across the bridge was by veering in and out of oncoming traffic. Another time, Adina was supposedly kidnapped from school but Nancy’s “informant” arranged to have her returned almost instantly. As you’d expect, George and Nancy talked about moving far away from the area where these awful events took place and they did try to leave several times but these criminal masterminds always seemed to know their plans and thwarted their escape attempts. They once tried sneaking out of town in the middle of the night but some crooked cops arrested them for no reason and locked up Nancy in a jail cell so they could take Jones over to the dealer’s place to force cocaine on him. Near the end of 1982, George rented a house in Lafayette, Louisiana and they packed their belongings to make another run for it. This time, the evil villains waited until just before George and Nancy pulled out of the driveway before swarming in. Jones, seeing how upset Nancy was to know they’d yet again been stopped from leaving, valiantly told her not to worry. He selflessly volunteered to go with the gangsters so Nancy and Adina could leave without anyone being hurt. Upon arrival in Louisiana, Nancy sent a friend who was able to hunt Jones down and extract him from Florence, which is how they finally got away for good.
This story has at least as many plot holes in it as the grandest of Tammy Wynette’s lies and, just like so many of Tammy’s stories, the entire “conspiracy” to keep George Jones trapped in Florence and addicted to cocaine becomes way more believable the instant we theorize Jones himself may have been at or near the top of the pyramid. There is no alternate source to explicitly back up this theory but his own account does everything except fill in the blanks. By his own telling, Jones was literally not of one mind when it came to kicking cocaine. Yes, one side of him wanted to quit and allowed Nancy to talk him into throwing a sack of blow out a car window. But at least one of his at least two other sides, whichever one(s) nearly killed everybody in the car because they wanted to go back for the drugs, definitely did not want to quit. So the question becomes which side was in control more often and how far that side would go to defend itself and its way of life against anything or anyone it regarded as a threat? Jones admits he went to a rec center under false pretenses multiple times in order to willingly score drugs behind Nancy’s back. Why would he stop going behind her back to willingly score drugs just because she discovered the first method he came up with for getting what he wanted? What’s more plausible? Drug dealers placing a full-time surveillance crew on Jones in order to repeatedly kidnap him whenever he was left alone? Or one of their most dedicated clients simply waiting for Nancy to leave then calling with the all clear to take him to (or bring) some cocaine? Where’s the return on investment for these dealers in expending the resources necessary for a 24/7 stakeout? Jones claims they forced a steady supply of cocaine on him to keep him addicted even when they knew he was flat broke. But, why? To what end? Presumably to get more cash out of him at some point down the road, right? Well, the easiest way for George Jones to get more cash was to go on tour, which required letting him leave Florence. And if he wanted to get away so badly, why didn’t he leave to go play some shows and just never return to Florence? On the other hand, if he secretly did not wish to leave, it would only take another phone call to make sure those dealers knew of any escape plan he was pretending to go along with until they showed up to make it look like he was being forced to say. And if we’re already being asked to believe the local police were corrupt enough to arrest George and Nancy on their way out of town in order to make him do drugs, how much less believable would it really be for that arrest to’ve been instigated by a phone call from Jones? If what he really wanted was to stay in town and keep doing drugs? Yes, it is disturbing to wonder if he was in any way involved with a car trying to run Nancy and Adina off a bridge to their deaths or some kind of attempt to convince Nancy her daughter had been kidnapped. It is also disturbing to know for a fact this man and his split personalities tried murdering his friend. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that when Nancy returned home after picking up Adina from the “kidnapping,” she found the drug dealers had stopped by. According to Jones himself, he did just a little bit of blow because he wanted it but then they started “mercilessly” cramming it up his nose. According to Jones, Nancy tried to leave him once in this period because dealing with all of this had her so confused she felt like she was headed toward her own nervous breakdown. And she probably was, trying to live with a man who hadn’t changed much at all since a doctor a few years earlier described him as “suffering from an acute paranoid state with suicidal and homicidal potential to a high degree.” In the second half of 1982, Jones had decided Peanutt and Charlene Montgomery were nothing but money grubbers and began convincing himself he’d never actually tried to shoot a gun at Peanutt. The photos showing the bullet hole in his friend’s car door was clearly a hoax or a fabrication, meant to deceive him into believing he was dangerous. It was just another example of how he really couldn’t trust anyone. Years later, he admitted several of the things he did to try removing Nancy from his life in this period, the times he kicked her off a tour bus in the middle of nowhere at night or told the pilot of a private plane to take off without her. What he doesn’t share is the time he kicked Nancy out of the house to move Linda Welborn back in for a couple weeks. Evidently, at least one side of him thought staying in Alabama with the woman who let him do whatever he wanted would be preferable to leaving Alabama with the woman trying to get him off drugs. Of course, that didn’t last long because Nancy tricked Linda by calling the house with a fake anonymous tip about how the Mafia were on their way down from Nashville to kill everyone inside George Jones’ house. Linda got scared and left. By the time she came back, Nancy had returned and told her to take a hike. A few days later, Jones was in a car with Nancy when he hit her, left her on the side of a road, then had his lawyer draft an official letter telling her to stay away.
Between DeeDoodle, The Old Man and all his other hallucinations, this was a man who spent years in a state where he didn’t know who or what was real. The answer did not magically present itself when Nancy finally got him away from Alabama and Jones had several relapses in Louisiana, one of which involved the worst thing we know about him doing to Nancy. [If you can’t tell this is headed to a bad place, now seems like a good time to suggest scrolling past the rest of this paragraph should you have any reason to avoid reading a detailed description of domestic violence witnessed by a child.] After moving to Lafayette in late ’82, Jones booked a few tour dates and those Alabama gangsters showed up before one of the concerts. On this particular occasion, Jones happened to have already been doing blow, so he was happy to see his old dealers and ready to ingest more serious amounts (again, begging the question of whether he had called and placed an order for delivery of this cocaine). He invited the dealers into his hotel room, kicked Nancy out, locked the door behind her, bailed on his concert and vanished for the next two weeks. When he finally called Nancy and said he was ready to get drink- and drug-free for good, Nancy told him to come on home. He listened but DeeDoodle and The Old Man came back with him, all of them trashed and, for some reason, insisting everyone go check into a hotel instead of staying at the house. Adina got her own room, next door to the adults. According to Nancy, once they were in the hotel room Jones began addressing her by the names of the Alabama gangsters whose company he was in the last time she saw him. When she insisted she was not one of those people but Nancy, he became angry with her for pretending to be Nancy when he knew who she really was, one of those despicable people who were always showing up and forcing him to do cocaine, preventing him from a happy life with the real Nancy, the woman he loved. This is what he kept yelling about as he started hitting her, ripped off her clothing and hit her some more, all while Adina hammered her fists against the locked door between their rooms, screaming to try stopping what she could hear happening to her mother. The next day, though her bruised face and body presented undeniable evidence she’d been beaten and she told him what had happened, Jones couldn’t believe it was true. This moment, far beyond where many would like to believe their own path to recovery would begin, was not the last time Jones did cocaine.
And, still, Nancy stayed. Or tried to, anyway. After the hotel, Jones pushed her away again. Convinced he would soon be dead without her, Nancy was inconsolable. She tried sending messages, reassurances she cared nothing about his fame, talent or money. All she wanted was a life with him, for him to choose life by choosing her, and if she couldn’t have that, well… According to a friend, Nancy believed dying by her own hand may be the only way to show George she really loved him and, if there was a chance her suicide could serve as the wake up call he needed, then she felt it was worth it. After taking an overdose of some pill or other, she was found in time to have her stomach pumped but, upon being released from the hospital, she just tried it again to the same outcome – pumped stomach, still alive. It’s unclear whether hearing about these suicide attempts is what made Jones finally accept that Nancy must really love him but, either way, at a certain point, he did accept it and they got back together. In early 1983, they moved to east Texas, which was a little further away from Florence but, more importantly, much closer to Jones’ family. For the first time, Nancy now had more help than her young daughter could give keeping George away from drugs. There were still a few sporadic relapses but Nancy was by this time thoroughly self-educated on the latest approaches to treating addiction and able to quickly bring George back on the course to recovery. Unlike George Richey’s attempts to damage the relationships between Tammy Wynette and her children, Nancy encouraged Jones to speak with his children and spend time with them. As he re-entered this plane of existence and found a way to stay here, it inspired a desire to get his whole life put back together, which manifested the same way it had so many times in the past: the planning and construction of an outdoor concert venue. As before, George proceeded to buy up property piecemeal and climb up into the seat of heavy machinery to landscape his vision onto reality. Whenever funds ran out, he’d call a honky tonk promoter, set up a short-notice gig or two, then phone country radio stations in the area to plug the shows during brief on-air interviews, pocketing several grand each time and returning home to work on the venue he’d begun calling Jones Country. In March 1983, he and Nancy were married. They held a small, private ceremony in the living room of George’s sister’s house. Afterward, George and Nancy went out to eat at Burger King, then got back to work on Jones Country, spending their wedding night in the trailer home on the property where they lived during construction. In early September, a month before the Jones Country LP came out, George celebrated his birthday a couple weeks early and gave the park a trial run by playing a Labor Day show for over 10,000 people. The following April, Johnny Cash came down from Nashville to play the official grand opening. The Ladies Choice special guest LP came out in May and fans were told who to thank for the sudden return of Jones’ voice on record, as well as his recent success rate of actually showing up to concerts, usually not falling-down drunk. Then, the first single from his next album posed a question George Jones probably spent the rest of his career wishing he’d left unasked.
The Changing of the Guard
A couple years later – after country radio stopped playing his records – Jones complained about it all the time and continued to do so until the end of his life, which is likely why so many fans now hear “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” as a question criticizing the country establishment, as if Troy Seals and Max Barnes received a vision of country music’s babyfaced, pop crossover future and tried to write this song as a warning. That is not, however, what this song was meant to be or why it exists. The point was not to bemoan the inevitable death of a genre but to suggest its future lay in a younger generation of artists who would recognize and be influenced by its history and its legends, several of whom (like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty) were still charting Top 10 and even #1 country singles on a regular basis. That’s why this music video – the first one George Jones ever made – ends on a car full of kids with guitars pulling into a gas station as George’s bus pulls out. We know the old man at the gas station is going to tell them Jones was on that bus, then the kids are gonna go inside to look at the same collection of country music memorabilia the old man just showed to Jones. Released in the summer of 1985, this single hit #3, his eleventh Top 10 solo record in a row. The music video won Video of the Year at the CMAs. The next two singles from the LP also went Top 10. Featuring the cleanest baritone Jones ever hit in a studio, Gary Gentry’s “The One I Loved Back Then” is what happens when you think one of those gas station old-timers is complimenting your car but, really, he’s looking at the woman in your passenger seat. “Somebody Wants Me out of the Way” is what happens when Jones’ bar tab keeps getting picked up by a mysterious benefactor who wants him to stay at the bar instead of going home. These records hit #3 and #9, respectively. The latter was by writing partners “Doodle” Owens and Dennis Knutson, who also wrote his following two singles, giving them three Top 10 George Jones hits in a row. Released in the fall of 1986, the title track from his next LP, Wine Colored Roses: a woman who wants to return to Jones sends a letter asking if he’s still too deep in a bottle to give their love another chance. Unable to face telephoning or writing, he sends back a bouquet of wine-colored roses as a coded message that he still cares but not enough to quit drinking. The record went #10. In January 1987, he released “The Right Left Hand.” Looking at the title, one could easily expect the kind of song people mock when they make fun of country music, something with dumbass rapid-fire comedy lyrics or at least one of those hacky things a writer turns in because they believe some gimmick is more clever than it is. But this song is the mark all those writers are trying to hit when they miss and an example of why they take aim in the first place. Because when it works, it works. Here, “The Right Left Hand” is a reference to at last marrying the perfect person after failing in marriage several times. Wisely, the lyrics never attempt to get any more clever than that, supporting the title line with what would be a great love song by any other name. And make sure to play this one for everybody who says Billy Sherrill hated country music. When “The Right Left Hand” hit #8, it was Jones’ fifteenth Top 10 in a row.
Then, in April 1987, he broke the streak, missing the Top 10 and the Top 20 with “I Turn to You.” While it may not be the favorite George Jones song of many fans, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, certainly not to the degree it should only have charted at #26. If we want to nitpick, Max Barnes and Curly Putman get off to a bit of a rocky start in the first verse but just when it’s beginning to feel like one of those hacky gimmick things, the lyrics stop repeating the word “turn.” The song wasn’t bad but the song wasn’t the problem. The problem was commercial country radio realized they needed to answer the question Jones had asked approximately two years earlier. All of the sudden, artists anywhere near the age of 40 found their records programmed less often, then not at all. Billy Sherrill did not go gently. When DJs and their bosses didn’t spin “I Turn to You,” he responded with “The Bird,” interrupting a long string of ballads with an uptempo and defiant pun allowing Jones to sneak a “fuck you” at an ex onto the airwaves. It may come off as a little corny now but probably would have been a hit at the time if enough stations gave it any kind of chance. They didn’t. It charted exactly as poorly as his previous single, which is when Epic pulled out the big gun. Everything about George Jones’ next single sounds like Billy Sherrill walked in the studio, declared someone would be winning a Grammy award for the work they did that day and he didn’t really care who so everybody better try their best. They started with one of Billy’s favorite things, a song full of direct references to the recent media narrative surrounding his artist. Other than the love songs meant as references to his marrying Nancy, “I’m a Survivor” by Keith Stegall and Jim McBride was the first single to acknowledge and respond to the rest of what those 1984 biographies had uncovered about George Jones’ violent childhood, chaotic private life and toxic relationship with fame. Between the content, Billy’s production and Jones’ delivery, the only universe where this record isn’t a hit was the one where country radio stations didn’t play it because George Jones was too old to fit the hip new image they’d come up with for themselves. It charted at #52, his worst showing in over 25 years, bad enough to warrant rush-releasing another single two months later, which performed even worse. Billy Sherrill must have known “I’m a Survivor” bombing was the beginning of an irreversible end and we should not imagine he responded by sending “The Old Man No One Loves” to radio because he believed this maudlin album track had any chance of significant airplay. It’s unlikely Billy chose this as a single for any other reason than the opportunity to place the title on the label of a 45 to confront country DJs and programmers for treating the Greatest Country Singer Ever like an old man no one loved or cared about anymore. Epic did not release another George Jones solo record for six months. They did try giving him a guest spot on the debut single of 19 year old Shelby Lynne, who it took beating three other labels in a bidding war to sign after she made an appearance on Nashville Now that convinced everyone she was the next big thing. Here, again, everything about “If I Could Bottle This Up” sounds like a swing for the fences. Hit songwriters Dean Dillon and Paul Overstreet turned in something with as much commercial potential as any other song Jones had ever cut with the word “bottle” in the title. As producer on half of Shelby Lynne’s forthcoming debut LP, there’s a reason Billy Sherrill’s work sounds like he had some skin in the game. And, even at 19 years old, Shelby was one of the few vocalists who could hold her own with Jones in his prime. Released in fall of 1988, it failed to make even the Top 40.
When the label put out another solo single on Jones, they already knew it was a hit because Johnny Horton had taken it to #7 in the 1950s. And maybe Billy Sherrill’s relentless “shame the DJ” campaign did work some kind of magic or maybe Dwight Yoakam cleared a path by taking a different Johnny Horton cover to the Top 5 a couple years earlier or who knows why? But, even though there’s nothing especially remarkable about Jones’ cut of “One Woman Man” compared to his other singles ignored by radio in this period, radio let it on their playlists and it hit #5, becoming his final Top 10 hit. Epic responded by packaging “One Woman Man” as the title track of a sort-of clearance compilation LP, released in February of ’89. They did cut some new songs for the album but, to minimize recording costs for an artist with diminishing sales, they also got Jones to just lay down new vocals over the backing tracks of old, unreleased tapes, then padded out the tracklist with some previously released yet under-promoted material. Other than the title track, two singles from One Woman Man did break into the country Top 40, which was about the best he could hope for from this point forward. First, Roger Ferris’ “Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You),” is another one that may come across as one of the most unhinged concepts in the genre, if you’re only looking at a description of it on paper. Jones’ lady leaves, taking everything except what she doesn’t want: him, his collectible Elvis Presley statuette whiskey bottle, an old Flintstones jelly jar and a table piled high with some other random bullshit. Jones proceeds as you would expect, clearing some room on the table, cracking open the Elvis bottle and pouring whiskey four fingers at a time into the Flintstones jar, until he’s drunk enough to start talking to Fred and Elvis. Playing it straight the whole way through, Jones took what could have been a goofy novelty number and created one more “drunk and alone” honky tonk classic. (Side Note: The reason most fans know the song as “The King Is Gone (So Are You)” is because the title was changed soon after release when Hanna-Barbera threatened a lawsuit, which was probably intentionally instigated by Billy Sherrill and/or Epic just to drum up some kind of controversial publicity in lieu of airplay. Considering how careful they were with releasing Tammy’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things” fifteen years earlier, they must have known what they were doing when they originally issued this 45 in a picture sleeve with Fred Flintstone’s face in a TV set on one side and his trademarked phrase in a Bedrock-y font covering the other.) The next single went in a weepier direction. In “The Writing on the Wall,” a man who’s walked out on his family can’t shake a memory of the message his small children scribbled on the wall just before he left. He returns to find the message still there but his family long gone. And the final single released from One Woman Man was the unchanged recording of “Radio Lover” from six years earlier, probably chosen in hopes of the DJ-centric plot generating some attention at radio, which it did not.
On the Back Row
As Tammy Wynette was forced to do when her sales dropped a decade earlier, Jones shifted the focus of his career away from records and toward touring. Nancy effectively became his manager around the time they were married in 1983 but she was also tasked with overseeing nearly every aspect of the Jones Country operation. And there were about five steady years when the park booked impressive concert lineups. In 1987 alone; Memorial Day weekend found Jones’ venue hosting Vern Gosdin, Leon Everette, Conway Twitty, Jack Ripley, Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright and Loretta Lynn; on 4th of July weekend, they brought in Johnny Russell, Jimmy C. Newman, Mel McDaniel and Randy Travis; then Labor Day weekend had Little Jimmy Dickens, Becky Hobbs and Merle Haggard. Within a couple years, though, Jones had to get back on the road to earn money. In the autobiography, he tries to claim his busier tour schedule was a result of his recording career getting “hot” again but the hits he cites as examples of this were all from years earlier. In truth, his tour schedule was packed not as a result of thriving record sales but as a way to make up for disappointing sales. After kicking cocaine and getting his voice back, he’d regained the trust of concert promoters and fans by showing up to perform well. So Nancy was able to get him steadily booked at bigger and better venues than ever, pulling in anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 a night. The problem was Nancy couldn’t run Jones Country from the road and, having tried, knew George couldn’t be sent to tour heavily on his own because the stage fright had never gone away and he’d end up back in a bottle, maybe worse, in no time. In 1989, they put up Jones Country for sale and moved to Nashville. Jones claimed this move was partially motivated by a desire to be near his record label but it doesn’t seem likely he was unaware of Billy Sherrill’s plan to retire after making one last George Jones album for Epic. It’s possible Jones meant he wanted to be near his next record label, knowing whichever country division he signed with would have offices in Nashville.
Billy consistently claimed he retired after burning out and becoming bored with the entire process of making records. It could be true. It could also be something he told everyone because it sounded better than the truth: country radio had won and Epic would no longer waste money or resources trying to promote a hopeless product, even though Billy knew it was still phenomenal work. Consult your eardrums and it certainly doesn’t sound like he ever checked out of the process with George Jones. If he wasn’t doing his best to close out this professional relationship by creating one final masterpiece, then evidently he did it on autopilot while burned out and bored. Because Billy knew none of the singles from the album ever had a chance of entering the charts, this is not the usual collection of some likely hits padded with filler. There were no hits, no filler and there is no point in looking at the album as anything other than a complete work, so that’s what we’re going to do. The first track opens with Jones’ voice, alone, calling his ex after closing time to ask if he can come back home since there’s nowhere else to go. Before hanging up the phone, she reminds him Hell never closes and he can always go there. Next, the title track, “You Oughta Be Here with Me,” written by Roger Miller, who was always just as capable of turning out sad songs as he was comfortable playing the clown. “Somebody Always Paints the Wall” was a Josh Logan single from the year before which Tracy Lawrence took to the Top 10 two years after Jones cut it. Here, it’s another entry in the “things have gone to pieces” column but, this time, at least Jones’ partner stays with him through the rough spots. “I Sleep Just Like a Baby” brought Billy back from his self-imposed songwriting hiatus to join Jesse Chamber and Larry Jenkins in making a song out of one of Billy’s favorite jokes. In “Someone That You Used to Know,” one of the ladies Jones is always wishing would come back writes a letter to see if he’s interested in giving it another shot. The synergistic combination of Bobby Braddock’s writing, Billy Sherrill’s arrangement and George Jones’ performance makes “I Want to Grow Old with You” one of the great country love songs. Bobby Braddock also wrote “A Cold Day in December,” putting a playful twist on the concept and attitude of “cold day in hell” remarks to say he’s ready for one more try with an ex. Curly Putman, Don Cook and Charles Rains may have had a prequel to “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in mind when they wrote “Six Foot Deep, Six Foot Down” about a good timin’ man whose love toward his woman would always be true, even if she wasn’t always sure where to find him. “If the World Don’t End Tomorrow” is an alternate title of “Comin’ After You,” which Billy Sherrill wrote for his band The Fairlanes in the late 1950s. Its inclusion here is probably further evidence he hadn’t really checked out of the work and was still trying to make sure he got every song cut as well as he possibly could. And sequencing the track which under normal circumstances would have the most commercial potential last feels like yet another deliberate middle finger to country radio from Billy Sherrill, signing off with such an undeniably awesome song nobody could fail to recognize George Jones was being prematurely put out to pasture, in order for younger artists to succeed without facing competition from the Greatest Country Singer Ever. Twelve years later, Blake Shelton nearly hit the Top 10 with a version of “Ol’ Red” that, despite becoming something of a signature song for him, is a cartoonish joke compared to the swampy and sinister original by Jones, who sings this fantastic legend of prison break aided by a horny hound dog as if he wants you to hear the story more than he wants you to believe he sounds cool and sexy enough to be on modern country radio. Without airplay of the singles or significant promotion from the label, You Oughta Be Here with Me came out in August of 1990 and barely registered in the Top 40 Country Albums of the summer.
In 1991, Epic released another “special guests” compilation, Friends in High Places, gathering duets from as far back as an Emmylou Harris collaboration in 1984 packaged with more recent one-offs like the Shelby Lynne single and his guest spot on Randy Travis’ “A Few Ole Country Boys,” which became Jones’ final appearance in the Top 10. By the time Friends in High Places came out, Jones was headed from Epic over to MCA to continue working with Randy Travis’ producer, Kyle Lehning. First, they tried to play it straight, as if all they needed to do was go in a studio, make a George Jones album with words like “grass,” “picture,” “wrong,” “love” and “honky tonk” in the song titles, then ship out the singles for radio to change their minds and start playing his records again. Along Came Jones was in no way inferior to anything else on country radio in 1991 but stations did not change their minds and start playing his records again. The crickets in response to their promotion of the first single, “You Couldn’t Get the Picture,” taught MCA what Epic already knew: it wasn’t enough for Jones to prove, at 60 years old, his voice showed no sign of weakening and he could still out-sing anyone in the business. Radio gave the second single (“She Loved a Lot in Her Time”) even less attention, despite its exploitation of what should have been the bankable theme of a mother trying to deal with her son’s alcoholism. From there, MCA picked up the gimmicks Epic already tried and carried them even further. The first single from Walls Can Fall (produced by Emory Gordy, Jr.) was “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” which the label on the record listed as being by George Jones (With Special Guests: Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie, Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, T. Graham Brown, Patty Loveless and Clint Black). Yes, all those people are on this one song and the lyrics made it clear why by point-blank addressing Jones’ struggle against ageism while stopping just short of antagonizing the programmers and DJs he hoped would play the record. But stations had not stopped playing Jones because they were under the delusion he felt ready for the junkyard and they really didn’t give a shit how many cool, young friends he had, either. Though his guest artists’ records were all over country radio, Jones’ record received little airplay. However, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” did win a CMA award for Vocal Event of the Year and it became a highlight of his concert sets from then on. Even without radio support, Walls Can Fall still sold a half million copies or so – enough to go gold – and fans who picked up a copy discovered some classic deep cuts, like “There’s the Door,” in which Jones comes home drunk for what his wife has decided will be the last time.
In 1992, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and used his acceptance speech to criticize country radio for no longer playing his music. All it did was piss off programmers, who played him even less. Only a year earlier, they were happy to send Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” to #1 with George Jones’ name centered in the chorus like a statue in a museum. But when it came to treating Jones like a living artist who was still creating some of his best work, forget it, especially after he took them to task during such a prestigious moment at the Hall of Fame. Still, Jones and MCA continued trying various strategies to break through the barrier, often to embarrassing results. Though there were some great moments left for him in the decade, they came fewer and further between. For example, on his next album, “The Love in Your Eyes” demonstrated the viability of taking Billy Sherrill’s approach to arrangement and updating the instrumentation to sounds modern country fans were now accustomed to hearing. And the following album has Jones’ recording of Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad,” which is every bit as good as the version Merle Haggard cut nearly twenty years earlier. The nearest thing Jones had to a hit in the immediate wake of the Hall of Fame acceptance speech was “High-Tech Redneck,” which is not only one of the dumbest songs ever written but may also have set a course for the “listing my possessions and interests makes me country” nightmare where the genre would soon land. And making a clown of himself still wasn’t enough for country radio to let go of the idea they were too young and sexy to play George Jones but an old man acting goofy played differently on country music television. The sales which took “High-Tech Redneck” to #24 were driven by the music video, featuring Jones singing the song in front of giant walls of TV screens intercut with footage of some moron in a recliner having his mind blown by all types of gadgetry, “hot babes” using computers and what seems to be a dream sequence of Jones dressed all in leather as some sort of reference to The Terminator. Following the commercial failure of every subsequent attempt to make everyone take him seriously again, this foolish version of Jones was invariably trucked back out for the cameras.
The Bradley Barn Sessions were meant to reimagine his biggest hits by pairing him with major rock and country artists at Owen Bradley’s studio outside town. And it may have worked if Owen himself came out of retirement to prevent every song from being given a radically different, often senseless arrangement. But that’s not what happened. Throughout the project, Jones hated the daily mixes played for him but the record label thought he was just too used to the way Billy Sherrill tracked songs live, not catching up quickly enough to the modern practice of piecing everything together. MCA did manage to choose the best track for the only single, even if this version of “A Good Year for the Roses” with Alan Jackson was about as compelling as a Frisbee compared to the original record. Even teamed up with an artist who only missed the Top 10 exactly once in all of the 1990s, Jones couldn’t get played on country radio. Soon after this, he licensed his name and image to a line of dog food. In the remaining years of his life, he’d also hawk lines of bottled water and breakfast sausage.
1995 brought the lackluster reunion album with Tammy Wynette, One, co-produced by Norro Wilson and Tony Brown. Later, Tony said One “wasn’t a great record,” which we’ve already verified, and Tony got the impression neither Tammy nor Jones had as much fun making the album as he did getting to work with two legends. Norro called it a “tough project” and said they found the best results from recording Jones and Tammy separately. It’s likely this was less of a reference to Norro thinking he’d discovered a production practice Tammy and Jones started using in the 1970s and more a reference to the friction when both artists were present in the studio. Because, even though Norro also said he could tell both singers loved hearing each other’s voice on the tape, Tony Brown (who called George Richey “a flashy guy” and “the opposite kind of person” to George Jones) remembered having problems whenever Richey and Jones were in the studio at the same time.
In 1996, the reunion was followed by the always-blatant marketing tactic of releasing an autobiography in tandem with a new album bearing the same title, I Lived to Tell It All. The lead single, “Honky Tonk Song,” served up a sanitized rewrite of the one Drunk George Jones story that’s been told so many times I don’t have to tell it by pretending he was only ever trying to have fun, so it could play for laughs in the music video. “Honky Tonk Song” was another flop, probably because Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” had already hit #1 just a few years earlier, cashing in a reference to the exact same Drunk George Jones story in the lyrics. And Vince even had a George Jones cameo in his video, so by the time Jones tried to exploit it himself, everyone had already seen it. At this point, it looks like MCA concluded the same thing Epic had before: spending time and resources promoting George Jones’ product was a futile waste. None of his following three singles entered the charts at all. By the time Patty Loveless released her cut of Jim Lauderdale’s “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” as a single in 1997, compact discs had replaced vinyl 45s, giving her record label more space to print her name in large script and hide “with special guest George Jones” in a tiny font underneath. His “appearance” in the music video was also limited to a brief shot of a George Jones concert poster when his voice is first heard. With Jones only singing harmony, the song slipped through a crack in the brick wall separating him from radio. The single hit #14 and won a CMA award for Vocal Event of the Year.
In 1998, Jones released his final album for MCA, It Don’t Get Any Better Than This. His voice was still holding up better than you’d expect but most of the album sounds like neither he nor anyone involved cared enough to do more than go through the motions creating what they knew would be another bomb. Producer Norro Wilson claimed to be able to tell when Jones didn’t like a song by the way he’d suck on his teeth. Well, there was a lot of teeth sucking going on during these sessions. The first three tracks may have been written by Bobby Braddock but they’re easily three of his worst songs, the writing rarely gets better at any point on the LP and if anybody wants to make sure I’m telling the truth then they’ll have to do so on their own time. The album’s high point is the title track, on which Jones sounds like he’s managing to have a little fun in the studio with Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare and Johnn- Wait, no, that’s a Johnny Cash impersonator, named Johnny Counterfit. MCA didn’t bother shipping it as a single but “It Don’t Get Any Better Than This” was used as the theme song for Jones’ country music talk show, which also began airing on TV in 1998. Both Jones and Tammy Wynette used fake living room sets for their talk shows. But where Tammy took a more typical approach to hosting – interviewing guests one at a time between musical performances with everything done before a studio audience – Jones’ stage fright required a closed set with no audience and having all the guests sit around on couches together at once for a more freewheeling conversation with impromptu singalongs and group commentary when video clips were shown of each guest. Individual musical performances were then filmed separately in front of a crowd and edited in later. The whole thing came off as intended, like a series of casual hangout sessions with George Jones and his famous friends. And it was a big enough hit to make another season the following year. YouTube currently has several full episodes which are well worth your time.
The Last Curtain Falls
When Tammy Wynette died in 1998, Jones and Nancy helped in every way they could with the funeral plans. By all accounts, Tammy’s death hit Jones hard. After the memorial at The Ryman, he got on a rented tour bus with Nancy and had the driver chauffeur them around aimlessly for hours, like those dark all-night rides he used to take minus the pills and whiskey and guns but still trying to escape… something. Almost exactly a year after Tammy died, Jones accidentally drove his Lexus SUV into a concrete bridge abutment at highway speed, totaling the vehicle, puncturing a lung and tearing his liver. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt when he crashed and it took two hours to extract his body from the wreck. Initial reports stated alcohol was not a factor in the accident but, five days later, investigators said they had found a half-empty pint of vodka in the car. Turns out, he was drunk-driving at approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, trying to talk on his cell phone while listening to rough mixes from his latest recording sessions on the way home. He plea bargained his way to a $550 fine and a mandatory alcohol treatment program. In the memoir, published a few years earlier, Jones had claimed after kicking cocaine and marrying Nancy in the ‘80s, he was able to casually enjoy wine or beer without drinking to excess. Then news broke of his accident (and the contributing factor) and everybody realized they’d maybe been right to wonder if Jones was slurring his words a little more than usual in concert, on record, during TV appearances and in dog food commercials over the past fifteen years or so. Two months later, he released his next single…
“Choices,” written by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis, was one of the songs he had on tape in his car the day of the wreck and the final song to become synonymous with George Jones during his lifetime. The lyrics force him to recognize it was ultimately he who would have to take responsibility for all the wrong done in his life, all of the bad decisions made in spite of all the people who tried to guide him toward a better path. Released in the summer of ’99, country radio stations were flooded with phone calls from listeners requesting “Choices.” Even though many were told George Jones was too old, some stations relented and played the record, allowing it to become his first in over five years to break into the Top 40 country singles. The CMAs nominated it for Single of the Year and he was supposed to perform it on the telecast but the show’s producers asked if he could do an abbreviated version to take up less time. Feeling disrespected, Jones refused to play or attend the awards at all. On the live broadcast, in the middle of Alan Jackson’s scheduled performance of “Pop a Top” instead of coming back into the song after a lead break, he and his band finished with a chorus of “Choices.” Many in the audience knew what Alan had done and why and gave him a standing ovation but rather than smile and wave for the applause, he turned around and walked off stage with his guitar as soon as he was done singing. Speaking later on the award show’s treatment of George Jones, Ricky Skaggs said, “Country music doesn’t honor its elders.” “Choices” did not win that CMA award, by the way, but – five months later – it did win a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and it eventually sold enough copies to go gold as the biggest single from Cold Hard Truth, Jones’ only studio LP for Asylum Records. This was the first Nashville label run by women: Evelyn Shriver, who was once Randy Travis’ publicist, and Susan Nadler, who was once Tammy Wynette’s publicist. These two, along with Alan Jackson’s producer, Keith Stegall, comprised the team who got George excited again about going in the studio to make great country music for its own sake, airplay be damned. It’s his best album in years. You can hear in his voice how emotionally and creatively invested he was in the performance of every song, even the uptempo numbers (“Ain’t Love a Lot Like That”), which were all much better than the novelty territory he’d explored in recent years. The arrangement on torch song “This Wanting You” reaches way back to the old-school with Pig Robbin’s piano weaving throughout the first half [of a verse] then giving way to Stuart Duncan’s fiddle. No other single broke through like “Choices” but that one hit and all the surrounding publicity drove the album to chart at #5, his first Top 10 LP since 1986.
Since no good deed in the music industry goes unpunished, Asylum folded soon after Cold Hard Truth. Evelyn and Susan went independent, forming Bandit Records and taking Jones over there, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Listening to the title track of the first Bandit LP, The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001, you’d never know this 70 year old man had punctured a lung in a car accident two years prior. Here, again, the strength of the project is Jones’ renewed interest in the process from being given the freedom to record whatever he wanted (like “I Am”) without major label pressure to cater to radio or force himself to fit any other kind of new mold. The Rock contained Jones’ final hit, a duet with Garth Brooks called “Beer Run,” which would be a lot more fun to talk about if Todd Snider was credited as a writer but he isn’t, so tune in to the Liner Notes for more on that.
After spending nearly two decades pretending his alcoholism lay entirely in the past, the very wreck that revealed the lie was also what made it easier to believe him when he swore he’d finally been scared straight – not even any more sips of beer or wine. Still, his image and persona could never be separated from how much of his life was spent in a bottle. When video screen backdrops at concerts became the hot new thing, nobody ever had any doubt Jones’ slideshow scrapbook would include his roadside DUI arrest footage from 1982, which it did, along with references to many other famous Drunk George Jones stories. Within a couple years of moving from Asylum to Bandit, his voice began to give out. Or, really, it was his lungs. In the remaining years of his life, George canceled concerts and entire tours with increased frequency as a result of upper respiratory problems and chronic emphysema. Though Jones was never very politically aware, let alone active (other than the brief George Wallace association in the 1970s – again, almost certainly orchestrated by Tammy Wynette), it seems he underwent some kind of transformation in this area toward the end. In 2004, he recorded a campaign ad endorsing Democrat Wesley Clark, saying, “Wes Clark knows what it means to put his life and career on the line for this country and he’ll put the nation’s interests firsts – not the Washington special interests.” As Tammy did after seeming to recognize her end was near, George also returned to God. According to witnesses, the first thing he’d done when he woke up in the hospital three days after the SUV accident was start singing gospel songs. In 2002, Nancy convinced Billy Sherrill to come out of retirement and produce a double-CD of gospel music for George. Released in 2003, The Gospel Collection presents the first studio evidence of him losing his voice for good. But if the hair on the back of your neck doesn’t stand up listening to this accomplished sinner put every ounce of his weakening voice into “Amazing Grace,” well, you’re probably going to Hell. From here on out, most of what he recorded is heartbreaking to listen to – not because it’s bad, he really could still sing – but because he no longer had the range, strength, laser-specific pitch control or velvety tone nobody will ever forget they heard come from that mouth. On 2005’s Hits I Missed… And One I Didn’t, a pointless re-recording of his most famous hit ever (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”) is packaged with his versions of songs he was pitched and didn’t cut only to watch them become mega-hits for the artists who did, like when Alan Jackson took “Here in the Real World” after Jones passed on it. In 2006, he and Merle Haggard reunited for Kickin’ Out the Footlights… Again, on which each singer did a few of the other’s hits along with some duets. Haggard’s voice was still at least 90% in tact and it’s truly awesome to hear him take on some of these Jones classics, like “Things Have Gone to Pieces.” George’s solo tracks are poignant but for entirely different reasons, like how on “Sing Me Back Home” it truly sounds as if he doesn’t have very far left to go. Recorded the same month as the Haggard project, George’s final single was another duet with his daughter Georgette. “You and Me and Time” was about the renewed connection between a now-grown child of a celebrity musician parent who was always gone. The song came out on a collection of never-released duets pulled from as far back as the ‘70s, packaged and put out in 2008. It was his final LP to come out while he was alive.
By this time, most of George’s friends were gone. Waylon Jennings died in 2002. When Johnny PayCheck died in 2003, his financial situation wasn’t great, so George helped with the cost of the funeral and even donated a spot for PayCheck to be buried right next to George’s own final resting place. You can find them near each other in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville. June Carter Cash died three months after PayCheck and was followed by Johnny Cash another four months later. When Don Pierce of Starday Records died in 2005, George served as a pallbearer at his funeral. Buck Owens died in 2006. George sang at Porter Wagoner’s Ryman memorial in 2007. There were still a few old-timers still around, so he wasn’t exactly the last man standing but he knew he was one of the last.
As far back as The Bradley Barn Sessions in 1994, George talked about how he’d sing until he died as long as people still wanted to listen to him. True to his word, he toured right up until the end. The fans kept buying tickets long after his voice became a phantom of what it once was, because he was a living legend, because he still went out there to do the best he could every night the doctors would let him. In March of 2012, George had to cancel all his scheduled dates due to an upper respiratory tract infection. In May, he was sent back to the hospital for breathing problems, then released under the condition he stop mowing the lawn himself since his lungs could no longer handle what had always been one of his favorite pastimes. August brought the announcement of The Final Grand Tour, his big farewell and the last opportunity for fans to come see him in concert. He struggled to get through most of the tour and several dates had to be canceled. On April 6th, 2013, George walked offstage, knowing the difficult show he’d just given would be his last. He went home to spend time with Nancy. Less than two weeks later, trying to draw breath into his lungs caused him so much pain that Nancy called an ambulance. At the hospital, when George asked if he was dying, the doctors told him he was. He requested pain meds and to see a preacher. He told Nancy there wasn’t any need for her to cry because he’d lived 81 years, paid for all the ones he’d messed up and was now going to Heaven. He fell into a coma. Nancy wasn’t sure if he’d wake up again but wanted to be there in case he did, so she waited by his side. Days later, she heard him say something like “Hiya. I’ve been looking for you. I’m George Jones.” Then, he died.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- George Jones – “Still Doin’ Time” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Merle Haggard – “Yesterday’s Wine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Merle Haggard – “C.C. Waterback” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Merle Haggard – “Must’ve Been Drunk” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Merle Haggard – “No Show Jones” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Shine On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “She Hung the Moon” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Ol’ George Stopped Drinkin’ Today” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Always Get Lucky with You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Tennessee Whiskey” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Eddy Raven – “I Should’ve Called ” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Should’ve Called” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Show’s Almost Over” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Radio Lover” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Girl at the End of the Bar” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Charles & George Jones – “We Didn’t See a Thing” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dean Martin – “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “She’s My Rock” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Stoney Edwards – “She’s My Rock” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Leona Williams – “Best Friends” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Somebody Wants Me Out of the Way” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Wine Colored Roses” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Right Left Hand” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Turn to You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Bird” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I’m a Survivor” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Old Man No One Loves” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Shelby Lynne ft. George Jones – “If I Could Bottle This Up” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dwight Yoakam – “Honky Tonk Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “One Woman Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The King Is Gone (So Are You)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Writing on the Wall” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Hell Stays Open All Night Long” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You Oughta Be Here with Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Somebody Always Paints the Wall” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Sleep Like a Baby” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Someone That You Used to Know” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Want to Grow Old with You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Cold Day in December” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Six Foot Deep, Six Foot Down” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “If the World Don’t End Tomorrow” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Blake Shelton – “Ol’ Red” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Ol’ Red” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Emmylou Harris – “All Fall Down” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Randy Travis & George Jones – “A Few Ole Country Boys” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You Couldn’t Get the Picture” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “She Loved a Lot in Her Time” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones ft. Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie, Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, T. Graham Brown, Patty Loveless and Clint Black – “(I Don’t Need Your) Rockin’ Chair” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “There’s the Door” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Alan Jackson – “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Love in Your Eyes” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Must Have Done Something Bad” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “High Tech Redneck” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Alan Jackson – “A Good Year for the Roses” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Vince Gill – “One More Last Chance” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Patty Loveless ft. George Jones – “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones ft. Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare and Johnny Counterfit – “It Don’t Get Any Better Than This” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Choices” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Ain’t Love a Lot Like That” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “This Wanting You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Rock” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Am” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Amazing Grace” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Here in the Real World” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Alan Jackson – “Here in the Real World” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Merle Haggard – “Things Have Gone to Pieces” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Sing Me Back Home” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Georgette Jones – “You and Me and Time” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “When the Last Curtain Falls” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube (or DailyMotion) may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
In the audio version of this episode, I said the title of that Elvis album incorrectly. It was just a verbal typo I didn’t catch until it was too late to easily fix and it’s not worth going back to fix now because that was never an accurate title or anything more than another marketing stunt.
As with the Wynonna episode in Season 1, I’m aware of all the tabloid stuff I could have included that has a whole lot to do with the personal lives of George Jones’ family but a bunch of nothing to do with his career. When we’re talking about artists like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, who were selling their personal lives as part of the package, it becomes necessary to cover whatever aspects of their personal lives help understand the package. But I do not feel the need to bring up every little piece of drama, especially those that don’t ultimately affect the whole story in a fundamental way.
Anyone who’s worn a rhinestone suit will tell you they’re heavier and hotter than most people who haven’t worn one would expect. I don’t know about breathability but in Juan Belmonte’s autobiography he talks about how heavy el traje de luces is to wear.
That is Billy Sherril playing the part of the bus driver in the video for “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.”
As for “Beer Run,” Todd Snider has a whole bit about this and here’s a link to a video of him telling the story, so you should really just go watch that because I’m not going to rewrite Todd Snider material about what sounds a lot like people rewriting Todd Snider material. If you’re lazy and feel like missing out on a great story from a great entertainer, the gist of it is that Todd wrote a song with essentially the same exact chorus, played it live in Nashville and then it shows up on the radio with different verses and credited to someone else as a writer. A legal decision was made to agree each song was written without foreknowledge of the other and I am not privy to any information which may dispute that.
All of my main sources for Season 2 can be found on The Library and Season 2 Library pages. I’m pretty sure I’ve given individual commentary on all the Season 2-specific sources but I’ll make sure to double check and cover anything I missed in the Liner Notes of the next episode because, yes, there is still one more episode left in this season. So, come back in a couple weeks if you want to hear the rest of what I have to say about George Jones.