Oh, you’re back to hear more things that will chill you to the bone? Then we can talk about what George Jones’ life was like in the period leading up to and through the biggest hit of his career. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be afraid of a demonic duck or try murdering your best friend to test the existence of God, well, these are questions only George Jones can answer but just asking them makes for one jaw-dropping and heartbreaking story.
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
Transcript of Episode
A Natural High
You’ve all heard about how the recipe for Coca-Cola once contained a little bit of cocaine – 9mg per serving, to be exact. What usually goes unmentioned with this piece of trivia is that Coca-Cola was created in a time when anyone with 25¢ could walk into an American pharmacy and walk out with 1 gram of powdered cocaine. And we all assume we know what we’re talking about when we use the word “cocaine” but the vast majority of blow on the streets of the United States is diluted with all kinds of cutting agents, rarely containing more than 65% cocaine, usually more like 40% and often much less. These days, the experience most Americans believe they’ve had with cocaine is actually experience with the stimulating effects of snorting powdered caffeine or sugar combined with the numbing effects of some cheap anesthetic plus the bitter taste of quinine and, somewhere in there, maybe half the amount of illegal narcotics you paid for. And that’s all presuming you’re alive to hear me say this because you didn’t accidentally die from an overdose of the fentanyl cutting a great deal of modern cocaine.
But it wasn’t always like this…
When we refer to the Incan Empire, we’re really talking about the dozens of peoples conquered by the Inca; nearly everyone living on or close to the Andes mountain range in what is now called South America. The Aymara? Conquered by the Inca. The Chimu? Conquered by the Inca. The Uru? Conquered by the Inca. The list of cultures subjugated by the Inca is long and, for thousands of years, many of these groups chewed leaves from the coca bushes native to the region. Out of more than 150 species of coca, several contain the alkaloid now called “cocaine.” Without this alkaloid, it’s unlikely the people of the Andes would have believed coca to be a gift from their gods. Coca leaves were used in religious rites while also regarded as suitable for casual use in daily life.
When wrapped in a small bundle with an alkaline substance – like the ash from burning another plant or quicklime – then stuffed between the gums and inner cheek or lip (like chewing tobacco), this chemical solution produces a slight numbness or tingling sensation as saliva transmits cocaine into the body. The ensuing effects are often compared to a particularly strong cup of hot coffee. The user feels more alert and is able to work or walk or think for a long time without becoming as tired, hungry or thirsty as they otherwise would. Same thing if consumed in the form of hot tea. One cup of coca tea typically contains about a gram of leaves, which only has 4mg or so of the cocaine alkaloid. This is nowhere near the amount of powder you’d have to offer to someone at a party if you didn’t want to be mocked and definitely not enough to induce modes of consciousness we tend to associate with this drug.
As the Inca rose to power in the middle of the 15th century, they restricted access to the divine coca among their conquered subjects. The leaves were still used in religious ceremonies but practical daily use was limited to Incan royalty and those they granted exemptions, like government officials, military personnel, physical laborers on important projects, couriers delivering state messages over a great distance on foot, etc. A couple decades into the 16th century, civil war broke out between Incan princes who each hope to rule the entire Empire. Their in-fighting weakened existing power structures and the people regained access to coca for casual daily use. And that was around the time the Spanish conquistadors showed up. I will assume you’ve heard a little about it. When these conquistadors noticed a relationship between use of coca leaves and increased productivity in the fields and mines, they pushed slaves and other workers to consume more and more coca to please the Spanish crown by generating greater wealth from this “new world.” By the time the last Incan emperor was executed in the 1570s, bringing an end to their Empire, Spain’s throne was sat upon by Felipe II, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Habsburg son, who’d married the daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. In service of his plan to replace all indigenous religions with Christianity, Felipe decided to ban this coca leaf he’d heard was so important in Andean rituals. That is, until his conquistadors reported withdrawal had instantly hamstrung laborers, who became tired and depressed, virtually unable to work. Felipe re-legalized coca, only now with a hefty 10% tax placed on the leaves.
An Industrial-Strength High
As one would imagine, coca leaves had been sent back to Spain on some of the first ships to make the return voyage after a conquistador first packed his lip. There are records dating coca’s first appearance in Europe to the 16th century. But the plants’ active ingredient couldn’t withstand the conditions and duration of such distant travel at the time, so nobody in Europe really understood what all the fuss was about for another few hundred years. It took until 1855 for the cocaine alkaloid to be successfully isolated and extracted from coca leaves. In 1859, a better extraction process was discovered, yielding more and purer cocaine from each batch of leaves. Both processes were discovered in Germany, of course, and it didn’t take the medical or scientific communities very long to begin experimenting with this new drug. In 1860, the German pharmaceutical company still doing business today as Merck began producing and selling cocaine as an energy supplement and a treatment for “sinus difficulties.”
Early trials found cocaine to bring users a sense of physical, mental and emotional well-being, even pleasure or ecstasy. It seemed cocaine made a person feel more focused and energetic, happier and more excited to socialize with others… for about an hour or so, at which point the user must take more cocaine to keep feeling this way. And while this person was having such a great time for that first hour, their body was busy increasing its tolerance to the drug. So producing another hour of the same effects would require consuming more cocaine than they took the first time. And so on, and so on, until the person who keeps taking more cocaine than they took the last time in order to keep feeling as good as they felt the last time finds themselves in a pretty awful state: angry, unable to sleep, heart beating so fast they’re pretty sure they’re about to die, especially because they’re growing increasingly paranoid, possibly hallucinating, maybe feeling like they’ve got actual bugs crawling around underneath their skin and almost certainly lashing out at friends, family or whoever else cares about the addict enough to try keeping them from doing more cocaine. Should the addict attempt to stop, they’ll find it quite difficult, considering their brain now expects to receive more dopamine than it is capable of manufacturing on its own, so it’ll try to get the dopamine by causing the addict to feel depressed, agitated, confused and inconsolable until they either do more cocaine or successfully kick, however many weeks or months that requires. Unfortunately, it took doctors and scientists a while to discover everything I just said except for the first part, the part where it sounds like cocaine is awesome.
One famous early advocate was a young neurologist, named Sigmund Freud. In his eagerness to make an important contribution to science and land himself a spot in medical history, Freud spent much of the 1880s destroying who knows how many lives by writing articles and essays which recommended this new wonder drug to just about any adult who wanted to feel good about being alive. Among other baseless-yet-exciting claims, he suggested cocaine was a safe and nonaddictive method to wean addicts off much more dangerous substances, like opium. When he actually put his theory to the test, it only resulted in opium addicts also becoming addicted to cocaine. Freud wrote that the alkaloid which caused slight numbness where it touched human membrane in plant form seemed to render the same membrane totally numb when a higher concentration of cocaine extract was used. Another doctor in his social circle perceived the implications of this, began experimenting and – long story short – the reason the name of every local anesthetic ends in the suffix “-caine” is because they were all created to mimic the targeted numbing effect of cocaine, which literally established modern concepts of local anesthesia. So there’s one for the plus column. For the most part, though, Freud’s cheerleading of cocaine had disastrous results.
In 1884, the United States Hay Fever Association named cocaine the official remedy for hay fever. By 1885 Americans could go to a pharmacy and buy powdered cocaine in packages advertising the contents would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” By the time the U.S. Surgeon General recommended cocaine for treatment of depression in 1887, many thousands of American citizens were way ahead of him. One popular delivery method of this era was cocaine-laced cigarettes, sold in packaging which listed the ten reasons why “cocarettes should be smoked by all smokers,” including “coca is the finest nerve tonic and exhilarator ever discovered” and “the coca neutralizes the depressing effects of the nicotine in the tobacco” and “cocarettes can be freely used by persons in delicate health without injury and with positively beneficial results.” As with most medicinal advertising of the age, this language is imprecise and misleading so we must again draw distinction between actual cocaine – a pure and potent alkaloid extract – and the coca leaf, which at equivalent volume contains barely 1/100th the amount of said alkaloid. These are entirely different creatures.
The fact is, much of Europe was regularly consuming coca leaves for 20 years before anyone ever heard of Sigmund Freud. In the early 1860s, a French chemist found placing coca leaves in liquid containing a significant percentage of ethanol alcohol, like wine, pulled the cocaine alkaloid out of the leaves and into the liquid. In 1863, he put his own last name on the concoction and began selling it as Vin Mariani. With about 6mg of cocaine per ounce, Vin Mariani was an instant hit in France and quickly spread beyond. Something of a marketing genius for his time, Mariani leaned heavily on celebrity endorsements and took out ads to boast this product was enjoyed by no less an esteemed customer than the Pope. And it was true. The Pope enjoyed Vin Mariani so much, he sent a gold medal as a token of gratitude to its inventor. Other known enthusiasts include Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Thomas Edison and U.S. Presidents William McKinley and Ulysses S. Grant. Stateside, there was a doctor in Columbus, Georgia, named John Pemberton, who found himself saddled with a nasty morphine addiction from treating an injury sustained while fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. When he heard all the fuss about coca wine (including early rumors it could help wean someone off morphine), Pemberton decided to check it out. He liked what he found. Knowing there were thousands more ex-soldiers with addictions like his (and that Mariani must be raking in money hand over fist with the stuff), Pemberton decided to launch a competing version. Like many attempts to piggyback off Mariani’s success, Pemberton hoped to entice users into trying a new brand by advertising a higher percentage of cocaine in his recipe, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. Soon after he hit the market, in the mid-1880s, Atlanta’s Fulton County passed local prohibition laws. So Pemberton removed the alcohol from his formula, kept the 9mg of cocaine (and caffeine from kola nuts) and rebranded as the Temperance-approved beverage, Coca-Cola.
By this time, many within the medical community were aware of cocaine’s highly addictive nature and the extremely negative effects of regular use but the damage was already done. Even if every esteemed authority who heaped praise on the drug only a few years earlier was willing to come out, say they were wrong and let their professional reputations take the hit (which they weren’t), hundreds of thousands of people around the world had acted on those initial rave reviews. By 1902, there were roughly 200,000 Americans addicted to cocaine. Hardly anyone using cocaine on a daily basis wanted to admit there was anything wrong, lest it complicate their ability to continue easily acquiring the drug they now couldn’t imagine living without. It was regularly used in blue collar jobs, often handed out by managers and business owners to keep workers awake and active on overtime or overnight shifts. There are many documented instances of cocaine being pushed on Black laborers as it was believed to produce harder, faster and better work from the the race.
With such widespread use, everyone not addicted to cocaine could readily observe what it was doing to everyone else, regardless of what any doctor or scientist had claimed. As the drug became more closely associated with the lower classes than the medical elite, the inevitable backlash finally began, complete with all the classist and racist rhetoric puritans always use whenever they want to ban something: “fill-in-the-blank turns the dregs of society (especially the Black ones) into murderous and sex-crazed lunatics,” etc. Only then did government step in with regulation. In 1902, the state of Georgia banned all sales of cocaine and Coca-Cola removed it from the recipe. (Yes, they did and do still use coca leaves – without the alkaloid – as a flavoring agent.) In 1906, the federal government started down a road that eventually led to establishing the Food and Drug Administration by introducing the Food and Drug Act. Among other things, this made manufacturers list cocaine or opium on the label if either was included in foods, beverages, supplements, elixirs, tinctures, tonics, liniments, etc. Then, in 1914, came the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which brought opium and cocaine under government control through a system of granting and denying licenses to manufacturers and requiring a doctor’s prescription to legally buy cocaine or opium from a pharmacy, as would also be done with alcohol a handful of years later. And the Jones-Miller Act of 1922 is what essentially ended nearly all legal access to cocaine, banning any form of recreational consumption and placing tight restrictions on medicinal use. By the end of the decade, the drug had gone underground.
Largely replaced as anesthesia by amylocaine and novocaine, soon to be replaced as a stimulant by amphetamines, cocaine stopped being manufactured at industrial volume for public consumption. As a rare and expensive contraband, it was used in large amounts only by those with sufficient financial means to pursue their habits. Supposedly, actress Tallulah Bankhead once said something like she knew cocaine wasn’t habit-forming because she’d been using it for years. In her autobiography, she tried to play off the unshakeable quote as a recurring joke she came up with after being prescribed cocaine cough drops. But other versions of the story have her angrily yelling the line down a phone at whoever was on the other end trying to explain that the government had made it difficult for her to keep buying cocaine. And if such a rich and famous person could no longer easily powder her nose, you can imagine the situation for everyone else. Cocaine drifted into obscurity within the United States. Even the Puritanical moral panic moved on, as evidenced by 1936’s Reefer Madness, a movie that would maybe make some kind of sense if it were a propaganda film on the dangers of cocaine. Instead, it’s a propaganda film created by people who apparently believed smoking whatever ditch weed was around in the 1930s would lead users down the same psychotic and horrific roads as the worst cocaine addiction.
But the ridiculousness of Reefer Madness isn’t much of a surprise. It’s only one more case of a substance being demonized by pretending it is disproportionately popular with and inspires particular evils within poor and/or Black communities, especially those where musicians can be found playing any variety of raucous music, like jazz, blues or country. And while musicians were always happy to freak out the squares – because, truly, to hell with these people – it’s interesting to note the pronounced difference in the way cocaine and pot were treated in song between the 1920s and 1940s. In 1936, Stuff Smith recorded and had a hit with “You’se a Viper.” The song is a fairly undisguised and unrepentant ode to smoking weed, in the decade-or-so-long tradition of jazz records about the same thing, all of which made Harry Anslinger furious. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, Anslinger was the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the guy who said he believed federal Prohibition of alcohol would’ve been a success if the penalties for breaking the law were harsher, the guy who said the best reason to outlaw cannabis was its effect on “the degenerate races,” the guy who called jazz music “Satanic” and the guy who criticized smoking cannabis because he said it made Black men think they’re as good as White men. (That’s not the exact quote because nobody, including me, wants me to repeat the exact quote.) In 1937, the year after “You’se a Viper” hit, Anslinger was successful in campaigning to effectively outlaw cannabis. But songs in unmitigated praise of pot, both discreet and blatant, continued to be recorded. In fact, Fats Waller recorded “You’se a Viper” in 1943, under the title “Reefer Song” and with an intro implying he was gonna keep smoking weed no matter how many cops Anslinger sent to his door. This is not the tone or message you’ll find in most records about cocaine from the same period.
The more time passed since its ban, the more cocaine was relegated to the status of Other; something for Other people, in an Other place, an Other time, and certainly something the listener wasn’t recommended to seek out for themselves. Even songs with a narrator presently using cocaine and acknowledging the temporary pleasure increasingly skewed toward the tone of cautionary tales. Take Victoria Spivey’s 1927 recording of “Dope Head Blues” with Lonnie Johnson on guitar. Sure, she sounds like she’s having a great time and keeps talking about how much more cocaine she wants to do but take a closer listen before hearing that as an endorsement because one bite from her mouth being enough to turn 40 dogs rabid and feeling better than she ever felt even though she has “double pneumonia” don’t seem that great. By the time Ethel Merman sang Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick out of You” in the 1934 musical Anything Goes, the reference to cocaine from an admittedly inexperienced person is just some vague allusion toward something she’d heard some people do somewhere else. Lead Belly’s early 1930s version of “Take a Whiff on Me” is the first known recording of a much older song whose author and origin are unknown. Here, again, it sounds like Lead Belly’s having a swell party and one he doesn’t intend to bring to a stop. But, again, a close read on the lyrics reveals he’s begging for money to buy more cocaine because he’s “gotta keep on whiffin’ until I die” and it doesn’t matter that “Doctor said it kill ya, but he don’t say when.” We know this song is much older because he said so but also because there are earlier recordings of songs that borrow elements from the same source. Luke Jordan took some of the lyrics (and some lyrics from another song called “Furniture Man”) to write “Cocaine Blues,” first recorded in 1927. If those lyrics sound familiar, it’s because you heard the folkier Dick Justice version after the Liner Notes segment of nearly every episode in Cocaine & Rhinestones‘ first season. Both versions feature lyrics about the narrator being so broke his furniture gets repossessed and his girlfriend having to steal from her job in order for them to be able to eat. This couple also has a doctor who says he may not be sure exactly when but the amount of cocaine they’re doing will kill them and he’s reasonably certain the girlfriend will have a non-functional nose by the time she checks out.
However old “Take a Whiff on Me” is, it was around long enough for Lead Belly’s recording to be preceded by versions from artists who changed the lyrics to be about alcohol rather than the now-too-difficult-for-nearly-anyone-to-get cocaine, like Charlie Poole’s 1927 recording under the title “Take a Drink on Me.” It’s pretty likely Charlie updated the lyrics to resonate with crowds in the illegal speakeasies where he performed during Prohibition. If everyone there had access to blow, he wouldn’t have had any reason to change the song. But if everyone was there to drink and wish they knew where to get some blow, then doing a song about cocaine was only liable to make half the people there think this musician must know where to score and hit him up between sets. Whatever the case, we know it wasn’t simply a matter of Charlie being too timid to sing a song about illicit substances because the most famous Charlie Poole story is about the time a speakeasy was raided while his band was on stage. Rather than run or submit to arrest, Charlie smashed his banjo over the head of a police officer.
Digging the Hole
George Jones was in terrible shape, easily the worst condition of his life to that point, when he met Shug Baggott. We have no reason to assume or even suspect Jones’ life may have gone in any other direction had he never met Shug Baggott. However, Shug does happen to be the reason George Jones started doing cocaine.
The two first met in early 1975. Shug came from the nightclub world, not the country music world. So when he decided to open a country music nightclub in Printer’s Alley, he asked a friend which country artists would make sense to approach about putting their name on the place. Big surprise, George Jones was suggested. Not yet divorced from Tammy but separated, Jones spent most nights at one or another of his regular drinking spots in Nashville. Everyone in the industry knew if they were trying to get in touch with him or even just leave a message, the best point of contact was the bar at one of several hotels, like the Hall of Fame Motor Inn or Spence Manor, both on Music Row. One night, Shug found Jones in a hotel lounge, introduced himself and, over many drinks, made his pitch. Because of how drunk Jones stayed in this period, Shug had to find him and repeat the pitch close to ten times before Jones even remembered having met him before but he did eventually agree to the proposal while half-way sober. After all, he’d put his name on a Nashville nightclub before and it almost went very well.
Back in 1967, Jones opened Possum Holler on the same block as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, sharing the same back alley with The Ryman Auditorium. Country fans who came to town for The Opry (or any other reason) quickly learned that most every night found the stage at Possum Holler taken over by George Jones and/or other living legends joining the house band for informal, unplanned and unannounced concerts, none of which ever cost more than the regular $5 cover charge at the door. Possum Holler was soon giving Tootsie Bess a serious run for the money but the place got shut down in less than a year. See, it was located on the second floor of a building owned by Roy Acuff. Roy had no problem with the nightclub – in fact, he often hung out at Possum Holler and went onstage to sing – but the first floor of the building was home to the Roy Acuff Museum & Gift Shop. Every time the Possum Holler bathrooms flooded, which was often, it rained piss and shit down into Roy Acuff’s museum exhibits. So Jones’ party spot had to be shut down. He was still married to Shirley Jones at that time, so even though Jones regularly got out of hand hanging out in his own club night after night, on some level he knew the wife would lay into him if he did anything that made it too difficult for her to keep the finances in order at home. Eight years later, when Shug Baggott presented an opportunity to get back in the Nashville nightclub business, Jones had no such leash.
The second Possum Holler opened the day his divorce from Tammy went through in 1975 and he spent the rest of the decade digging himself into a financial hole so deep almost nobody would ever have been able to escape it. The main problem was how much he still hated touring. One reason The Jones Boys chose Tammy in the divorce was their original boss had already announced his intention to stay off the road as much as possible in 1975. This proved to be a smart choice. The band members Jones hired for the shows he did play in the following years often went months without receiving a single paycheck. His stage fright only grew worse with time. Each show brought more pressure than the last to be the Greatest Country Singer Ever for a room full of strangers. Whenever he dealt with the stress by getting too drunk to perform like The Greatest, he usually ran and found himself in a lawsuit. When he didn’t run, though, someone usually handed thousands of dollars in cash to him at the end of the night. His ability to treat money like there was no tomorrow depended on receiving these cash injections several times a week. His only other income came in the form of royalty checks periodically showing up in the mail. After he decided to stop touring in 1975, Jones quickly burned through all his cash (sometimes literally), then got more cash by taking out multiple six figure loans against expected royalty checks, then burned through that money before it was even his to spend.
So, when Shug Baggott showed up with a pitch for Possum Holler: The Sequel, Jones responded as if he could front 50% of the capital but Shug learned the truth after speaking to the accountants. George Jones was as good as broke. Tammy was about to make one uncontested divorce too many, taking all their shared assets except for one of the houses and vehicles, leaving Jones to drunkenly sell, trade, borrow, gift and destroy his way into poverty. This information didn’t change much for Shug. He took out loans and moved forward, retaining the percentage of ownership Jones could have bought and negotiating a fee to pay for use of the country star’s name. Jones claimed he never received these payments but it’s pretty unlikely he had a clue whether or not that’s true and impossible to know how much money he personally borrowed from Shug after the banks stopped handing out more loans. Even if Jones hadn’t spent all his royalties long before they were sent, the checks he did receive would only have grown smaller and smaller the longer he resisted touring. Music Business 101: Singles and albums sell fewer units and receive less airplay when artists don’t (or can’t) travel to promote new releases through concert and radio appearances. This is one reason why George Jones charted very few Top 10 singles in the second half of the 1970s. The hits he did have in this period all benefitted from alternate forms of publicity: “These Days I Barely Get By,” “The Battle” and “Her Name Is” all played into Tammy Wynette’s tabloid career; “Bartender’s Blues” capitalized on the New York City no-show by appealing to rock media’s preexisting love for James Taylor; and the cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”Jones did as a duet with Johnny PayCheck came out a few months after PayCheck went #1 and sold two million units with “Take This Job and Shove It.” Those few records aside, Jones rarely charted higher than the Top 20 in the late ‘70s. This is only one example of how his inability to tour spiraled out to diminishing returns in every branch of his business.
And it’s not like he couldn’t see the problem. Possum Holler was supposed to be the solution, a new revenue stream affording him the luxury of making public appearances while avoiding the stress and substance abuse he associated with life on the road. When spending most nights in a club with his name on the sign proved just as much a threat to his liver and financial responsibilities, he did try to take corrective action. Since the nightclub hadn’t put Shug Baggott in debt and Shug was always able to lend some money when Jones needed it, that’s who Jones went to for help getting back on his feet. He asked Shug to become his manager and Shug agreed. First thing first, another visit to Jones’ accountant to find out exactly how much debt they were dealing with. $300,000. Okay. Well, the logical fix, obvious to anyone with sense, would be to turn on the cash flow Jones shut off at the beginning of the year and get him back on tour. Shug could have signed his artist to a booking agency, probably even the best one in Nashville, and they’d have him logging thousands of miles in no time, grinding his way toward solvency one concert after another. Instead, Shug came up with a solution that was nothing less than a work of art, a fix that should and would have provided a way out to just about anyone not named George Jones.
By searching outside of typical music industry circles, Shug turned up millionaire Bob Green, the guy who founded the successful Executive Inn chain of hotels in Kentucky and Indiana. Several of these hotels had theaters, Las Vegas-type showrooms with dinner tables and booths, more upscale than honky tonks on the regular country circuit. So Shug Baggott orchestrated a deal giving Bob Green the exclusive right to book George Jones for $750,000 a year. The mechanics were subcontracted out to a booking agency, who did secure dates in other venues when big money was on the table. But Green’s primary incentive to make this deal was keeping Jones in the showrooms of Executive Inns, where many fans were likely to make a night (or weekend) of it by also booking hotel rooms onsite, thereby upping Green’s profits far beyond those of a typical concert promoter selling only tickets and alcohol. Aside from the money, Jones’ primary incentive to make this deal was every Executive Inn being only about a three to five hour drive away from his two preferred places to be: Nashville, TN and Florence, AL. It was a way for him to get his tour income back without having to do much actual touring. Not only that, Bob Green had agreed to hand over a $150,000 advance at the contract signing, which took place in August 1975, five months after his divorce and the opening of Possum Holler. In theory, Jones could have knocked out half his debt with this $150,000 advance and the full $750,000 could have put his whole life back in the black within one year. In practice, he spent $65,000 on a new tour bus, paid off a few of the most pressing loans and burned through the rest of the cash, then immediately asked for another $100 grand. Ignoring this gigantic warning sign, Bob Green gave him the additional money, which meant Jones was now a quarter of a million dollars in debt to Bob Green on top of the original $300,000 deficit.
If you’re wondering what kind of person could be so reckless and irresponsible, there’s a story from this period indicating Jones’ frame of mind. Riding on that new tour bus to or from some show with Billy Wilhite – his friend for nearly 20 years, now acting as a manager – Jones was drinking heavily and decided Billy ought to be drunk, too. But Billy didn’t feel like drinking so he declined the bottle when it was offered. Jones then took out a revolver and fired a round – not at Billy but, you know, in his general direction – putting a hole in the brand-new bus and securing the undivided attention of everyone inside. The bus driver kept rolling down the road while all the band and crew locked eyes on Jones. He returned eye contact one person at a time, taking long pauses before slowly and deliberately squeezing the trigger again… and again… and again… The band and crew were all counting rounds inside their heads, so as soon as Jones put his last bullet through the side of the bus, everyone jumped him at once, stuffed him inside a bunk and forced him to stay there until he stopped acting like a maniac.
Doin’ Things You Don’t Understand
In October of 1975, Jones used part of that second $100 grand to buy a house in Florence along with some property where he built a larger house in 1976. At this time, he wasn’t living alone but with Peanutt Montgomery’s sister-in-law, Linda Welborn, who he began dating right after separating from Tammy.
Though they were some kind of fond for each other, this is arguably the saddest of all Jones’ romantic relationships, a stopgap lasting years longer than it should have. Biographers typically characterize Linda as a simple person of little sophistication and low ambition. Jones himself “affectionately” referred to her as his “little, dumb woman” or just “Dumb Linda.” Speaking after the fact, Linda guessed it was loneliness, not love, which brought and kept them together. She’d recently been through her own divorce when they met and Jones presented at least the illusion of companionship while expecting little of her. In return, she gave him free rein to do pretty much whatever he wanted, even and especially destroy himself, without having to hear any criticism from her. So even though they “lived together” into the early 1980s, what this really meant is she lived in his house while he was gone for weeks and months at a time. When he did come back to Florence, it wasn’t necessarily to Linda. They did enjoy bowling and fishing together but Jones was just as likely to get drunk and invite a bunch of random strangers over to the house or suddenly leave to drive a few hours away and make a couple laps around Tammy Wynette’s driveway in Nashville. During the year-and-a-half or so Jones privately and publicly courted his ex-wife in earnest, Linda Welborn lived in his house in Alabama.
Perhaps in order to avoid returning home to such a melancholy relationship, Jones mostly fulfilled the terms of his contract with Bob Green for that same year-and-a-half or so. This lighter version of touring – bouncing around between a small handful of stages all within a few hours of each other – made it physically and psychologically easier to get his body where it was supposed to be at showtime, even if he was rarely sober. But the longer he worked to earn money that was spent way before he stepped onstage, the harder it became to see the point in continuing this way and the easier it became to open another bottle instead. Whenever he did manage to get a bank or some other creditor caught up, he often celebrated by turning around and asking for another loan, then vanishing on a drunk until he ran out of cash again. Each time he returned from one of these binges, having blown through the same amount of money he’d just paid off and racked up even more debt by missing more concerts, he found himself deeper in the hole than ever and suffering a hangover like few of us will ever know.
In March of 1977, he arrived at an Executive Inn after an epic blowout, knowing he’d never be able to get onstage to sing. The only reason he showed up was so Shug Baggott and Bob Green could see his present state of exhaustion, hoping they’d let him recuperate before going back to work. But, next thing he knew, he was out on the stage, feeling better than he’d felt in years – maybe decades, maybe ever – thrilled to be performing for the fans and suffering no fatigue at all. See, there happened to be a doctor in the house. When this doctor heard Shug talking about how wiped out Jones was and how he’d never be able to sing, the doctor told Shug it wasn’t any kind of problem at all. He said if they could get Jones dressed in his stage clothes, there was no reason for the show to not take place as scheduled. Well, Shug got Jones dressed and called in the doctor, who took out a syringe and gave the singer some kind of injection, which instantly provided the energy boost needed to go out and perform. In fact, he made it through a whole week of shows, preceded each night by another “energy shot” from the doctor. Just three months later, Jones had settled back into his No Show routine, so Shug got in touch with that doctor to ask what was in those shots. Turns out, it was liquified cocaine. And, shit, they didn’t need a doctor to get cocaine… Once Jones learned what had been in that syringe, he started buying whatever blow he could find in barrooms. We’re talking the stepped-on stuff street dealers cut with quinine, baking soda and who knows what other trash. That is… until Shug realized what kind of junk going up the nose of the Greatest Country Singer Ever and, probably more importantly, how much money his artist was spending on it, then decided to become Jones’ personal wholesale supplier by going through connections from the nightclub world until he found a guy willing to bring up kilos of fishscale from Miami. Since Jones shared this powder so freely with his social circle and the stuff was so pure, Shug soon became the main plug to most of Nashville’s celebrity skiers.
Now, for us to say George Jones became a cocaine addict would be an understatement on the level of saying LeBron James plays basketball player or Donald Trump acts like an asshole. Most of us have never in our lives met a single person who even has a frame of reference for how much of this drug Jones consumed. It would be immensely stupid to view this as a competition but, just to give you some idea of what we’re talking about here, Waylon Jennings is someone who famously did more blow than a human should be able to survive. He estimated the cost of his cocaine habit peaking somewhere around $1,500 a day. When Waylon was arrested by the DEA, it was in conjunction with an entire ounce of cocaine someone tried to send him through the mail as a special gift. Comparatively, George Jones used to keep an ounce of cocaine in his pants pocket at all times for personal use. He also walked around with a separate baggie in his shirt-front pocket and a plastic straw sticking out so all he had to do was tilt his head down to the side for a snort. One time, Jones and Waylon were riding around Nashville in a car and they hit a red light, so Jones pulled out a vial to have a little toot while they waited. Waylon thought Jones was out of his mind and sure to get them arrested with such public use of an illegal narcotic. Jones thought nothing of it. He continued behaving this way for approximately seven years. As with the drinking, if this sounds like a party, let me assure you it was not.
The Duck & The Old Man
By this time, it’s possible his alcoholism and stage fright had escalated to the point where a schizophrenic break from reality was inevitable even if he never started doing cocaine. In 1976, Epic Records got him booked on Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic down in Texas because they wanted to see how George Jones went over with the audience of longhairs and weirdos in the outlaw country scene. This was the year 140 people were arrested, 4 people were stabbed, 4 others were kidnapped and 1 person drowned at the Picnic, so when Jones got down there, heard about all this trouble and saw what looked to him like thousands of psychos waiting to rip his well-dressed Nashville ass a new one, he was ready to make a run for it. Mary Ann McCready (from Epic’s PR department) recognized the signs of Jones prepping to make an unannounced exit and went for help from his label-mate, David Allan Coe. DAC came over, pointed to his own long hair and prison tattoos as evidence he belonged to the crowd Jones was so worried about and swore there was not a bigger George Jones fan on the premises. He stayed by Jones’ side and stood on the stage the whole time he sang to make sure nobody caused any problems. After the set, that crowd of psychos demanded Jones return for an encore. Most reviews of the festival, including those in non-country media outlets, called his performance a highlight of the entire weekend. A little over a year later, there weren’t any longhaired ex-convicts to escort him on the plane to New York City and Rolling Stone rewarded George Jones for the no show at The Bottom Line by naming him 1977’s Country Artist of the Year.
By 1978, cocaine had kicked open a door in his mind for two additional personalities to walk in, take up full-time residence and begin treating his mouth as their own. The Old Man spoke in a nasally, serious and often disapproving tone, the way Walter Brennan might approach the role of a newscaster providing real-time narration to Jones’ fearful thoughts and shameful actions. Then there was DeeDoodle, a raving mad court jester who alternated between casual wisecracks and furious rebuke, all voiced in a piss-poor imitation of Donald Duck. Whatever fictional representations of multiple personality disorder you may have seen on TV or in movies, Jones did not blackout or otherwise lose consciousness while DeeDoodle and the Old Man took his body for joyrides. Neither was he some kind of silenced passenger forced to bear witness to their actions. Rather, George Jones became one of three participants engaged in an active struggle for control over his speech, occasionally gaining the power to apologize to whoever was in earshot when the Old Man disgustedly pointed out how ashamed Jones should be for allowing anyone to call him the Greatest Country Singer Ever or when DeeDoodle the Duck screamed at a whole concert hall full of Canadians to go fuck the Queen of England. (These are not hypotheticals. This all happened.)
As you’d imagine, Jones grew deeply paranoid in this time. If he couldn’t trust his own mouth or mind, how could he trust any other person? He soon adopted a safety-in-numbers approach to security, keeping a crowd of people around whenever possible – in the studio, on tour, at home with Linda Welborn. He couldn’t trust any of them individually, but maybe having multiple witnesses in the room would keep those with ill intentions from attacking him. Besides, he was rarely without one or more firearms these days, so if he ever got a bad feeling about someone then he’d just put a few warning shots in the walls or ceiling. Linda said he’d often pretend to be asleep so he could hear if anyone would talk about him when they thought he wasn’t listening. (This is one of the retroactive explanations sometimes given for his nickname, Possum.) On nights he ran off the crowd with bullets or never assembled one in the first place, his key to self defense became as much light and sound as possible. Wherever he was, he’d turn on every light, every radio, every television, then make late-night calls to anyone who’d pick up the phone and talk to him; possibly hoping the sensory overload would confuse the Duck and Old Man into silence or, if not, at least prove they weren’t the only ones who could fill his head with pandemonium.
While both split personalities meet horror movie standards for demonic entities and a couple people who were there said the Old Man was scarier, I personally find DeeDoodle to be more disturbing. The Old Man’s voice could easily be mistaken for Jones having a cold and the dour or off-character things he said could be mistaken for confusion or depression. DeeDoodle, on the other hand, was unmistakably Not George Jones. This voice couldn’t be explained away by any logic and DeeDoodle seemed to think it was his job to scream anything Jones didn’t want to say. If Jones was in the studio and kind of wanted Billy Sherrill to do something but decided it wasn’t important enough to speak up, here came DeeDoodle to make impatient demands. On one occasion, Shug Baggott could only watch in stunned silence as what began with a vicious cussing out from DeeDoodle periodically interrupted by apologies from Jones devolved into Jones and the Duck having a full-blown argument with each other in front of Shug. Most detrimental to his career, whenever Jones forgot the lyrics to a song during a concert, it wasn’t The Old Man but DeeDoodle who came to the rescue, quacking out absurd and terrible renditions of everyone’s favorite George Jones songs.
At some point in 1978, Jones, DeeDoodle and the Old Man began making lists of the people they wanted to kill. Peanutt Montgomery’s name made its way on to one list for no apparent reason other than his conversion to Christianity about a year earlier. Although Peanutt would no longer drink or go off on adventures and was now occasionally given to lectures about eternal damnation, Jones was still allowed to come over to the Montgomerys’ house. When he did, he often questioned Peanutt’s faith, asking if his friend really believed all that Jesus stuff ? And how come there was so much wrong with the world if there was a God? It seems Jones felt somewhat abandoned by Peanutt – maybe even by God – and left on his own to be tormented by the Old Man and DeeDoodle. One day, he asked Peanutt to meet in a remote location and when Peanutt pulled up in a car with the window rolled down, ready to talk, Jones screamed something about finding out if God could save Peanutt from a bullet, then fired a pistol at him. In photos, it looks like the round lodged in the car door maybe two or three inches beneath the open window. Jones was arrested, of course. But when Peanutt came to understand there would be a trial for attempted manslaughter, he dropped all charges and, instead, took out a restraining order, which Jones regularly ignored without consequence.
Lawyer Said It Kill Ya But He Don’t Say When
Whatever reputation he may have built for getting his act together while married to Tammy, whatever functional purpose he initially believed cocaine served to help him meet professional obligations, every bit of that was history, flushed down the toilet like so many $100 bills. Following the Bottom Line no-show, Jones and Shug Baggott had started a breakup/makeup routine which lasted the next several years, during which time Jones bounced between managers and agents all over Nashville. He agreed to whatever partnership or concert booking came with any kind of advance, then typically tried to disappear with the money. This often meant giving the slip to whatever babysitters and handlers were hired to keep him from running. There are dozens of stories about him climbing through a bathroom window or out the roof of a tour bus in order to escape with a sack of money, sometimes only going as far as the nearest bar, other times convincing a taxicab driver to take him somewhere several hundred miles away.
If he needed money badly enough, though, he could be equally determined to keep an engagement. Once he was down in Florence and had already been awake for a couple days when presented with a short-notice opportunity to make some cash. He hopped in a car, sped off to the airport, parked on the sidewalk in front of the main terminal entrance and left the car’s engine running with his keys locked inside. When airport security looked into the situation, they found a note on the windshield reading, “Please, to whom it may concern. I was in quite a hurry, this flight was very important. My name is George Jones with the Grand Ole Opry and I’ll be back tomorrow evening.” The car idled on the sidewalk for close to two days before one of his friends got the dealership to cut new keys so they could drive it back to his house.
One of the most remarkable things about this period is George Jones burned nearly every professional bridge he could but did it so spectacularly and racked up such massive debts that many of his ex-associates felt they had no choice but to agree when he asked for another chance, just in case he did manage to come through this time and earn some of their money back. It became impossible to keep track of who represented his various business interests. Billy Sherrill sincerely requested he stop being introduced to new managers and agents because of how many times he called someone with an opportunity only to learn they were fired or had quit. In January of 1978, following a makeup with Shug, Jones sent a telegram to Billy reading, “There has been some confusion to whom is to manage my affairs which has caused more confusion in my life. I apologize for what it’s caused in your life. This is to confirm to anyone whom may be concerned that Shug Baggott is my manager and acting in my behalf to represent me. I would appreciate your cooperation in this matter to help me straighten out so many problems.”
Within a year of this telegram, Shug booked a comeback concert at Nashville’s Exit/In and invited everyone in the industry he could convince to come see how much better George Jones was doing now that he was again working with Shug. And Jones actually showed up for the gig. Then he forgot the words to the first song, DeeDoodle took over and kept singing for the rest of the set while Jones openly wept, watching the most important audience of his life lose hope and trickle out of the room, some of them also crying as they left.
In the second half of 1978, most of his creditors finally gave up and hit him with a relentless onslaught of lawsuits. He was sued by a bank, a furniture store, Tammy Wynette, the IRS and just about every major concert promoter in the business, all within a matter of months. According to Jones, he missed more personal engagements than he kept in this period. But according to one of his booking agents at the time, Shorty Lavender, some of the blame for that belongs to Shug Baggott, who refused to let a small thing like being fired stop him from continuing to book shows and take deposits for events on dates when Shorty had the same artist booked elsewhere, hundreds of miles away. Two days after Shug filed for bankruptcy, Shorty Lavender sued him for pretending to represent one of Shorty’s clients. Shug’s defense hinged on the claim he had a contract with terms allowing him to book George Jones dates. And he may have been telling the truth but it was physically impossible for Jones to be in two places at once and he quickly racked up more lawsuits than even his typical No Show behavior could have generated. According to one of his lawyers, George Jones was sued over 1,000 times in his career. The number is well within reason.
Faced with a staggering volume of legal action, in December 1978, Jones filed for a bankruptcy, which was promptly denied by the court because his life was in such a state of disrepair he couldn’t even provide accurate documentation of all the money he owed. Believe it or not, he failed to keep a paper record of every time he’d done something like trade a custom pair of Nudie cowboy boots for the sneakers worn by a stranger. Or, you know, sell a $40,000 boat for 500 bucks on a day when he needed 500 bucks in his pocket more than he needed a $40,000 boat. A couple months later, in February 1979, a new team of lawyers was able to submit enough evidence for a bankruptcy to be granted and a payment plan approved to settle approximately 20% of the debt. In other words, if George Jones owed you a dollar, he was now legally obligated to pay you twenty cents. This sounds like a pretty good deal (and it was) but his debt at the time totaled around $1.5 million, 20% of which put him… right back in the $300,000 hole where he was when he first asked Shug Baggott to become his manager.
To say the least, this $300 grand was going to be much more difficult to scrounge up. His total assets – a mobile home, some furniture, stage clothes, jewelry, guitars, some land in Florida and Alabama – were valued at little more than $60,000. The tour revenue he reached for the last time was no longer an option. Even if fans wanted to see DeeDoodle the Duck in concert, which they didn’t, most of this debt was a result of how many concert promoters had been burned by Jones and/or Shug Baggott (who, by the way, Jones’ lawyers also alleged had misappropriated over $1 million of their client’s money). Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings gave Jones about $65,000 to hand over to the court as evidence he was making an effort. But, in the end, the judge on the case saw no way forward other than seizing his only source of income: record royalties. The only reason George Jones survived the following years was the charity of others, like Cash and Waylon, who continued giving him five figure sums of money.
A New Low
The month his bankruptcy was granted, Jones recorded his next single. The Greatest Country Singer Ever at less than his full potential is still quite amazing but there’s a previously unheard fragility in his voice and a trace of doubt in his pitch control on “Someday My Day Will Come.” It’s most noticeable in the verses, where Billy Sherrill largely leaves Jones to sing by himself. On the chorus, Billy has his background singers take turns lending much more support than usual beneath the shaky lead vocal.
His only LP released in 1979 was My Very Special Guests, a collection of Jones singing with major country and rock artists (like Waylon Jennings, Johnny PayCheck, Linda Ronstadt and Elvis Costello). The concept began with Columbia Records’ Vice President of Marketing, Rick Blackburn. Along with Billy Sherrill, Blackburn fought to uphold Jones’ recording contract when most executives at the label were ready to drop him as a lost cause as soon as he began racking up debt and doing cocaine in 1977. Trying to save the legend’s career, Blackburn started calling in favors, gathering significant guest artists who all agreed to waive the payment they’d normally receive for appearing on a George Jones album, in order for the money to go to Jones. It took over two years to record because of how rarely they could get him to show up for sessions at all, let alone keep DeeDoodle from taking over when his real voice faltered. By the time it came out in December of ’79, the bankruptcy sent all proceeds toward his debt, which wound up not making much difference because the album sold poorly for several reasons. Mostly, it was just a bad album, probably the worst in Jones’ massive discography. Some of the blame goes toward the selection of songs and guest artists. George Jones’ 1970s audience hadn’t asked for and didn’t want Elvis Costello anywhere near a George Jones recording session. And, while it sounds like Jones and Johnny PayCheck were having a lot of fun in the studio, not many people were wondering what their version of “Proud Mary” would sound like. (This cut of “Proud Mary” was also included on the full LP Jones and PayCheck recorded together in this period. Released in 1980, Double Trouble suffers from a couple of the same problems as the Special Guests LP: an overly coked-out George Jones and a lot of unfitting 1950s rock material, probably selected in hopes of playing to Jones’ newfound cachet with rock and rockabilly audiences. The album does feature some vicious playing from A-Team musicians and the lead singers have their moments, like on the opening track “When You’re Ugly Like Us (You Just Naturally Got to Be Cool),” but the sad reality is George Jones was mostly to blame for these albums not being as good as they could have been.) Even though his guest artists were essentially performing an act of charity, they all sound fully committed to their parts. And it’s possible Jones sounded acceptable to some fans of the guest artists who’d never really listened to him before. But George Jones fans recognized when their favorite singer was phoning in an impersonation of himself, trying to approximate what he thought people expected from him when he wasn’t really feeling it. And for those who couldn’t recognize what they were hearing, Jones openly admitted it, “promoting” the album’s release by telling the media he found it unlistenable. If you’ve ever been embarrassed by seeing a video or hearing audio of yourself recorded while you were blackout drunk, perhaps you can begin to relate in some way. Since none of the tracks were worth releasing to country radio as singles, none were. To try driving up sales for what they knew was a bunk product, Epic decided James Taylor’s background vocals on “Bartender’s Blues” made it eligible for inclusion on the Special Guests LP. But the song had already been released as a single and the title track of another LP nearly two years earlier, so that didn’t work, either.
The month My Very Special Guests came out, Peanutt Montgomery had George Jones committed. If he hadn’t, it’s unlikely Jones would’ve lived much longer. His weight had dropped below 100 pounds from eating nothing more than half a sandwich every three or four days while pouring entire cases of whiskey on top of who-knows-how-much-of-what-kind-of-cocaine he started buying after Shug Baggott got arrested in August of ’79 for trying to sell over 2 pounds of coke to an undercover police officer. Jones, DeeDoodle and the Old Man spent most of 1979 living in a car because they didn’t have money or credit for hotel rooms and certainly didn’t want to go stay with Linda Welborn because they were pretty sure she and Shug were conspiring to drive everyone in Jones’ head crazy. Shug took out some kind of life insurance policy on Jones, so he was definitely planning to have him killed, right? And Linda wouldn’t even take a lie detector test or admit she didn’t believe in God, not even when Jones put a gun to her head and said he’d kill her if she didn’t say it. That time he had to fake a heart attack to spare himself the embarrassment of not shooting her like he said he would. Oh, and then there were the hallucinations. Whenever he went inside a building, there was a pretty good chance the window curtains would turn into ghosts and start laughing at him. Staying in his car felt safer, even though there were always horror movie monsters stumbling around outside and trying to attack him through the windshield. After about a year of this, Peanutt was finally able to convince an Alabama judge it wouldn’t be much longer until Jones seriously injured himself or someone else.
Once they had him in a psych ward, doctors decided it would be best to drop him into a medically-induced coma so he didn’t have to be conscious for the five days of extreme physical withdrawal they estimated were ahead of him. When they brought him out of the coma, his withdrawal symptoms were still so severe he had to be given pentobarbital before anyone could have a rational conversation with him. Only were they able to learn: “The patient blames all of his problems on the fact that all of the income is tied up to pay his debts. The patient states that he has felt that everyone is against him. The patient’s history further indicated that he feels he is unable to perform. He is a top star in his field, and his inability to function in this capacity has been extremely depressing also to him.” His subsequent stay in rehab was the first time Jones had ever been told alcoholism wasn’t a sign of moral failure, weakness or evil. This is when an addiction specialist told him the way he’d been taught to think of alcoholism his whole life was incorrect: “They explained the theory of self-hatred to me: Many men who had been beaten by their fathers hated themselves. My young mind felt I was worthless as a human being and therefore deserving of the beatings my dad had given me. When Dad was no longer around to beat me, I strove to beat myself through various forms of abuse. They said I felt unworthy of anything good, that I had recklessly wasted money, even flushed it down the toilet at times, because I subconsciously felt unworthy to have it. They said I lashed out against women who loved me because I felt unworthy to be loved. Some of their teaching made a lot of sense to me. I wish it had taken.”
It didn’t take.
He checked out of rehab in January of 1980, feeling so great and well-rested the first thing he wanted to do was celebrate by picking up some beer and tossing all his hiding places until he found an old baggie of cocaine. Turns out, rock bottom was still quite a ways down.
Pouring Water on a Drowning Man
Now, Tammy Wynette’s brother-in-law, Paul Richey, happened to be an addict in recovery. As soon as he heard Jones was committed, he’d gone down to Alabama to keep an eye on things and started making calls around Nashville to try raising funds for the hospital bills. It’s possible Shug Baggott would’ve done something similar, if he wasn’t serving a three year sentence in prison. With Shug on ice and Paul Richey already going out of his way to help, Jones asked Paul to become his new manager. Paul agreed, which (strangely) seems to’ve automatically triggered a professional reunion in the studio and on tour with Tammy Wynette, whose career wasn’t doing so great at the time. But she was still repped by the Jim Halsey Agency, one of the biggest agencies in country music, and they instantly signed George Jones to his own contract. Less than a month after Jones checked out of the hospital, he held a press conference with Tammy and the Richey brothers to announce all this news. Never mind that Jones’ main statement to the media was how he intended to only work as little as necessary to meet his obligations and hoped to get some rest because he was still worried about touring’s negative effect on his mind. Either his new management and agents didn’t care or stopped caring when the first record back with Tammy was a bigger hit than anything she’d done in years.
Tammy always claimed she wrote “Two Story House” by herself but had to give 25% credit each to Glenn Douglas Tubb and Dave Lindsey because they came up with the title. The version of the story hunted down by Jimmy McDonough rings closer to true: Glenn and Dave wrote the song, Tammy and Jones rearranged the lyrics a little and asked 25% each for doing so. Glenn and Dave split 50% of the writing credit, Jones somehow wound up with 0% and Tammy walked away with the other half all to herself. As for the publisher’s share, “Two Story House” was filed with her publishing company, which happened to be operated by her brother-in-law, Paul Richey. Whatever its origins, “Two Story House” hit #2 and was quickly followed by the release of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Between the Richey brothers and the Jim Halsey Agency, George Jones was booked solid through the foreseeable future – as a solo act and with Tammy, on tour and on television. In March 1980, he and Tammy guested on the celebrity panel for Hollywood Squares’ Country & Western Week. Jones, sporting a new perm hairdo, took the game quite seriously and later said he had a good time playing. Their appearance as musical guests on The Tonight Show did not go as smoothly. In the middle of performing the new single, Jones forgot some lyrics, froze and, without realizing they were on live television, asked if they could start the song over. The producers cut to commercial. Mere months after leaving rehab, Jones began an interview with Alanna Nash by saying he’d already been “overdoing it” and touring far more than he’d prefer. He restates his desire to get off the road, saying he does feel the fans are owed one more tour, a last opportunity to come see him actually show up and perform. But, after that, he’d like to go home and stay home. This is not what happened. Amidst the success of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and the reunion singles with Tammy, the Richeys wouldn’t allow him to slow down. Instead of taking a farewell victory lap and retiring from the road, as he wished to do, Jones found himself working harder than ever and playing higher-profile, anxiety-inducing gigs to boot.
In August of 1980, he was dragged to New York City where he finally played a showcase at the Bottom Line for an audience of prestigious media folks. Prior to the show, in the middle of an interview with The New York Daily News, Jones began to cry, admitting he was terrified his sore, hoarse and overworked throat would prevent him from singing well enough to impress all those important people, which is exactly what happened that night. The Manhattan crowd was presented with a visibly frightened George Jones, who sang off-pitch at a barely audible murmur. And they didn’t mind at all. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” had gone #1 the week before and everyone there knew it was a miracle he had survived the last couple years. Here was their underdog who’d come back from the dead and they were in his corner, no matter what, cheering him on through a difficult concert. After taking a break, Jones returned for a second set. Though his voice was still hoarse and shaky, he sang with a little more confidence, knowing the crowd would not turn on him, and it got even easier when Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt came onstage to help sing.
Less than a year later, Jones split with Paul Richey, telling the press he was just as much of a thief as Shug Baggott, “I made more money last year than I have made in my whole life and I don’t know where the funds are. I haven’t seen no receipts. I haven’t seen nothin’ regarding my last 18 months with Paul Richey.” His career truly was hotter than a branding iron. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” had won nearly every award possible in 1980 and Tom T. Hall’s “I’m Not Ready Yet” hit #2 as the follow-up single. In another interview, Jones said, “For a man who’s won all the awards I’m supposed to’ve won and achieved all the things I’m supposed to’ve achieved, I have nothing to my name.” He spent the rest of his life calling Shug Baggott and Paul Richey the two worst managers he ever had. It’s not easy to decide how much weight should be given to these statements. Despite the official story that rehab had more or less “fixed” him and made it possible for him to enjoy a casual drink or two without losing control, he was still very much not in control. All those CMA awards he racked up in 1980? They were accepted on his behalf by Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandrell, in order to not risk Jones appearing on the live television broadcast. Years later, these awards turned up in garage sales around Nashville. Jones either sold, traded, gifted or threw them away. He doesn’t remember. Years later, he admitted his substance abuse only got worse after rehab because he was pretty confident he’d discovered the best approach: just go as hard as you can for as long as you can, working and drinking and snorting, until it gets too exhausting or DeeDoodle overstays his welcome. Then, check into rehab for a month of assisted recuperation before starting the cycle all over again. One rehab center eventually decided he was incurable and stopped admitting him but Jones didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, he’d finally found a way to keep his career and addictions running at the same time without having to sacrifice one for the other. So that’s what he continued to do for close to another five years, long after cutting ties with Paul Richey. His gross revenue may have been higher in 1980 than any single year of his career to date but there’s very little chance he knew one way or another if it was enough to pay off his old debts as well as all the new ones accrued from continuing to pull no shows, behave recklessly with money or assets and all the other things he never stopped doing which had put him in debt in the first place. It’s possible his accusations of theft stemmed from nothing more than frustration over Richey placing him on a $1,000 per week allowance. This amount was chosen for its insufficiency to fund his previously self-destructive lifestyle but that didn’t stop Jones from trying. After burning through the cash, he often had to borrow money from his own band members to buy food when he got hungry on tour.
But, then again, maybe there is more to the story.
Jones claimed he finished one of the Tammy reunion tours with nothing to show for it except less than $300 in a bank account and physical beatings for having the audacity to ask Paul and George Richey where the rest of the money was. According to a member of The Jones Boys on that tour, George Richey once said the only thing Jones understood was being treated like a dog. For this and many other reasons, George Jones hated working with Tammy Wynette in the 1980s. Oh, he put on a good show for the journalists and fans who still bought into the Soulmates storyline, waiting to see if the writers would reward Jones’ eternal devotion to Tammy by scripting The King and Queen of Country Music back together. Then and for the rest of his career, he played to the cheap seats by slipping her name into live performances of songs, like the fan-favorite, “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” a Top 10 single released at the beginning of 1981, right in the middle of their reunion tours. In concert, he typically sang the last iteration of the chorus as “if drinking don’t kill me, Tammy’s memory will,” the implication being he wasn’t over her and may never be. (After Tammy’s autobiography was adapted into a made-for-TV movie later in the year, taking her version of reality to such ridiculous extremes it’s a wonder the producers didn’t choose to animate it and make cartoons of these people, Jones sometimes sang the line as “if drinking don’t kill me, Tammy’s movie will.”) Regardless of paying lip service to fan theories, though, the truth is he only held out hope of getting back together with Tammy for, tops, two years following the divorce.
This professional reunion was not motivated by a lingering obsession or even a desire to sing with her again. It happened because he naively gave control of his career to the family who controlled Tammy Wynette’s career and her career was nothing compared to what it had been when she was working with Jones. She hadn’t hit #1 on her own since 1976, hadn’t seen the Top 5 since 1978 and the buzz created by her 1979 autobiography wasn’t the good kind or any other kind that translates to record sales and airplay. Joan Dew, Tammy’s co-writer on the book, was merely one of many insiders who believed this reunion was inspired by the fact Tammy hadn’t had “a real hit” in years. As a solo artist, she never did have another. The whole time Jones was out there working his gimmicks – referring to George Richey as his “new husband-in-law,” calling Tammy his “favorite ex-wife,” singing about how her memory haunted him – what he truly felt was exploited, used by a bunch of leeches who had selfish motives for pretending to offer help. Decades later, his daughter Georgette revealed another reason Jones felt this way.
Her parents collaborating again should have meant her father was around more often but she still spent very little time with him and when they were together he often seemed awkward, almost as if being around her made him uncomfortable. It took several years but she eventually found out why. George Richey had used Wynette’s custody of Georgette as a bargaining chip: Jones could either continue recording and touring with Tammy or have his daughter kept away from him. Jones agreed, only to find spending time with Georgette now served as a reminder of all the ways he was being controlled. For most of her childhood, Georgette was told her father never paid child support. When he was in such great debt during the late ‘70s, this was true. But after finally getting his life more or less put back together in the ‘80s, Jones started paying child support again. It took several years before Georgette eventually found out. When she did, she asked her mother why nobody had said anything. Turns out, Wynette also didn’t know the payments were being made because George Richey handled all the finances. She asked her husband why he hadn’t told her when Jones started sending the checks again and Richey said, “What difference does it make?” This extortion and manipulation of the father-daughter relationship adds a whole other layer of tragedy to “Daddy Come Home,” the duet Jones recorded with his then-ten-year-old daughter, which she remembered believing would send Richey away and bring her parents back together if only she sang it well enough. In April 1981, HBO taped a George Jones concert special with a similar concept and featuring many of the same artists as the Very Special Guests LP from a couple years earlier. Twice during his and Georgette’s performance of “Daddy Come Home,” the camera cuts to Tammy crying while she watches from the side of the stage. Soon after this taping, Jones blew up the reunion tour.
It started with him saying he was too drunk to do a good show and didn’t want to go on, to which George Richey responded not only was Jones gonna get his ass out there, tonight he was gonna open for Tammy instead of the other way around. So Jones decided he was gonna keep Tammy and Richey up past their bedtime that night. What he was supposed to do was play a 45 minute set before clearing the stage for Tammy. What he did was go onstage and play every song he could remember. Two and a half hours into his set, Richey tried to end it by having the sound system shut off but Jones just picked up an acoustic guitar and kept going without amplification. However long it took before he stopped, Tammy still had to play her whole show or she and Richey would’ve been sued for breach of contract. The King and Queen of Country Music didn’t work together again for nearly 15 years.
When Jones first attempted to escape the Richey brothers, he almost signed with Billy Bob Barnett, owner of “The World’s Largest Honky Tonk” Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, Texas. The problem was Billy Bob came on too hard. Jones’ stated desires hadn’t changed an ounce from the post-rehab press conference. He only wanted to work the bare minimum necessary to cover his expenses and make adequate payments on his debts. More than anything, he wanted to stay off the road and not be reminded he was any kind of famous. When Barnett celebrated their imminent partnership by throwing huge parties with VIP guest lists and lots of press, it was exactly the wrong move. Jones got spooked, ghosted on the deal and went back to signing with whatever managers and agents would temporarily put up with his new strategy of drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine until someone made him go back to rehab for letting DeeDoodle shoot up a party or something. Rick Blackburn recalled visiting Jones during one of these trips to rehab. Jones began crying while talking about how all he wanted was to be able to afford a house where he could live quietly like a normal person.
By the end of 1981, everyone paying attention to country music in any capacity knew he was full of shit when he said the whiskey and cocaine were under control because – in October, unlike the previous year – George Jones attended and performed at the CMA Awards. Prior to the telecast, Ralph Emery presented him with one of the diamond-encrusted wristwatches WSM had custom-made for Opry members. As soon as Ralph walked away, Jones threw the watch in a nearby trash can. He’d already drunk close to a fifth of whiskey and was so embarrassed over having brought Linda Welborn that he made her sit alone in the balcony, so petrified about singing on live national TV it took multiple handlers to prevent him from running. The first CMA award he ever accepted in person was for Male Vocalist of the Year. Clearly blacked out at the podium, he slurred his way through a 12-second acceptance speech, which was sort of a success in that it convinced the show’s producers to let him out of performing “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” However, there was also the matter of host Barbara Mandrell’s #1 record, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” Jones had sung two lines on the hit single and, evidently, nobody thought he could be too fucked up to sing two lines during Barbara’s performance. Well, he was. Several accounts of this story, including versions published in multiple books (like Ragged But Right and Jones’ own autobiography) are untrue. Typically, Barbara gets blamed for walking her microphone into the audience and putting it in Jones’ face, even though she’d been told to leave him out of the number. That is not remotely close to what happened. First of all, it’s unlikely she was ever told any such thing because video of the event shows Jones holding his own wireless microphone while seated in the audience. The instant Barbara calls to him from the stage, he tries to start singing his part in the wrong place and his voice entirely gives out, which is when she does come offstage to try helping him and when the entire television audience realizes her help could never fix whatever’s wrong with George Jones. You can see his nerves eating him alive. He tries to sing again but his timing and pitch are both in a different solar system from the song and he knows it. What follows is a series of fake smiles, ad-lib interjections and no less than three quick henpeck kisses he gives to Barbara in lieu of singing (one of Jones’ go-to moves with both women and men when anxious about performing on TV in the cocaine years). As soon as the cameras cut away, he bolts through a side exit and rages into the night.
About a year-and-a-half later, he will marry the woman forever after credited with single-handedly lifting him from this grave. But, first, he has to spend that year-and-a-half digging.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.
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This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- Stuff Smith – “You’se a Viper” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Fats Waller – “The Reefer Song” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Victoria Spivey with Lonnie Johnson – “Dope Head Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ethel Merman – “I Get a Kick out of You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Lead Belly – “Take a Whiff on Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Luke Jordan – “Cocaine Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dick Justice – “Cocaine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers – “Take a Drink on Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Johnny PayCheck – “Maybelline” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Someday My Day Will Come” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Elvis Costello – “Stranger in the House” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Johnny PayCheck – “Proud Mary” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Johnny PayCheck – “When You’re Ugly Like Us” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tammy Wynette – “Two Story House” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Georgette – “Daddy Come Home” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Barbara Mandrell – “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” [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
These Liner Notes will be brief.
Because the first George Jones biographies started coming out a few years after Jones’ biggest success and biggest troubles circa “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and because of how much he portrayed Shug Baggott as a villain at the time, which is what he continued doing the rest of his life, Shug became a huge character in the George Jones story, though I’m not sure how much that’s warranted. He’s in this episode of the season and only this one because that seems to me to be the extent of his relevance to the George Jones story. I certainly think it’s more significant that Jones didn’t have modern concepts of alcoholism and addiction explained to him until he was a 50 year old man and that the first time he ever did cocaine it was because some doctor gave it to him every night for a week. Mostly, I think Shug Baggott was just the guy who happened to be there and if it wasn’t him then it would have been someone else. I’ve heard a lot of stories about this man my whole life and I’m not going to repeat anything that isn’t confirmed by credible sources but when I said he became the cocaine dealer to the stars in Nashville, that’s true. Not that this makes him a great humanitarian or anything but, for what it’s worth, the reason he was sentenced to three years in prison is that he wouldn’t roll over on anyone or name names and he never did. When he got out of prison, he became a preacher. At one point, there was an attempt to crowdsource funds for a documentary about him and, though it wasn’t successful, I wish it had been because, well, let’s just say it’s pretty likely Shug Baggott’s name will come up on the podcast again in future seasons.
One thing I thought was interesting given the current state of the abomination that is Lower Broadway in Nashville, when George Jones opened his second Possum Holler location (in Printer’s Alley), he was already talking to the press about how the other nightclubs downtown were starting to cater to a rock audience and how he wanted to keep his place country, which is what he did.
A couple notes on the voices of his split personalities. One, duck voices were a really popular comedy act back in the day, so it’s ultimately impossible to say where Jones picked up his. The clip I used was not actually DeeDoodle but it was George Jones in a recording session for “I Made Her That Way” which took place all the way back in 1965, almost 15 years prior to DeeDoodle’s existence. Looking at that time frame, I’m going to point out the possibility that Jones saw the duck voice routine of a guy named Ray Atkins, who played dobro for Johnnie & Jack. As for the Old Man, if you track down a George Jones songbook titled Song and Picture Folio published by Glad Music in early 1964, you will find a picture of George Jones standing with Walter Brennan.
My main sources for Season 2 are all on the Season 2 Library page.
There are two more George Jones sources I need to give individual commentary in this season’s Liner Notes, so I may as well take care of that here.
First, the autobiography, which I already said in an earlier episode is more like Jones reacting to other people’s memories because by that point he didn’t have many of his own left. It’s an engaging read but has a tendency to inspire more questions than it really answers. If you’re mostly interested in Jones’ recording career, go ahead and skip this book. At one point he straight up says he can’t talk very much about his sessions because he doesn’t remember most of them.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Grand Tour by Rich Kienzle. Rich is the guy who did the booklets for all but one of the George Jones Bear Family box sets also used as sources this season, so he know more about Jones’ recording career than Jones knew about it himself and that’s mostly what Rich chooses to focus on. As a standalone book, this wouldn’t be “the one Jones biography” I’d recommend (but none of them would be or I’d not have spent Season 2 talking about him). Rather, this is a good book for everyone who’s read one or two of the other ones, wants the author to gloss over the salacious bits everyone else spends most of their time on and get to the records, even tracking down sources who were in the studio yet not quoted very much by other authors.
Alright, when the podcast returns, just like Agnes Nixon taught us to do, we’re going back for one last episode on Tammy Wynette.