There are some personalities who would embrace being called The Greatest Country Singer Ever or, at least, settle into the role once it became clear the brand was eternal. George Jones did not have one of those personalities. The fame and fortune generated by his talent made him want to run away, so he spent decades running… toward something even worse than what he was trying to escape.
Was there ever a chance of this story playing out any differently? Probably not, no. But what in the hell even happened here? Our search for answers takes us back to Texas for one Singing Marine’s perspective on what it was like when lightning started flashing and thunder started clashing as he took the country music world by storm.
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
Really Got the Bull by the Horn
Most Americans learn everything they know about bullfighting from Ernest Hemingway or Bugs Bunny. Daffy Duck played at being a matador in the 1947 cartoon Mexican Joyride but 1953’s Bully for Bugs is what everyone remembers. It’s one of the most-referenced Looney Tunes ever – the one where he misses the left turn at Albuquerque, says “stop steamin’ up my tail!” and “of course, you realize this means war…”
The story goes Chuck Jones was drawing a bull for some other clip when Eddie Selzer, head of Warner Brothers Cartoons, walked through the room, noticed what Chuck was drawing and loudly declared he didn’t want to see any cartoons about bullfights because bullfights were not funny. Since everyone knew Eddie Selzer was always wrong about everything, Chuck and a co-worker immediately booked a research trip to Mexico. The cheers and boos of the audience in the finished cartoon were recorded at an actual bullfight but the realism ends there. Not many people would have laughed at a documentary approach. See: Ernest Hemingway, who first met the bulls in the summer of 1923 right before he turned 24 years old.
Every year, a week before Hemingway’s July birthday, the city of Pamplona celebrates San Fermin, a nine-day festival with eight days of bulls. If you’ve ever seen pictures or videos of a “running of the bulls,” this is the biggest and most famous one. Most people who run with the bulls of San Fermin are tourists. When Orson Welles said Hemingway’s books ruined Spain by sending all these tourists, Orson neglected to point out he was one of those tourists, who went to Spain at the age of 18 after reading Hemingway. The protagonists of City Slickers are introduced as American thrill-seekers when the movie opens on their running with the bulls in Pamplona. After Billy Crystal gets a horn shoved up his ass, the movie follows him and his buddies to a doctor’s office. But if the action remained with the bulls, we’d see their run end at Pamplona’s bullring, where the bulls would be killed in front of an audience later in the day. During San Fermin, for eight days in a row, there’s a running every morning to transport bulls to the stadium for bullfights every afternoon. A man of Ernest Hemingway’s disposition would find pleasure in all of this, as well as other loud and chaotic traditions. During the festival, Pamplona is swarmed with people who fill the streets at all hours of the day and there are fireworks every night. Every year, one night of the festival is randomly selected as the night everyone goes outside and, one minute before midnight, begins making as much noise as they possibly can, which continues until dawn. From top to bottom, this is Hemingway’s kind of party. But it was the bulls which affected him more deeply and powerfully than any party ever could. Reading him on the topic feels like finding the diary of a person who’s discovered a new sexual fetish. His writing even makes it seem like he was aware of this and of the fact his new fetish hinged on torturing an animal for twenty minutes or so before slaughtering it in a needlessly stressful way. Hemingway himself called bullfighting indefensible. Still, he could not stay away. After his first San Fermin, the bulls brought him back the following year, when he witnessed a human casualty during one morning’s run, which is possibly why Hemingway never ran with the bulls. In 1925, he returned to Pamplona for a third consecutive year, by which time he considered these trips to be research for a non-fiction book on Spanish bullfighting. But then his small group of friends and tagalongs created so much drama Hemingway decided to write a fictionalized account of the trip as his first novel…
The Sun Also Rises was an immediate hit and changed American literature forever by stripping the story down to a skeleton of unheroic characters and unexplained events, delivering readers in the United States the effect of fact-based reporting from a distant world, a world which perhaps felt more “honest” or “real” than the inherited culture they were all-too-familiar with at home. Young Americans began dressing and grooming themselves to match their favorite characters from the book, then went down to their local hangouts wearing black berets and red scarves to practice their new personalities and offer opinions on bullfights and matadors they’d never seen. There were more of these opinions formed after Hemingway did publish a non-fiction book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, in 1932. In 1959, Life magazine hired him to write a series of articles on bullfighting, which sent him back to Spain, where he found a professional rivalry between two matadors, Luis Miguel Dominguín, the superstar veteran trying to hold on to his torch rather than pass it down to his brother-in-law, Antonio Ordóñez, son of the man Hemingway used as inspiration for the great matador in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway spent weeks watching these two men attempt to outdo each other with their performances in the ring and wrote over ten times the material he was hired to write for the magazine. His series of articles wound up being excerpts from yet another non-fiction book about bullfighting, The Dangerous Summer, which was finally published in 1985. Ever since The Sun Also Rises was first released, Hemingway’s most devoted readers made pilgrimages to Spain, to earn the right to complain about Hemingway ruining San Fermin with tourists and see for themselves the great Spanish tradition of the bullfight.
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
If we widen and backdate the definition of “bull” to include horned and dangerous males of wild bovine species, such as aurochs and bison, then humans have been “fighting bulls” for as long as we’ve been human. Those prehistoric cave paintings in France from the end of the Paleolithic Age, nearly 20,000 years ago? The largest animals painted there are bulls, probably a ceremonial act of either thanks or summoning, depending on whether the artists’ bellies were full or empty of meat. Throughout history, bulls show up often in the parables, texts, pantheons, even the laws of most major religions. I could not begin to guess how many billions of bulls we have sacrificed to various gods. There’s no way to know how many bulls have been forced to participate in human demonstrations of strength or courage and no way to know how many of those acts may have been called “bullfighting” at the time. Humans and bulls were forced to fight each other to the death in the Colosseum. Some form of wrestling young bulls has surely been an adolescent rite of passage in most societies who’ve ever kept cattle behind a fence. Versions of these rituals and others span history and the globe. For as long as we’ve had dreams, we’ve dreamt of public ways to fight and kill bulls for food, fun and worship. This culture stretches back to the dawn of humanity. While Spanish bullfighting is another extension of this, it’s also a modern invention, hardly any older than the United States, the young child of a marriage between two ancient taurine spectacles.
The “Bull-Leaping Fresco” from around 2000 BC seems to depict Greek daredevils using wild bulls in some type of Cirque du Soleil shenanigans but it’s difficult to tell what the humans are actually meant to be doing in this rudimentary and stylized painting. Could it possibly be a back hand spring off the spine of a charging bull? To say the least, it looks like a very dangerous combination of rodeo and gymnastics. A couple thousand years later, Julius Caesar, Nero and Claudius were all known to entertain the Roman masses by presenting staged hunts, running bulls into a stadium to be chased, attacked and killed by “hunters” on horseback. One way to think of modern Spanish bullfighting is as a combination of the Greeks’ artistic displays of fearlessness with the Romans’ ritual sacrifice celebrating humanity’s place at the top of the food chain. It is intended as a microcosmic allegory of the universal life force. However, early bullfights on the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages were nothing more than a scaled-down version of the staged Roman hunt. And I’m going to keep calling it a bullfight because everyone does but the Spanish have never, then or now, considered this activity to be a fight or even a sport. What has been labeled a “bullfight” in English, is in Spanish la corrida de toros, the run of the bulls. This is a reference both to what happened once the bulls were in the ring and the aforementioned method of getting them there, which was the only way to transport a number of beef cattle on the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages. Before the days of refrigeration, ranch hands had to periodically run a few cattle from the fields into corrals near town to be butchered and sold as fresh meat at the local market. Whenever a major holiday or royal celebration (such as the birth of a prince) called for a feast, a greater number of cattle were run into town, announcing the beginning of festivities with the thunder of their hooves. Entering party mode, brave and/or foolish and/or drunken townsfolk began to run with the herd. I have no idea why people are still doing this in Pamplona today but, in the Middle Ages, entertainment was scarce, which is also the likely explanation for what they started doing to some of these bulls in the 5th century AD.
Before the days of arenas built specifically for bullfights, temporary bullrings were thrown together by corralling off a town square. Bleachers were built to seat commoners while property owners with buildings facing the plaza relinquished their balconies to seat the royal and noble classes. Inside the ring, knights on horseback demonstrated their riding skills while chasing or being chased by bulls and repeatedly stabbing the bulls with spears. All the while, servants, slaves or employees on foot helped direct bulls toward riders prepared to stab and away from unseated riders whenever a horse was inevitably gored to death. When an individual bull began to display signs of exhaustion after being run all over the ring and stabbed a bunch of times, el matador (or “the killer”) stepped in to execute the animal without delay, flourish or fanfare. For over a thousand years, matadors were just another helpful poor person on foot and the bullfight was simply a slaughterhouse job drawn out into bloody entertainment for the masses. The aristocracy, who owned these bulls and were killing many more outside the ring for meat, staged a production around the deaths of a few in order to give the people a little circus with their bread, thus reinforcing the big shots on horses in the ring and watching from balconies above as protective warriors and great providers. In this sense, you could say bullfighting on the Iberian peninsula was always political.
Then, in the 8th century, most of the peninsula was conquered by Arabian warriors, kicking off a period of roughly 800 years during which Christianity and Islam fought each other for control of the land. In the beginning, wealthy Christian families of territories conquered by Muslims were allowed to pay a special tax in order to continue living by their own religious beliefs. Then a less tolerant and more fundamentalist strain of Islam came to power and further conflict arose. Since Islam specifically prohibits beating animals or treating them without compassion, there were many attempts to ban bullfights, which continued to be held, only now as a form of defiant resistance to Muslim rule and, increasingly, as a declaration of Christian identity. Since most of the holidays (or holy days) used as an excuse to feast were Roman Catholic in title and intent, there was already a loose association between Christianity and bulls running into town. During these holy wars, explicitly religious pageantry seeped into the bullfight itself. Catholic Mass was frequently given from inside the ring and bulls were regularly dedicated to Christ or the patron saint of a festival. At the end of the 15th century, following hundreds of years of violence, Christian forces regained control of the peninsula and the medieval bullfight survived into the Modern Age, more popular and prevalent than ever. Yet it no longer served the purpose of galvanizing Christians against enemies during a holy war, so the Roman Catholic church began to voice concerns over the people of Spain treating this brutal act like some kind of Christian ritual, as if animal sacrifice had been brought back with a twist of professional wrestling. After Cortes and Pizarro committed enough murder to establish Spanish culture as the main European export to the New World, Rome decided they had to make a move. In 1567, the pope essentially banned Roman Catholics from bullfighting, threatening excommunication to anyone involved in presenting or attending a bullfight and denying a Christian burial to anyone who died in a bullring. Nothing changed. Spanish nobility in the Old World and the New continued holding bullfights. The next pope, looking to save face, lifted the ban but asked everyone to, please, at least stop treating bullfights as a Roman Catholic ceremony and stop holding them on religious holidays. Priests were still under threat of excommunication for even attending a bullfight, let alone offering Mass in connection with one. Everybody pretty much ignored this pope, too, and bullfights continued unchanged for another century.
We Ain’t Fakin’
Then, in the year 1700, a French teenager became King of Spain. It’s quite a long story how this came about but Philippe V, who hailed from the French House of Bourbon and didn’t even speak Spanish, was only 17 years old when he ascended to Spain’s throne. Though his new subjects expected a bullfight as part of any royal celebration, young Philippe saw things through the lens of a different culture. To him, the bullfight was nothing but a barbaric and foolish form of slaughter. It’s debatable how successful or disastrous any attempt at an outright ban may have been but Philippe chose a different tactic. Rather than make bullfighting illegal, he made it uncool. Loudly and often, Philippe told members of his court how ridiculous and undignified it was for Spanish nobility to prance around on horses while stabbing bulls with spears for the crude entertainment of commoners. His mockery of the aristocracy’s participation in bullfights was merciless. Should the ruling class not be entertained by commoners rather than the other way around? Were they to be noble princes or savage court jesters? Once he removed bullfights from nearly every royal celebration and made no secret of his reason for doing so, the practice quickly fell out of fashion with Spanish nobles, who didn’t want to be thought of as fools or singled out for ridicule by the new king.
But the ruling class also understood how important such diversions as the bullfight were in keeping their subjects happy, so they gave the event over to the people. Within about two decades, the bullfight saw its first significant modifications since the Middle Ages and began to take on characteristics of the modern practice. Because the illusion shattered by the new king was something everyone who wasn’t on a horse or watching from a balcony must have seen the entire time: the rich guys on horses in the ring were clearly never the stars of the show. Their efforts were applauded as part of the ritual, sure, but viewing the medieval bullfight as a series of transactions in blood, the noblemen in saddles risked nearly nothing, certainly the least of any beating heart in the ring. Really, every beating heart other than the bull was only in the ring to assist and protect the noblemen in saddles, making it even easier and safer for them to stab the bull from an elevated position before a poor person on the ground stepped in to finish the job. And you’d think the worst part in a bullfight would go to the bull but horses were always the most tragic role in this play. In fact, bullfighting has killed an exponentially greater number of horses than bulls because for nearly two thousand years horses were allowed to be gored and mutilated two or three at a time in order to prove the danger posed by each particular bull and verify the possibility of men dying in the ring. It was definitely an effective tactic. But only the most sick and twisted minority of spectators could ever have been happy to witness living horses try to understand having their own guts ripped out by the horns of a bull. The fact those horses were only in the ring to keep their riders in a safe, elevated position drew further attention to the nobility’s paltry contribution of risk compared to the greater danger faced by attendants running around on the ground with the bulls, trying to survive the act of using their own bodies as a distraction to protect the life of their boss (or lord or king or owner or whoever had enough money to be sitting on a horse).
We’re literally talking about medieval wealth disparity between the guys on horses and on the ground, so there were always incentives to put on a good show. For a peasant who took their role beyond mere survival into a crowd-pleasing performance, especially one that played up the danger to make the big shots on horses look brave for even being in the ring, the benefits could go well beyond money: a better job, a better home, a better life. Most of the guys on foot were always just performing a theatrical rendition of their real life occupations. Bullfighting could only have ever come from a ranching society because it requires a steady supply of bulls. The same beef industry which provided these bulls on the Iberian peninsula also provided humans skilled at every step of the beef trade’s supply line, from roping and herding to killing and butchering. This was the source material of the play. By the time Philippe V saw them in action, assistants in a bullfight knew how to heighten the drama. It’s entirely possible to maintain a safe distance from a bull while successfully distracting it away from an unhorsed rider. Alternately, it’s possible to come into unsafe proximity to a bull, provoke it and risk being gored just to make sure everyone understands the harm which may come to others in the ring if they weren’t conveniently using this time to return to a position of near-absolute safety. If this is starting to sound like show business, well, that’s precisely where bullfighting went once Philippe effectively dissolved the Spanish aristocracy’s monopoly on what proved to be a very lucrative entertainment when added to the lineup of fairs and carnivals. Between other bloody events, like bear-beating, and ranching culture diversions, like roping bulls and riding wild horses, the bullfight first attempted to carry on as handed down from the ruling class. But the mythology of “warrior champion on horseback” simply could not hold in the competitive free market. Without wealth, power, title or the supposed preferences of God keeping peasants from upstaging the star, there wasn’t a single good reason to hold back and watch the guy sitting in a saddle collect a bigger paycheck. Attendants on the ground began exploiting their greater range of motion and proximity to the bull in order to steal the show with flamboyant and acrobatic maneuvers, like using their lances to pole vault over a charging bull. These were the death-defying acts audiences wanted to see, not some rich jerk stabbing a bull from on top of a horse.
Following the logic of the crowd, it was only a matter of time before someone decided the person who came closest to being killed by the bull should be the person who kills the bull. The first matador to become famous for fighting and killing bulls on foot was named Francisco Romero. In the early 1720s, he moved the spotlight from every other role in the fight to the matador by finishing bulls using a method he’s said to have invented, recibiendo, which is to stand and “receive” a charging bull, waiting until the last second to reach forward and drive a sword down between its shoulder blades while stepping sideways to avoid the horns. Of course, this is very difficult and very dangerous. Attempts to kill recibiendo are rarely seen from modern matadors, who are largely unwilling to risk their performances or lives on the maneuver which gave them their present role in the ring. Prior to Francisco Romero, a matador’s job description was as basic as the title: kill. If the only aim is to dispatch a spent bull after a man on a horse has tortured it to the point of visible exhaustion, there is no risk or showmanship required and a matador’s job used to be as simple as walking up to the side of a bull while it was distracted by someone else and putting a blade in its neck. After Romero started killing recibiendo and became a star, his innovation spread, though slowly, because any other matador who decided he could be a star had to prove it by facing a charging bull and killing it with a sword.
Prior to this point, assistants in a bullfight held various types of weapons: spears, whips, wooden clubs, chairs, whatever they preferred or had available. Many went into the ring with nothing but the clothing on their back. Capes, cloaks and other such draping upper body wear being prevalent in Spain, chances are very high some bullfighters used similar pieces of fabric before Francisco Romero used a cape. However, he is who standardized the use of capes and introduce a smaller, red cape (la muleta) used exclusively by the matador in the final part of the fight, when everything will get extremely messy if he can’t keep a charging bull running directly toward his sword. Presenting a smaller target to the bull helps keep deviations from its course at a minimum. Within thirty years of Francisco Romero giving himself a special cape to kill bulls face-to-face, the matador became the most popular role in a bullfight. Then, in the 1760s, Joaquín Rodríguez Costillares became the first matador to recognize the full implications of public adoration shifting from a position previously held by noblemen on horseback over to a matador of common birth. Even though he came to be a matador through working in a slaughterhouse, even though he was merely the son of a man who’d also worked in a slaughterhouse, Costillares began entering the bullring dressed in the formal attire of Spanish royalty.
George Jones once told The Chicago Tribune, “All my life, I’ve been runnin’ from something. If I knew what it was, I could run in the right direction. I know where I want to go but I always seem to end up goin’ the other way. I know there’s nothing down that way. I been down there too many times.”
By the time he gave that interview in 1981, everyone who knew George Jones’ name knew he had problems. That’s why he was trying to find a way to describe how profoundly lost and confused he’d felt for as long he could remember. Because this part of the story had already begun to cast the shadow which has eclipsed his talent as a vocalist ever since. Jones claimed he didn’t start drinking alcohol regularly until he joined the Marines in the 1950s. Although it isn’t likely many people would have noticed, the truth is he began displaying what we’d recognize as early signs of alcoholism in Texas honky tonks during the 1940s, when he was still just a teenage survivor of child abuse singing country music the way his drunk dad forced him to under threat of another beating. When Jones came out of the Marines in the 1950s and went straight back to the honky tonks, he was still drinking, though still not to a degree the crowd around him would find concerning or probably even remarkable. Having a few drinks before, during and after some show in a bar was just gettin’ on the same wavelength as everyone else.
Then he signed an artist contract with Starday and the problem became more noticeable, as he consistently flouted expectations of professionalism by pre-gaming for recording sessions as if they were any other one-night stand on a plywood stage in the middle of nowhere. Many session musicians verified Jones’ claims he simply sang better with a little buzz. Pig Robbins once said, “When he’d only had a few drinks but before he’d gone too far overboard, he could just moan his ass off and just put a whole lot more feeling into those ballads.” But Pig also said, “There was a point when he’d go over the line and get kind of… feisty.” Though there are similar quotes dating back to his earliest recording sessions in Texas, Jones always claimed his drinking didn’t get out of control until the early 1960s. Admittedly, there’s no imagining how George Jones personally defined “out of control,” especially in relation to the cocaine-fueled psychotic break from reality he took in the late 1970s. However, it is true his alcohol use worsened in the 1960s, by which time he’d also begun taking speed pills while touring and trying and failing to deal with the pressure of having turned himself into a living legend. Already believed by most people paying attention in the 1950s to be the greatest country singer alive, the records he cut in the ‘60s cemented these opinions and the newspaper headlines generated by his troublemaking behavior only added to the legend. And the legend definitely made everything worse.
Every rational explanation he was ever able to give for skipping out on a concert or getting too drunk to perform sounds like acute social anxiety disorder mixed with extreme stage fright. This was one of the things he always found himself running toward nothing to escape. In his 1996 autobiography, he wrote, “I never wanted to be a star and only occasionally wanted to be a performer. I always wanted to be a singer.” So, not only did he not ask to be The Greatest Country Singer Ever, every time someone called him that made it harder to do his job. Sitting backstage before concerts, he’d start thinking about all the people out there waiting to hear him sing, all the people who bought a ticket to see the guy who’s supposed to be the best who ever lived. If he goes out there and gives anything less than the actual most impressive performance they’ve ever heard in their lives, he’s a disappointment, a let-down, a fraud. Is this an irrational fear for George Jones? Probably, yeah, unless he chooses to silence these thoughts by taking a drink, then another and another until he’s so drunk his only options are to escape the premises or, arguably worse, go out on stage and do the very thing he’s been worried about doing, giving a performance so poor he will know precisely what to fear the next time he’s sitting backstage before a concert, thinking about taking a drink to calm his nerves… While it’s safe to assume the few people he grew close to always understood the serious dangers of this tightrope act, the way his actions played out in headlines and self-referential drinking songs for the rest of his career allowed country music audiences (with cultural memories of Prohibition and so on) to cast George Jones as a rebellious good-timer doing whatever it took to keep his private party going without giving much of a fuck about anything else. In truth, it was really never much of a party.
There’s a story from 1962 about a nightclub owner who booked Jones to play a week of shows during a time when he was doing his best to stay completely off the booze. But this club owner wanted him to drink. Each night, the guy pestered Jones to have a drink with him because he wanted to be able to say he got drunk with George Jones. Well, after the last show of the week, he got what he wanted. Jones took a drink with him, then another and another, until the whole bottle was gone, at which point Jones started demolishing the nightclub and tried to fistfight the owner. Now, most people who hear this story will laugh and I’ll admit it is pretty funny to imagine that dickhead’s face when he realized the consequences of treating another human being’s battle with addiction like his own personal form of entertainment. But the reason many people have laughed at this story and others over the years is because of the romanticized image which largely persists to this day of No-Show Jones, Heroic Drunk. As is so often the case, the truth is more complicated and unsettling. For one thing, “drunk” doesn’t begin to cover it. Even broadening the scope to “addict,” as if this is simply what extreme addiction looks like, isn’t gonna get the job done either. George Jones’ problems didn’t all come from a baggie or a bottle. And before the addiction specialists out there start emailing me, there’s no doubt substance abuse made this all far worse but there’s also no telling how many of these things would have happened anyway. What we’re looking at, here, is a collection of neuroses, rocket-fueled by stress and substance abuse until it eventually reaches full-blown, medically-diagnosed schizophrenic psychosis. You ever met somebody who just can’t handle it when things are going well? The kind of person who’s only ever had it all suddenly steer so wrong they can’t trust happiness or security as anything other than a sign they’re about to once more be kicked in the face by life? I’m talking about a true loser, in every sense of the word, someone who will sabotage everything just to get it over with and feel like they at least had a fraction of control over the nothing they’re left with this time instead of waiting around to see what new torture fate had in store.
When we try to figure out how his life could’ve taken so many wrong turns, Jones’ decision to become a professional recording artist like his hero Hank Williams may be more to blame than anything else. It’s worth noting George Jones effectively inherited Hank’s audience. “Why Baby Why” hit less than two years after Hank’s death. How many Hank Williams fans do you think heard George Jones as the newer model? How many skipped buying a ticket to see Hank because they figured he’d come through town again in the near future rather than wind up dead at the age of 29? We know everyone who bought tickets to the show Hank was supposed to play the day he died had the opportunity to claim a refund but most chose to keep their ticket as a souvenir. Once Jones gained the reputation of being both a better singer and worse alcoholic than Hank, nobody wanted to risk missing his concerts, as any one could be the last. I would imagine these thoughts, too, ran through Jones’ mind more than once when trying to not drink before a concert. In late 1964 or early 1965, during Johnny PayCheck’s brief tenure in the band, Jones got drunk backstage and said he wouldn’t come out to sing until he was introduced as Hank Williams. Maybe PayCheck thought he was joking or just didn’t want to do it but the band started the first song, PayCheck introduced George Jones and Jones stood on the side of the stage, refusing to come out and sing until he was introduced as Hank Williams. PayCheck finally introduced him as Hank, at which point Jones demanded he also be introduced as Johnny Horton, the country singer who’d married Hank Williams’ widow before also dying young on tour. So PayCheck introduced him as Johnny Horton, Jones walked onstage, grabbed the microphone and sang the first line of the song as he kept walking, right off the stage, right out the door and right off the property, causing a perplexed and angry audience to riot. While we can not know everything going through his mind and it’s doubtful Jones himself had a rational explanation, it’s pretty self-evident this riot was a product of his thinking and drinking about how much he didn’t want to be there, the death of his idol and the death of another man who’d followed in that idol’s footsteps, so to speak. Jones went on the record at many points in his life as having convinced himself he’d die like Hank Williams, saturated with pain-numbing chemicals in the back of some vehicle en route to a concert.
Another frequent source of frustration was how he always seemed to end up without any money no matter how many shows he played. It took until the late 1970s for a doctor to finally suggest Jones, like many adults who were physically abused as children, suffered from an intense self-loathing which made him feel guilty and unworthy over all the adoration and money earned by his singing. This theory was reinforced in the ‘80s by Rick Blackburn, an executive at George Jones’ record label, who said, “There’s something that runs true to entertainers and performers, particularly if an entertainer comes out of a low-income, almost borderline-on-poverty background. As their success comes and their financial means is elevated, it’s almost like a guilt trip for them. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists. It’s like they feel they don’t deserve it. There’s a guilt trip that sets in because usually the friends back home, or certainly the family, have not been able to enjoy the kind of [power and money] that comes with [fame and success].” All of which perhaps explains why there are dozens of people with credible claims of witnessing George Jones take fistfuls of hundred dollar bills and flush them down toilets, light them on fire or otherwise destroy perfectly good cash he very much should have kept if he didn’t want spend decades broke or close to it.
For all these reasons and others, Jones taking a couple drinks to calm his nerves before a show could lead to his total disappearance by set time. Jones once called Don Pierce’s Mercury-Starday office after a wild night in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Hungover, penniless and left behind by the rest of the tour, Jones asked if anybody could drive up from Nashville to fetch him. Don said to find someone who’d lend him bus fare and take a Greyhound, which set Jones to cussing and yelling. He didn’t think a Grand Ole Opry Star ought to be seen traveling by passenger bus. Another time, Jones went into Starday’s office while trashed and demanded money he felt he was owed. When they couldn’t get him to leave, someone called the cops to come take him away. Jones returned the next day, as remorseful as he could be. Everyone always knew he’d be sorry the next day. Just a few years into his recording career he started cutting a decent amount of gospel songs and anyone who checked the label credits saw he was the main writer on most of these songs, like 1957’s “Wandering Soul” written with Bill Dudley. So whenever fans who were with him from the beginning saw him get drunk and mess up – or, later, after Jones’ misdeeds began being printed in newspapers and magazines – they knew he knew he was a sinner like all the rest, trying to work his way back to the straight and narrow. He wanted to be good. He tried to do right.
Late in the summer of 1954, about a year after returning from the Marines, George Jones met a young woman named Shirley, a carhop at the drive-in hamburger joint he frequented when in Houston to perform on the Hometown Jamboree. One day, George gifted Shirley with a copy of his first Starday single, released a few months prior. Two weeks later, they had a fall wedding and moved in with some of his family in Beaumont. By the end of the year, Shirley was pregnant with their first son. George got a day job as probably the worst DJ ever hired at KTRM, where he met and befriended J.P. Richardson. I’m not aware of any recordings from his time as a DJ but the same anxiety that made Jones want to take a few drinks before a show or recording session always made him even more nervous about speaking on the air. [In Bear Family’s Complete Starday and Mercury Recordings box set, you can hear how much of this awkwardness was still around in a radio spot from a couple years and several hit records later.] One way George found to work around his nerves on the radio was by mimicking the voices of people who were already successful. He often spoke in an imitation of Ferlin Husky’s Simon Crum character. And, of course, George’s Hank Williams impersonation was always popular with listeners. Though his career in radio was brief, George worked at the station long enough for another DJ to saddle him with the nickname he would never shake, “Possum.” Various meanings have been applied after the fact, some by George himself, but the truth is everyone just thought he looked like a Possum. Not that he was unattractive or anything but he kinda looked like a possum, what with the way the features of his face seemed to gather in a small circle at the front of his head, the pointy nose and wide set of teeth behind thin lips, shadows often covering his deep-set eyes.
When his records started selling, George quit the radio station. As many legends as Don Pierce and Pappy Daily helped get started in the business, as many advantages as they had over the competition in the huge and influential country music market of Texas, it’s incredible George Jones is the only artist who started and stayed hitting at a national level while on Starday. Taking a cynic’s perspective on the record industry, between Pappy’s jukebox operation and distributorship and Starday’s Hometown Jamboree, only one step away from the Louisiana Hayride, which was only one step away from the Grand Ole Opry, these guys should have been printing money. But perhaps we shouldn’t take a cynical perspective when it comes to Pappy Daily. Speaking to Billboard magazine in 1964 on the topic of gatekeepers in the business, he said, “The disc jockeys today have set themselves up as experts. I don’t believe anybody is qualified to say whether a record is good or bad. In my 30-some-odd years I have learned that there are no experts. The public decides as to whether or not a record is good or bad – the people that spend the money for the record.” Starday did sell records, have many hits and do good business but they never found a fortune like the one that came from plugging George Jones into their system. Although his first records didn’t sell many copies, Jones was an instant hit on the Jamboree and the label expanded his fanbase by sending him around to play at every honk tonk in broadcast range. He bought a used 1951 Packard four-door with a gold paint job and had his name painted down the side in purple script above the words “STARDAY RECORDING ARTIST” and a phone number to call for bookings. There’s a black-and-white photo of George leaned up against this car while wearing his stage clothes, a basic Col. Sanders suit and tie since he’d not yet earned rhinestones with a #1 hit. While the car is perfectly in focus, Jones is slightly blurry. His lean is at least as unnatural as his speech on live radio or the awkward smile on his face. It almost looks like he accidentally tripped and fell a little sideways into the car a split-second before the shutter snapped. The mid-day sun shines down from above leaving two black holes where his eyes should be. He looks like pure abyss wearing a George Jones mask, empty and waiting for the spirits to take control. Stare at this picture long enough and it gets pretty creepy. Even if you manage to convince yourself it’s just a not-so-good photograph from a long time ago, it’s still a kid in his twenties with no idea he’s headed directly toward Hell.
In the beginning, he and early Starday hitmaker Sonny Burns covered most of Texas playing with whatever pickup bands awaited at various destinations, which was pretty alright. As he built a name for himself, though, the bigger package tours dragged him and Sonny all over the continent, teaching George how deeply he hated real touring. With too many people and instruments crammed into some four-door sedan on overnight drives, there were many times in those habit-forming early days when he got drunk just to pass out and pretend it was sleep. According to Sonny Burns, this is when Jones began drinking heavily. Again, the truth is both men already knew their way through a bottle but Sonny noticing an uptick marks the beginning of a pattern we’ll continue to see, in which Jones’ substance abuse escalates in direct proportion to his fame and success. When the Hometown Jamboree launched, Sonny Burns was the bigger name, so he got paid $10 a week more for being on the show. After a few months, Sonny started goading Jones, saying he’d obviously become just as important to the program and should be paid the same money per week. While drinking about it, the two singers came up with a plan to walk in Pappy’s office and demand raises to put them both at $25 a week. If Pappy didn’t go for it, they’d pretend to quit and he’d surely come around. Well, the plan worked all the way up to the part where Pappy called their bluff, accepted their resignations, said to be careful wherever their little party ended up and not to call unless they landed in jail. The boys stormed out, picked up another bottle and drove a couple hours away to Sonny’s mom’s house in Nacogdoches, where they kept drinking and pretending to brag over the way they’d just quit Pappy’s stupid radio show. Or, at least, that’s what Jones did. Sonny was not pretending. It seems likely this whole stunt came together because he was already looking for an excuse to quit the business, which is what he did, disappearing into a bottle for the next three or four years. But George’s career was just getting off the ground. Starday was about to release his next single and he knew Pappy would welcome him back as if nothing had happened.
In August of 1955, George went to a Louisiana Hayride-affiliated concert in Conroe, TX and talked the MC into letting him get onstage and play his upcoming Starday single, “Seasons of My Heart.” When it came out a month later, around the time Shirley Jones gave birth to their son, radio DJs found out their audiences preferred the b-side of Jones’ record and “Why Baby Why” became his first big hit, landing his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. Since Shirley missed out on most of her husband’s early career highlights while pregnant at home, George invited her to leave the baby with family and come along to Shreveport for his debut on The Hayride. The lineup at this time featured, among others, Johnny Horton, Jimmy C. Newman, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Now, even if Shirley Jones had heard rock & roll music before and/or had an opinion on it, this would have been the first time she saw Elvis Presley perform, as his onstage gyrations had not yet been televised. And it’s sometimes difficult to express to modern audiences what was so shocking about the way Elvis Presley moved his hips. So just imagine you’re at a rock show, all the guys in the band take off their pants, get hard and start hula hooping with boners while playing a song. That’s what Elvis looked like to most adults in the 1950s. Shirley Jones was horrified, terrified, scandalized, the entire bit. Though presumably not as overtly sexual as Elvis, witnesses of early George Jones shows recalled an energetic and high-strung performer who danced and moved all over the stage as he sang. Several sources say, when he was on a bill with Elvis, Jones was known to copy some of Presley’s moves as a joke. Until this night, Shirley had only ever been supportive of her husband’s career but, now that she’d seen Elvis do those wicked things with his pelvis, it cast a new light on things she’d seen her George do onstage. She came unglued. She told George the things he’d done were “dirty” and they embarrassed her. He embarrassed her. From that moment forward, George Jones went onstage, hit his mark and sang into the microphone. You may catch him swaying side to side, kicking one boot out to show everyone he was having a good time or going up on his toes here and there to put an extra dip in a waterfall of notes but, otherwise, he moved his head to sing, his arms to play guitar and that was it. And if Shirley Jones was so upset about the things her husband did onstage until she put shame in him, it’s safe to assume she abhorred the relationship George developed with alcohol after becoming a successful entertainer.
It probably took a while for her to realize what was happening because George was always gone on tour. On the rare occasion he came home for more than a few weeks at a time, everything would be fine for a while, perhaps as long as a couple months. But then one day he’d leave home with no warning and stay gone – no phone call, no contact of any kind – for maybe a week before showing back up as if nothing had happened. And maybe the first few times he came back with some excuse about picking up a last minute show somewhere or even saying she must have forgotten about a one-off gig he had mentioned. But he wasn’t always careful to get far enough away from home when he disappeared on these binges and soon rumors started drifting back to Shirley about her husband being seen drunk off his ass in a honky tonk a few miles down the road, leaving at the end of the night with a woman who definitely wasn’t her. That was Jones trying to be on his best behavior at home, failing to drop the routine he’d developed while gone for work. When he left home for work, he was drunk more often than he wasn’t.
The Grand Ole Opry’s New Star
When “What Am I Worth” came out as the follow-up to “Why Baby Why” and hit lower on the charts it was fine with everyone because it still went Top 10. When the single Jones released after that failed to chart at all, he retraced his steps and wrote what is basically a double-time remake of “Why Baby Why,” called “You Gotta Be My Baby.” Their first attempt at recording this song wasted an entire session. It’s likely Jones had a few drinks but he doesn’t sound noticeably trashed in the surviving takes. If we want to nitpick, the Texas studio players aren’t up to Nashville standards but there aren’t any glaring errors there, either. At least three of the takes sound totally acceptable by Starday standards but none were issued as a single. The likeliest reason is Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” hit the month before, making the guitar, bass, piano and fiddle instrumentation on the original “You Gotta Be My Baby” sound like a stringband from the 1930s in comparison. When George and Pappy went back in the studio to try the song again, instead of fiddles they brought two electric guitars and, for the first time ever on a George Jones session, pedal steel guitar. In early 1956, this updated sound gave George another Top 10 country hit and his first invitation to be a guest on the Grand Ole Opry. This was also around the time George wrote a song either for or with Ray Price. It’s difficult to tell what truly happened because George put his part of the song in Shirley’s name so officially-listed-but-maybe-not-really-cowriter Ray Price could file it with Cedarwood. In any case, when “You Done Me Wrong” came out on the b-side of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” while “You Gotta Be My Baby” was still on the charts, it made for some good-sized checks showing up in The Jones’ mailbox.
In his autobiography, George complains The Opry really should have had him on as a guest before “You Gotta Be My Baby” and even goes so far as to imply he would have been on at some earlier point if only he was willing to go along with whatever system of bribery he alleges was then in place. But “You Gotta Be My Baby” was only his third minor hit on an indie label from Texas and he didn’t really have a connection to the Nashville country music industry until The Opry gave him one by making him a member in August of 1956. Three months later, Art Talmadge of Mercury Records initiated the Mercury-Starday merger, bringing George Jones’ recording sessions to Nashville. To match the upgrade in quality on his records, George upgraded his management and booking teams to Nashville big shots, then toured the continent with some of the genre’s biggest stars, like Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Carl Smith and Faron Young. This new level of success correlates with a new plateau in Drunk George Jones stories, for all the psychological reasons previously discussed but also because his new status as a major artist meant he now spent all his time around other major artists and important industry figures. This is the point when George Jones became so great at his job most of his daily coworkers were great enough to become legends who would all someday be interviewed about their own careers. Any conversation about the best and most important work done in country music history is invariably going to find its way around to George Jones, at which point you’re invariably going to hear a Drunk George Jones story. There are maybe five totally separate stories in Jones’ autobiography where he gets in some kind of fight and ends up with a broken arm. Stonewall Jackson is one of many artists who toured with Jones at the beginning of their careers and he remembered a whole lot of fighting. The worst was outside a roadhouse in Texas. All they did was pull into the parking lot to pick up a six pack of beer for the drive but, before they could even get inside the bar, a local group of tough guys started some shit. Jones never worried much about his diminutive stature when it came to a fight, so he swung on the biggest guy, got knocked out, stomped on and left facedown in a mud puddle. The gang kicked the shit out of Stonewall, too, but left him conscious enough to drag Jones’ head out of the water so he wouldn’t drown. One time George and Faron Young went to some country radio station to do interviews and promote a concert. Since the mayor of this town and his wife came to the radio station to watch, Faron was on his best behavior when Jones – just to screw with his friend – walked in the studio and started yelling a bunch of cuss words in the background of the interview. Faron tried to ignore it but the cuss words kept coming until Faron finally rage-quit the interview to have a fistfight with George Jones on live radio, in front of the mayor, the mayor’s wife and everyone listening at home.
Most country artists who toured extensively in the 1950s had stories about things getting out of control at some point or another. Every artist who toured with George Jones in the 1950s had stories about things getting out of control. But they weren’t just drinking and fighting. Somehow, they found time to also create legendary music. Stonewall Jackson’s first hit record was “Life to Go” in 1958. In every version of this song’s origin story, certain details don’t add up and we’ll probably never know the whole truth but both Stonewall and Jones say they were playing a show at a prison and they wrote these lyrics based on a prisoner’s response when asked how long a sentence he had to serve. They came to some sort of agreement whereby Jones wound up with the writing credit and first recording in late 1957 but Mercury-Starday didn’t release it until Stonewall’s version on Columbia Records hit #2 in Billboard and #1 in Cash Box nearly a full year later.
This relationship between Jones’ “party” life and professional life worked both ways, which is to say George Jones often got drunk with his famous coworkers but, in some cases, drinking often with George Jones presented an opportunity to become one of his famous coworkers. When he met Roger Miller in early 1957, Roger was pushing luggage carts and operating the elevator as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, one of the places Jones liked to stay in Nashville. (According to Don Pierce, one of Ernest Tubb’s daughters also liked to stay there… in George’s room.) Roger Miller being one of the funniest humans and best songwriters to ever live (and, evidently, more discreet than Don Pierce), he and Jones were fast friends. Within a month of their meeting, George brought him to Mercury-Starday and became the first artist to cut “Tall, Tall Trees,” a #1 hit for Alan Jackson about forty years later. George was also the first artist to cut “That’s the Way I Feel,” a Top 10 hit for Faron Young the following year. Jones has half the co-writing credit on “That’s the Way I Feel,” as it was supposedly written during the drive from Nashville to Texas so Mercury-Starday could avoid paying Nashville studio rates for their first session on an unknown bellhop. George and Roger really did take this trip together. However, it’s very likely Roger was the sole composer. Even though his career wouldn’t take off until the mid-1960s, his writing style was unmistakeable from the beginning and Jones is listed as 50% writer on all the Roger Miller songs he was first to record, not just the ones from their trip to Texas. The records Roger Miller cut for Pappy Daily and Don Pierce didn’t do anything and his early hits as a writer were few and far between, so Pappy (and a few other producers in town) put him to work doing soundalikes. Roger is probably who eventually brought in Donny Young to also do soundalike work for Pappy, which is probably how Donny Young got hired to sing background vocals in George Jones sessions.
The Slow Ride
You’ve already heard several reasons why Starday put “Seasons of My Heart” on the a-side of a record with “Why Baby Why” on the b-side. There’s still one more: the industry-wide belief in the career longevity promised to an artist who could hit with a ballad. (Here, we’re using “ballad” in the modern, colloquial sense to mean pretty much any slow song, not necessarily a story song.) It was and is generally-accepted wisdom that any flash-in-the-pan act can hit on a fun, dumb, uptempo rhythm or two, which audiences may treat as a soundtrack to some drinking and dancing before moving on to the next thing and leaving that artist to drift into obscurity. But someone who can make the party crowd stop dancing long enough to listen to the words and become emotionally affected is much more likely to have a career with staying power. Jimmy C. Newman is an example of this. He was a Grand Ole Opry member for 50 years, he spent about 15 of those years releasing hit records and most of his early hits were ballads, beginning with “Cry, Cry Darlin’,” the Top 10 country single that got him added to the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, right around the time George Jones came back from the Marines to east Texas.
One of the first gigs George found when returned to Beaumont was playing guitar for Chuck Guillory’s Rhythm Boys. This is the legendary Cajun band who had a massive hit record in the 1940s with a song you heard in the Kershaw Brothers episode, “Gran Texas.” It’s also the band who gave Jimmy C. Newman one of his first jobs in the business when he was just a teenager. So when Jimmy checked in with his old boss to find a guitar player he could use on a few road dates, Chuck Guillory sent George Jones his way. A few years later, when Jones joined the Louisiana Hayride a few years later, Jimmy was still on the lineup and the two old acquaintances began traveling together to share the driving on package tours. According to Jimmy, George was completely obsessed with the idea of getting a hit with a ballad. He’d talk about how much success Jimmy had with slow songs and how badly he wanted the same for himself. Much later in life, George said he’d always looked at uptempo songs as something he had to do every now and then so the crowd would let him sing some more slow songs. And he still hadn’t put a slow song on the charts when he joined the Grand Ole Opry in August of 1956, which just so happened to be the same month Jimmy C. Newman joined The Opry, placing the two singers right back in a car on tour together, George still going on and on about how much he needed a hit with a ballad… having no idea he’d already written and recorded one earlier in the month down at Gold Star in Texas. “Just One More” was George Jones’ first hit on the downtrodden type of drinking song with which his name would become synonymous about twenty years later. Released as his final single for Starday in September of ’56, the record eventually went #3 country. Right as it began to pick up steam but before anyone knew it would be his biggest hit to date, George, Jimmy C. Newman and Jimmy’s fiddle player Rufus Thibodeaux followed a performance on The Opry by once more loading up in a car for the overnight drive to a show the next day. While everyone else slept, Jimmy took the first shift at the wheel and kept himself awake by creating melodies in his head. After hitting on one he liked, he started working on words to go with it. By the time they stopped for breakfast in the morning, he had a fragment of a chorus called “Don’t Stop the Jukebox.” George loved the basic idea and pretty soon came back to Jimmy with a finished song, now called “Don’t Stop the Music.” As this was several years before split-publishing became common and George and Jimmy were signed to different publishing companies, they realized only one of them could take writing credit. Jimmy figured George did most of the work and let him have it. Later, he said, “It was my melody but he sure wrote the words good.” In December, Jones took the song and Rufus Thibodeaux into his first Nashville recording session. “Don’t Stop the Music” was chosen as the flagship Mercury-Starday single and it, too, hit the Top 10. His second hit on a ballad.
When his little indie record label from Texas merged with a big time Chicago label and opened an office in Nashville (mostly) on the back of George Jones having enough hit records to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he must have thought he’d reached the top of the mountain. In addition to Rufus Thibodeaux, his first session in Nashville featured the legendary Jimmy Day, famous for playing steel guitar on hits by Ray Price, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams. Then, his next session took place the following month… back at Gold Star in Texas, as if Jones hadn’t just hit with two ballads in a row, one of them the biggest hit of his young career. Now, the label probably sold this to him as a way to save money recording filler tracks, unlikely to be released as singles or promoted heavily. And they wouldn’t have been lying because the cost differential was significant. In 1957, to record in Nashville you had to pay each musician about $40 a session. In Texas, each player cost $5 a song. So, at four songs a session, you’re talking about spending twice as much money in Nashville and that’s just to hire the musicians. But you’re also talking about the difference between good musicians and some of the greatest musicians of all time. Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Tommy Jackson and Buddy Emmons are only a few of the legendary names on Jones’ Nashville session logs in 1957. There’s simply no comparison. And, again, that’s just the musicians. This difference in quality tracks across the board, from the guitar amps and vocal mics to the room sound of the studio and separation in the mix, all clearly audible on record. We also have to keep in mind, nobody in the country music industry or audience of this era would have favored “lo-fi” or raw-sounding tape for aesthetic reasons. Rockabilly fans in the 1950s or 1970s may love the “energy” in a song like “Please Take the Devil Out of Me.” But this was written by Jones and recorded at Gold Star for inclusion not on a rock album but a gospel album. What sounds to us like a gritty and electric old recording just sounded cheap to the intended audience of its time.
Once George Jones heard what his music sounded like in a Nashville studio, going down to Texas had to feel like a huge step backwards. What’s the point of merging with a big city label if you can’t leave the small money mentality behind? If there’s such a thing as being a country music star, shouldn’t it bring in enough cash to not have to cut corners? If George didn’t ask himself these questions the first time they sent him back to Gold Star, he had to’ve the second time, taking an unknown Nashville bellhop with him to be recorded in the same fashion Mercury-Starday felt it was appropriate to record a Grand Ole Opry star, just like they felt it was fine for that same star to be seen taking a Greyhound bus. Have another listen to one of the Roger Miller songs Jones cut on this trip. There’s a ton of either room noise or tape hiss and the vocal sounds like they put a sock over the microphone. This sound quality is roughly on par with a 1940s recording from Castle, which isn’t terrible but is a serious retrogression from the few sessions he’d already done in Nashville at this time. There’s no chance George was happy about his latest records sounding five years older than stuff he cut three months earlier, like his second Mercury-Starday single, “Too Much Water.” (Oh, and, just for the record, this one goes on the pile of George Jones songs Johnny PayCheck would have learned forwards and backwards before the two ever met.) This sound quality is three times cleaner than anything George ever recorded in Texas and he wasn’t even using Owen Bradley’s studio yet. This session featured Hank Garland on some real snappy electric guitar and it was pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green’s first time working in a studio. Less than 50% of George Jones’ Mercury-Starday material is of such quality because over half his sessions for the label were held at Gold Star. In fact, when he entered the Quonset Hut for the famous “White Lightning” session in Sept. 1958, it was the first time he’d walked into a Nashville studio in nearly a year, as his previous four sessions were all in Texas. But those were his final trips to Gold Star and his last Mercury-Starday sessions. After “Treasure of Love” went #6 and “White Lightning” hit #1, Mercury let George record at the Quonset Hut whenever he wanted.
And there’s a brief period, here, where George appears to let himself believe the dream had really come true. Maybe he thought dropping the Starday connection made all the difference or having a #1 record meant smooth sailing from then on. “White Lightning” earned him his first “song suit” from the original rhinestone cowboy, Nudie Cohn. As required by custom, the design featured images of moonshine jugs and lightning bolts taken at face value from the lyrics and plastered all over the fabric. The sleeves and legs spelled out the words “White Lightning” in a rhinestone-studded and colorized update of the famous black-and-cream “sheet music” suit Nudie made for Hank Williams.
Still Got Life to Go
In addition to flashier stage outfits, his first big checks from Mercury went toward buying a house. He and Shirley had a second son in 1958 and, for the first time, George was able to move his young family into a home he owned. Soon after, he had a larger ranch house built in the Beaumont suburb of Vidor, Texas, where he acquired enough land to stock with horses and cattle. George then bought another house in the area for his parents. According to Shirley Jones, this was the happiest time in their marriage. They leased a building in town and opened the George Jones Chuck Wagon restaurant, the first of George’s many, many attempts to establish a business outside (and on the back of) his recording career. The restaurant also housed a small “museum” of George Jones memorabilia.
For a few years, there, it seemed like everything was great. Shirley managed the day-to-day operations at the restaurant and handled the family’s finances (or, at least, everything that showed up in their mailbox in the form of a check). Meanwhile, Jones’ big hits brought constant touring opportunities and his recording sessions were now held exclusively in Nashville, so he was gone nearly all of the time. But at least that meant he didn’t come home long enough for an aura of restlessness to build every day until it had to be destroyed with a week-long binge three towns over. As for his relationship with their children, even in this picturesque period, it doesn’t sound like George would have won any Father of the Year awards. To quote Shirley, “Not that he was mean to ‘em, just that he didn’t have any time or any love for ‘em.” Still, though, his occasional presence and relative sobriety while home were an improvement she could appreciate given her few years of experience with the alternative. She also understood Jones’ own childhood hadn’t exactly left him with a model of what a good father was, let alone how to actually be one. George’s parents may have still been married and living nearby in the home he’d purchased for them but his father still drank as much as ever and it still scared his mother enough for her to frequently run away to stay with George and Shirley or one of her other children. Much later in life, after long-overdue personal growth and reflection, George would realize he’d never been taught the importance of a man sharing his emotions with loved ones. As far as he knew, feelings were meant to be expressed in music, the place he’d learned to put all of his: “Maybe my singin’ might be the cause of a lot of my problems. You might be a bastard in other things you do, you might be a sorry son of a gun, but as long as they relate to you in your songs, it seems to be all right. I don’t show a lot of affection. I have probably been a very unliked person among family, like somebody who was heartless. I saved it all for the songs. I didn’t know you were supposed to show that love person to person. I guess I always wanted to, but I didn’t know how. The only way I could would be to do it in a song.”
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe. Yes, this is still a one-person operation over here, so even if you see me ask everyone to keep talking about the show and your response is to think “I already talked about the show,” well, I have to keep asking. We’ve just about reached the point where the only thing that makes sense is to recommend new listeners start at the first episode of Season 2, so maybe y’all could tell everyone who tried an episode from Season 1 and decided they didn’t like the show that I’m doing something pretty different this time around and they may want to give it another chance.
For those of you who haven’t read it somewhere or figured it out on your own, the thing I’m doing different this time is… I’m just gonna go ahead and keep on talking about George Jones. Today we went back over the period leading up to “White Lightning” from a more personal or individual perspective than covered in the previous episodes’ focus on the music and the industry. When the podcast returns in a couple weeks, it’ll be with the next chapter of the story. If you know anything about George Jones, this is the part where we start to take a turn down a very long and very dark road. If you don’t know anything about it, get ready.
We’re still less than 30% of the way through the season but I know you’ve seen enough to tell this wasn’t an easy thing to do. I’d like you to also know this season wouldn’t be happening if not for the support of the handful of listeners who signed up for the Patreon at any point between the end of Season 1 and now. I’ve had many people tell me Patreon is not ideal for them, so now when you click the SUPPORT button in the main menu of this website, it takes you to a page with information on all the various ways you can help me keep making the show, if you’re so inclined.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- George Jones – “Wandering Soul” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You Gotta Be My Baby” (original recording) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You Gotta Be My Baby” (re-recording) [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Ray Price – “You Done Me Wrong” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Life to Go” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Stonewall Jackson – “Life to Go” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Tall Tall Trees” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Alan Jackson – “Tall Tall Trees” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “That’s the Way I Feel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Faron Young – “That’s the Way I Feel” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Roger Miller – “I Ain’t Never” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jimmy C. Newman – “Cry Cry Darling” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Chuck Guillory & His Rhythm Boys – “Gran Texas” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Just One More” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Don’t Stop the Music” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Please Take the Devil Out of Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Too Much Water” [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
It’ll be a miracle if I didn’t mispronounce some Spanish words or names in the intro. Obviously, the first thing I did once I knew I was gonna have to say a bunch of Spanish words was google “how to say Spanish words wrong” and then I just followed those instructions to make sure everyone got mad at me. Just kidding, I actually did try to find out the right way to say all of those things and I did do my best. As with the intro on the Kershaw Brothers episode in Season 1, listening to me say the occasional words incorrectly in English and other languages is just the price we’re all going to have to pay for this podcast to exist. I do try real hard to make it real good but it can’t ever be perfect and it’s never gonna be.
I did want to point out George Jones technically returned to Gold Star in Texas and recorded there again in the 1960s but it was to make a radio commercial for a Dodge dealership in Pasadena, not to cut a single or even album filler for cheaper than it would cost in Nashville.
Like I said in the episode, it’s nothing but a headache trying to figure out how “Life to Go” was really written. The closest thing to an official version is Jones and Stonewall Jackson were supposed to be on a package tour headlined by Ernest Tubb and one of the stops was at a prison. But where it breaks down is when you start looking into the dates of those tours in relation to the first recording of the song, plus which artists toured with Ernest Tubb and when. It is possible one of these guys was officially on a tour and the other one just came out to hang around on a few dates or something but it’s also possible they played a prison show after “Life to Go” was a hit for Stonewall and decided to switch the order of events because the song coming from a prisoner made for a better origin story.
As with the Spanish, if I got anything wrong about bullfighting it was absolutely not for lack of trying to learn the truth. I read several books on the topic and, as you could probably tell from the way I talk about it, that wasn’t exactly something I enjoyed doing. But, as you’ll see, bullfighting is a hugely important factor in not just this story but the entire culture around country music in the 20th century. One source I did not use on bullfighting was Ernest Hemingway because there are quite a few indicators out there that he’s actually not considered a great source on the topic. I’ve seen many references to him going back to Spain after The Sun Also Rises and being sort-of humored or patronized by bullfighters, not because of his knowledge but because the bullfighters knew Hemingway writing about them could only make them more famous and important to history. What sealed the deal for me was how Hemingway wrote about the different styles of the two matadors mentioned in this intro. Those matadors were filmed in the ring around the same period as Hemingway writing about them and his descriptions as to which matador was more showy and which more technical looked completely backwards to me.
One of my main sources on bullfighting was Adrian Shubert’s Death and Money in the Afternoon. As you’d guess from the title, it’s more to do with the history of bullfighting as an industry after the aristocracy let go of it and it immediately became commercialized.
Then there was Making Sense of Bullfighting by Reza Hosseinpour. This one is kind of like a scrapbook made by an aficionado, definitely biased in favor of bullfighting, even point-blank arguing the case to support bullfighting but it’s also probably the single best breakdown of the mechanics of the ritual. I do have to point out a few of the details as to which famous matadors should be credited with which innovations felt a little shaky to me. For example, he credits the matador Espartaco with disregarding the process of drawing a bull to the center of the ring where it would be less confident but Juan Belmonte was doing that decades before this matador was born.
All of my main sources on George Jones can be found on the Season 2 library page. I’ll repeat that for anyone interested in George Jones’ Starday years and/or the period in which he made the transition from recording in Texas to recording in Nashville, there’s no better source than the Bear Family box set Birth of a Legend: The Complete Starday and Mercury Recordings. It’s expensive but it’s amazing. That’s where I got the clip of Jones talking on the radio and there are a few other little things like that throughout the season I wouldn’t have known about if not for the George Jones box sets by Bear Family.
The first two biographies written on Jones were both published in 1984, about 30 years after the real beginning of the story and a full decade or so before the Internet would’ve made it way easier for those writers to spot errors and shaky sources in their books. So, basically, right in the sweet spot for someone like me to come along and tear these books to shreds, which I’m not going to do because both books are ultimately net-positive and it’s clear both writers did their best with what they had.
Ragged But Right by Dolly Carlisle is the more empathetic or compassionate of the two. Starting with the opening scene of the book, there are several stories that just flat-out didn’t happen the way they’re depicted and anyone who cares can track down video to see for themselves. But that’s not Dolly lying about what happened. It’s her writing about something she didn’t see, using the sometimes decades-old memories of other people as her source and, unfortunately, she didn’t seem to realize when she was being lied to because at least one of her sources (a guy named Gordon Baxter) was obviously a bullshit artist. However, one of the reasons that is so obvious is because of what this book does do really well, which is let most of the main sources speak for themselves by including paragraph-long quotes from George Jones, his family, friends, co-workers, etc.
Then there’s Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend by Bob Allen. One of the magazines this dude wrote for back in the day was Playboy and, having listened to several hours of his interview tapes, I can say he was particularly interested in the sensational or scandalous aspects of this story. Where this book seems to excel is in offering all kinds of hard data – dollar figures, dates, names of individual session musicians, etc. – but there are several instances of this type of information being incorrect, like things that definitely happened in a different year or the way he keeps calling the lead guitarist and background vocalist on the “White Lightning” and “Treasure of Love” session “Floyd Jenkins” instead of his real name, Floyd Robinson. Here, too, I doubt these mistakes were intentional but they do inform one’s faith in a source. Combined with the way this author takes certain liberties dramatizing Jones’ inner thoughts and kind of romanticizes his “bad boy” behavior, one does sometimes wonder how hard the guy may or may not have tried to confirm the most scandalous stories in this book.
I talked about a few interviews and articles in this episode, so I should say, a lot of times when you hear me refer to a newspaper or magazine, that’s something I found in the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. My assumption would be a lot of that stuff is not going to pop up in an Internet search. There are various newspaper and magazine archival services online but I have no idea what is and isn’t available from any given one of those. If someone out there hears something quoted from an article and they really want or need to know more, it’s sometimes possible to find vintage copies of magazines and newspapers for sale online. There were a few times I saw such articles referenced as sources in books or elsewhere and the only way I could track down the full article was by finding an old issue of a magazine and buying it.
Okay, that’s it. Come back for more George Jones in a couple weeks. It is all kinds of everything.