Born in a log cabin in the Big Thicket region of East Texas, near the small town of Saratoga in 1931, Jones grew up in a family whose patriarch, George Washington Jones, had his own problems with alcohol. His deeply religious mother introduced him to singing in church, and the family radio brought in the Grand Ole Opry.
Even as a child, his singing voice gained notice from neighbors. When the family moved to Beaumont during World War II, he sang on the streets for tips, and focused on singing from then on. He progressed from Beaumont honky-tonks to a record deal with the local Starday label, and from there to the Louisiana Hayride and eventually to the Grand Ole Opry and far wider fame.
His early style, an amalgam of Acuff and Williams as well as Lefty Frizzell and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, evolved into something more personal and original. It became the Gold Standard for others, a jumping off point for others to find their own voices.
In a 1988 interview I did with Buck Owens, he called Jones, a lifelong friend, "the greatest thing since sliced bread" and readily admitted developing his own style from George's, as George had from Hank, Acuff and Frizzell. Johnny Paycheck ( his former bass player), Mark Chesnutt, Hank Williams Jr. and many others did likewise.
Mainstream America was never that familiar with his musical side, though he gained considerable media attention for his wild booze and drug-fueled lifestyle in the 70's and early 80's in the wake of his failed marriage to the equally troubled singer Tammy Wynette. He gained notoriety for failing to appear at concerts that earned him the nickname of "No-Show Jones." Random violence and run-ins with the law were routine until he righted himself around 1982-1983.
But at the end, the music mattered most, and hits like these made his reputation.
1955: "Why Baby Why," in the Hank Williams Sr. style.
Early 1970's: This hits medley from ABC's Johnny Cash Show offers some of his earlier work, starting with "White Lightning," his first # 1 single from 1959, 1961's "She Thinks I Still Care," hishis goofy 1965 novelty "Love Bug" and 1964's "The Race Is On."
1970's: George Jones and Tammy Wynette during their troubled times, singing their hit duet "Golden Ring."
1980: Unlike Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and Kenny Rogers, or for that matter, Willie Nelson, whose music appealed to pop and country fans, Jones never sought a wider audience. Nowhere was that more apparent than on his 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," considered by many one of the greatest country recordings of all time. Recorded at his personal nadir, Jones hated string orchestrations, but his Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill found a way to use strings as a foil against George's unabashedly emotional style. This is the original hit, unequalled in its cathartic passion.
Jones regained his equilibrium in the early 80's with help of fourth wife Nancy. He continued making superb records for Epic and MCA In the 1990s, he was widely hailed for his achievements by younger generations of artists on this song, "I Don't Need Your Rocking Chair." This performance introduced his 1992 induction into the Hall of Fame.
Jones was never an "Outlaw," who rebelled against the Nashville system as his friend Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson did. That said, he complained bitterly about the fact country radio would no longer play his records and those of other traditional artists.
1999: A brief relapse with alcohol ended abruptly with a near-fatal 1999 SUV crash near his home outside Nashville. Here, after the accident, he sings one of his final great numbers: the autobiographical Grammy-winning 1999 hit "Choices."
For more videos, these 2011 videos I assembled for the blog to celebrate his 80th Birthday offer plenty of examples.
Waylon, asked about his friend in 1991, said, "As long as there's country music, you'll know who George Jones is."
I agree. RIP, Possum.