The Associated Press is reporting the death of country music legend George Jones, whose hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ lifestyle wasn’t just a song he sang. Jones had recently been hospitalized with a fever and was suffering from irregular blood pressure. He died at the age of 81.
Best known for his gut-wrenching single “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Jones was the epitome of the classic country singer, pinched baritone and all. He recorded dozens of hits about love, loss, and drunken carousing, and landed No. 1 singles in five consecutive decades, starting in the ‘50s. Nicknamed “Possum,” Jones released more than 150 albums, and while he never crossed over into the rock or pop world, he was admired by country artists and non-country artists alike. As Waylon Jennings sang in “It’s Alright”: “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.”
Jones was also well known for his troubles with drugs, alcohol, and the law. In later years, his nickname changed from “Possum” to “No-Show Jones,” owing to the dozens of concerts he missed at the height of his drinking and drugging. He bought, sold, traded, and lost innumerable cars and houses. He made millions of dollars, but lost a good portion of it to drug dealers, mismanagement, and legal struggles. (Still, that turmoil fueled his music, and only made it easier for his fans to identify with him.) As The New York Times put it in today, “All the pleasures of a down-home Saturday night couldn’t free him from private pain.” But with the help of his fourth wife, Nancy, Jones had remained sober for the last 10 years.
Born George Glenn Jones in Saratoga, Texas, Jones bought his first guitar when at the age of 9 and started singing on the streets and in church when he was a teenager. After high school, he got married, quickly divorced, then joined the Marines. When he got out of the service, his musical career quickly took off. He signed to Starday Records to release his first single, “No Money In This Deal,” in 1954. In 1955, Jones had his first hit, “Why Baby Why,” and began singing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. He had also started drinking by that time—and soon after, started missing shows. Jones also developed a reputation for getting in fights on the road and slowing down things in the studio. For instance, it took 83 takes to get his 1959 single “White Lightning” recorded, because he was drinking throughout.
In 1962, Jones was nominated for his first Grammy for “She Thinks I Still Care.” In 1964, he had another big hit with “The Race Is On” and took part in the first country show at Madison Square Garden, joining acts like Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and Buck Owens. In 1966, his drinking had gotten so bad that his wife hid his car keys, leading to an infamous incident where he drove his lawnmower to the liquor store, later recounting that “it might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.” He’d repeat the lawnmower escapade again later in life, while married to Tammy Wynette. In her 1979 autobiography, Wynette recalls waking up in the middle of the night to find him missing. She drove to the nearest bar, 10 miles away, finding both Jones and the lawnmower there waiting for her. Jones would later parody both misadventures in his 1996 single, “Honky Tonk Song.”
While married to another woman, Shirley Corley, in 1966, he met Wynette that same year and started wooing her, even though she was also married to someone else. Jones would divorce Corley in 1968, and marry Wynette in 1969. They moved to Florida, where Jones opened a country-themed amusement park, The Old Plantation.
In 1971, he signed to Epic Records, which was also Wynette’s label. The couple began recording duets, three of which—“We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” and “Near You”—went to No. 1 on the country charts. All the while, the couple had been fighting, fueled by Jones’ 1970 introduction to cocaine, as well as his frequent amphetamine use. Jones and Wynette divorced in 1975, though they continued to release duets. In 1980, they even released an album, Together Again, and reunited in the mid-‘90s for a tour and follow-up, One.
Jones wasn’t the same after his divorce from Wynette. He released two albums immediately following the dissolution, The Battle, and Alone Again, and stepped up his drinking. He started carrying a gun, and in 1977 he was arrested for firing at a friend’s car. He was just as erratic at his shows, as whenever "No-Show Jones" did turn up, he'd do things like sing in a Donald Duck voice. In 1977, rather than playing a show in New York, he disappeared for three weeks. In 1979, he missed 54 dates.
Still, as his troubles increased, so did his legend, and his album sales started growing. He couldn’t keep the money flowing, though, and in 1979 Jones declared bankruptcy, signing away his royalties to pay his creditors. That same year, he went to rehab, though he quickly went back to drinking and doing coke after he was released.
Jones' biggest hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” was released in 1980 as part of the album I Am What I Am. That record sold a million copies, and Jones won the Grammy for Best Male Country Performance. That kickstarted his career once again, and he quickly landed a couple more No. 1 singles, “Still Doin’ Time,” and “I Always Get Lucky With You.” He also started making duet records, including LPs with Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard, and an album of duets with Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Emmylou Harris, and other female singers titled Ladies’ Choice.
In 1983 he married Nancy Sepulveda, who would remain his wife until the present. She got him to go straight, and he started working more steadily, singing with acts like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, and Trisha Yearwood.
In 1999, Jones got in trouble again when he drove his car into the side of a bridge. A half a bottle of vodka was found in the car. Jones soon entered rehab. He addressed his drinking problem in the song “Choices,” released the same year, and won yet another Grammy. In 2012, the Grammys awarded him a lifetime achievement award. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1992, and was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2008.
This year, Jones announced that his current tour, The Grand Tour, would be his last, and that he’d be retiring to spend more time with family. His last show was set for Nov. 22 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and he had recently mentioned that he'd either completed or was working on another duet record, this time with Dolly Parton.