It's been an anguished decade-long climb back up for the genre's master of melancholy, who battled chronic alcohol and cocaine addictions, filed for bankruptcy, missed more concerts than some artists book in a lifetime and was a mostly absent father to four children by three wives, the last of whom was Tammy Wynette. It was the fourth Mrs. Jones, Nancy, who finally turned George's life around, but not until he faced a brutal decision seven years ago: to dry out or die.
"I was down about as low as you can get," says Jones. "I didn't think there was any way back, so if I hadn't lucked out and had Nancy, I would probably have wound up dead."
Instead, Jones's vital signs are strong. The man once nicknamed No Show has been playing to wildly adoring audiences from Missouri to Manhattan. He was inducted this fall into country's Hall of Fame. And on his current album, Walls Can Fall, Jones still puts across a country lyric with a commanding power and grace that make him, indisputably, Nashville's greatest living treasure.
Indeed, when it was time to record "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," a billion-dollar dream team of country heavies showed up to sing backup and pay homage: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Travis Trill, Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt and Patty Loveless. "Here was three quarters of the earning power of Nashville standing in that room, and we're all asking George Jones for his autograph," recalls Diffie. "George's voice is still the most soulful, hands down," says Gill. "He's messed up a million times in his life, but people just idolize that voice." Adds Black: "As amazing as it sounds, George is truly surprised and humbled by the admiration we show. He sent me a beautiful miniature crystal grandfather cluck that said, 'Thanks for your time.' That was really neat."
"I'm more happy with the new songs than I have been in a long time," says Jones. "It's back to my original style. These past years have been the happiest years of my life."
Still, the Old Master has some harsh words for the "new country" boom that mints instant stars through cable networks and narrow radio playlists. Today's best writers pitch material to denim disciples half Jones's age, and it has been hard for him to get his music onto the youth-oriented airwaves—until now. "You know, I'm fat-past having a slim belly and filling out my blue jeans," says Jones. "But that's even more the reason why I shouldn't have to beg for radio play." Jones finds some of today's top hits "weaker than they used to be—everyday songs I'd have either turned down or recorded for an album but never released as a single. I wouldn't start over again today for nothing if I know what I know now. They call a new artist old after a couple years. They don't have a chance anymore. Took me that long just to get my first hit. It disgusts the hell out of me to see the way country has changed. There's just too much money involved now."
That certainly wasn't true when Jones was growing up near Beaumont, in Texas's Big Thicket wilderness, a once booming oil field that went dry before the Depression. One of seven children of Pentecostal parents, Jones grew up playing gospel music with his family and listening to Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on Saturday night's Grand Ol' Opry radio shows.
After a stint in the Marines, Jones began playing local country shows for $17.50 a week and cowrote his first song ever to hit a chart, "Why Baby Why," in 1955. That brought him a trip to the Louisiana Hayride show. Through the '60s, Jones began racking up a string of country-classic hits (some of which he wrote) like "White Lightning," "The Race Is On" and "Window up Above." But the honky-tonk itineraries and the pressures of success were rough on Jones's personal life. By 1968 he had been married and divorced twice and had three children he rarely saw. He was also drinking heavily. "When you're just a kid out of the country," Jones reflects, "and never had nothing, and all of a sudden you got everything at your feet, it can really ruin you in more ways than one. Mine was just self-destruction."
In 1969, Jones married country queen Wynette, with whom he later recorded a number of top hits. The marriage, which produced a daughter, Tamala Georgette, was turbulent and led to a painful split in 1975. "It was some bad blood," says fourth wife Nancy. "Tammy and George were not what you'd call the Waltons or anything."
Jones says the split from Wynette accelerated his downward slide. "I let Tammy have everything—didn't fight it," he says. "I got a car and a couple thousand bucks in my pocket." He quit the road and moved from Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Ala., but Jones was on a troubled trajectory that was complicated, he says, by bad management, tax hassles, cocaine abuse, drinking binges, massive debt, the notorious No Show Jones act that all but wiped him off the Nashville map and prompted lawsuits by angry promoters, and scrapes with the law (drunk driving and a 1978 incident in which he shot at but missed a friend). "I kept getting a little lower and lower," he says, "tooting all [the coke] I could get ahold of. I didn't care no more. There was a lot of self-pity. I just figured I'd lost everything. I don't blame anybody but myself. I trusted people I shouldn't have trusted in business."
Ironically, one of the songs Jones recorded in the depth of his despair, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," became a No. 1 hit and was voted country's Single of the Year in 1980 and 1981. "It's a shame to say this," he admits, "but the booze, the wild life, the women, the stud that don't want to settle down and take on responsibility—that's all part of country music." Says Clint Black: "George lives out his songs and suffers for his art. Success didn't solve his problems."
Meeting Nancy Sepulvado in 1981 did make a difference, though. A Shreveport. La., divorcée with two daughters, Nancy flew to a Jones show in Syracuse with a girlfriend who was dating his manager. "I'd heard the horror stories," says Nancy, "but I'm like, 'Don't believe 'em till you see 'em.' We clicked. I saw a lot of good in a man being totally destroyed."
Within six months, Nancy quit her telephone company job—although, she says, "I was making more than he was then"—and moved with George to Louisiana, then to Texas. (They married in March 1983.) The pair bought some land in Woodville, Tex., where they ran the Jones Country theme park. But Jones's life was often a "weird circus" of hangers-on, Nancy recalls, and "there was times I wished I hadn't gotten into this. It was a total shock. I'd get this urge, like, 'I'm never gonna get this man straightened out.' Then I'd think, 'I can do it.' "
Nancy read all she could on substance abuse and recovery and learned to wait out Jones's three-day binges. "His shaving kit was his security blanket," she says. "When he'd get into his rages on the whiskey, he'd grab it and leave. I think George had to get confidence in my love for him."
He also had to get some brutal news from his doctors: In 1984 the 5'7" singer, down to 105 lbs. from 175, was told, he recalls, that he had only "a couple more days of drinking left to live." George entered the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham and spent four weeks drying out, joined in his hospital suite by Nancy. "I did a lot of thinking," says Jones. "Got thousands of encouraging letters. Said a lot of prayers. And I made up my mind—enough of that."
The cure was an agonizing one, with recurring withdrawal symptoms that plagued him for the next year. "I'd gel deathly sick at the stomach," says Jones, who checked himself back into the hospital seven limes. "Like you're poisoned to the bone. I'd just get down on the floor, gagging, trying to vomit and couldn't."
But the real test, says Nancy, who now serves as Jones's manager, was George's first show, in Birmingham, without booze to numb his terrible stage fright. "It never registered on George how important he is to country," she says. "He had to learn he didn't need whiskey to walk onstage and get his music across. The hardest thing we ever went through was the first time he sang sober. We both cried when he went onstage. He didn't think they were going to like him. I knew if he could get through that first one, we got it whipped. And he did it." Gradually, Nancy offered each of the promoters who had been burned by No Show an unpaid appearance. "We probably did 50 shows that way," Nancy says. "And got their trust back into George."
Now, says Nancy, "we leave George alone for 30 minutes in the bus before a show to psych himself up. He walks back and forth and goes to the bathroom 20 times, he's so tensed up. He won't talk or do anything. He says if you get confident, it's time to quit."
The transformation has amazed even the skeptics. Says Kentucky bassist Ron Gaddis, a Jones Boys member since 1980: "People around Nashville gave up on George. They thought he was pretty much doomed. It's such a thrill to be up there with him now. He's really pounding it."
Jones wakes at 6:30 one recent morning in the home he and Nancy have shared for three years in Brentwood, a Nashville suburb. He heads out to putter around and plan his dream house on the 70 acres of farmland they recently bought. He is a protective, involved stepfather to Nancy's daughters, Adina, 25, and her sister, Sherry, 24, who is married and lives in Nashville. But Jones sadly admits his failures with his own children. "That's one of the things I really missed out on in life. On the road so much, you don't gel to know them." He hardly speaks to Jeffrey, 37, and Brian, 34, his sons by his second wife, Shirley. "They won't call me," he says. "I don't know what the deal is." He hasn't heard from Georgette, now 22, for two years. "All she knows is what she's been taught," says Jones. "We're not as close as I'd like to be." He is proud of his daughter Susan, 40, by first wife Dorothy, and enjoys her two children, Jennifer and Michael, who live nearby. "The kids come over and see us all the time," he says.
Jones talks of easing up on the road after next year, of going pond-fishing and building a stand for spotting deer, and of putting a satellite dish out on the farm. Nancy doubts he will ever stop touring, but she does see another side of the Ol' Possum now. "He's really being a husband," she says. "He's done all the wrong and he's working on doing right now."
AS HE SNARLS IN HIS FRISKY AND DEFIANT ANTI-AGEIST HIT SONG, George Jones "don't need your rockin' chair, your Geritol or your Medicare." Besides, if the Ol' Possum needs to rest his world-weary bones, he can still lay undisputed claim to the throne of country music. But at 61, the white-haired, endearingly humble Jones seems more bent on being reborn than retired as a honky-tonk holy man in today's New Nashville.