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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 405

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This is the grave of George Jones.

Born in 1931, the greatest singer in the history of country music grew up in a musical family. His family bought him a radio at the age of 7 and he became obsessed with the country programming he heard, idolizing Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff from an early age. His father was an abusive drinker and unfortunately young George would learn a lot of lessons about this from him. His parents bought him a guitar at the age of 9 and he started busking on the streets of Beaumont soon after. Jones entered the music industry in 1947, when he moved to Jasper, Texas and started playing on radio stations there. He was married and divorced quickly for the first and very much not the last time, entered the Marines during the Korean War but didn’t see combat and never left the country, and was discharged in 1953.

When he left the Marines, Jones was determined to make it in the record business. At this time, he was basically a Hank Williams impersonator, which was hardly uncommon among country musicians at this time. His first single, “No Money In This Deal” was released in 1954 and it did OK. The next year’s “Why Baby Why” was Jones’ first hit and by 1956, he was a legitimate country star, albeit at a rough time for the music. With rock and roll starting to take over, the country establishment was freaked out. They tried to get Jones to cut some rockabilly numbers and he did, but he hated them. Jones was pure country. During the late 50s, he was a plugger, driving across the South to small towns and playing show after show, recording a lot of sides, getting some minor hits.

In 1959, Jones hit the top of the charts for the first time with “White Lightnin’,” one of his all-time classics, albeit not a particular favorite of mine. He later admitted that he himself was sloshed during the recording of the song and it took 80 takes to get it right. This would not be uncommon. The 1960s would see hit after hit after hit, but also a growing reputation as a complete mess and a drunk. This led to his most famous story, the 1967 incident where his wife hid his car keys so he couldn’t drive to the store for more booze so he took the riding lawn mower and drove that. But, still, you can’t question the quality of the music in these years.

In 1966, Jones met the rising star Tammy Wynette and they began their great collaborations and tempestuous relationship. To me, “Golden Ring” is about the pinnacle of all country music. They were married in 1969. Jones abused her though like he abused everyone else. He later denied he abused her, but she claimed it in her autobiography and he was a liar anyway. They divorced in 1976. However, they still played lots of shows and recorded lots of music together in the years after their divorce even though they didn’t like each other that much and despite Jones basically begging her on stage during shows to come back to him.

I hate focusing so much on Jones’ personal life because his music is so great, but that is so much of the story here and there’s no way around it. To me, his reached his artistic peak with the production of Billy Sherrill. Sherrill gets a lot of guff today for overproducing records. He was big into the sweeping orchestral arrangements that are admittedly over the top. And sure, they could be ridiculous. But at their best, and especially with both Jones and Wynette, they could significantly enhance a great country singer. “The Grand Tour” is a simply amazing song and the arrangements are part of that.

And then of course there was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” arguably the greatest song in the history of country music. Jones was a complete disaster by the time he recorded this in 1980. He was pretty much living out of his car by the late 70s, having filed for bankruptcy, not eating, and drinking to a massive excess. He didn’t want to record the song either, thinking it too mawkish. But Jones just absolutely nailed it. And it brought him back to the top of the charts. His last number one hit was “I Always Get Lucky With You” in 1984.

Jones was never much of a live performer. There’s a new release of a 1965 show that got good reviews and it’s on my list to hear but I haven’t yet. However, some of the reason he drank is that he had constant stage fright. He often didn’t show up for shows or was too drunk to go on or put on a decent show if he did. When he was on, he was great, but he was usually mediocre at best live. He did clean up more or less in the 1980s and actually performed sober in 1984 for the first time in over a decade. He started making up shows to promoters he had cancelled on by playing for free and playing sober. Of course, he had his famous relapse in 1999 when he crashed his car while drunk. I was in Tennessee at the time and this was a huge story, almost comically covered. He finally cleaned up for real after this and spent the rest of his life sober and performing. Most of the shows still weren’t very good but I do wish I had seen him at a casino or something before he died. That happened in 2013, at the age of 81.

But hey, let’s listen to the best of the Possum.

George Jones is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee. That grave is so delightfully over the top. Unfortunately, most of the great country artists died during the era of spartan grave stones, which totally counters the cheap flash and bang of Nashville. Jones, though, this is all out tackiness. And what is more Nashville than this grave?

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. I very super much appreciate it as I was incredibly excited to see this. If you would like this series to visit more country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Johnny Cash is in Hendersonville, Tennessee and Ray Price is in Dallas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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