This story originally aired on April 18, 2016.
In late 2013, a few months after the legendary Texas-born singer George Jones died, his Nashville friends threw a party.
The singer’s antics had become a part of country music folklore, like Willie Nelson’s pot smoking. But the mythology of George Jones hides a story that’s seldom told, perhaps because parts of it are too ugly or painful to retell.
Writer Rich Kienzle doesn’t pull any punches in his new biography of the possum, “The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones.”
Kienzle says Jones released an album in the wake of his first number-one record “White Lightning” with a now-famous portrait of the singer in profile with a flat-top haircut.
“Just the way he looked in that picture, with the way it was lit and his position, a personality in Nashville named T. Tommy Cutrer mentioned that George kind of looked like a possum,” Kienzle says. “And it stuck.”
Kienzle says Jones’s mother knew he was a good singer, but he had a more complicated relationship with his dad and music.
“When he would come in after working all day and he was drunk, he would push all the kids out of bed to sing for him,” Kienzle says. “And George, if he balked or anything, his dad would whip him with a belt.”
Jones knew he had talent, Kienzle says, but sometimes he felt unworthy of the respect he got. When Jones played guitar for a country music couple, he got to meet Hank Williams, who saw him sing and gave the budding musician some pointers.
“He gave him some carefully worded advice: ‘Don’t try to sound too much like me. Find your own style,'” Kienzle says. “It took George a few years to get that memo.”
Jones’s first hit to chart was “Why Baby Why.” He’d go on to have a string of hits into the ’60s, but his drinking would become more out of control. He earned a reputation for showing up late to his own shows, or not showing up at all.
Despite the fog of alcohol, he recognized something special in Virginia Wynette Pugh, a singer from Alabama who’d had modest success on the charts. A romantic partnership preceded their professional one and with a succession of hit singles, Tammy Wynette and George Jones became known as the first couple of country music. As their popularity rose, their relationship was falling apart.
Kienzle says one of the couple’s biggest duets came out of that fighting, “We’re Gonna Hold On.”
“There were good times, bad times,” he says, “but even when there were problems, they could still work together in the studio.”
As Jones’s binges turned violent and unpredictable, he fell into drug use as well. Many in the industry had given up on him – but then he recorded “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1980, which became one of his most iconic songs.
“George was in a bad way,” he says, “and he had to piece that vocal together from different sessions to get something that was usable. He framed that song in a way you could not turn away from it. When you heard the intensity of that performance and the way George so masterfully told that story, people just zeroed in on it.”
Jones seemed to get over his worst excesses but never completely gave up drinking. Once he had healed, he became a much more reliable performer and “no show” became a part of his mythology, Kienzle says.
“Suddenly, the ‘no show’ became part of the mythology,” Kienzle says, “because there were very few shows that he wasn’t appearing and giving a terrific performance on top of that.”
Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.