Although it was hardly a surprise, country-music fans around the world have heavy hearts today after the passing of George Jones. Jones, a native of the Southeast Texas town of Saratoga who broke into the music business on Houston-based Starday Records, was far and away one of the most-decorated and best-selling male vocalists in country-music history.
The man once known as "No-Show Jones" and always as "Possum" was arguably best-known for ballads like "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "Color of the Blues," songs that went beyond heartbreaking and landed somewhere closer to despondent. But he had another side of his personality, one that can best be described as a downright rascal. That side would pop up now and again in sunnier songs like "White Lightnin'," "The Race Is On" -- despite the subject matter -- and '80s hit "The One I Loved Back Then."
A shy person by nature, Jones turned to alcohol and drugs to overcome his crippling stage fright and enliven the tedium of the road, and thus left behind a long history of brawls and arrests that would rival any of today's TMZ hit parade. In fact, long before today's tabloid-TV saturation, Jones set a dubious precedent with his early-'80s confrontation with a Nashville cameraman after he had been pulled over on the highway.
Before he cleaned up and settled down, which took a while, Jones could trash a hotel room as well as any British rock star, and once shot a bunch of holes in the floor of his tour bus. He recounts many such incidents in his is must-read 1996 autobiography, the (very) aptly named I Lived to Tell It All, but the most famous of all has to be what has become known as "the lawn mower story." He was still living in Southeast Texas and married to second wife (of four), Shirley Corley.
Once, when I had been drunk for several days, Shirley decided she would make it physically impossible for me to buy liquor. I lived about eight miles from Beaumont and the nearest liquor store. She knew I wouldn't walk that far to get booze, so she hid the keys to every car we owned and left.
But she forgot about the lawn mower. I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat; a key glistening in the ignition.
I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.
That story has long been country-music folklore, and Jones grew to have a sense of humor about it. Besides his own "Honky Tonk Song" above -- that's Texas guit-steel great Junior Brown as the sheriff, too -- he also appears on a riding mower in the videos for Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight" and Vince Gill's "One More Last Chance."
He vehicular misadventures didn't stop there, either. In March 1999, he was seriously injured in a one-car accident near Nashville when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a bridge abutment. Jones had supposedly been talking to the president of his record label and then his stepdaughter before the crash, where he suffered a collapsed lung and ruptured liver. Besides Jones' own song "Choices," the incident inspired the memorable Drive-By Truckers song "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues."
We found out something else today while researching the ol' Possum. He could have had another big hit after "He Stopped Loving Her" in the late '80s, but apparently passed on "All My Exes Live In Texas," opening the door to another George: King Strait.
"My excuse on those songs was because a jukebox was playing in the background and it distracted my attention," he said. "Truthfully, you end up passing on songs that do turn out to be hits but maybe they weren't really right for you so you can't second-guess yourself."
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Rest in peace, Possum. Thanks for all the great stories.