The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones
By Rich Kienzle
Dey Street Books, 288 pp., $27.99
Since his 2013 passing, George Jones of course no longer holds the frequently bestowed title of “Greatest Living County Music Singer,” the “Living” part in deference to Hank Sr. But this brief but richly written bio by longtime music scribe Kienzle is the most comprehensive look at the wild life, musical career and, most important, inner workings of the Possum — a nickname, we see, he alternately hated and cherished.
Of course, Kienzle retells some of the more offbeat trials and tribulations that have become part of Jones lore: the time his wife took away his car keys, so he drove a tractor to the liquor store; the car crashes and cocaine binges; his bizarre “Duck” and “Old Man” voices and personae; a stormy marriage to singer Tammy Wynette; and the scores of drunken performances and missed concerts which gave him the moniker of “No Show Jones.”
But he also unearths even more stories with research and original interviews. One time early in his career, in order to cool down a non-air-conditioned bus, Jones shot several holes in the floor of his non-air-conditioned bus, not realizing that those holes only served to suck in the vehicle’s exhaust fumes.
Or once, drunk, he passed out in a shower stall; only the combination of his naked ass covering the drain and the quick-thinking Faron Young pulling him out likely saved him from drowning.
“Sober, he had [mother] Clara’s noblest attributes,” Kienzle writes of Jones's early drinking, the beginning of a pattern he held for decades. “A binge summoned forth the obnoxious, abusive spirit of George Washington Jones. If he realized what he’d done after sobering up, remorse set in and apologies flowed — until the next whiskey was poured.”
But, thankfully, Kienzle also gives ample pages to the story and development of Jones’s musical life. And while he started off singing in the styles of heroes like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe (Jones was, by all accounts, a gifted mimic), he eventually found his own voice awash in deep heartache and regret.
Like Frank Sinatra, George Jones (who died three years ago this week) could really live inside and interpret a lyric in songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above,” "The Battle," “The Grand Tour,” “A Picture of Me (Without You)," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and what many consider his finest song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” That last title a movie-worthy story in which the protagonist’s pining for a woman ends only with his death and a funeral that she attends.
Kienzle also details Jones’s frustration with and disdain for the creeping influence of pop into the country music of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that, while hugely commercially successful, sounded closer to bland soft rock than country. He did appreciate members of the “New Traditionalist” movement — most specifically Alan Jackson, who became a close friend — for swinging the pendulum back a bit.
There are also stories of financial chaos and mismanagement that Jones himself was largely responsible for, and his fractious relationships with his children.
Houston appears in the book throughout the narrative, mostly in Jones’s work recording for Harold "Pappy" Daily's Starday Records. He also appears at several Bayou City venues (Cooke’s Hoedown, City Auditorium, Amma Dee’s, Dancetown USA) and in remembrances by friends and fellow musicians from the area.
And then there’s the tragic 1965 incident after a show near a club called Shelley’s in La Porte (later the site of the original Gilley’s), where the president of Jones's fan club was found beaten and strangled to death a short distance away. Jones and his band were the last people seen with her, so they remained under a cloud of suspicion until a transient admitted to the crime.
The Grand Tour is an apt title for this deep survey of George Jones, who with the help of fourth wife Nancy sobered up and spent the last 20 years of his life basking in the accolades of his legacy. And with a movie of his life in the planning stages, there’s still some Show left in this No Show yet.