George Jones lived and sang about sorrow and poverty, and became one of the greatest country music singers of all time. He recorded more than 900 songs and charted the most hits of any country singer, but he paid the price of spending a tremendous amount of time on the road and sleeping in a bus or car while traveling from one city to another. He had a miserable childhood, multiple marriages and divorces, and abused his body and mind with drinking, smoking and drugs that destroyed his lungs, liver, heart and stomach.
Early Years in Music
He began his life in pain when the doctor who delivered him dropped him and broke his arm. He was one of seven children and grew up in the East Texas town of Saratoga, with a father who worked in a shipyard and was a violent alcoholic who brutalized his wife and children. He was exposed to music at a young age; his father played the harmonica and guitar and his mother played the piano. George got his first guitar at age nine. His father rewarded his musical talent by coming home with his drunk friends in the middle of the night and making his young son sing for them. As a teenager, George earned pocket money by singing on the street corners.
He left home at age 16 and went to Jasper, Texas where he sang on radio stations KTXJ and KRIC. Between 1947 and 1955, he worked and sang at radio stations, married and divorced his first wife, served in the Marines and began recording songs he wrote. His excessive intake of alcohol made him an angry person who had trouble staying in relationships. At age 19, he married Dorothy Bonvillion for one year. His third marriage at age 23, to Shirley Ann Corley, lasted for 14 years. He probably inherited his alcoholism from his father, because he had a chronic life-long drinking problem. He also smoked most of the time and took amphetamines and cocaine because, like many other musicians at that time, he thought that these drugs would make him a better performer.
With Tammy Wynette: Short Marriage, Lasting Duo
At age 37, he married budding country singer Tammy Wynette and in spite of fighting all the time about his alcohol and cocaine indulgences, they became the top country-music duo in the world. Even after they divorced after seven years of marriage, they still produced many top songs including “Golden Ring.” Their divorce really hurt him; he lost weight, never stopped drinking for any length of time, got into arguments with friends and strangers and missed recording sessions and concerts, sometimes without even cancelling them, and became known as “No Show Jones.” When he was 48, he weighed less than a hundred pounds because the alcohol had punched holes in his stomach so that he vomited every time he tried to eat. He was bankrupt and had to sleep in his car.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
He was so talented that when he abstained from alcohol, he would recover and his singing career would flourish. In 1980, at age 49, he recorded “He Stopped Loving Her Today” which was the most popular song in the country for 18 weeks. If you listen to the lyrics and the melody, you will have tears in your eyes. It tells the story of a man who was rejected by his girlfriend, but he keeps all of her letters and photographs and says he will love her until he dies. She finally returns to attend his funeral. The song was named best Single Song of the Year by The Academy of Country Music and it was the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year in 1980 and 1981. It was eventually voted the greatest country song of all time. It helped Jones win the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980 and led to a very rich contract with CBS Records.
In 1981, at age 52, Jones met and married Nancy Sepulvada, a non-drinker who got him to quit cocaine and reduce his consumption of alcohol. She helped to manage his money and career, encouraged him to make new records, sing duets with his ex-wife, Tammy Wynette, and show up regularly for concerts. He stayed mostly sober for the rest of the 1980’s and released several albums including Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes, whose title song won the CMA Video of the Year award.
Later Years and the End
Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, received the National Medal of the Arts and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and many other awards and honors. However, the last years of his life were horrible. Alcohol had permanently damaged his liver and the tobacco had permanently damaged his lungs, so his poor health dominated everything he did and he had to cancel and re-schedule performances over and over again. In March 2012, he develop a cough that worsened so much that in May he had to be hospitalized for five days. Later that year, he started what was intended to be a 60-city tour, but on April 6, 2013, he gave his last concert ever at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum. On April 18 he had to be hospitalized in Nashville, and after six days in the intensive care unit, he died on April 26, 2013. The official cause of death was given as “hypoxic respiratory failure.” His lungs were permanently damaged by years of smoking so he couldn’t get enough oxygen into his body to keep his brain alive. The week after he died, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was again listed as one of the top songs in the country.
Lessons from George Jones’ Life
• You never forget childhood poverty or abuse, which can leave permanent scars that foster insecurity and rage.
• Smoking causes permanent damage to the little hair-like structures, called cilia, that line the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from the lungs. Cilia are supposed to sweep mucous and the filth that you breathe in up to your mouth so you can swallow the pollutants that you have breathed in with the air. When your cilia are damaged, your lungs fill up with mucous, eventually enough to block oxygen from getting into your bloodstream. Without oxygen, your brain dies; Jones smothered to death.
• Chronic intake of alcohol can kill you by destroying your liver, heart, brain and every other organ in your body. Ten percent of all North Americans are alcoholics. Alcoholism means that a person does not have to drink, but once they take a drink, they have to keep on drinking. Alcoholics are unable to take just one drink, so they must avoid exposure to alcohol. They have to keep no alcohol at home, avoid people who drink, places where they serve alcohol and any exposure to alcohol whatsoever.
• Many musicians take amphetamines because they make them more alert and uninhibited and help them to put more personality into their performances.
• Narcotics such as cocaine are addicting. As soon as an addict’s blood levels of cocaine start to drop, the person gets sick and the only way they can feel better is to take more cocaine. It is almost impossible for most addicts to stop taking cocaine without gradually decreasing exposure. Many musicians use narcotics because they believe it makes them less inhibited so they are better performers.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com