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In late 1953, in Beaumont, Texas, George Jones met Harold "Pappy" Daily, a Houston record distributor and part owner of the small Starday record label. Jones had left home at sixteen, six years earlier, and was already divorced. He'd spent time in jail for nonsupport, had just been discharged from the U.S. Marines and was struggling as a performer in small honky-tonk clubs. Daily, who signed Jones to Starday and produced his records until the early '70s, helped turn the small-time singer into a star. But the first lesson Daily taught him took a long time to sink in.
During his first Starday recording sessions, Jones tried to sing like every other singer at the top of the country charts. Daily took Jones aside and offered him some advice: "George, you've sung like Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Can you sing like George Jones?"
Jones didn't listen. His first Top Ten hit, "Why Baby Why," in 1955, was a Hank Williams-style upbeat honky-tonk song, and his first number-one single, "White Lightning," in 1959, was a hiccuping novelty. The first hint of the real George Jones -- tortured, self-lacerating, slightly paranoid and somewhat delusional -- didn't appear on record until 1960, in "The Window Up Above," a touching but creepy ballad of infidelity in a young marriage. The narrator -- and the listener, too -- watches from a second-story window as his wife embraces her lover: "You must have thought that I was sleeping/And I wish that I had been/But it's best to get to know you/And the way your heart can sin."
That's the first time George Jones sounded like George Jones. Instead of the high, nasal delivery he employed on the earlier hits, Jones found his voice here, a sonorous and melancholy tenor as smooth, as he later sang, as Tennessee whiskey, and as full of pathos as any other voice in country music. And no one's ever sung with as much familiarity about sinful hearts as George Jones.
But even after "The Window Up Above," the novelty hits kept coming, from "The Race Is On" and "Love Bug" to his recent collaboration with Garth Brooks on "Beer Run." Even, God forgive him, "I Am a People." But "The Window Up Above" set the course for Jones' career during the 1960s and '70s, when he recorded most of his best songs and chronicled domestic turmoil and willful self-destruction as well as anyone ever has. Even when he was singing songs written by other people, as he's mostly done for the last 40 years, he managed to make the pain in them his own. His voice cracks, wrenchingly and believably, under the weight of his addictions and failed marriages. There's been enough pain around him, after all, that he recognizes it.
When he did record his own songs, he provided a refracted perspective on his own life. The 1975 song "These Days (I Barely Get By)," co-written with then-wife Tammy Wynette, is ostensibly a blue-collar lament about tough times. But a single line from the final verse cuts deep: "Worst of all was when she told me goodbye." Two days after he recorded the song, depending on the source, either Jones or Wynette walked out. They divorced within a year.
After breaking with Pappy Daily, Jones hooked up with Billy Sherrill, the architect of the much-maligned countrypolitan Nashville pop-crossover sound, with pianos, strings and syrupy backup choirs. In much the same way that he mined other people's songs to reach his own hurt, Jones found a chilling authenticity under the layers of Sherrill's slick studio production. Even as his personal life seemed most desperate -- in the late '70s, when he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, his weight reportedly dropped to 100 pounds -- he made the most accomplished album of his career, 1980's defiantly titled I Am What I Am. It's his only gold album, and it's full of gut-wrenching ballads such as "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which was written as a novelty but became a perfect country song, and "I'm Not Ready Yet," a simple love song that swells into a meditation on life and death.
What's most striking about the George Jones story at this late date, though, isn't the drinking, the drugs, the divorces, the no-shows or even the 1999 drunken-driving accident that nearly killed him. It might not even be the music. It's that he's survived at all. He's still here. When he sang "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," in 1980, who could have doubted it, and sooner instead of later?
There's a survivor's instinct in there somewhere. It's only apparent in the big view -- the individual songs reek of alcoholic self-pity -- and it's not healthy. Part of it is delusion, as in "She Thinks I Still Care" ("Just because I haunt the same old places/Where the memory of her lingers everywhere"). Another part is defiance, as in "Still Doin' Time" ("The ocean of liquor/I drank to forget her/Will kill me/but I'll drink till then"). Even his comeback song after the 1999 wreck, the Grammy-winning "Choices," is rueful but unapologetic, almost as if he's more sorry he got caught than he is for anything he did. "There were voices that told me right from wrong/If I had listened, no, I wouldn't be here today/Living and dying with the choices I've made."