My all-time favorite George Jones story is about the time he was playing a show with several artists. Jones, always the closer on nights like these, was moved up a spot to make room for up-and-coming star Buck Owens. Jones was pissed, but he didn’t fuss about it. He just went out and played Owens’ entire set and as he walked off stage, he told Buck, “You’re on!”
That story and many others are told by Pittsburgh-based author, music historian and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributor Rich Kienzle in his new book, The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones [Dey St., 280 pp.] which was released March 29.
Jones, known for hits like “The Race Is On,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and dozens of others (both as singer and as a writer for other artists), spent 59 years in the music business and 81 years on earth — both, you’ll discover in Kienzle’s book, miraculous feats. He had a fondness for drinking and seemed to be on a bender from the late 1950s until sometime in the late 1980s. He did copious amounts of cocaine, was arrested numerous times, had a habit of driving drunk and crashing cars, and escaped death on more than one occasion.
Kienzle takes you seamlessly and carefully through Jones’ life by using a compelling narrative. One of Kienzle’s favorite topics was Jones’ habit, when he was really wasted, of skipping shows or going on so intoxicated that he gave a horrible performance and usually angered his fans. In one anecdote, Kienzle says about an August 1982 show in Augusta, Ga.: “After a drunken, half-assed performance that ticked off the audience, he compounded the insult by refusing to sign autographs.” Jones’ friend Pee Wee Thompson, who styled his hair much like Jones, “went to protect [George’s] motorcycle only to be attacked by fans thinking he was George.”
Kienzle’s book is full of tales like this, but those stories combine to show how Jones could stay alive, and even more surprisingly, keep working, given his life choices. Writes Kienzle: “Beyond the demons and the triumphs, the legends and stories true and false, his music remains his most powerful monument.”