George Glenn Jones, renowned country music singer, son of Clare (Patterson) and George Washington Jones, was born at Saratoga, Texas, on September 12, 1931. Jones was the youngest of eight children. His father worked as a log truck driver in the timberlands of the Big Thicket area surrounding Saratoga. Outside of work, the elder Jones was a heavy drinker who frequently quarreled with his wife and would often force his children to sing songs for him after a night out at the local honky-tonks. Jones’s mother was a religious woman who took her son to church at a local Pentecostal congregation. George’s father gave him his first guitar when he was nine years old, and Jones learned to sing and play through his family and at church. In addition to his Pentecostal upbringing, the Grand Ole Opry radio show was a major early influence on Jones. Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe were childhood favorites.
In 1942 Jones’s father found work as a pipefitter in the shipyard at Beaumont. In the wartime boom-town, young George Jones was exposed to the music of the proliferating working-class honky-tonks. He first played for money at a penny arcade on Pearl Street and soon became a regular busker on the streets of Beaumont. After discovering that he could earn money as a musician, Jones launched a professional musical career and never completed a formal education beyond the seventh grade. As a teenager, he first played on the radio for KTXJ in Jasper and he performed regularly in rowdy East Texas honky-tonks. At the age of eighteen he married his first wife, Dorothy Bonvillion, and she soon became pregnant. The marriage ended when Dorothy filed for divorce in July 1951, charging Jones with being a violent alcoholic. Jones was ordered to pay child support and quickly fell behind on the payments, for which he was jailed in September 1951. His first daughter, Susan, was born in October, and at a judge’s suggestion Jones joined the United States Marine Corps in November 1951 to avoid further jail time. He was stationed in San Diego, California, and served in the Marines until November 1953.
Upon his discharge from the Marines, Jones returned to East Texas. In early 1954 he signed with Starday Records, founded by Jack Starnes and Harold Wescott “Pappy" Daily, and Daily became his manager and producer. “No Money in This Deal” was released as Jones’s first single under the Beaumont area Starday label in February 1954. Although the song failed to chart nationally, it was reviewed favorably in Billboard. During the early 1950s Jones performed regularly on KNUZ’s Houston Jamboree, played honky-tonk gigs in Texas and Louisiana, and worked as a disc jockey on KTRM-Beaumont. It was while working at KTRM that Jones reportedly acquired one of his nicknames, “The Possum,” due to his close set eyes and wide grin. In September 1954 he married his second wife, Shirley Ann Corley. She bore him two sons over the course of their marriage, Jeffrey Glenn Jones in October 1955 and Bryan Daily Jones in July 1958. In October 1955 “Why Baby Why” became Jones’s first Top 40 hit, peaking at Number 4 on the Billboard country charts. As a result of his rising popularity, Jones was invited to become a regular cast member on the Louisiana Hayride in 1956, where he often shared the nightly lineup with Elvis Presley. Jones briefly delved into rockabilly in the mid-1950s under the moniker Thumper Jones. During the early part of his career he did considerable songwriting as well. After making his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in early 1956, Jones became a regular member in August of that year. In 1959 he achieved his first Number 1 single with “White Lightning,” a song authored by another Starday musician, Jiles P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Around that time, Jones made his home in Vidor just north of Beaumont.
The next decade saw Jones emerge as a major country music star, with more than fifty Top 40 hits, including three Number 1 singles—“Tender Years,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” and “Walk Through This World With Me.” In May 1964 Jones appeared alongside artists such as Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and Buck Owens in the National Country Music Cavalcade of Stars, a two-day country music concert at Madison Square Garden that reportedly drew more than 25,000 fans. Despite Jones’s popularity and commercial success, his personal life became increasingly marred by drug and alcohol use. In 1968 Shirley Jones filed for divorce, blaming Jones for “harsh and cruel treatment”; Jones moved to Nashville.
In February 1969 George Jones married Tammy Wynnette, at the time an up-and-coming country music singer with a string of recent Number 1 hits to her credit. By the early 1970s Jones had severed ties with his longtime producer Pappy Daily, and Jones and Wynnette lived in Florida for a time. In October 1970 Wynnette gave birth to a daughter, Tamala Georgette. Until their divorce in 1975, the marriage of “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” was notoriously rocky but artistically productive. Duets between Jones and Wynnette such as “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” and “Near You” became canonical country songs, and the duo went on to sing together frequently even after their divorce. Jones also had Number 1 hits with “The Grand Tour” in 1974 and “The Door” in 1975.
In the late 1970s Jones’s drug and alcohol abuse, largely blamed for his failed marriages, spiraled increasingly out of control. He earned the dubious nickname “No Show Jones” during this period as a result of the dozens of shows at which he failed to appear, and he declared bankruptcy in 1979. Arrests for failure to pay child support and charges of assault also highlighted Jones’s downward spiral. In spite of his nearly incapacitating substance abuse at the time, his Number 1 hit and perhaps most well-known song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” garnered Jones the Country Music Association Song of the Year Award for 1980, and he won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male. In the early 1980s he also had Number 1 hits with “Still Doin’ Time,” “I Always Get Lucky With You,” and a duet cover of Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine” with Merle Haggard.
In 1983 Jones married Nancy Sepulvado, a divorcee from Louisiana. Under Sepulvado’s care, Jones finally turned the corner on his addictions. In contrast to his reputation in previous years, during the 1980s and 1990s Jones became a dedicated touring musician. Although 1983‘s “I Always Get Lucky With You” was his last Number 1 single, Top 40 hits continued, and Jones frequently collaborated with artists from both country and other musical genres who viewed him as an American musical treasure and a representative of a bygone era of hard country. Jones’s turnaround rescued his reputation in the country music industry, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1994 Jones underwent triple bypass heart surgery. He published his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, in 1996.
While Jones never reclaimed the commercial success he enjoyed during the height of his career, he continued to place songs in the Top 40 in the 1990s and 2000s. Jones’s guest vocal on Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” won the Country Music Association award for Vocal Event of the Year in 1998 and became his last credited song in the Top 20. His May 1999 song “Choices” won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Shortly before “Choices” was released, Jones relapsed from his years of sobriety. He was charged with driving under the influence after he wrecked his vehicle in a nearly fatal one-car accident in Tennessee. Officers responding to the incident found a half-empty liquor bottle in the passenger seat next to Jones. After undergoing court-ordered treatment, Jones continued to tour and to refrain from drugs and alcohol. In 2008 he was a Kennedy Center Honoree. He was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, and in 2012 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On April 18, 2013, he was hospitalized in Nashville with a high fever and irregular heartbeat, forcing the cancellation of scheduled shows in Georgia and Virginia. Jones died at the age of eighty-one on April 26, 2013, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville. The George Jones Museum opened in downtown Nashville in 2015.
George Jones is widely considered the greatest country singer of all time. He was often seen as a representative of traditional or hard country as opposed to the pop-crossover sound favored by the Nashville recording establishment. His masterful use of melismatic vocal technique reflected the traditional religious singing traditions of his upbringing, and he represented in both song and lived experience what country music historian Bill Malone has referred to as the “moral and social dichotomy” of working-class southern life. In addition to multiple awards, over the course of his career Jones was credited with more than 140 songs in the Billboard Top 40, including thirteen Number 1 singles.