"The Possum" took every setback life threw at him and turned it into music
I grew up a huge fan of George Jones. I was familiar with the legends, the hard-luck stories, the accounts of missed gigs and drunken riding-mower notoriety. I was mesmerized by his voice, like almost anyone with the ability to hear. So I was ecstatic when I got to open shows for him a few times in West Virginia, as a young performer. I remember one gig in particular: Aug. 22, 1993, in Parkersburg, W.Va. It stands out because it was my last show as a resident of that state. Sure enough, the very next day, with ringing in my ears from the night before and a tear in my eye as I loaded the trunk, I packed my car and drove to Nashville.
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I had no idea how well I would get to know George and Nancy Jones in the next 20 years. We had a mutual friend in my soon-to-be road manager, Brent Long, and he told them all about me. They took a real interest in my life, and all but adopted this young, lonely stray puppy. I would go fish at their farm ponds on my days off. When I got my first horse, I was still living in a small condo in town (yeah, I know, I'm not good at math) and George said, "Son, keep him out here on the farm." So I did. For free. I would be out there riding and look up, and here would come that golden voice in a golf cart. Often I would stay for dinner. He and Nancy were beyond generous to young crooners like me.
He was full of insight and perspective. Many of our talks were about country music, about its importance to its fans, keeping it alive. "Treat those people right, son, and they'll always be there for you." I got the sense in his later years his eye was on the future of this art form-an art form he perfected-even as his time on the charts had come to a close.
The strangest thing was, you would start to feel almost normal around him, watching football, eating dinner, telling jokes-just another legend in a La-Z-Boy recliner. And then I would go see him at the Grand Ole Opry or on the road and fans would start crying at the sight of him. He would bust into "White Lightning" and raise the roof. And then out of nowhere would come the words, "He said I'll love you till I..." and suddenly, I'm 12. And I'm back in West Virginia, and I'm studying those records, wondering what he's like. Or I'm 20 again, watching backstage the night before I leave home to chase my own dream. Wondering how he bends that word, how he milks every vowel. Watching how he works the mic, thinking, "Just how can one man sing that low and that high?"
Well, here's the thing. Country music is life. And his life was a song that went that low and that high.
Much will be written about the alcohol, the craziness or the wild side of the man. That's a "War and Peace"-sized book itself. But thankfully, the guy I knew and loved was who he became when he beat that.
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He was a case study in extremes, and God-given ability-and choices. Good or bad, A or B, forks in the road-life is a series of those. Just as Robert Johnson is fabled to have gone down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil, George Jones did that every time he walked in a bar. And similarly, without such deals, would his music have been as rich?
"Man, did he live hard. I swear I can hear the divorces, the wrecks, the arrests and the lawn-mower vodka runs in every sweeping note he sang," he said. "And later you saw the twinkle in his eye from beating those demons and running off with the musical spoils from such a life. Such bitter tragedy is only survivable with an equally formidable sense of humor. He sang and teased about his missed shows. Heck, his license plates read no show. He appeared in videos riding John Deere mowers. I got to record the goofiest things with him on a few of my albums, like "The Kung Pao Buckaroos" with pals Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson, and the outtakes were priceless, self-effacing gold-him teasing Jimmy about his height, Bill about his whispering.
Often he and Nancy were the first to phone whenever I fell on tough times-and good times. My greatest regret is that as my career got more and more successful, I got to see him less and less. I can't tell you how many voice-mail messages ended with "George misses you. And we love you." I know of a dozen other artists with similar stories. He may not have been on the country charts in the end, but a lot of us who are these days have him to thank. He wondered about his legacy a lot, but it's clear to me that it is immeasurably important. Our most inspiring singer of all time has an equally inspiring story.
He got knocked down, but he got back up every time. He took every setback life threw at him and turned it into music. He was loyal to country music, and its fans rewarded him with unwavering loyalty as well. He sang about himself, made fun of himself and gave us all a glimpse of what is possible. He found God. He found Nancy. Or they found him. And he was proof that a great woman's love can get a man through just about anything. He overcame physical injuries, mental anguish and bitter setbacks all to rise again and again from the ashes of his disasters like the sweetest-singing phoenix to ever live.
I will never forget him. And George, wherever you are, trust me when I say this: Country music will never forget you either. We miss you. And we love you.
Brad Paisley recently released his ninth studio album, "Wheelhouse," which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. He is on Twitter @BradPaisley.