My memory has a terrible calendar so I can’t name the year but one night George Jones, who is right up there on “my greatest of all time” with Elvis, Conway Twitty, and Merle Haggard, was singing to a sellout crowd at the Memorial Auditorium and I stopped by for a drink with “The Possum (in country music it ain’t spelled with an “o”.)
They called George “The Possum” early on because he admitted he looked a little like a marsupial back when he first started with a mail-order guitar in Texas, but he never put the instrument down for the rest of his life, to the delight of literally millions of folks like me. George, if you don’t know, died last Friday and they will bury “The Voice” at a huge service Thursday that will fittingly be held at the Grand Ole Opry at 10 am (CDT).
George, who was bad about taking a drink back then, wasn’t going on the stage until 8 p.m. so Clyde Hawkins, who ran the auditorium so magnificently for years, had it arranged for me to go to George’s dressing room about 7:15 to share a joke or two, have a sip and write a story about what it was like to have a drink with the very guy who sang, “She Thinks I Still Care.”
Sure enough, he opened the door on my first knock but it was quickly apparent he’d helped himself to several knocks of the dark-brown before I arrived. There was a woman with him who was really big – not so much fat as huge – over six feet tall and built like you’d expect a female linebacker might look like.
She had a black leather dress that went rather tightly all the way to her ankles and there was a corset contraption that cinched her waist into about the size of a softball before pushing up an expansive bosom so high she could rest her chin on her front. George saw my bulging eyes rolling around and got so tickled he decided we should all have another drink. I told him if he was talking to me it was last week, which also got him tickled.
Well, we just sat around laughing, swapping jokes, and it was the most fun. He talked about the rough times he had endured and how things were finally going good. He said he’d rather sing a sad song than eat but I told him his voice on “White Lightning” wasn’t sad at all, neither was the “Little Red Corvette.”
His greatest song was probably the Grammy Hall of Fame tune that really was sad, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but all of that flew past as the giant lady kept us in ice. Within 30 minutes I was buzzed but George was so relaxed, so easy, that his engine light didn’t even glow. But how he stood and sang for the next two hours defied imagination. “I gotta’ little experience,” he mused between sets.
“The Possum” was as kind and as warm as anyone you’d ever meet. Down through the years, when I’ve been around celebrities, the one constant is the higher you go, the more real they become. Seriously, superstars don’t just pop up; they become. George Jones, when he died at age 81 last week, was actually 153 if you also counted the nights. Lordy, he was legend.
Seven years ago, in an interview with the Nashville Tennessean, he said candidly, “I messed up my life way back there, drinking and boozing and all that kind of stuff and you wish you could just erase it all. You can’t do that, though. You just have to live it down the best you can.”
Of course, the greatest stories about “The Possum” included his life-long affinity for riding lawn mowers. One night when he was living about eight miles outside of Beaumont, Tex., his wife at the time – Shirley Corley – had hidden all the car keys so George wouldn’t go get more whiskey. As he looked out a window at the back of the house, a property light revealed salvation. “There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did!”
George was later married to Tammy Wynette and pulled the caper again. In her book she wrote about waking up one morning around 1 a.m. "I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away. When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He'd driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, `Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she'd come after me.'"
Everybody joked about Jones’ lawnmower rides for years but the night I was with him I didn’t dare mention it, not in front of the big lady wearing the leather, but I admired the way he finally outlived his demons and, over the weekend, was called the “king of country” by a lot of people.
Today I must have 20 “Jones songs” on my iPad. My personal favorite is “I’ll Always Get Lucky With You" but I listen to “Jones” all the time. The beautiful part about music now is that “The Voice” will last forever. Once in another interview ”The Possum” himself said it best: “That’s what you live for in this business, really: to be remembered.”
Everybody will remember their own George Jones’ stories on Thursday morning when he will pack The Grand Ole Opry for a final time. I just wish he could hear the standing ovation.