It wasn't so long ago, if you were able to snag a pair of tickets to a George Jones concert, only half the battle was won. For certain, you wouldn't get many betting types to make book that this country music living legend would actually perform. And if he did, what kind of shape would he be in? Loyal but wary fans spent the better part of the 1970s and the first half of the Reagan dynasty watching their bantam-size hero careening across America's stages, drunk and drugged and nearly incoherent. When he was sober and he sang, it was worth the price of admission tenfold. But it got to the point where not too many fans--or promoters--were willing to take that risk.

That reputation for being an undependable, party-hardy Peck's Bad Boy earned him a nickname: "No Show" Jones. It's an old-news stigma Jones fears will dog him the rest of his life.

"Man, I'm getting old," drawls the legend during a preshow telephone conversation from Dayton, Ohio. "All I do now is watch TV and try to rest between shows. I wish folks would just believe me that I don't do that stuff anymore."

Still, the native of the Big Thicket area of Texas concedes that his reputation was a deserved one. A pair of hugely publicized marriages to singer Tammy Wynette were incendiary affairs whose failures were widely attributed to Jones' alcohol and drug abuse. Long after the second union had dissolved, and after his marriage to current wife Nancy, Jones' habits hadn't altered. In 1985, he had no choice but to change.

"I was drinking a lot and doing . . . well, some other stuff--bad stuff, man--when I suddenly found myself in the hospital. It was terrible. I realized with help from Nancy that I had to get out of the environment I had been in for all these years."

George Jones' self-exile came in the form of a music park about 40 miles outside Beaumont, Texas, close to the comfortable, soothing surroundings where he had spent his youth and earliest professional days. Jones claims that the five-year venture running Jones Country really turned his life around.

"It got my thinking cap back on," he says. "That business--and Nancy--saved my life."

Jones' long, prolific career began when he was 16, playing with local bands in taverns and honky-tonks around his hometown. After a two-year stint in the Marine Corps, he returned to Texas and signed with Beaumont-based Starday Records in 1953. After a few fits and starts, his career fired with 1955's "Why Baby Why."

By this time, much to the consternation of pure country artists like Jones, rock 'n' roll began looking like it was here to stay.

"Starting out just when the rock era was beginning sure made it hard on me," Jones admits. "But you do what you can to make a dollar." Jones moved to Mercury Records in 1957, where he began a reluctant experimentation with rockabilly, taking on the name "Thumper" Jones. After middlin' successes, he returned to his real name--just in time to score big with the Big Bopper's "White Lightnin'." It was Jones' first No. 1 hit, and, while definitely rockabilly, it is the song perhaps most closely associated with him.

Jones stayed with Mercury for a few more years, charting one more top hit, 1961's "Tender Years."

Immediately upon signing with United Artists in mid-1962, Jones struck gold in a big way: "She Thinks I Still Care" not only rose to the top of Billboard's country list, but it cemented his standing as a major star. Jones displayed a mastery of voice that found him exploring all registered vocal areas, rummaging freely between the shrillest prepubescent falsetto and the most ballsy bass.

The following five years found Jones bouncing around labels (UA, Mercury again, back to UA, Musicor, UA . . . ), pumping out hits like Texas sweet crude and pairing up with other stars of the day, including Melba Montgomery and Gene Pitney. During this time, Jones continued making his mark in the business with classics galore: "The Race Is On" (1964), "Things Have Gone to Pieces" (1965), "Walk Through This World With Me" (1967).

In 1971, Jones commenced a nearly 20-year relationship with Epic Records and famed producer Billy Sherrill. Simultaneously, George Jones and Tammy Wynette began their long and celebrated association. Over the next decade or so, the pair produced ten albums; a dozen hits, including several which rose to No. 1; two marriages and thousands of fireworks. While the fiery relationship has since become fodder for country music historians, it's not a period of time Jones cares much to chat about.

"We don't keep in touch anymore," Jones declares stiffly. "She has her life, and I have mine." Reminded of Wynette's comment, "He's the greatest voice in country music, and even though we couldn't live together, he'll always be my favorite singer," Jones allows for a small, bemused chuckle and says quietly, "Well, that's very nice of her." It's clear the subject is closed.

Even though the 1980s were prime "No Show" years, the Jones legend grew. And if fans couldn't see Jones and hear his voice sweeping effortlessly through octaves, wringing out every bit of meaning from each and every lyric, there were the albums. It seemed as if the tumult of his failed marriages to Wynette, the booze and drugs and the weariness of the road conspired to fill his elegant voice with the ability to interpret and define pain. Ballads like "He Stopped Loving Her Today" (1980) and "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" (1981) fueled the fires of rumor and cast away forever any notion that George Jones was just a legend.

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