First we must ask, do we need a new book about George Jones? After all, Jones told stories about himself in his 1996 autobiography, written with Tom Carter, I Lived to Tell It All (Villard). His and Tammy Wynette's daughter, Georgette, settled some scores with her father in her more recent memoir, The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George (Atria, 2011). There's even a little more adoration. In Charlene and Peanut Montgomery's The Legend of George Jones: His Life and Death (Heritage Builders, 2014), the authors love Jones and congratulate themselves for all they did to help him – and they sling some mud too, accusing Nancy Sepulvado Jones of being greedy and causing a rift with Jones' children.
So, is it possible that former No Depression contributing editor Rich Kienzle's new book, The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones (Dey Street/William Morrow) – releasing on April 26, the third anniversary of Jones' death – will make us love Jones any more or less, or reveal such stunning new details about his life that we'll reverse our opinions of Jones as the Greatest Living Country Singer? Is this the biography of Jones for which we've been anxiously waiting, that will provide clues to the Possum's erratic behavior, his anger and insecurity, his tendency to go on a drunken bender rather than to show up at his gigs? Will it clarify even further his deep love of the music, a love that made him the fount at which so many younger country musicians – and rock musicians – drank?
Thankfully, Kienzle's book never pretends to be an exhaustive or definitive biography of George Jones, though critics may certainly call it that. Of course, Kienzle provides the details of Jones' life early life in Thicket, Texas, as the son of George Washington Jones, a "tall, strong man who enjoyed the bottle, played the harmonica, and danced, but who also possessed a powerful work ethic," and Clara Patterson, a deeply spiritual woman devoted to family and religion who was also "fine singer and formidable organist."
Little George Glenn Jones came into this family in 1931, and as a youngster he loved singing the songs of the Carter Family with his clear, strong voice. As Kienzle points out, though, Jones' voice also attracted the attention of his often drunk father, who would stumble in, wake up his children, and demand that they sing for him or face a whipping with his belt. Kienzle points out that these early episodes scarred Jones for life: "For George Glenn,” he writes, “it was a paradox, being coerced to do the one thing he loved doing more than anything else – singing – or face a belt whipping. It became one of a number of deep scars that led to depression, conflicts, and feelings of worthlessness that didn't fade as he grew into adulthood. As he became one of the greatest singers of all time, beloved by his fans and admired by his peers, his shyness remained, aggravated by a gnawing sense he was somehow undeserving – particularly when he drank." In addition, Jones' mother once told him that she "feared she made a failure" because Jones gave himself up to drink and drugs and erratic behavior for much of his life. These two incidents, in Kienzle's account, lie at the heart of Jones' lifelong insecurity and anxiety about performing, and especially his tendency to not show up at shows – he didn't think he could give his fans what they deserve.
Kienzle’s book ranges over the broad outline of Jones' life, including his three marriages – especially his tumultuous relationship with Tammy Wynette – and his final marriage to Nancy Ford Sepulvado, the woman who in many ways saved his life and his career. It regales us with the well-worn tales of Jones driving his lawn mower from his house to the local liquor store, his love of buying homes and cars, and the fact that Jones didn't really want to record "He Stopped Loving Her Today" in the first place, even though it became the song that garnered him award after award. In this sense, the book reveals little new about Jones and his life and offers us little incentive to pick it up, in that regard.
Yet, the biographical details of Jones' life are beside the point of Kienzle's book. After all, though he draws deeply on interviews with many of Jones' friends and family members, Kienzle never talked to Nancy Sepulvado Jones. She may have refused to talk with him because she may have her own book planned, but her perspective on Jones' life would have made this a richer – one would hope – and more complete biography.
In the end, Jones' life was much less interesting than his music. Being drunk, missing concerts, and wrecking cars and marriages is the stuff of many musicians' lives, after all. Thus, the beauty of this book lies in Kienzle's offering up a fan's notes to the enduring power of Jones' voice and his canny vocal interpretation.
In his performance of "Window Up Above," Kienzle writes, Jones "delivered a stunning, mature performance reflecting his capacity to evolve while retaining the straight-ahead delivery so many admired."
About this same time, Buck Owens said of Jones, "I thought George was the greatest thing since sliced bread … if you listen to [the records of my] early years, you're sure gonna hear George." Melba Montgomery recalls that she and Jones "harmonized, blended well together, we just knew where the other one was going with the lyric … and we'd get a lot of songs on the first take," such as "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds."
Charlie Daniels, speaking at Jones' funeral, remained in awe of the way Jones "would hold on to a word, teasin' it, turnin' it, and make you wonder where he could possibly go with it. But then just at the right second he'd turn it loose and you'd just kinda smile, and admire … he sang for us all."
This is the story of a voice whose timbre and phrasing and enduring power shaped generations of singers, from Buck Owens, Vince Gill, and Bob Dylan to George Strait, Emmylou Harris, and Alan Jackson. So, step right up and come on and listen as Kienzle has some things to tell you.