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Published: Thursday, 4/12/2007

Country s George Jones has become a legend

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
George Jones comes to the Stranahan Sunday night. George Jones comes to the Stranahan Sunday night.
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George Jones legacy in country music is secure.

There s no doubt about that. It s secure because of the 170 songs he s put on the music charts, more than any other country music artist. Only Eddy Arnold has more Top 10 hits than Jones 78.

And it s secure because many of today s artists carry on his songs in their performances or his style in their writing. When artists list their influences, Jones almost always tops that list.

It s impossible to be a country artist without him being an influence, says Rodney Atkins, whose first, big professional performance was opening for Jones at Cotton Eyed Joes in Knoxville more than 10 years ago. His vocal ability is amazing. It s his songs, that voice, the way he was and is. He s country music.

He s a legend, but don t expect him to talk about it. Jones, nicknamed The Possum by a disc jockey because of his close-set eyes and upturned nose, doesn t do interviews anymore.

But don t be offended by that. Buddy Jewell, the winner of the first season of Nashville Star, tells how Jones, 75, had to be talked into going to speak to his own grandson s class because he was self-conscious about his worsening hearing.

[George s wife] Nancy called me and said, He really wants to go, but he s not going unless you go with him. It was supposed to be one class, but the whole sixth and seventh grades showed up. I was the facilitator. I would pass on the questions to him. I was George s interpreter, Jewell says, chuckling. He talked to the kids for an hour and a half.

The 11 and 12-year-olds missed out on most of Jones stories, many of which have become a part of country music history. Jones has been putting singles on the charts since Why Baby Why hit the airwaves in October, 1955, but it was also his personal life that became a part of his growing legend.

He lived the life of a country music star, of a country music song whether it was about drinking, women, divorce, relationships, Cliff Smithers, the afternoon DJ for Toledo s K100, says. His songs always seemed so real because he lived that life.

By his own admission, drugs and alcohol almost derailed his career. In his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, Jones tells the story of Shirley Corley, his second wife, hiding the keys to their cars so he couldn t drive to the nearest liquor store, which was eight miles away. Angry but undeterred, he looked outside and saw the keys in the ignition of his riding lawn mower.

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, Jones wrote.

Later, cocaine tormented him, sometimes causing him to miss scheduled performances. That earned him the unwelcome moniker of No-Show Jones.

And, early on, he didn t have any better luck with women. He married Dorothy Bonvillion in 1950, Corley in 1954, and fellow country musician Tammy Wynette in 1969. After those divorces, he married his current wife, Nancy Sepulvedo, in 1983. But despite the alcohol, drugs, and high-profile divorces, his popularity never diminished.

His career took off in 1959 when White Lightning climbed to No. 1 and held the top spot for five weeks. In the decades that followed, he topped the charts with Tender Years, She Thinks I Still Care, Walk Through This World With Me, We re Gonna Hold On, The Grand Tour, The Door, Golden Ring, Near You, He Stopped Loving Her Today, Still Doin Time, Yesterday s Wine, and I Always Get Lucky With You.

He s picked some great songs. His voice is so honest and real, believable, Jewell says. Take an 18-year-old kid, you re not going to believe him because he hasn t had that hard living. But [Jones] can make a song come to life.

But the hard-living Jones is no longer around. Smithers laughs at an experience he had with Jones the last time he was in Toledo several years ago. I went out to his bus right after he sang, and his manager met me, Smithers says. He said, Sorry, George already has his pajamas on. He s ready for bed.

Jewell marvels at how his pal is so normal.

He s a big fan of Merle Haggard. Even a guy that big has people he idolizes. He s just very real and down to earth. He even has a sign at his house that says, Home of George and Nancy Jones. It s not like he s hiding.

On Sunday night Jones, possibly for one of his last times, will visit Toledo. Jewell knows where he d be if he were in town out in the audience, singing along to one of his favorites, White Lightning.

I ve been fortunate to get to know guys like George, Porter Wagoner, Jimmie Dickens. It s sad to say, but these guys aren t going to be around forever. If you re a real country fan, you probably owe it to yourself to go see a guy like George Jones. He s an icon. We wouldn t have the ability to do what we do if it wasn t for guys like him.

George Jones and special guest Uptown Country Band will be in concert Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in the Stranahan Theater. Tickets range from $29.50 to $49.50 and can be purchased at the box office, online at www.ticketmaster.com, or by calling 419-381-8851.

Contact Brian Dugger at:bdugger@theblade.com.



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