I Lived to Tell it All
The story of George Glenn Jones and his voice is the story of country music. In the rough Big Thicket of 1930s and ’40s East Texas, Jones grew up idolizing the country’s first national success stories — Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, the Opry — even before his family moved to find steady work in the Beaumont shipyards. Like his heroes, he learned to sing in tiny Pentecostal churches, and he soon discovered he could sing the old gospel hymns so well that his drunken dad would violently roust George out of bed for impromptu camp-meetings. He liked the new Western cowboy songs too, though; his first guitar was decorated with a picture of Gene Autry.
Then a teenage George heard Hank Williams, saw the light and was changed forever, just as country music was, and he set out to playing dives he was legally too young to enter. Recording for Starday, Mercury and United Artists in the ’50s to mid-’60s, he kept honky tonk alive in the midst of Elvis’ rock ‘n’ roll universe, both by sticking within tradition — gorgeous, wretched ballads such as “Color Of The Blues”, “Tender Years” and “She Thinks I Still Care” — and by injecting many of his hits (“Why Baby Why”, “White Lightning”, “The Race Is On”, etc.) with riffs, rhythms and tempos that were just shy of rockabilly.
At Musicor in the late ’60s, Jones mastered the Nashville Sound, with Jim Reeves-ish ballads such as “Walk Through This World With Me,” and in the ’70s and ’80s, teamed with countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill, he sometimes added lush strings, pianos and choirs. But the point of it all remained his incomparable voice — frequently called country’s greatest ever — which helped keep twang on the radio when Olivia Newton-John and Kenny Rogers were cool and then sparked a congregation of new traditionalists converts: John Anderson, Randy Travis and George Strait, then Alan Jackson, Sammy Kershaw and Mark Chesnutt. The fall of trad-country, even as Hot New Country peaks, is Jones’ story too; nowadays, he can’t buy a hit.
Along this road were too many fifths of whiskey, handfuls of diet pills, and vial after vial of cocaine, all of which contributed greatly to three failed marriages and to addictions that very nearly killed Jones on more than one occasion. So I Lived To Tell It All, Jones’ account of this incredible life and career, has a lot to live up to. Generally, it’s not up to the job, but it’s also not a complete disappointment, either.
Co-author Tom Carter has become country music’s king of the “as-told-to” bio. Before this book, he has taken dictation from Ralph Emery, Buddy Killen, Reba McEntire and several others, and these best-sellers have given Carter a reputation for painstakingly capturing the voices of his subjects. This book shouldn’t add to that reputation. Some sections of the bio seem so repetitive and chronologically jumbled that you’ll wonder what services Carter provided at all; other passages collapse under the spell-breaking weight of what is clearly Carter’s own voice. The first line of “George’s” preface is typical: “The shoppers stirred impatiently on the Florida grass, looking closely for bargains at the yard sale” sounds like a sentence that 1,000 George Joneses typing for 1,000 years would likely never have written.
And that’s too bad, because when Carter just lets Jones tell his own stories, in his own Texas twang, it’s clear that Jones the storyteller needs little in the way of writerly improvement. His best stories are filled with the masterful understatement of one who has survived to tell some terrifying tales. When he concludes one section on another unsuccessful stint in rehab with “I wish it had taken,” we can hear his regret at the self-destructive stories that were still to come.
Some of those stories are already well-known bits of Jones mythology (George riding to the liquor store on a riding mower, George performing entire concerts in a Donald Duck voice), but they still make for reading that is both hilarious and grueling — and the book is filled with dozens more that are equally gripping. Country music fans will eagerly read about the time George got the shit kicked out of him standing up for Stonewall Jackson, or the time he visited a near-death Lefty Frizzell in that legend’s sad basement apartment, or his reaction to the suicide of singer Mel Street, and so on.
Those stories are undeniably great, but there’s not much else to the book. Many Jones fans, already disappointed by the way two previous Jones biographies have focused almost exclusively on the tabloid side of the singer’s saga, will be underwhelmed again by this version of the story. There are no revelations here about Jones’ motivations, either artistic or psychological; to be fair, George warns us off such expectations on more than one occasion. He can’t remember most of his recording sessions, he says, because he was just too drunk; he can’t provide analysis of his life and near-deaths because he doesn’t really have any.
What he does know is that he’s glad all that well-publicized pain (the vast majority of which he admits he brought on himself) is behind him, that he’s lucky to be alive, that he loves his wife Nancy. As for the music, its place in country’s history, and his incomparable voice, Jones seems content to let it speak for itself.