Jonesin' 

The greatest, most embattled country singer alive lives to enjoy it all

The greatest, most embattled country singer alive lives to enjoy it all

George Jones

50 Years of Hits, A Soundstage Special Event (9 p.m. Thanksgiving, WNPT)

50 Years of Hits (3 CDs, Bandit/Welk Music Group)

Just how different is a 73-year-old George Jones from the infamous hell-raiser of years past?

Consider this: When PBS spent two days this fall taping an all-star celebration of his 50th anniversary as a country star, the man once known as No Show Jones was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave 12 hours later.

Each day, Jones' wife Nancy brought along several carloads of children, grandchildren and extended family members. The youngest of them took turns climbing onto Jones' lap on a couch in the Green Room; the others laughed and ran around amid the camera crews and entourages. The host handed out bottles of George Jones White Lightnin' water and George Jones Country Sausage and Biscuits, the latter warmed in microwaves and kept that way in sterno-heated serving trays.

As the rehearsals progressed and each of the 21 singers performing in the tribute arrived to run through their chosen song, the once recalcitrant singer embraced each of them as they walked in, conversing and joking like a patriarch welcoming family members to a holiday reunion.

There was no favoritism either. Nashville outsiders like Aaron Neville and Shelby Lynne were treated with the same down-home charm as current superstars Alan Jackson and Martina McBride or esteemed veterans Connie Smith and Emmylou Harris. Jones talked to them about family, about careers and, nearly to a person, suggested they come visit him at home or arrange to dine with him and his wife Nancy at Carrabba's Italian Grill, Mario's or one of his other favorite restaurants.

Conversely, every performer basked in the attention Jones gave them. At one point, the Country Music Hall of Famer yelled down a backstage hall to Kenny Chesney—"Come over here, son, I have someone who wants to meet you"—so he could introduce the young star to his swooning granddaughter. Afterward, Chesney started back toward the dressing room and beamed, "Can you believe George Jones called me son?"

Jones was similarly generous onstage. During his duets, he cut up with each singer while guiding them patiently through the tricky patches of his songs. Watching him help Wynonna with the difficult meter of the George-and-Tammy classic "We're Gonna Hold On" or assisting McBride with the unusual phrasing of the 1956 hit "Just One More" was like seeing a master craftsman sharing trade secrets with talented younger members of his guild.

Just as often, Jones expressed his love for seeing another singer give a startlingly good performance. To see the enthusiasm on his face as he listened to Shelby Lynne wring tenderness and lust from "Take Me" or hearing him bellow "oh yeaaaaah" after Randy Travis nailed a version of "Once You've Had the Best" was to witness an idol revel in his acolytes' achievements.

The most telling moment during the taping, though, had nothing to do with stars. When Jones was rehearsing "Golden Ring" with Connie Smith, he started into his first line, his inimitable vocal tone echoing back to the Green Room. Kyle Smith, one of his pre-school grandchildren, heard just a couple of words and instantly turned his head toward the door leading to the stage. "Grandpa!" he shouted, not able to see what was happening beyond the walls, but knowing exactly who was singing.

What's remarkable about this scene is what it says about how settled and family-oriented Jones has become in recent years. Once the wildest and most self-destructive of his generation of honky-tonkers, Jones, now a lion in winter, has eased into his 70s with a grandfatherly grace few would have predicted.

With Ray Price's recent heart problems taking him off the road, no other stone-country singer who began scoring hits in the '50s remains as active as Jones. With the death of so many icons in recent years, how ironic is it that the few popular music legends still working the road hard include such incorrigible wild men as Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry?

Of them all, only Jones would have had such a family atmosphere at a TV taping. When Berry took part in a tribute show in St. Louis that coincided with the recent release of an album of covers honoring him, the irascible rock 'n' roller had all participants informed that they shouldn't approach or speak to him unless he spoke to them first. Lewis often stays isolated when not recording or performing, and Little Richard is as eccentric and egocentric as ever.

Jones' tribute show, which airs Thanksgiving night on WNPT, benefits from the loose, friendly atmosphere that its honoree created. Most musical TV tributes underscore how hard it is to re-create the magic of a legend's best-known work; however, the Jones special works because of the obvious connection between the man and those paying their respects. This isn't a gathering tilted heavily toward young crossover-country stars with little connection to the artist being toasted. Each of the featured artists has a personal relationship with Jones; their love for the singer and their connection to his material is often palpable. Their performances might not equal the majesty of Jones' best, but all do a decent job of showing why the song they chose to perform deserves its status as a country standard.

Jones' strong presence—he performs both solo and in several duets—helps as well. His range and power aren't what they once were, but his phrasing and ability to convey the emotion of a lyric remain unassailable. The first time he started into a rehearsal of his best-known song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," all activity in the building came to a stop by time he'd finished the first line. A crew member hurrying along the side of the stage with a lighting battery pack literally caved in, his shoulders slumping and his knees buckling; he just turned around and stared, his mouth open in awe. In the wings, Vince Gill and Amy Grant stood holding hands, and as Jones continued to sing, both of them wiped tears from their cheeks. The song had the same effect on the audience at the Acuff Theater later that night; wet eyes and cheeks were visible throughout the hall.

In the liner notes to his new career-encompassing album, 50 Years of Hits—the first album to combine hit songs from all the different record labels for which he has recorded—Jones says, "I'm at a really good place in my life right now. I wish it could have happened 20 or 30 years ago, but I'm grateful it happened at all. For the first time in my life, I don't depend on alcohol and drugs to get over my shyness or to deal with people's expectations."

Or, as he said after taking a long drink from a plastic water bottle during the live taping, "Ooooh, that's good. Man, I wish I'd discovered this stuff a long time ago."

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