George Jones’ first gig away from his Beaumont, Texas, home happened in 1947, when the gifted 16-year-old singer and guitarist, upset over a blowout with his dad, left and spent several months singing at a Jasper, Texas, radio station, 70 miles away.
But the real touring started in 1955, in the wake of “Why Baby Why,” his first hit single, and it’s gone on ever since.
In 2013, he’ll take to the road one last time.
In August, the 81-year-old Jones, currently touring through December, announced he’ll retire from performing after a 60-city Farewell Grand Tour to take place next year.
His goal: to spend more time with his family. He’s also planning a new album, 57 years after his first vinyl LP, “Grand Ole Opry’s New Star,” released in 1956.
Jones will perform Saturday at Embassy Theatre.
Jones is not the first country singer to retire. Grand Ole Opry star Carl Smith, first husband of June Carter long before she ever worked with Johnny Cash, retired in the ’70s to raise horses with second wife Goldie Hill. Buck Owens retired in 1980 to tend to his business holdings, but resumed limited touring in the ’90s.
In the beginning, Jones was an acolyte of Hank Williams Sr., emulating both his sound and his hard living. Eventually, Jones came into his own on both scores. He developed a unique vocal style, emotive and pliant, that has never failed even when other parts of his life and career were in shambles. And his rowdy lifestyle took on mythic proportions when he wed his third wife, country singer Tammy Wynette, in 1969. The pair’s stormy relationship was mirrored in their hit duets such as “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring.”
Jones’ already legendary drinking reached new heights during this period, with tales of Jones driving his riding mower to the nearest bar after Tammy took away his car keys. His substance abuse problems intensified with his introduction to cocaine in the ’70s.
All the personal problems began to take their toll, and Jones began to miss shows, lots of them. So many that he soon earned the sobriquet “No Show Jones.”
“My biggest regrets are the time periods when my addictions caused me to miss so many shows and let my fans down,” Jones says. “Surprisingly, most of them don’t hold it against me and they still come to see me.”
Jones cleaned up his act in the ’80s, thanks largely to the efforts of his fourth wife, Nancy. Together, they have done much to rehabilitate his image, with the hard-touring singer seemingly trying to make up for every one of those missed shows.
Jones’ supremely gripping vocals on records and onstage justifiably earned him the reputation as country’s greatest living singer, a gold standard no one has touched.
Tunes like “Window Up Above,” “Tender Years,” “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” are among the greatest country performances of any era. It’s why Jones’ fan base today ranges from the elderly to folk, punk, rock, blues and Americana players.
When in good shape, he held audiences in the palm of his hand, and when he finally kicked the booze and drugs in the 1980s, he entered a long period of reliability that left audiences – and Jones himself – satisfied.
He could still chart Top 20 singles in the 1990s and remained on the charts well beyond that, even after he rebounded from a 1999 relapse into drinking that nearly killed him when he piled up his SUV near his Franklin, Tenn., farm.
In recent years, he’s understandably slowed down. The decades have taken a toll on his voice that’s become more apparent in the past few years.
Earlier this year, recurring upper respiratory infections hospitalized Jones, forcing him to postpone concerts, and such things can wreck havoc on any singer’s breath control.
Jones says it’s the fans that keep him going.
“It is so great to look out over an audience, young and not so young, and have them singing along to every song,” he says. “It is the greatest feeling. I could never repay all my fans have done for me.”
The Memphis, Tenn., Commercial Appeal contributed to this story.