While Friday’s news of George Jones’ passing at the age of 81 prompted an outpouring of grief from music lovers everywhere, it hit particularly hard in the Gate City.
Jones, widely regarded as the greatest country singer of all time, entertained thousands there during his multi-year run as the featured performer at the city’s annual Labor Day celebration.
He first appeared at the festival in 1999 to help the city mark its sesquicentennial. And kept on coming back for years after that.
“We were really surprised we could get him back year after year,” said Gail Sammons, a member of the Catlettsburg Community Leadership Development Club, which organizes the Labor Day celebration.
According to Sammons, it was Mark Plummer, the city’s retired police chief, who initially brought Jones to town. Plummer, who wasn’t available for comment on Friday, was close friends with the star and once worked for him a security guard.
Jones’ last appearance in Catlettsburg was in 2010. Lorrie Morgan was to have headlined the festival the following year, but her performance was rained out, so she returned to play there last year.
Sammons said there was talk of bringing Jones back to town one last time. Late last year, the singer announced his farewell tour, which was to have concluded with a star-studded performance in Nashville on Nov. 22. Sammons said Plummer had recently told her Jones was holding the Labor Day date open for Catlettsburg should the city want to book him for the festival.
“It’s sad knowing that he won’t be back,” she said. “He seemed liked family to everyone who knew him. He loved coming to Catlettsburg and we loved having him.”
In addition to the Labor Day celebration, Jones played countless shows over the years at other venues in the Tri-State, including the Paramount Arts Center and Huntington’s Big Sandy Superstore Arena. Jones had been scheduled to perform at the latter in September, but the show was canceled because of illness.
Jones had been hospitalized since April 18 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, according to his publicist, Kirt Webster. He was admitted with fever and irregular blood pressure.
Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.
“That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward,” he recalled in “I Lived to Tell it All,” a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. “It started what almost became a lifetime trend.”
The family lived in a government-subsidized housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would rouse the children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him. His father also noted that young George liked music and bought him a Gene Autry guitar, with a horse and lariat on the front that Jones practiced on obsessively.
He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once dropped by the studio to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.
“Hank had ‘Wedding Bells’ out at the time,” Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. “He started singing it, and I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared.”
After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called “No Money in This Deal.”
He had his first hit with “Why Baby Why” in 1955, and by the early ‘60s Jones was one of country music's top stars.
“I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That’s what country music is about,” Jones said in a 1991 AP interview. “My fans and real true country music fans know I'm not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song.”
Jones was married to Tammy Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Jones' weary knowledge of domestic warfare was immortalized in such classics as “The Battle,” set to the martial beat of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
After one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys to keep him from carousing. Years earlier, married to his second wife, he had also sped off on a mower in search of a drink. Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, “Honky Tonk Song,” and poked fun at himself in a Big & Rich video that featured him pulling up to a party aboard a mower.
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ‘70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation. In his memoir, “Satan is Real,” Charlie Louvin recounts being offered a fistful of cocaine by Jones backstage at a concert.
“In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time,” Jones wrote in his memoir. “If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep.”
In 1980, a 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a ballad by Braddock and Curly Putnam. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn't master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude (“She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good.”)
“Pretty simple, eh?” Jones wrote in his memoir. “I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I’d fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines.”
Jones was convinced the song was too “morbid” to catch on. But “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
“There is a God,” he recalled.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS also contributed information to this story.
KENNETH HART can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2654.