A solid, incisive biography of the last singer universally acknowledged as the greatest in country music.
It’s to Kienzle’s (Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz, 2003, etc.) credit that he neither downplays his subject’s notorious personal life nor allows it to overshadow the soulful majesty of his music. A veteran country-music journalist and historian, the author maintains that “Jones’s life and music are inseparable” and that the demons he battled—alcohol, cocaine, marital discord—were inextricable from the depths of emotion he plumbed through his unique timbre and phrasing. From Johnny Cash to Buck Owens, other masters of country music acknowledged that Jones had no peer as a country singer among the generations that followed Hank Williams, whom Jones initially did his best to imitate. Said Pappy Daily, who managed and nominally produced Jones through his early ascent, “George, you’ve sung like Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe. Can you sing like George Jones?” Once he developed his signature style—twisting a single syllable into three or four while retaining his raw, pure country essence—everyone in Nashville celebrated his artistry as the gold standard. Yet they also assumed that he would follow his idol Williams into an early grave and that loving this sincere and honest man meant having to forgive what a mean drunk and undependable performer he was. Even when he showed up, “No Show Jones” might not be able to stand up. His marriage to Tammy Wynette was pretty much a train wreck, though it elevated the profiles of both. In chronicling the rise, fall, and ultimate salvation of Jones, Kienzle relies more on secondary sources and archival material than on original reporting. With all the credit he gives Nancy Sepulvado Jones for saving her husband’s life as well as his career, it’s a shame the author never interviewed her. But as a straightforward, chronological celebration of the life of an American master, the biography gives Jones his due.
The expanding country bookshelf has another welcome addition.