Before George Jones made it big in country music with his 1959 hit, “White Lightning,” the Hank Williams-obsessed twentysomething was a United States Marine. Six years later, he was recording a song written by the Big Bopper and writing songs that would be sung by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn.
Jones’ military career was just three years long. Stationed in San Jose, California, he managed to miss the entire Korean War, being discharged in 1953.
Through it all, the legendary singer-songwriter struggled with alcoholism like his daddy before him. Even after he was invited to sing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, he was already once divorced, singing at the worst honky tonks in Texas. Throughout the 1960s, Jones was known for showing up drunk to things, be it a show, a recording or a friend’s house in the middle of the night.
In 1967, Jones actually had to be forced into a detox facility to help curb his drinking habit. But nothing could actually stop him if he wanted a drink – and his ability to get a drink if he wanted one was as legendary as his songwriting.
One alcohol-related incident is remembered above all others, and is the subject of many stories, murals and no fewer than three recreations in modern country music videos.
His then-wife, Shirley Corley, claims she hid the keys to both cars one night while the couple was living outside of Beaumont, Texas. As far as he might go to get a drink, walking eight miles to get to the closest liquor store was a little too far. Jones, according to his autobiography, “I Live to Tell It All,” looked out the window and saw his salvation.
“There, gleaming in the glow, was that 10-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”
Jones drove the eight miles to Beaumont, Texas, to get his drinks, aboard a riding lawn mower. It was a move he would reference over and over in years to come, including in his own music videos.
He wrestled with his drinking habit – and sometimes drug habits – for most of his career. He managed to clean up for most of the 1980s but finally kicked the booze after a 1999 car accident found he was drunk behind the wheel. According to Jones, it “put the fear of God” in him.
Jones died at age 81 in 2013. His funeral produced more musical tributes than a three-day summer country concert, all for the former Marine who embodied an entire generation of country music.