George Jones: Still doin' time

(CBS News) For his millions of fans, there's no mistaking the sound of George Jones. And there's certainly no mistaking the fact that he's traveled a country mile (and then some) to get to the top of his field. Our chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer journeyed to the capital of country music, Nashville, for this Sunday Profile:

"We're from CBS News - any George Jones fans here?"

"You better believe that, honey!"

They have come from far and wide -- one couple from Ireland. The young, and the not-so-young.

They're at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium -- the Mother Church of country music -- because George Jones is here.

Jones has been singing for most of his 78 years. But after the life he's led, the wonder of it isn't that he's still singing; the wonder is he's still alive.

"I was born to boogie, I guess, as Hank says," Jones laughed.

Born to boogie and a whole lot more. The truth is, George Jones doesn't just sing country, his life is a country song -- a tune of drinking and cheating, living and loving, but somehow getting through it all.

Jones has recorded more than 900 songs. He has no idea how many became hits, but there's been a bunch. Songs like "White Lightning," "The Race Is On," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

It's not the number of hits, but the way he can wring every last bit of emotion out of a song that awed fellow singers like Waylon Jennings, who said, "If all of us could sing the way we wanted to, we would all sound like George Jones."

"Well, that was very nice of him!" Jones laughed.

Jones has a voice that has been shaped by a hard growing up. Out in the big thicket country of southeast Texas, for the Jones family and their brood, about the only entertainment besides church was listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.

Country music singer George Jones with Bob Schieffer
CBS News

"When you grew up, you didn't have a lot of money, but were you happy in those days?" Schieffer asked.

"You know, it seems like you were because you didn't know any different, you know? When you don't have nothin', you know, you don't you expect much."

His pa bought him his first little Gene Autry guitar when he was eleven. He learned three chords at Sunday school and was soon playing on small-town sidewalks.

"Well, churches let out and all these people started walkin' by, you know? I didn't even know you got paid, you know, for doin' anything like that. And next thing I knew, you know, they was pitchin' nickels and pennies, dimes and quarters. And I had almost $25. And that was more money than I'd ever seen in my life."

By the age of sixteen he had graduated to the honkytonks of the Texas oil fields.

"I didn't drink when I first started," Jones said. "I drank Coca-Colas and that was it. But, it eventually eats you up, you know? And you just have to say, 'Well, I think I'll have me a beer. Maybe I can bear it a little better, you know?'"

Years in the beer joints and on local radio finally led to the Opry in 1956.

But the long rough road had taken its toll. As the hits came, so did more whiskey, and then drugs.

"One thing led to another," Jones said. "Then you go to somethin' stronger, and the next thing you know, you're just going down the road a hundred miles an hour and don't have no breaks, you know?"

Too many times he was too drunk to perform. Eventually, he earned the nickname No-Show Jones."

Fans forgave him, but he has never forgiven himself.

"I'd go back in my mind and I could see these poor people, you know, walkin' the old country dirt roads and carryin' the little kids, and it would tear me up to know that they probably saved for two or three months just to have enough money to come to the show. And then find out I wasn't there."

The one place he still wishes he'd never shown up was the altar, when he married singing partner Tammy Wynette in 1969.

"We loved to hear each other sing, and we liked to sing together," he said. "I think we loved that part of the love more than we did, what you call real love, you know? We should have never gotten married. We should had stayed single, I reckon."

The failing marriage drove him deeper into drugs and alcohol. Friends hid his car keys to keep him out of bars. But Jones needed a drink so bad, he once commandeered a lawn mower and rode it to a beer joint.

"I drove it all the way, two or three miles, 'till I could catch a ride," he recalled. "So, I was really something else back in those days."

By the 1980s Jones' career was stuck in low gear, too -- that is, until he was asked to try out a new song about a man who loves a woman until the moment he dies . . . a feeling Jones didn't know much about.

"You didn't like that song when they first brought it to you," Schieffer said.

"Oh, I did. I liked it, Bob. But I just didn't think it would be a hit because I kept thinking, 'No, this song ain't gonna sell 'cause it's too sad.'"

Jones asked the writers to add an extra verse -- a proper ending to the song that many call the best country song ever, "He Stopped Loving Her Today":

You know, she came to see him one last time,
Oh and we all wondered if she would,
And it kept running through my mind,
This time he's over her for good.

That song salvaged George Jones' career, but it would take a good-hearted woman to save his life.

"When I first met George, he was just so sweet, so kind. And I'm like, golly!" said Nancy Jones. "And then, you know, he got comfortable with me. And then, I started seeing the other part," she laughed.

Twenty-six years ago Nancy Sepulvado became the fourth -- and, George says, the last -- Mrs. George Jones.

The first years of their marriage were tough . . . but a near-fatal car wreck in 1999 finally set Jones straight, and he hasn't touched a drop since.

"I knew all along that there was a big old heart in there, because this man is just wonderful," said Nancy. "He is a very, very big-hearted, good man."

The Jones estate in Nashville might look like a retirement haven -- it is anything but.

Jones, with Nancy at his side, still plays more than a hundred shows a year around the country.

Just last year, first lady Laura Bush helped celebrate his lifetime achievement award at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington.

"There's no getting tired of a singer like him, and you don't have to be a country fan to hear the sound of musical greatness in George Jones," she said.

Stars like Alan Jackson were on hand to pay tribute as well.

When Schieffer asked Jones how long he would keep going, the singer replied, "Well, I'm gonna keep doing it as long as anybody will put up with me!"

It seems like Jones' fans just won't let him quit.

Why? Because if you've ever had your heart broken, or cheated or got cheated on, or just had to deal with one of life's bad patches, you know that when you hear George Jones sing, he knows just how you feel.

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    Bob Schieffer is a CBS News political contributor and former anchor of "Face The Nation," which he moderated for 24 years before retiring in 2015.