As the unquestioned king of country music, George Jones pretty well has his pick of cars (he’s gone through 32 in the past year and a half) and women. Except, that is, for the only one that matters—his ex-wife Tammy Wynette. So lately when he gets a buzz on (a practice partially responsible for the crack-up of their six-year marriage in 1975), George spins from his new Alabama home to hers—heretofore theirs—in Nashville. He careens around her circular driveway and, without braking, heads straight back to complete the four-hour round trip. Tammy laughed at first. Then she responded in Nashville fashion—knocking out a tune about it that she graciously gave to George to record. It was a fittingly forlorn Just Stopped By to See If I Was Really Gone.
The answer is yes and no. The super-prolific Jones is sure to get a hit out of it—not one of his 100 albums and countless singles has failed to make the country Top Ten since 1956. In fact, his record sales reached an all-time high last year, his career inversely proportional to his emotional life. As for his relationship with Wynette, they have, post-D-l-V-O-R-C-E, cut two No. 1 duets, ironically hymning togetherness in Golden Ring and Near You. Their blues, though, have been sung solo in singles like her ‘Til I Can Make It on My Own and his self-deprecating Stand on My Own Two Knees (a cut on his ineffably poignant Alone Again LP).
Tammy has since gone out with Burt Reynolds and was embarrassingly married for the fourth time to a Nashville real estate dealer for a few months on the rebound. But despite her own crossover musical aspirations, she is loyal to George and his pure country ethic. They still share the same management, lawyer and label. They date for dinner, exchange expensive gifts and she makes surprise guest appearances at his Possum Holler club in Nashville. They have also discussed performing together again. Tammy has even helped him house-hunt now that he’s contemplating moving back to Nashville.
Their continued friendship may be surprising in view of how their considerable worldly goods were divided. It wasn’t down the middle. Tammy got their $500,000, 14-bathroom home; his band, the Jones Boys (renaming them the Tennessee Gentlemen); plus their 12-bunk touring bus, whose “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” logos were painted over. But George isn’t vindictive and still includes their mansion on the tours of the stars’ homes run by his corporation.
“It’s an old story,” he muses. “Tammy and I are getting along better than we ever did when we were married. I think we still love each other. I know I love her.” So what went wrong? His boozing, for one thing: “I drank a little more than I should even though I hated my daddy for drinking.” His benders are less frequent now, and he can get through a whole evening toying with one glass of wine or a beer. The real hangup was that “our tempers flared before we could find the time to talk about what was bothering us.”
Meanwhile George, at 45 (with an eyelift), is keeping up his lady-killer image with “two or three girlfriends,” but the heartbreak of three failed marriages enforces caution. “If I do it again, I’m gonna do it right,” he says. Esthetically, anyway, he’s peaking. “I’ve tried to keep as pure country as possible,” he says. “To keep rock’n’roll out.” Still, he has become the idol of crossover artists like Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan. Jones has also scored as a cabaret entrepreneur. His original Possum Holler has branched out to Topeka and Mobile already, with other franchises in the works. (“Just call me the Hugh Hefner of country.”)
His road life has been pared to a self-preserving half-dozen gigs a month (“I could keep up the old pace if I wanted to kill myself”). His extended family includes a daughter from his first marriage, Susan, 23; her daughter, Jennifer, 2; two sons in Texas from the second marriage; Tammy’s three children from her first two marriages, whom George adopted (and who “still call me Daddy”); and Tamala Georgette, 6, the only Jones-Wynette collaboration, who lives with Tammy in Nashville.
Though George loves the peace of his 52-foot houseboat moored on Old Hickory Lake near Nashville, he’s never lost his taste for fast cars. (His associates shuddered recently when he shopped for a plane.) He’s got a new Fleetwood Brougham and boasts he’s never had a wreck. Awed Alabama highway smokies can recognize George as easily by his lead foot as by his rich, silky voice, but leave him alone.
Jones was born in Saratoga, Texas, the son of a pipe fitter. Both parents were nonpro musicians, and George (a Korean Marine vet) made his name on radio’s Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry. “I was meant for one thing,” he says, “and I’ve accomplished it already—gettin’ up and singin’ a good ole country tune.”
But most of all he’d like his duet partner back. “I can wait. I do have hope.” A rumor circulating Nashville has George remarrying. “Maybe Tammy’ll hear it,” he smiles, “and come on home.” The rumor was started by George.