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JonesG.jpg (22450 bytes)Jones Going Strong With Gospel Record

(Reprinted from the AP April 30, 2003)

By JOHN GEROME, Associated Press Writer

Photo: George Jones is shown in his home near Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 12. The singer recently released a new album of gospel standards, called 'George Jones, The Gospel Collection.' (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - If he were beginning his career today, George Jones might have trouble finding things to sing about.

The man whose taste for Jack Daniels whiskey was once as famed as his smoky baritone says contemporary country is too antiseptic, too sweet for his liking.

"They don't record songs no more about drinkin' and cheatin'," says the 71-year-old Jones, his sculpted silver hair as neat as ever and his voice still as sharp as a tenpenny nail. "Now it's just love, love, love. I have a couple of drinkin' songs, and I'd be without a job if I hadn't a had 'em."

Today, at his home south of Nashville with a stocked fishpond in front and two BMWs in the garage, Jones says he's finished with the bottle, the cigarettes, the cocaine and the pills.

And — at least for now — he's finished with the drinking songs. His new album, "George Jones — The Gospel Collection," includes standards  such as "Amazing Grace," "Peace in the Valley" and "The Old Rugged Cross" — hymns his mother, a church pianist, sang around the house when he was a boy.

The two-CD set reunites him with producer Billy Sherrill, who collaborated on many of Jones' most popular songs, and includes duets with Patti Page   and Vestal Goodman.

"I've always wanted to sing gospel, but I couldn't make a living doing it," Jones said. "Now, I don't have to; I'm semiretired."

President Bush  awarded Jones a Medal of Arts in a March ceremony at the White House. The award, established by Congress in 1984, honors individuals and organizations who have made outstanding contributions to the arts in the United States. First lady Laura Bush told Jones that the president, a fellow Texan, is a fan.

"Who would have thought they'd pick me?" Jones said. "There were architects there and things I'd never heard of."

Jones is more aware of his lofty place in music history than he lets on. He's had at least 165 songs on the charts and influenced generations of singers since his first hit, "Why Baby Why," in 1955. He's among an elite group of aging country stars who form the last links to early figures such as Hank Williams  and Lefty Frizzell.

"He is a vital connection to a different era in country music history," said John Rumble, senior historian for the Country Music Hall of Fame. "He literally was born in a log cabin in a remote area of east Texas. He is connected with the world of the small farm, the small honky-tonk, the small church ... not with the shopping mall and cable TV."

The youngest of eight children, Jones sang for tips as a boy on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. 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.

He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams, his hero, 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. "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." The following year, "Why Baby Why" climbed the charts, beginning a remarkable streak that lasted through the 1990s.

His output included a brief rockabilly period in the '50s under the pseudonym Thumper Jones, several duets with his third wife, country singer Tammy Wynett, and duets with pop and rock stars including Ray Charles and James Taylor.

While his singing kept him on the charts, Jones' boozing kept him in the news. He often missed shows, was hospitalized and arrested several times, and had a myriad of legal and financial problems. Once, after Wynette took his car keys to keep him from carousing, Jones took off on a riding mower in search of a drink.

"One of the reasons he's so influential is that he's lived the music he sings," Rumble said. "When he talked about drinking and divorce and being down and out — he's been there. People are fascinated with him and believe him because he's so authentic."

His recovery began with his marriage to Nancy Sepulvada in 1983. Gradually, she helped him drop his bad habits, and Jones scored several hits in the 1980s including "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" and "She's My Rock."

He kept working through the 1990s, though the hits slowed as a new generation of singers took over. Still, Jones stayed on the charts and won his second Grammy in 1999 for his performance on the single "Choices."

That same year an auto wreck near his home nearly cost him his life. But Jones, who pleaded guilty to having an open vodka bottle in the vehicle and driving while impaired, says the experience caused him to finally quit his vices, even drinking coffee.

"That accident put the fear of God into me," he said. "I realized I was getting to the age that I had to quit all that mess, and smoking was hurting my lungs and affecting my voice."

Today, Jones, a lifelong Baptist, worries what people will think of the gospel album, that they might view it as hypocritical or disingenuous because of his past. But he says he believes in forgiveness — and in second chances.

"After my car accident and after I had changed the way of my life, I felt really good about recording these songs," Jones said. "I felt that I was sober and worthy and just wanted to put out a collection of songs that praised the Lord and spoke of how wonderful life can be."