Country says goodbye to Ol’ Possum Jones: Virtuoso of honky tonk blues dies at 81

George Jones died early Friday in Nashville at the age of 81. Such a common name for an uncommon man. Still, probably more than most people would know that this was “the greatest male vocalist in country music.” Untold thousands would just as easily recognize his nickname: “Ol’ Possum.”

“I had an album out with a side view of me with a crew cut,” Jones said in a 2009 interview on “I was very young, and my nose looked more turned up, and I’ve got little beady eyes so I guess I did look like a possum! So they both laid into me and called me ‘Possum,’ and it got everywhere. There was no way I could stop that, so (I thought) I’ll just have to live with that!”

And live with it, he did. Though Jones informally lived with other names such as “The King of Broken Hearts” and “No Show Jones.” Through it all, from childhood to a tormented life of substance abuse, George Jones was a true blue country icon. He was admired by his peers as well as by younger performers of different genres such as the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and new wave pioneer Elvis Costello. This long form obituary in today’s Nashville Tennessean explains why those from different styles of music were such devotees of Jones. This is also likely one of the best tributes, warts and all, you will find of Jones on this day of his death.

Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia
Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia

Jones was born and raised in my part of the world. Some biographical pieces say he was born in a log cabin in Saratoga, Texas. Other bios said he spent his youth in Beaumont, where I now reside, picking and singing on a street corner for change.

The city of Vidor, Texas, also claims Jones as one of its own. Vidor can be found a short nine miles east of Beaumont on Interstate 10. One only has to cross the Neches River bridge, a.k.a. the “Purple Heart Memorial Bridge.” A movement started in the 1990s to name the Neches River Bridge after George Jones. Folks thought it was a good idea. The city council of Beaumont voted for it as did the Jefferson County commissioners. However, the vote had to be unanimous with county commissioners from Orange saying “yea.” The body voted “nay.” Jones said however the sides voted, he was just honored to be considered. But apparently some of Jones exploits must have burned some bridges in Orange County. Or perhaps Jones just wasn’t Holy enough for Orange County, a county in which residents in places such as Vidor have for years tried to live down reputations for being reputed Ku Klux Klan strongholds.

Before Possum set out for the Marines and eventually true stardom, he got his introduction to the record world at radio station KTXJ (1350 AM) in Jasper, 58 miles up the road from Beaumont. Coincidentally, KTXJ was the nearest radio station to where I grew up. Back in the day, it played both kinds of music: country and western. But Possum was long gone from KTXJ before I ever heard a radio broadcast.

Oddly enough, I was never a big George Jones fan. I understand why he is considered such a huge star, he was perhaps the best “song stylist” ever in country music. He also put so much pain in his sad songs that you thought he was going to break into tears and so much energy into his lively songs one might think he would explode. I did like a number of his songs though: “The Race Is On,” “White Lightning,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” among them.

Still, I understood that this man George Jones was a troubled man. Yet, he was a character and one who reminded me of the people I knew who were “known to drinks a bit” when I was growing up. The difference being they were just town drunks and Jones was a star.

So, from near your former haunts from many years past down here in Beaumont, we bid you a “so long” Ol’ Possum. Maybe someday we can name the freeway after you.

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