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The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones

By By Rich Kienzle

Harper Collins, 288 pages, $18.77 hardcover

Reviewed by Robert Loy, March 2016

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Though it is billed as in the "vein" of "Johnny Cash: The Life," at about a third of the length, this book is more a capillary compared to that aorta. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. One night's drunken inability to sing (or even speak,) or one coke-fueled rampage, is about like another, and we don't need chapter and verse of each and every one of the Possum's moral failings. The gist is good enough.

George Glenn Jones was only a few minutes old when he doctor who delivered him dropped him, breaking the infant's arm. It was the first in a lifetime of hard knocks, and even though 99 percent were self-administered, readers will marvel at how this genius of self-destruction manages to live to the age of 81.

Some of the Possum's tales are well-known - like the lawn mower incident; a replica of that John Deere stands in the George Jones Museum in Nashville. But there are still plenty here that even hardcore Jones fans may not have heard about: like when Faron Young - a frequent sparring partner - saved Jones from drowning when he passed out in the bathtub, his butt covering the drain. Or the time Jones tried to air condition his tour bus by shooting holes in the floor, but all that did was let in toxic fumes.

But as anybody who's ever been to an AA meeting knows, the stories get considerably less sensational after the subject sobers up, and Kienzle devotes only 30 pages to the last 14 years of Jones's life, starting from the 1999 wreck that almost killed him and severely damaged his vocal abilities.

Most of the research about Jones appears sound, but not always when it comes to other musicians, as when the author states "J.P. Richardson toured the midwest in a bus with Bobby Vee, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens." No, the truth is that unknown Bobby Vee's big break came on the night after Holly and company died when Vee's band, which didn't even have a name at the time, filled in for them and never even got paid. Vee never met Holly, Richardson or Valens.

Even more problematic is Kienzle's tendency to think he can read minds. When the young George steals a pocketknife, he "got a whipping for his trouble, one he knew he deserved." He does not say how he knows that George felt the whipping was justified. It's unlikely the dirt poor kid kept a diary. It smacks of another's famous George's infamous biography - Parson Weems's attempt to canonize our first president in 1800's "The Life Of Washington."

Later, Kienzle insists that such songs as "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and many others are about Tammy Wynette, although what makes him so sure about this is unclear. On some songs it's a bigger stretch than others. "Her Name Is" is a 1976 novelty track where the singer's adultery partner's name, hair color and measurements are "bleeped" out by Clavinet keyboards. (Kienzle takes it upon himself to add ellipses to the song title and writes it as "Her Name Is. . .") At one point, the word "disgrace" is rhymed with "what's-her-face." But Kienzle calls this humorous ditty a song of "devastating lost love, the Tammy connection obvious." Obvious to Kienzle, if no one else.

He's at it again when Jones weds wife number four, stating that the song "She's My Rock" "clearly alludes to his new beginning with Nancy." Again, if anyone actually involved with the song ever said that's what it was about, they are not cited. And it's not much of a compliment to Nancy since the woman in the song has "wicked ways," and she's played around with not just many, but "many, many men."

Kienzle is less interested in songs where his ESP can't deduce what real-life person they're addressed to. Of the fascinating "Let's Invite Them Over," a duet with Melba Montgomery, Kienzle says nothing other than that the album it was number three on the Billboard Country charts. Readers who are curious about how in the heck a song about wife-swapping was released as a country single in 1963 will just have to keep wondering. About that and about many other things as well because the definitive Possum biography has still not been written.