I grew up with George Jones.
Of course, he was in Saratoga and I was in Silsbee.
That was in the 1940's and 50's.
I didn't know then that in my life time I would be calling one of his aunts "Maw-Maw." That came about when I married the daughter of one of Maw-Maw Patterson Cherry's sons, Ernest, Sr.
Back in the 40's and 50's I played a guitar and was determined that one day I would be singing and picking on the Grand Ol' Opry. I'm not sure if that was on George's mind or not. But we did both like to pick and grin and sing.
I was playing music with such talents as Richard Ester and his cousin, Eddy Marshall. Richard on the fiddle; Eddy on the steel guitar.
We managed to get the attention of Jack Neil who owned KTRM Radio in Beaumont, and for some reason he took a liking to us. He even got us a few bookings such as the Beaumont Country Club where square dancing was the "in thing."
Those were the good days for the three of us. While we never shared the same microphone, we did share the same station with such greats as J.P. "Big Bop" Richardson, Richard Prine, Cliff Burner, Deacon Anderson, Moon Mulligan and others.
All the time we were playing our gigs, I would keep hearing about this upstart from Saratoga who was going to Beaumont and playing guitar on the street corners. Later, I heard he teamed up with Eddy and Pearl.
Even then, those of us in the music business knew this guy was more than average. Well, most of us did. Some musicians really didn't see him as being all that great. Like for instance, the time I was sharing a Coke with a buddy and we were talking about George.
"He asked me to go to Houston with him and help him cut a record," said my friend.
"Are you going?" I asked.
"No way," he responded. "You can't please that guy. Even when it sounds good, he makes you do it over and over again, so he can get it better. What's he trying to prove, anyhow?"
I've often wondered what happened to my Coke drinking buddy. I would like to run into him today and say to him, "I guess George Jones proved it. He's the greatest country music talent in the twentieth century."
It didn't take long to realize I was not going to be a regular on the Saturday night Grand Ol' Opry. But, rather than admit it I made excuses such as "I've changed my mind. I don't want to make country music my career...you work straight 4 to12s, and I hate the evening shift."
George was running around with a couple of guys that I really got to knowing better after we were all grown.
Darrell Edwards, who wrote George Jones' first big national hit, "Why, Baby, Why?" was a Saratoga native, too. Before his death in the middle of the 70s he wrote some sonnets for my weekly newspaper, the Kountze News. Not only that, he renewed acquaintances with my ad sales person, Rosemary, who, like Darrell, was a Saratoga native. The two soon wed and one of the prettiest songs I ever heard was written by Darrell about Rosemary... it's called "Drowning In Her Brown Eyes Again."
Another of George's running mates was the late Bill Starnes.
George was earning himself a good local reputation in the clubs around Beaumont and two promoters liked what they heard. Jack Starnes and Pappy Daily took Jones under their wings. Bill was a son to Jack. In 1957, Pappy and Jack formed Starday Records and Jones was one of the first talents they signed.
It's interesting to note that George's first big break came when he was signed by the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Just before his death, Bill Starnes purchased the Louisiana Hayride. He had followed in the footsteps of his dad and was considered one of the best promoters in the nation.
I'm not going into the problems and lifestyle that George went through. They have been printed may times over.
I will tell some stories, that to my knowledge, have not been told before...
Jones had built his Jones Park north of Colmesneil and at first he had trouble getting the Baptist Belt neighbors to accept him, even though his lifestyle had seriously changed into one that resembled that of his neighbors.
A Colmesneil native, who ran cows for Jones, told me about the time he and his boss were gassing up their pickups at a convenience store called "Hill Top."
Their conversation was interrupted when a car load of travelers pulled up and asked if he could tell them how to find "Jones Park."
George quit pumping his gas and looked to his questioners. "Yep," he said, "turn right here and continue down this road. You can't miss it. The Park's on the right and the restaurant is on the left."
"Thanks," said the travelers, then off they drove.
My friend looked over at George and grinned: "I wonder how far they will go before they realize that you sure looked a lot like George Jones?" Then, they both laughed.
Another story is about Jones Park. It's about the time George was building the park. I was publishing the Kountze News and the Huntington-Zavalla Herald so I thought it would be good reading to announce George's opening in each of the two weekly newspapers.
I pulled into the park and spotted some workers. Driving up near them I said, "I want to take some photos for my two newspapers. Who do I need to see to get permission?"
"Oh," said one of the men, "You need to take to George Jones himself."
"Were can I find George Jones himself?" I asked. He told me to return to the side street I had just passed.
"You mean the one with a sign in front that reads 'Private Property - Do Not Enter'?" I asked.
"That's it," said the worker.
"Hey," I said,"I don't want to go down a road that says 'Do Not Enter'."
"No problem," said the worker. "George has gone to his trailer to pick up some lumber. He put that sign up to keep tourists from tearing up his road until he can get it fixed right."
I met Jones as he was coming out of his driveway. He didn't remember me, but I remembered him. I explained the purpose of my visit.
George Jones is one of the warmest, realist, dyed-in-the-wool Big Thicketeers you would ever want to meet. After I finished taking my photos, I accepted his invitation to visit a spell.
That warmth and that realism is what you hear in his voice each time he sings. That's why he is the greatest country music singer today and yesterday... and the day before that and the day before that... and on and on and on.
He still has lots of kinfolk living here in the Big Thicket. Hardin County Sheriff Mike Holzaphel, for whom he has put on a couple of fund raisers; Jeanette McCreight, former County Tax Collector; to name a couple.
Recently the Beaumont convention and Visitor's Bureau started an effort to name the Neches River Bridge the "George Jones Bridge."
The proposal drew overwhelming support from Jefferson County, but to date has met with a challenge from Orange County, who, too, must approve the name change.
The very fact that he will allow us to use his name to further our financial gain shows the human side of George Jones.
Quite frankly, I have a hard time understanding opposition to efforts to promote tourism in any legal way. It's not a "what if" question, it's a known fact that tourism dollars benefit everyone.
Too, it's hard to understand what motivates travelers. Some folks drive for hours to see a hole in the ground. It's called the Grand Canyon. Others plan honeymoons to visit a place where water drops over some rocks. It's called Niagra Falls. And, still others will journey from all over the United States and foreign countries to see a bunch of trees and plants.We call it the Big Thicket National Preserve.
So, while it's an unknown commodity, it stands to reason, many music lovers will travel miles out of thier way to say they crossed the George Jones Bridge.
Jones has spent a half-century establishing the reputation for being the greatest country singer of the twentieth century. Not only his fans, but his peers as well recognize this.
I salute Beaumont for their efforts.
But, as is the case with all innovative ideas, we always find some folks who fail to see "silver linings"because they are so worried about "rain clouds."
The beautiful part of the Jones story is that he has never forgotten his roots. I would not be surprised to see him any day sitting on Maw-Maw's porch singing and strumming his guitar.