One of the reasons George Jones was so revered by the country music community is because he sang how he lived, and he lived what he sang. Jones was a troubled soul with deep heartache that you could hear through his singing and songs. On numerous occasions his abuse issues had him standing on the precipice between life and death. Over the years he came to be known as “No Show Jones,” missing 54 shows in 1979 alone. But thanks to some loving friends in the country music community, specifically Waylon Jennings, Jones was finally able to overcome his demons and lead a long and fulfilling life.
The most notorious George Jones drinking story involves the country music legend and a John Deere lawnmower, but what a lot of folks don’t know is that George Jones chose this slow-moving mode of transportation to procure alcohol more than once.
The first and most well-documented lawnmower incident was the late 60’s. George Jones was living 8 miles outside of Beaumont, TX with his then wife Shirley Ann Corley. Jones, who was born in Saratoga, TX just west and north of Beaumont, had already experienced a few #1 country hits by that time with the songs “White Lightning,” “Tender Years,” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” George’s success fueled his wayward ways with alcohol and he was drinking so bad, his wife Shirley resorted to hiding all the keys to the vehicles before she would leave so George wouldn’t drive to the nearest liquor store in Beaumont.
But that didn’t stop him. After tearing the house apart looking for a set of keys, George looked out the window to see a riding lawnmower sitting on the property under the glow of a security light. “There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition,” George recalled in his autobiography. “I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”
The incident was later memorialized as part of country music lore in numerous songs and videos, including Jones’ own “Honky Tonk Song” in 1996:
12 years before, the video for Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” features George Jones riding a lawnmower. Vince Gill’s 1993 hit “One More Last Chance” includes the line, “She might have took my car keys, but she forgot about my old John Deere.” The video ends with Vince passing George on a riding lawnmower. The video for John Rich’s “Country Done Come to Town” also features Jones on a lawnmower.
The second, lesser-known incident of George Jone’s escapades on a riding lawnmower happened when he was married to Tammy Wynette. Taking a cue from George’s previous wife Shirley, Tammy hid all the keys from George, but George had been down that road before. Wynette woke up one night at 1 AM to find George missing. “I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away,” Tammy recounted in 1979. “When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He’d driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, `Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she’d come after me.'”
As entertaining as the lawnmower incidents may be, they underlined the seriousness of the alcohol issues George Jones was facing, which eventually led to harder drugs. Along with missing shows, George was wasting away, weighing in at 105 pounds at one point. It took an intervention by Waylon Jennings to get George Jones back on track. “I was afraid he was going to die. I thought I was going to live forever.” said Waylon, who had his own deep history with substance abuse. “So I called him to come out to the house, and he came out there and I said, ‘George, this is going to sound awful funny coming from me, but you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to straighten up.”
And George did. “The best thing that ever happened to me is when some friends talked me into going to the hospital in Birmingham.”