One of the great things about country music is how it’s crafted its own mythology over time. Stories become like legends, and artists become like deities in the minds of fans. This was most certainly the fate that George Jones enjoyed over his legendary career, with countless songs now being standards in country music, originally sung by arguably the greatest voice to ever grace the genre.
For Vince Gill, his legacy is a little bit different. Though he’s considered a legend himself and sits in the Country Music Hall of Fame beside George Jones, he was never really a “hit” guy. With only four #1’s, minting big radio smashes was never his bag. It was more about putting together a career marked by quality, and by a reverence for country music’s past and heroes, George Jones included.
But one of Vince Gill’s #1 songs saw the nexus between quality writing, reverence for country’s past, and widespread appeal. Released 30 years ago today (July 26th, 1993), “One More Last Chance” was not only Vince Gill’s signature hit, it’s one that intertwined with country music mythology in a way that tickled country audiences, while also making it more than just another song.
Co-written with the great Gary Nicholson, “One More Last Chance” tells the story of a guy begging to be taken back by his lover, despite repeated bad behavior. But it’s the lines of the second verse that took the song from an average country track about trying to win forgiveness to something that has withstood the test of time.
Then the boys called from the honky tonk
Said there’s a party goin’ on down here
Well she might’ve took my car keys
But she forgot about my old John Deere
The first and most well-documented lawnmower incident involving George Jones happened in 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 nearby Saratoga, TX 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.”
But this was not the only time George Jones used a lawnmower to procure alcohol. The second alleged incident 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 recalled 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.’”
The second incident made it into the limited Showtime series George & Tammy.
Vince Gill’s smart little tribute to George Jones in “One More Last Chance” is in part what drove appeal to the song, and propelled it to #1. George Jones later made a cameo in the video for the song driving an old John Deere (see below).
“One More Last Chance” isn’t the only country music moment to memorialize the George Jones riding lawnmower escapades. George himself talks about it in his own “Honky Tonk Song” in 1996. 12 years before, the video for Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” featured George Jones riding a lawnmower. The video for John Rich’s “Country Done Come to Town” also features Jones on a lawnmower.
But “One More Last Chance” was the first, and arguably the greatest to take the legendary George Jones lawnmower incidents, and memorialize them in song. Some people refute the authenticity of the lawnmower incidents, despite George Jones and Tammy Wynette recalling them personally. Perhaps they’ve been overblown or dramatized over the years. It wouldn’t be the first time a story has been embellished in country music history.
But the naysayers are missing the point. The reason people enjoy the George Jones lawnmower story is because it tells a very relatable and humorous anecdote about what is often a very real problem that some people face with alcohol, which often leads to heartbreak. We laugh, because it helps us heal. This is what Vince Gill and Gary Nicholson understood when they wrote “One More Last Chance,” and it is what has made the song timeless.
At the CMA Fest in June, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Combs invited Vince Gill on the stage at Nissan Stadium to sing “One More Last Chance,” and the crowd went crazy, proving the song has withstood the test of time.