Nancy Jones & Ken Abraham Share Stories from Playing Possum: My Memories of George Jones
Nancy Jones and Ken Abraham threw themselves into the task of telling Nancy’s side of the story regarding her life as George Jones’ wife of 30 years in this book, knowing that they’d be tackling a lot of stories and experiences that the wider public might find surprising, or even quite harrowing. While George Jones’ issues with drugs and alcohol became more public due to his car accidents, the inside experience of George’s wife trying to direct George away from his inner demons and outer bad influences is an eye-opener. Nancy’s motivation in writing the book, however, is not to be shocking, but to be inspirational. Grounded in her personal faith, a faith that George came to share more fully, she feels she was able to endure the hardships that might have otherwise ended in tragedy for them both.
I spoke with Nancy Jones and author Ken Abraham about Nancy’s own more recent odyssey surviving covid and committing to writing Playing Possum: My Memories of George Jones, which was released this autumn. We talked about Nancy’s private struggle, George’s winning qualities, and how they built a better life together.
Americana Highways: How long ago did you start working on this and did embarking on this project require a lot of preparation for you both?
Ken Abraham: It was almost a year and a half ago that we really started recording interviews, having conversations, and looking up old articles. We were looking at all those stories that were out there about George and trying to correct some of those inaccuracies.
AH: That’s relatively fast for a book.
Nancy Jones: Well, you know, when I get started, I don’t shut up! [Laughs] Ken was saying, “Slow down, woman, let me get my recorder out!”
Ken: Nancy’s a great storyteller. She made my job easy.
AH: To me, that says that you really lived this book for that period as a full-time commitment until you had completed it.
Nancy: Well, I had covid and I died for ten minutes. I had no pulse. It was awful. I got down to 92 pounds and the muscles in my legs and arms were being eaten up. I had lost 70% of my lung because they couldn’t find out what was happening. While I was in intensive care for months after months, that’s when my brain was going. I was thinking, “You know, I think God saved me to let me write this book, to let people know the truth about George.” That’s how the book got started. I was ready to tell everything the way that it happened. I wanted to set the record straight.
Ken: When we got started, to tell you the truth, Nancy had not been out of the hospital all that long. She was still pretty weak when we started working on the book together.
AH: Nancy, I’m so glad that you made it through.
Nancy: This is one experiment that wouldn’t have happened if the good Lord Jesus had not been on my side. When I was in the hospital, I could hear them saying, “She’s not going to make it to daylight.” But I was thinking, “I’ll show y’all. I’ve got a book to write.”
AH: When you started, together, what was your approach? Did you try to go chronologically in terms of story or did you just follow the route of important things as they occurred to you? It’s a massive thing to try to put together a life story, and really two life stories, both George’s, and your own, Nancy.
Nancy: It’s the first time ever for me, you’re right. I had a pretty rough childhood, as you can read in the book. I used to wonder when I was younger, “Why am I going through this? Why can’t I be like other kids?” I think God was preparing me then for George and making me a strong person. That’s my belief. I know that it helped me get out there and fight for George, to tell him that the Lord loved him and was there to chase his demons away.
Ken: Nancy was ready to tell the hard stories. It wasn’t easy for her. If you don’t understand what she was living through, it’s hard to celebrate the good times. But once you do know that, you can say, “Wow, what an incredible story.” There were a lot of times when other people would have given up, and maybe rightly so, but Nancy didn’t give up, and the Lord helped her, and they brought George out together.
AH: Ken, did you know going into this that you would be helping tell such intense stories?
Ken: No, I didn’t actually. [Laughs] I think that was part of the challenge. Because of all the deep, dark despair and depression that we were going to take the reader through, it would have been really easy to get stuck down in those holes and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to tell the truth, and tell how awful things were, but we also wanted to bring the reader up out of that and let them know that there is hope. Nancy had hope. Eventually, George did too. But I didn’t know about some of the times when George would smack Nancy around. I didn’t know about how intense the cocaine addiction was and how pervasive it was.
I live not too far from Nancy in Nashville, and we all knew about George drinking. We knew about the time that he hit the bridge. That was all in the newspapers here. But you don’t feel the reality of it until you hear about this woman getting a phone call and hearing that George had an accident and running up the highway to find the car. Nancy tells it so well.
AH: I agree that the general public knows that George had issues. But something that I talk with a lot of younger artists about is that fame, and the music industry, and social media, too, encourage people to gloss over the darker things. It paints a rosier picture than reality and that can be unhealthy.
Nancy: No one ever knew what I was going through, actually, because you didn’t know who you could trust and who you could talk to. I kept all of that to myself. I always had a smile on my face and I always acted like everything was just great, and to me, that was the hardest thing ever. It was so hard not to scream out some day and say, “Somebody help me!” One of the only people who I ever went to was Johnny Cash. They knew, and Waylon [Jennings]. Johnny would always pray with George and Waylon, who was a mess, and who always called George “Little Pal” would say, “Little Pal, you’ve got a good woman, man. You’ve got to straighten up!” And he would sit and pray with George, and George would listen.
The more that I could see people like Johnny and Waylon praying with George, the more I could see that there was a good man in there that wanted to escape these demons. When he was so crazy on coke or being drunk, I could say things to him like, “Your mom’s watching you.” And that would calm him down. I would read scriptures from the Bible to him, and that would calm him down. That’s how I got George to listen. He’d say, “Can you read me that one, again?” When you have that going on, then you realize that there’s a man in there who wants to escape these demons, and that’s what I was working so hard on. With the help of Jesus, we did it.
Ken: That’s a good point about young artists having these issues, because when they start getting some of that fame, it attracts people, but it also attracts some bad elements, as well. That happened with George, too. A lot bad people surrounded him and were trying to influence him in the wrong ways. I don’t think young artists understand that when they get involved in the music business. Fame attracts negative elements, and they need to be prepared for that. Nancy talks about that pretty honestly in the book and I think that’s going to be an encouragement for a lot of young artists and families of musicians.
Nancy: You always tell your kids when they are coming up, “You’re running with the wrong crowd. They are a bad influence.” But I think if there was anybody who ran with the wrong crowd, it was George. He’d pick the worst person in the world to be with. These people did not like me and did everything in the world to keep me away from him so they could control him. They wanted to keep him on drugs. They did some very mean things to me to try to make me leave, but God gave me more strength to fight. I had to get him away from those kind of people.
AH: I think the kind of discussion we’re having right now about George is somewhat lacking in modern society. There’s a lack of open and honest redemption stories. There are a lot of stories in the news about famous people who fall down, wash out, and kind of disappear from the scene. But something that could help people is hearing a really hard story about someone who came through it and reached the other side.
Ken: We sure hope so. I think you’re right that there’s a tendency to put people up on pedestals and make heroes out of them, particularly in music. Then people love to knock them down. There were a lot of people around George making money off of him and being destructive in his life. And sometimes George didn’t want to hear that truth, but he needed to hear that truth. She laid her life on the line to tell him the truth.
AH: Of course, a lot of people who face these kinds of pressures and situations just don’t make it through. We have lost a lot of musicians far too young. They may not have had someone like you, Nancy.
Nancy: There are many who did not make it. They didn’t have anyone there brave enough to tell them. You’ve got to be strong. When I started out, I didn’t know anything about the music business, but I learned a lot. These young artists who are facing the same thing, I wish I could sit them down and tell them about it.
Ken: Some other artists have listened to Nancy about this. Lisa Marie Presley is a great example. She thought of Nancy as her second mom.
AH: That’s wonderful. Nancy, when you got together with George, what was the version of him that made you want to marry him and have a life together? What were some of the things that you loved about George on a good day?
Nancy: He was a very funny, kind, loving person. People would not believe how funny he was. He’d be talking about something, and we’d all be on the floor rolling, laughing. He would ask, “Why y’all laughing? It isn’t that funny!” He was also a loving person. He loved people and to help people. There was a little boy who lived down the road from us, the cutest thing and when we’d be fixing to go to town, he’d be running out there. He had a little sign that said, “I love George Jones.”
So every time George saw him, he’d give him a little money. I said, “You are spoiling that kid!” One day, the little kid wasn’t there because the family had moved, and he was so sad that the little boy wasn’t there. George tried so hard to find out where that boy moved to give him his money.
Ken: He really had a heart of compassion. One story we tell in the book is about some kids that George thought had cancer, but they didn’t.
Nancy: Oh, yeah, we were in Canada, and I pulled back the curtains and saw about eight kids outside. George said, “Honey, look at all those kids out there! They all have cancer! They have no hair!” I said, “Oh my God, that’s awful.” He told me to get them some tapes, baseball caps, pictures, and t-shirts, and he’d autograph the pictures for the kids. I loaded them up and he started autographing.
Then the road manager came along and said, “What are you doing, George?” He said, “Look at those little kids out there. Every one them has cancer.” He said, “George, they don’t have cancer! They have head lice!” [Laughs] George said, “Well, I don’t care! They don’t have any hair. Give these to them!”
AH: What do you think the turning point was for George that made it possible for him to recover?
Nancy: He used to keep all these little bitty bottles of alcohol in the closet, and I’d find them everywhere. I just couldn’t take it anymore and said, “You have got to stop. This is ridiculous. I’m getting older. You’re getting older.” He said, “I promise you, this is the day I will quit.” He rode around out there on the farm, but in no time, he’d gotten on the highway and wrecked the car. Then he died twice in the helicopter going to the hospital. He wouldn’t wear a seatbelt and had slid under the dash. It had taken the jaws of life to get him out.
When he did get out of the hospital, he said, “You know, I prayed to God to hit me in the head with a sledge-hammer because I didn’t want to lose you, I didn’t want to lose my family. I prayed for God to wake me up, but I never dreamed that he was going to hit me in the head with a bridge!”
Ken: That changed his life.
Nancy: Yes, it did. From 1999 until 2013, I had the perfect husband.
AH: It’s a relief to hear that there were some years where you could both have a normal life.
Nancy: The doctors said that when he got home from the hospital, I ought to make him walk to get his energy back. There’s a little bridge where he sat down while I went to get the golf cart. When I was walking, I heard him praying, and saying to God, “If you let me live, and get through this, I will never ever drink, smoke a cigarette. I’ll be the perfect husband that woman wants because she is the love of my life.” That moment, I knew that he was telling the truth.
Ken: After that, he became the husband that Nancy always believed that he could be.