Ronnie McDowell had already been a fan of the legendary George Jones for more than 20 years when he prepared to make his on-stage debut at a show headlined by Jones and his ex-wife, Tammy Wynette – along with The Gatlin Brothers – in Peoria, Ill., in 1977.
“I was so excited,” recalled McDowell, a Portland, Tenn., native who had just broken onto the scene with “The King Is Gone,” a self-penned tribute to Elvis Presley. “But the only reason I was excited was because I was going to do a show with George Jones. George was my hero.”
McDowell recalled that Peoria’s Shrine Mosque was packed when Wynette walked out onto the stage and made the announcement that Jones – who had already earned the nickname “No Show” – would not be performing for them.
“I was standing on the side of the stage when Tammy walked out,” McDowell said. “She said, ‘I hate to tell you all this, but George ain’t going to be here. He’s down at some little German bar, singing for the patrons.’”
“I was, like, devastated,” McDowell added.
However, the next morning, McDowell came face-to-face with The Possum after boarding an airplane.
“I forget where I was going,” McDowell said. “And I go to the back to the bathroom, and there’s George. He said, ‘Sit down here, son.’ So I sat down and he said, ‘You know, the funny thing about me and you, we can be broke today but we can go out and do us a show and we’ll have a little money to put in our pockets.’”
“I will never forget that,” McDowell added. “He probably won’t remember, but I do, because that was a good memory for me. Not that he didn’t show up, but just sitting on a plane, talking to him.”
McDowell added another unforgettable memory 32 years later when he traveled to Jones’ home in Franklin, Tenn., on Christmas morning, bearing the gift of his latest painting, which is based on Jones’ celebrated arrest for DUI while operating a riding lawn mower.
This time, however, Jones met McDowell at the front door.
“I’m your biggest fan,” McDowell said after unveiling the painting for Jones and his wife, Nancy. “I want to present this new painting to you that I love. As a matter of fact, it’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever done.”
“Well, I love you for this,” said Jones, who has more than 150 hits to his credit and is often referred to as the greatest living country singer. “I’m telling you, that makes my Christmas Day!”
Jones added that he was honored McDowell – a fellow recording artist with several hit singles to his credit, including “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation” and “Older Women” – had selected him as a subject for his latest painting.
“I’m just going to be honest with you,” McDowell replied. “What better subject could I have? It’s the weirdest thing. Everybody in the world knows this story.”
“Well, you just did such a good story with the picture … of my old days,” said Jones, whose 1980 classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was voted the best all-time country song in 1992, the same year he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Jones, who was arrested for DUI while driving a riding lawn mower to a liquor store after his wife hid the keys to all his vehicles, later poked fun at himself with the 1996 single “Honky Tonk Song,” and parodied the incident in the song’s music video, which also featured Little Jimmy Dickens.
Two other country music videos – Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Night” in 1984 and Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” in 1993 – also featured Jones driving a riding lawn mower.
However, the idea for doing a painting based on the incident originated with a mutual friend of both McDowell and the Joneses, Bobby Voyles of Memphis.
“Bobby came up with this,” Nancy Jones said. “He’s the one that called me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to call Ronnie.’”
Nancy Jones subsequently called McDowell and told him that she was actually in the process of hanging up one of his best-selling prints, “Reflection of a King,” which depicts a young Elvis Presley looking into a mirror and seeing himself in the future.
McDowell said that he was flattered.
“I never thought I’d have one of my paintings hanging up in their house,” McDowell said.
McDowell told Nancy Jones that Voyles had also told him about his idea for a painting of her husband.
“I just thought it was a heck of an idea,” McDowell said.
McDowell, who works from photographs when he paints, asked Nancy Jones if she had a picture of George Jones on his riding mower.
“She said, ‘Well, he’s come in here and he wants me to take him to the doctor,’” McDowell recalled. “I said, ‘What’s the matter with him?’ She said, ‘Well, he’s run into a tree with his John Deere mowing. I told him I wasn’t taking him to the doctor. He could put a heating pad on it.’”
Nancy Jones told McDowell that her husband had gone back outside and began mowing.
“She said, ‘He’s out there right now mowing, and I’m going out and take you some pictures and I’ll overnight them to you,’” McDowell said. “Well, the next day, sure enough, I got them.”
McDowell said that the painting’s depiction of a visibly disgusted George Jones on his riding lawn mower is closely based on one of the photographs taken by Nancy Jones.
“That one that you see in the painting, when I saw that, I went, ‘That is the perfect picture!’” McDowell said. “It was like the perfect expression.”
In addition, McDowell also used a picture of an old liquor store along Dickerson Road to paint in the background.
“I thought back in the 50s, I used to go to Nashville with my dad on Dickerson Road and even back then I remembered all those old liquor stores,” McDowell said. “I wondered if there were any of them old liquor stores still there, so I went down there one day and I saw the perfect one, still in business, after all these years – Last Chance Liquors.”
McDowell then went to his friend, Hendersonville Police Chief Terry Frizzell, and asked if Frizzell would pose for him sitting in a patrol car.
When McDowell told Frizzell what he was doing, Frizzell shared his own story about an encounter he had with George Jones during the 1970s, when Jones lived in Hendersonville.
“He said, ‘We pulled him over one night and we just knew we had him,’” McDowell recalled. “He said, ‘Me and my friend were walking up to the car and we got right to the back of the car and George was in the back seat, turned around, smiling at us.’ He wasn’t even driving.”
McDowell said that he has three “heroes” in the art world that he likes to emulate when he paints a picture – Saturday Evening Post’s famous illustrator Norman Rockwell, painter Thomas Kinkade and Gallatin artist David Wright.
“I kind of pattern my artwork and I kind of combine all those influences when I do my work,” McDowell said.
McDowell noted that Rockwell would always do a working draft before he did a final version, which is something that McDowell did – for the first time – with the Jones painting.
“I’ve actually never done that before, but I did on this one, because I wanted to make sure that it was right – right on the money – because it’s a very important piece for me,” McDowell said. “And I hope it will be for Nancy and George.”
McDowell noted that he made some subtle changes between the working draft and the final version, including substituting a bottle of Jim Beam in the final version where he had painted a bottle of Seagram 7 in the working draft.
“I just did it on a whim,” McDowell said. “I did not ask them about what he was drinking.”
However, McDowell said that he did consult with the Joneses about what to use as a title for the painting.
“I was going to call it ‘Under The Influence’ but I thought that was a little too harsh,” McDowell said. “So when I saw that Last Chance Liquors, I thought, that’s the title of the painting – ‘Last Chance.’”
George Jones said that when Nancy told him about McDowell’s project “a few weeks ago,” he was all for it.
“I said, well, that’s great. I’d love to see Ronnie because I hadn’t seen Ronnie in a long, long time,” George Jones said. “I didn’t even know what he was doing now. I knew that he wasn’t recording anymore like he used to.”
“But there’s a reason for everything,” he continued. “I just loved his work, and now that he’s into being this great artist like he is, well, he really made my Christmas Day today. He just does wonderful work. I just can’t believe it.”
The 78-year-old George Jones, who often made headlines throughout the first four decades of his career for tales of his drinking and cocaine use, stormy relationships with women and violent rages, said he had not had a drink of alcohol nor had he smoked a cigarette for more than 12 years.
“When I quit drinking, I quit everything … and I did it on my own, with the good Lord’s help and my wife,” said Jones. “It’s been about 12 years and I’ve learned what living is about … what a good life is about.”
When McDowell said that he had been the Possum’s biggest fan since 1956, George Jones smiled.
“Well, you know, everything’s happened to me since ’56, and we use that number,” George Jones said. “I joined the union in ’56. I came to the Opry in August of ’56. So everything good started happening for me in ’56.”
“After we got that going, back when I still drank and all that, somebody would ask somebody else, ‘Is George still drinking?’” George Jones continued. “And they’d say, ‘Well, Lord yes. He’s been drunk since ’56.’”
George Jones laughed.
“Well, I’m glad I can laugh about those things today,” he said. “But it’s been a good life for a change. You have a wonderful family and you don’t hurt them or make them mad any more, not too much.”
“My wife stays mad … but don’t tell her I told you that,” he joked. “Nancy’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
McDowell said that he had planned to present the painting – prints of which will soon be on sale by both McDowell and the Joneses – on Wednesday, Dec. 23.
“I called Nancy and she goes, ‘Well, George has got his ball cap on and he wants to get his hair done if Country Weekly and people are going to be taking his picture,’” McDowell said. “I said, ‘Well, Nancy, he’ll look good in his ball cap.’”
Nancy Jones was insistent, however, and told McDowell that her husband’s hairdresser would fix his hair at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 25, and that he could unveil the painting for George at 11 a.m.
“I said, ‘Well, Nancy, that’s Christmas Day,’” McDowell said. “She said, ‘Well, I don’t care if you don’t. Come on!’”
“I think that makes it neat, to do it on Christmas Day,” McDowell added. “I’ll never forget it. Will you?”