On his 80-acre estate outside of Nashville, country music legend George Jones liked to feed the fish. “We had a big ol’ pond, and he loved to go out there,” his widow, Nancy Jones, tells Closer. “We rode golf carts with the grandkids — he loved the grandkids! We just had a blast out there with nobody bothering us.”

The Texas-born performer, whose hits include “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” was often called one of the greatest country singers of all time, but George became just as famous for his excessive drinking and his habit of blowing off concert appearances. Nancy, his fourth wife, entered his life in the 1980s, salvaged George’s flailing career and reputation and helped him beat back his troubles. Her new memoir, Playin’ Possum, tells the story of their turbulent but tender 32-year relationship.

Nancy admits she wasn’t a fan of country music when they met through a mutual friend. “Seeing George on stage, I had never seen anyone who could sing like he did,” she recalls. “That night, we sat up and talked all night long.”

Nancy quickly discovered a secret side to the country singer. “The real George Jones was a very bashful person. He didn’t like to be around a lot of people,” says Nancy, who enjoyed listening to her husband’s quiet observations. “He didn’t even know how funny he was,” she notes. “He was fun to be around.”

Unfortunately, binge drinking would transform George’s personality for the worse. “After his third drink, he was a very mean drunk. I was terrified,” says Nancy. “But I had the good Lord Jesus on my side. The way to calm George down when he was wild, drunk, crazy and fighting was by talking about Jesus.”

George didn’t quit drinking overnight, but he was sober for the last 14 years of his life. “Trust me, he had a lot of demons,” Nancy says, “but I always knew there was a good man there.”

George Jones and Nancy Jones sit on bed in their home
Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

While tales about George tend to refer to his third wife and frequent duet partner, Tammy Wynette, as the love of his life, Nancy wrote her memoir to set the record straight. “George and Tammy did not get along. It was hard to get George and Tammy to even talk to each other,” confides Nancy, who considered Tammy a friend. “I used to say, ‘Y’all need to be in the movies, the way y’all get on stage and act like you still care about each other and when you get off stage, you fight like cats and dogs.’”

In addition to his life as a husband, father and grandfather, George, who died in 2013 at age 81, should be remembered as someone who stayed true to his music, Nancy says. “I miss him and I miss his singing,” she explains. “I have never heard anyone that felt the music like George. He lived it. He could not sing a song if he didn’t feel it.”