Everett Collection
Liane Bonin
July 14, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Leave it to hard-living country legend George Jones to take seriously the old saw about life imitating art. While working on his new album, ”Cold Hard Truth,” this March, Jones plowed his SUV into a bridge abutment just one mile from his home while driving under the influence. ”It’s coincidental, really, but about four of the songs on the album refer to death,” says the 67-year-old singer, who suffered severe internal injuries and was in critical condition for 11 days. ”I’m not supposed to be here, but the good Lord wanted me here again for something, so I’m thrilled.”

Fittingly, the album’s first single, ”Choices,” is a cautionary tale about a man who ”liked drinking/and… never turned it down” and now is ”living and dying with the choices” he has made. ”I know a lot of people thought the choice of that song was a gimmick, but actually we had that picked for the single before I had my wreck,” Jones tells EW Online. ”In fact, that song is why I had my wreck. I was trying to rewind the tape back to ‘Choices,’ and I had my stepdaughter on the phone. I wanted her to hear what was going to be the first single, then everything went black.”

Though the accident, for which he was charged with driving while impaired, marked a well-publicized end to 12 years of sobriety, Jones says he’s back on the wagon for good this time. As part of his guilty plea, he was ordered back into rehab. ”The accident put the fear of God in me and made a true believer out of me,” he says. ”I even quit smoking. I don’t even drink coffee anymore. I’ve just about quit everything now.” Jones says his only remaining injury from the crash is ”a swollen vocal chord on one side that I’m being treated for. I’m hitting the high notes alright, but it’s hard to hit the low notes.”

Both Jones and his career are making a fine recovery. ”Cold Hard Truth” debuted at No. 5 on the country album charts, a feat he attributes to radio rediscovering him following his accident. After finding himself — along with other traditional country artists — squeezed off the airwaves by pop-flavored acts such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill, Jones thinks there may finally be room for both the old and the new. ”I think fans are leaning back more towards traditional country, and that’s what I’ve done all my life,” says Jones, who admits he had almost retired from recording due to lackluster sales at MCA before he was picked up by Asylum Records last year.

Yet despite the renewed interest in his music, the singer says he intends to slow down, at least a little. ”I’m hoping to cut back to 50 dates by next year,” says Jones, who is currently on the road until November. ”But I enjoy it too much to quit. It’s like a religion for me. I love it, and I’ll do it till the day I die.” Hey, grab a pen — that sounds like another chart-topping single.

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