Real Country Music
Since his first hit in 1955, no one has better expressed the heartache and blues, or the happiness and joy, of life than George Jones. One listen to the hurt of “She Thinks I Still Care” or “These Days (I Barely Get By)” alone shows his standing as arguably the most expressive voice ever. But besides the heartbreak of these standards, the devotion of “She’s My Rock” or “The Right Left Hand” rings just as true.
As time passes his canon has become even more remarkable. He was and is the embodiment of the art once found more regularly in Country Music. I often listen to his music to remind myself how life, the good and the bad, can be expressed in a way both raw and pure.
It is to our fortune that George was captured by the radio as a child and decided to pursue music as a career. As George states, “We were extremely poor and the highlight of my week would be listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. From an early age, I knew that is what I wanted to do in life.”
And although his surroundings were limited, or as he describes “very small”, George admits towns such as Jasper and Vidor, Texas can provide a sense of perspective. “I think being brought up in a small town helps keep you grounded and helps you to remember what is really important in life is family and friends.” But he adds, once grown, he soon realized that he, “I certainly had a lot to learn and how big the world really was.”
Before the hits and stardom, George’s worldly knowledge was enhanced through another type of experience. About his time serving the military in the United States Marine Corps, George remembers, “It made me more worldly and showed me places outside of Vidor and Jasper Texas that had I not made a career in the music business I probably never would have seen. It also taught me discipline…..I think any Marine would tell you that.”
After his Marine Corps experience, George began his career in earnest. And possibly due to the discipline learned through his service, George was able to fight through despite being self conscious of his voice. “My voice was different, and people either loved it or hated it”, he states, “You begin to read about the ones that hate it and it gives you a complex.
Of course the era, in which he began, also provided another opportunity to find confidence. Artists once had the room to fail and thus grow. “In our world of instant information, via so many mediums, I feel bad for new artists that might have an off night and by morning, the whole world knows about it. People can be very cruel.”
It was not long until George began to appear on shows such as the Big D Jamboree and The Louisiana Hayride. In these regular well attended package shows, artists found a chance to hone their craft. “We all worked those shows….from Faron Young to Hank Williams. It was a great time for all of us new artists to have a place to perform the music we loved,” he recalls.
But for George, nerves were still an issue, especially around a certain performer. “I was always so nervous when I was on a show with Hank Williams, I couldn’t even speak.”
Now thinking of that time and era, I mention that of the many artists that played these shows, some became household names while others only achieved cult status among collectors. I asked if he had any thoughts on what brought success to some and not to others.
George answered simply, “I really can’t answer that. Careers take different paths for different reasons. There are so many different factors involved in a music career….do you have the right producer, did you pick the right songs, do you have the best record label, do you have a great manager and booking agent. You have to have a great team around you or you will fail.”
By the mid 1960’s, George had become one of the biggest names in the business. “Why Baby Why”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, “The Race Is On”, “White Lightning”, “Tender Years”, et al, had all struck big. But during this time also came the beginning of what could only be described as his legendary self-destructive behavior. About this, George recalls flatly, “It is well documented that I didn’t handle all of it so well. Fame, money, and pressure can be your downfall sometimes.”
Regardless of his growing personal issues, George was able to deliver hit after hit. Notable about this period of recordings was his ability to almost jump genres. The rockabilly likeness of “Who Shot Sam” and “White Lightning” charted as well as the standard weepers “The Window Up Above” and “A Girl I Used To Know.”
According to George, the varied material had nothing to do with catering to any one audience. “You know earlier in my career, we didn’t worry so much about demographics or what radio wanted to hear, we recorded what we liked and the songs that touched us.”
I mentioned the timelessness of this period of recordings, and asked him to explain their hold on listeners. With a bit of retrospection, he answered, “Obviously it was some of my best work and people remember those songs. They were well written, great songs.”, and added that, “I love to look out over an audience and see young and old alike singing along to every song. I am humbled by that.”
To say the least, the late sixties and seventies brought in a different period of his life. Personal issues were becoming all-consuming. However, chart success continued. About which, George could only say, “I guess the people liked it because they kept buying my records and coming to my shows. I have been very blessed with great fans who have stuck by me all through my career.”
But he is quick to also state of this time and his reckless behavior, “I am lucky to be alive and that my fans were forgiving of my “No Shows” and gave me a second chance.” And with three words he explains how his career highs gave way to the personal pitfalls of the late 1970’s…. “too much excess.”
Extreme highs and lows marked the period. I asked, “How, in such a time of extremes, were you able to further solidify your status as one of the most expressive voices ever?” From his answer, we gleam that Billy Sherrill is to thank for his survival as an artist.
“I didn’t make a lot of performances and I was so out of control, I didn’t make a lot of song choices either. I had a great producer for years, Mr. Billy Sherrill, and he always helped me pick great songs. That was left up to Billy. We did follow trends from time to time but whatever I recorded I had to do it my way, that is just who I am.”
But, “Billy Sherrill would keep me in the studio until I got it right. He always got the best out of me.”
“He had to beg me to record “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. I said, “Who would want to listen to that sad song”? I am glad he talked me into it. As I said, I didn’t think anyone would want to hear such a sad song. When it rocketed up the charts, I was surprised.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “Was there also any self doubt considering what you had just experienced?”
George’s short answer spoke volumes, “Oh, there is always doubt…”
Unique to this era of his recordings is the sense of heartbreak marking many of the tracks. The emotional charge in some of the tracks, particularly “These Days (I Barely Get By)” is, at times, hard for the listener, down right heartbreaking. George agrees that this may be an unintentional result of his personal struggles. “It was just where I was at, at the time. There was pain….and lots of it. It is hard for it not to come through in song and in your life.”
With the lows of being almost penniless and having spent time in a mental hospital, George gives the credit for his survival to his wife. “Without a doubt,” it was, “my wife Nancy. Without her, I am quite sure at best I would have no career today and at worst, I would be dead. She saved me from myself. She is the strongest woman I have ever known. There were many times she probably should have left but she didn’t. She was always there through thick and thin, sickness and health, prosperity and broke…She is the rock that I lean on….
His survival, thanks to the stabilizing effect of his marriage to Nancy, allowed the 1980’s to become as successful as earlier eras. About the decade, George describes it as “an exciting time and a tumultuous time… but then that could be said of most of my life.”
The hits of the 80’s were marked with a sound that was smoother. The one of-a-kind performances of “Still Doing Time”, “Same Old Me”, “Tennessee Whiskey”, and “Wine Colored Roses” showed his voice had taken on a tone more at ease. When asked to what he might attribute this change, George gave a short but telling answer….. “Maturity…”
The intensity of his vocals would become even more tamed in the 1990’s. Selections such as “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” and “Wrong’s What I Do Best”, although fine recordings, in no way match the intensity of previous cuts.
But the 90’s were not without classic performances. Several recordings of this era are as timeless as those of previous eras. Arguably, the most notable of this time was The Bradley Barn Sessions project.
Of which George recalls, “That was a great experience with so much talent in one place it was unbelievable. We recorded for days and it was so much fun because every day was different.”
I mentioned how two of the tracks have really stood out as being comparable to the best of his recordings. One being, “Good Year For the Roses”, done as a duet with Alan Jackson. It was to my surprise that the track only reached 54 on Billboard. Its stands as Jackson’s finest performance and is among George’s best. But I ask about a track I’ve always found very intriguing, his duet with Keith Richards on “Say It’s Not You.”
I mention how I once saw a Mick Jagger clip where Mick said it should have been him on the record instead of Keith, and I asked George his thoughts….
George answered, “We would have loved to have him on the record. I am not sure why it was Keith and not him too. I thought Keith did an amazing job on the song we recorded.”
Shortly after The Bradley Barn Sessions, George released his 1996 autobiography, I Lived To Tell It All. While it is a must read for fans of the genre, and of his especially, the story is there to be read so I chose to ask more about the process of writing it. With nothing but honesty, George stated that “It was cleansing but sometimes painful. It is hard to recall the bad times in your life and sit there and read through it.”
Having had enjoyed chart success for four decades and with the release of an autobiography, I remember thinking that he was about to retire. I wasn’t expecting him to almost die.
About his 1999 car accident, George says simply, “It was a bad day and I had been drinking, but like all drivers, I was distracted for just a moment and the next thing I know I was in a helicopter headed to Vanderbilt Hospital.’
After a lengthy hospital stay, George continued to recover at home for some time. As he recovered the song “Choices” was released off the then upcoming The Cold Hard Truth, an album George describes with one word…. “Poignant”.
Of which I say, poignant, is the right word regardless of the context of its release. “Choices” earned George a Grammy for Male Vocal.
Surprisingly, considering the success of The Cold Hard Truth, and “Choices” in particular, George’s time with major labels came to a close. However, George, with Nancy, formed Bandit Records and has continued to release strong projects. In our conversation, George explains the forming of Bandit as a way “…to have more control over what I recorded.
The 2000’s have brought The Rock: Stone Cold Country and Hits I Missed (And One I Didn’t). Both showed George’s continued power as a vocalist, but both were heard less than previous releases. A fact George blames on Country Radio, “Country radio does not play my records or any older artists. In their opinion, we are not viable.”
Another great Bandit release came with 2008’s Burn Your Playhouse Down. Released to much fanfare, the album features unreleased duets and includes a duet with his daughter, Georgette. Ultimately, the album received little radio attention. Again, George points at radio in stating, “I really don’t know why they didn’t play it.”
Now, it is apparent and clear that his voice has changed but still has a color and character that is unmistakable. This is something George is also unable to explain… “I just keep singing the only way I know how to. It just kinda comes natural.”
As for what’s next for him, George begins by saying that I “might need to ask Nancy that question"…. But he quickly adds that we can look forward to “continued touring and performing for as long as I can. I don’t even think about retiring.”
After covering, albeit it brief at times, most of his life, I asked one last question, “Are there any additional thoughts you might like to share?”
George ends in saying “I just want to thank my fans from the bottom of my heart for always sticking by me and continuing to come to my shows and buy my music. I know without the fans, there is no success or longevity…”