A few short decades ago, George Jones built up quite a reputation for missing concert dates and appearances. Things have changed: “No Show Jones” called me five minutes early for our interview. Well, actually it was his wife, Nancy, who really seems to run the show, as she handed over the phone with a cheerful “Here’s the Possum!”
JULI THANKI: You’ve just celebrated a birthday. Do you have a favorite birthday memory?
GEORGE JONES: The one that my wife let me off, I guess. (Laughing). The last few years I’ve been working on my birthday. A lot of the new artists have helped me celebrate the last couple birthdays by doing a salute at the Ryman. They’d sing my songs and I’d be in the audience and before the show was over I’d do a couple songs myself. They’ve honored me that way the past couple years and I thought that was awful nice of ‘em. It was a pleasure to hear somebody else sing my songs.
JT: This new Cracker Barrel album, A Collection of My Best Recollection features a cover of “I’m a Long Gone Daddy.” I know you’re a big Hank Williams fan and cut an album of his songs in the ’60s. Where did this song come from?
GJ: I’ve had it in the can about three to five years along with the ballad on there “I Don’t Want to Know” that’s a brand new song that’s never been released. “Long Gone Daddy,” we rocked it up a bit, like hillbilly rock, you know. I thought it came off so good we needed to put it on this album. Then there’s a new old one on there, “You’re Still On My Mind,” that was out on Mercury many many many years ago. A lot of new fans today, it’d be like a new song to them, so we decided to put it on there; also we wanted it to be a little different from the bigger hits we had that everybody expects to get.
JT: I was reading up on this new album, and it says that “I Don’t Want to Know” was never released because it was “too country.” What’s the story with that?
GJ: That’s what they told me. That’s what happened when they started changing over to the young country. They started telling the older artists “Well, I don’t think you need to cut that because it’s too country.”
Bill Anderson wrote and recorded “Too Country” about that. “Too country?” That’s what he was asking the VJs and the people involved in New Country. How can you get too country when you’ve been traditional country all your career and had big success? Then you call a radio station to get your song played and they say “it’s too country!” Bill Anderson wrote a masterpiece; he told it like it was. They were changing their format to make bigger bucks off of the children—the young people, you know. That’s all they cater to anymore. The radio don’t play traditional country music like it used to be.
JT: Do you listen to any of these young artists on the radio?
GJ: No ma’am. I listen to Alan Jackson and George Strait. They’re still on the stations. And we like Sugarland too. Most of the new artists, they understand me. We’re good friends. Kenny Chesney is like my son, [along with] Dierks Bentley, and several of ‘em. They know I love traditional music and I know what they have to do. We still all go out and have a steak together; they’re good people and they do good work. It’s just ain’t what I like anymore.
Jamey Johnson, this new artist, he’s comin’ along pretty good, but I don’t know how long they’re gonna play him because he’s country and real traditional. But he’s had some real good success early, and that looks good for him.
JT: You’re a excellent interpreter of other people’s songs, and you’ve also written some great songs like “Window Up Above.” What’s the songwriting process like for you? Can you sit down and just knock out a song, or is it something you work at for long periods of time?
GJ: I think the best songs come to you all of a sudden and you sit down and write it. [There are some songs] you have to run on an assembly line, or have three or four guys get together on a certain night and write songs. A lot of them have been very successful, but I couldn’t write like that. I always got an idea and I would go to work on it. But to just to sit down and pick up the guitar without even having an idea yet was just a waste of time.
JT: I’ve got to ask, because I think some of your best work was with Melba Montgomery: you’re still singing and she’s still writing. Any chance you two will collaborate in the future?
GJ: Well, I doubt that very much. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to, but the type of stuff we did was really hardcore country, and the real hardcore [music] isn’t selling that good at all anymore. I’ve cut a couple of her things not too long ago—I can’t remember what they were, I think they’re on albums—but she’s always been a pretty good songwriter. She’s a true traditional country artist and I can’t knock that. Not at all. Not as long as you’re traditional.
JT: In your career, you’ve experimented with other forms of music. You did a Bob Wills tribute album, Bluegrass Hootenanny with Melba, and you’ve recorded with Ray Charles. Do you have a favorite among these projects where you push the boundaries a little?
GJ: Ray and I had a #1 out of that album, “We Didn’t See a Thing.” “I didn’t see you” and he didn’t see me! We had a lot of fun in the studio; we really did. I love that man. When he sings—especially when he sings the old country hits like he did on that one album—it’s fantastic. And he’s like me: he speaks his feelings right off, no matter who’s around. He’ll tell it like it is and he don’t care who hears it!
JT: Can you tell me a little something about one of those times?
GJ: Well, there’s not really anything to talk about. We was just millin’ around and sitting in the audience of an awards show one time and we was just talking about different artists and people, how some of ‘em went about their music and different things. He would just come right out and say “Well, I don’t like it at all” or “I don’t know how anybody thought of even putting something like that out!”
JT: You’re quite the high tech redneck these days. You’ve got a presence on Facebook, Twitter, late night talk shows…are you noticing that this is attracting a younger audience?
GJ: I don’t know what I’m gonna do with my wife, Nancy. Gonna have to shoot her, I guess. She’s got me all over the radios and the networks and—
NANCY JONES (in background): —Yes!
GJ: We do all this stuff I used to do years ago all the time. My crowds are, I would say 60-70 percent older people over 40, but a good third of our crowd is younger people in their high teens and early 30s and so forth. We got some little bitty ones raised on their mamas and daddies playing old records. A lot of ‘em are into stuff like “White Lightning” and “The Race is On” and “I Don’t Need No Rocking Chair.” They like that fast stuff like kids usually do.
I had a song “Yabba Dabba Doo” that Hanna-Barbara made us take off the market. It was getting a lot of play and starting to be a big record for me; the kids just loved it because it was about The Flintstones and they made Columbia pull the record from the radio. The kids loved it, but I said “that’s the way my luck goes.”
But I’ve had a lot of luck and I can’t complain. I’ve really had a great career and I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve missed out on a lot of big hits that they pitched to me on the wrong day. I turned down “Oh Lonesome Me”; Don Gibson wrote and offered it to me and I said “Well, I’ll try to get it on,” but you know back in my early days, I was tied up with a publisher and he wouldn’t let me do other people’s songs. It was unfortunate for me to be tied up like that. If I wrote some songs and could find one or two here or there that was free from publishing, then I could put it all together and still record them. But I was very limited for quite a while in the first years of my career. So I had to turn down certain big songs like that—”Too Cold at Home”, I turned that down because it was published already—and things like that are unfortunate, but they happen.
JT: What’s next for you?
GJ: We’re working our heads off right now on this Cracker Barrel album, A Collection of My Best Recollection. It’s doing real great. That helps us out to be in the charts again. We’re about #29, or 25 in the country album charts. Twenty—what?
NJ (in background): 24.
GJ: 24. And that makes the old man feel good to be back in the charts again.
JT: We’re glad to have you back. Is there anything you still want to accomplish?
GJ: Not really. I’ve just had a great career and I don’t see much more that I can contribute except we’re working on one more album with three other artists. We can’t talk much about it right now, but it’s in the works and it’s supposed to be a big surprise for the fans. Other than that, I’ve just about done it all. Won a lot of awards and things for what I’ve achieved. More or less, my record speaks for itself.
JT: What does country music mean to you?
GJ: Well, I’m a traditional country artist. I always have been and I always will be. I love it so much—I always have—that when you speak of traditional country music, it’s like a religion to me. I didn’t get started seeking glory or seeking big dollars or being somebody big. I came into it because I loved what I was doing.
I think Waylon Jennings put it the best way—I’ve got a plaque in there with a quote from him, I wish I could remember all the words to it. You can’t come to Nashville, New York, or wherever you’re going to try to get a start in the business…you can’t go in there with it in your mind of being a big star, making a lot of money and getting glorification out of it. You got to go in there with your heart and soul. My wife ran and got this plaque, and I want to read it to you:
“You’ve got to care. You’ve got to care about the music. You work with other musicians who care, and your audience cares. You better care too, hoss, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. You better not be doing it for the publicity, the fame, or the money. And you sure better not be doing it because it’s a way to make a living, ’cause that ain’t always gonna be easy. You got to believe it, believe in the music, you got to mean it, that’s all.”
He told it like I’ve been trying to explain it for years. And I said “doggone, I can’t believe you came up with that.” (Laughing).
JT: Well, I don’t think we can end this interview any better than that. Thank you so much, it’s been an honor. I know I’m supposed to be an impartial interviewer here, but I went to see you sing about four years ago in Trenton: I was probably one of the youngest people there, I was totally blown away, and I got to share it with my mom. Thank you for that.
GJ: Oh, well thank you so much; you just made my day. I hope I was in good voice.
JT: You were. You had a broken arm, so you couldn’t play the guitar.
GJ: Right. I broke my arm and my wrist. I don’t even play the guitar anymore; the [Jones] Boys say I keep better time just shakin’ the mic a little a bit. I was the worst rhythm player they ever had and they didn’t know how to tell me! Now they’re glad I don’t play guitar.