George Jones is one of the most respected legends in country music — so much so that he is often name-checked in songs by other artists, ‘Don’t Rock the Jukebox’ by Alan Jackson and ’Dirt Road Anthem’ by Jason Aldean being good examples. Many of these stars also think of him as the greatest living country singer of all time. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the unmistakable voice behind classics like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ ‘The Race Is On’ and ‘Choices,’ Jones answers eight questions in honor of his 80th birthday, exclusively for Taste of Country.
One of the most moving parts of one of your recent concerts was when you sang ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.’ As we watched you sing about your friends, many of them no longer with us, a giant screen showed their pictures and brought back so many memories. Who do you miss the most in country music and why?
I miss all of my old friends who have passed away. Sometimes you just don’t understand why they were taken so soon. I loved and miss Johnny Cash. I miss my old buddy Johnny Paycheck, who happens to be buried in an area of the cemetery that I bought for my family. Of course, the fact that Tammy is gone is something that I am reminded about all of the time since our duets are such a big part of my musical history and, of course, we have a daughter together. Roy Acuff was a big hero for me, and I was so sad when he passed. It’s hard as you get older to lose your friends and family.
You have one of the most interesting biographies in country music, appropriately titled ‘I Lived to Tell It All.’ What was the hardest story you had to share in that book?
I guess the hardest part of the book for me is my bad behavior in disappointing the fans with my “no shows.” When you don’t act right to your family and friends, that’s bad, but they also have the opportunity to experience the “good” side as well. Disappointing the fans is an entirely different thing because the fans love your music and save up money to see you in concert. They plan for weeks in advance to have a nice evening and then, if the artist doesn’t show up, everyone is more than disappointed. I feel really bad about all the people I disappointed by not showing up or not performing up to my best ability.
In 1995, you had the chance to record one final duet album, called ‘One,’ with Tammy Wynette. Whose idea was it to get you back in the studio together and on the road one last time?
The idea to do the album was really my wife’s, Nancy. Tammy had almost died and was in the hospital. Nancy insisted that we visit her at the hospital. Tammy was unconscious and as we left, I said, “You better get better so we can do another record together.” Tammy remembered that when she woke up. Nancy plotted and planned with Tammy’s husband, George Richey. I always loved to sing with Tammy — I think that was the big attraction between us, our voices. The tour came about as the natural next step and gave us a wonderful opportunity to sing our old hits together and get over the bitterness that existed between us for so long.
On the reunion tour with Tammy Wynette, Kenny Chesney opened up the show. Kenny has come a long way since then, and it appears the two of you still work together, as his latest album features you on the track ‘Small Y’all.’ How did your friendship with Kenny begin, and why is he one of your favorite modern singers in country music?
I love Kenny, and he has remained as close as a son to me. My stepdaughter with Nancy worked for Morris Management, who manages Kenny. Kenny was just starting out and we all agreed to bring him along on the tour. He took his first private plane trip with me and he was just thrilled. In fact, he wore overalls that day and gave them to me. I have them framed down in my memorabilia basement! Through the years, Kenny always stayed in touch and, as he became such a big star, he never forgot me. We do little surprises for each other. Just a couple of months ago, I surprised him on tour and walked out onstage singing to him. He just about fell over. He was so happy and emotional. He knows I don’t normally show up at other people’s shows, and it was a wonderful moment between us. We had dinner back in Nashville a couple of nights later. Kenny is a good, good man and I think of him as a son — and he calls me “Dad.” I am so proud of all that he’s accomplished, and he has stayed the same down to earth humble guy that he’s always been.
Last year, you released ‘George Jones: Hits’ on Bandit Records. One of the previously unreleased tracks, ‘I Ain’t Ever Slowin’ Down,’ inspired a national line dance hit. How does it make you feel to know that people of all ages are line dancing to your music after all these years?
I’m thrilled about the line dance. I still believe if I could get more airplay, I could get a hit. ‘I Ain’t Ever Slowing Down’ would have been a big hit if I had recorded it in my younger days. I’m thrilled that people still respond to my music and that the music is relevant to today’s listeners.
You’ve placed 168 songs on the Billboard country charts, more than any other artist in history. Obviously not all of those singles could be big hits, so out of all of your songs that didn’t make the Top 10, name one or two singles that you wish were bigger hits.
I’ve been unbelievably lucky with my music. I’m not sure of the numbers to be honest, but 168 sounds good to me. I think ‘The Cold Hard Truth’ could have and should have been a big hit. ‘I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair’ only went to No. 24 but the audience reaction every night in my concerts makes it feel like a Top 10. ‘You’re Still On My Mind’ didn’t even make it into the Top 20. There were a lot of songs during my MCA years that I thought should have been singles but were not. You can’t worry about what wasn’t — I was very lucky to have as many hits as I had.
When you look back on everything you’ve accomplished in your life, what are you the most proud of personally and professionally?
From a career point of view, I am amazed by my good fortune. I’ve been recording for about 57 years, and I never dreamed that would happen. As they say, I’ve had hits in five decades so that’s pretty good. From a personal point of view, I’m proud of the fact that I finally kicked my demons and that drink and drugs are no longer a part of me. The last 10 years or so have allowed me to be a better husband, father and friend on a personal level than all the years before when I was so messed up.
Considering that your first hit was in 1955 with ‘Why Baby Why,’ It’s very impressive that you are still recording, selling out shows, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and meeting fans. What advice do you have for other artists to have the career longevity that you’ve enjoyed?
All I can say to other artists in terms of a long career is to do the music you love. Singing for me is a way of life — it is something I love to do, but only if I love the music. If you sing songs you love, people know it and know that you are being honest with them. If you compromise too much and sing what you don’t believe, the fans feel betrayed and they know the difference. Be yourself and sing what you love.