Music legend George Jones passed away in Nashville today at age 81. In this exclusive 2006 interview with Billboard, the country icon talked about his humble beginnings and his road to becoming one of the genre's most cherished voices.
The world's greatest country singer lives about 60 miles south of Nashville in a spacious mansion that's light years away from his hardscrabble beginnings in the rough-hewn region of Southeast Texas once known as the Big Thicket. Free of the demons that plagued him earlier in life, at 75, George Jones is peaceful and content. Still active in the studio and on the road, Jones remains a hardcore country traditionalist and bristles slightly when talk turns to contemporary country. But he has no ax to grind, and talks candidly and easily about his rocky road to becoming a legend.
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As I drove up I couldn't help but think this is a long way from the Big Thicket.
Well, it's quite a ways, yeah. I was born in Saratoga, Texas, a little town there in the Big Thicket about 60 miles north of Beaumont. Needless to say, we were very, very poor, but we always managed to have enough to keep our bellies full.
When did you first feel like you may have a future as a singer?
I was already up in my 20s before I ever had any idea I could make money at it. I just wanted to sing, in church or wherever. I'd be on the bus just singing up a storm -- Roy Acuff songs or somebody else. I would play hooky from school just to go do that, ride one bus to the end of the line and get on another one to ride back home. I did it just for the love that I had for it. It was nice to find out later that you could get paid for it. If I hadn't, I probably never could've done anything else. I tried to be a house painter, but I couldn't stand all that paint all over me.
What were your early musical influences?
The only night my mother and daddy would let me get in bed with them was Saturday night, and the only music we ever heard was the Grand Ole Opry. I'd tell my mother, "If I go to sleep, you wake me up when Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff comes on." That was the biggest thrill of my life in those days, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.
Did you ever think you might be on there one day?
I never had any idea whatsoever. I loved Roy Acuff with all my heart, and I never dreamed I'd be able to meet him or see him onstage, or especially become good friends with him. For all this to happen, it's hard to explain what a dream this is when you love something as much as I love traditional country music.
Do you remember your first paying gig?
The first time I remember any money at all, maybe $500, was when I hit the charts with "Why Baby Why" in the latter part of '55. I lived in Beaumont, Texas, at the time, and I had a booking during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I got me a [speeding] ticket in Bay St. Louis, Miss., for doing about 90, and I didn't have the money to get out of jail, so I had to call home and they had to wire money to get me out. But I still made the gig in time, and I went on and did the show. And somebody came in my hotel room, I figure it had to be a maid, got in my room while I was asleep and took my watch and rings. So I lost a lot of money, $500 didn't cover it.
You took a brief stab at rock'n'roll under the name Thumper Jones. That didn't take, did it?
Naw, it sure didn't. I was desperate. When you're hungry, a poor man with a house full of kids, you're gonna do some things you ordinarily wouldn't do. I said, "Well, hell, I'll try anything once." I tried "Dadgum It How Come It" and "Rock It," a bunch of shit. I didn't want my real name on the damn rock'n'roll thing, so I told them to put "Thumper Jones" on it, and if it did something, good, if it didn't, hell, I didn't want to be shamed with it. And I'll never live that down. It was a terrible sound, and now all that comes back to haunt you.
I tried to buy all the masters, but they knew some day they could sell that junk and take advantage of the fans, which they did. Here just a few short years ago somebody bought that stuff and came out with an album, "Thumper Jones," and it's the worse-sounding crap that could ever be put on a record. And a lot of your dear fans will buy those things because your name is on it, and that's a shame.
"Window Up Above" in 1960, which you co-wrote, sort of signifies the beginning of the "George Jones" sound to me.
That was one of the first things after "Why Baby Why" that got me any attention at all. When I went to Mercury I got my first halfway decent sounds. "Window" and "Color of the Blues" [in 1958] didn't sell that big, but they got me a lot of radio play.
That was the beginning of some good times for you, wasn't it?
The '60s and '70s were fantastic. "Window Up Above," "She Thinks I Still Care" , "Grand Tour" , "Walk Through This World With Me" .
Talk about your relationship with producer Billy Sherrill and why you two had so much success in the studio.
I give the credit mostly to Billy, who at that time had that little bit of something different as a producer that most of the producers in Nashville didn't have. Everybody has their day, producers the same as artists. He just came up with that sound like he got with Tammy [Wynette], [sings] "Ba bum ba bum ba bum," build-ups, and it was a little more updated, I guess.
He tried to do that with me, but I finally had a talk with him. I said, "Billy, I'm country, I'm traditional, I know you're wanting to cross over with me like you have with Tammy, Charlie Rich and those people, but I'm hardcore and I can't help it. That's what I feel, and I can't do a good job for the label, you or anybody else if I don't feel it myself." I had no problem after that, we'd go in and he got me a good sound. I used my fiddle and steel and good country pickers, and I guess I really just lucked up a little bit on finding the songs.
What did it take to make it back then?
It takes a lot of luck, and I think your voice has to be a little different than anybody else. Like Tammy Wynette, when she sung you knew it was Tammy Wynette. And they say when they hear me sing they know it's George Jones because I got that little something different in the sound of my voice, I guess. And Ernest Tubb, you definitely know when Ernest Tubb sings, and Hank Williams and Roy Acuff are the same way. But the most luck is songs. If you don't get them and somebody else gets them first, what the hell. Some great singers have come to this town and left empty-handed.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s it was well-chronicled that you had some rough times personally and professionally, but the albums from that period hold up very well. How were you able to have such a crazy personal life and still do such great albums?
Well, I was young, and my voice hadn't got screwed up yet. [laughs] I would say 90% of the time I would be in pretty damn good shape when I went into the studio. I did have a little sense, not a whole lot. But I would still have to have a little build-up of courage, three or four drinks [throughout] the session time. I don't know, it seemed to mellow you out and relax you a little more, and you would even feel your songs better. You could do a sad song about Mama, and I could hardly get through some of them, almost get on a crying drunk. [laughs]
Faron Young told me one time, I said, "I'm gonna quit drinking, quit smoking, I'm gonna quit this crappy life." And Faron said, "George, God-dangit, if you ever were to quit drinking and smoking at the same time, why, your damn voice would go into turmoil and ain't no way you'd ever sing again."
But when I had that wreck [a near-fatal accident in 1999] I made my mind up, it put the fear of God in me. No more smoking, no more drinking. I didn't have to have no help, I made my mind up and I quit. I don't crave it. But when I first went back out on the road singing, I could sing high again. I got my highs back, but my low notes I'm kinda known for hitting—[sings] "Hotter than a two-dollar pistol"—I couldn't go down there no more. I remembered what Faron said, and I thought, "Damn, he was right."
"He Stopped Loving Her Today" from 1980 is a song that will be one of your legacies. Why do you think people have latched onto that song the way they have?
I've always thought a song was a hit if it stays up in your mind a lot. I carried that song almost a year, and I bet there wasn't a day I wasn't trying to sing it in my mind, it like to drove me crazy. But I told Billy Sherrill, "That's too damn morbid, ain't nobody gonna buy that." He said, "I'll bet you $100." I said, "Shit, I can't lose, I'll take the bet." And when it came out and did what it did I never was so amazed in my life. But then I got to thinking, "Why, hell, it had been on my mind for almost a year. And when a song does that to me it's always turned out to be a hit." I said [to myself], "You dumbass, you should of known that."
"The Race Is On"  was pitched to me, and I only heard the first verse, [sings] "I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart's sprung a big leak," and I said, "I'll take it." Ray Price always said, "Boy, if it makes smoke come out of your ass, you know it's a hit."
I read a quote one time where Billy Sherrill said something to the effect that on "Bartender's Blues" you were trying too hard to sound like George Jones.
Yeah, I got into it too much, I really did. At the time, that's the way I felt it, but I think I really overdone the phrasing. But I cut it again on one of my latest albums, and I don't do quite as many syllables. I got that part from Lefty [Frizzell]. He always made five syllables out of one damn word.
The nickname "No Show Jones," did you earn it, and how do you feel about that now?
It was talked about so damn much, I think they made a mountain out of an anthill. It's true, I did miss quite a few dates. But they wouldn't have wanted to see or hear me anyhow, the shape I was in. Now I know it did hurt my fans in a way and I've always been sad about that, it really bothered me for a long time. I could see in my mind a little old lady with her two grandkids walking an old dirt road a mile or two miles just to get to the show to see you, probably saved money for the tickets a couple of months. You realize how sad that is, because I would've given my right arm to get in to see Hank Williams or Roy. A lot of times we forget those things, and you have to be woke up. Even if they got their money back, I hope, they still lost the chance to see somebody they loved to hear sing, and I cheated them out of that.
What do you think when you hear people call you country music's greatest singer?
I don't know why they say that, there's a lot of good singers. I guess I just felt heart songs a little stronger in some type of way than they were used to hearing from other artists. But when I sing a song, whether it's in the studio or onstage, I try to live the story of that song in my mind, my heart and my feelings. That's why they come out like that. I feel the hurt that people have, especially everyday working people. I'll be in the studio and just get so involved in it I almost have a tear come out.
Do you still enjoy going in the studio and laying down tracks?
I still love to do it, but I haven't been satisfied a lot in the past because of the problems I've had with my voice. I have to pick my time to go back in and overdub. It's a little harder for me to do, but I still love going in and recording, and I'm about to get to a point where I'm getting the medications to clear up some of this mess.
How about playing live, do you still love it?
Oh, yeah, I'll always love it. As long as the people still want to come, I'm gonna be there. I don't care if I'm 95. I'm at the point in life where I really could shut it off, but what would I do? Why in the hell don't George Jones move over and let the new people take over? Well, hell, they can do anything they want to, but I'm not gonna move over, because I love these fans and these fans still think a hell of a lot of me. I'm gonna hit it as long as I'm able.
It's never been the love of the money. I thank God for it because it makes me a living. But I sing because I love it, not because of the dollar signs. A lot of artists come to the big city of Nashville with dollar signs floating around in their heads, they're gonna get a lot of glory and popularity and be somebody and all this crap. Well, if that's what they've got in mind, I'm like Waylon Jennings -- you better go back home and get that off, and then come back to Nashville. Because you've got to have a love for it to be successful.