The great country singer George Jones was best-known for his longtime association with Nashville, where he earned his reputation as perhaps the greatest country singer who has ever lived. But Jones, who died this morning at the age of 81, was a product of East Texas—born in Saratoga, raised in Vidor, busked on the streets of Beaumont, and worked at a radio statio in Jasper. Here’s an interview we conducted with him in 2004.
I GOT MY FIRST GUITAR when I was nine. We lived way out in the sticks in a little town called Saratoga, in East Texas. Every Sunday we went to the Trinity Gospel Tabernacle. It was nondenominational, but it was akin to Pentecostal. The reverend’s wife, Sister Annie, she played the guitar and sang. Sister Annie taught me the basic chords on the guitar, and everything else came natural. On Saturdays a bunch of us would stand outside the popular hangouts where people cashed their checks and bought groceries, and we would sing over a microphone, with a big speaker on top of the car. And then the reverend would preach. It was one of them Holy Roller-type things, real countrified. I loved that guitar so much. I got calluses on my fingers until they weren’t sore anymore. All I did was play that guitar. I started playing hooky from school. I’d stay out in the woods and play guitar all day long. When I was done, I’d hide it in the woods and cover it with leaves.
On Saturday nights, when the Grand Ole Opry was on the radio, we would listen to my favorite, Roy Acuff. Hank Williams came along in ’48 or ’49, when I was around fifteen or sixteen years old. And Lefty Frizzell came right along also. Between Roy and Lefty and Hank Williams, I got my style. I’ve been told that I take one syllable and make five out of it. Well, I got that from Lefty Frizzell. I got my start disc-jockeying on KTRM, in Beaumont. I met a group called Eddie and Pearl. They were a man-and-wife team I had on my evening radio show, and they played on weekends at little joints and taverns. They gave me a job playing lead guitar with them. Then I went in the service, and while I was in the Marine Corps, these people at Starday Records, in Beaumont, got in touch with me. They signed me up when I got home, and I recorded my first session in ’54. It was a very low-caliber, you might say, kind of recording. There wouldn’t be but two or three takes of each song. But the musicians put their hearts into it. They played with feeling, just like I sang with feeling. Nowadays, it’s just like an assembly line.
You know, you don’t hear songs about drinking or cheating on the radio anymore. Hell, if that’d always been true, I’d have been out of a job a long time ago! This new country music isn’t country. You can call it whatever you want, but it’s just downright pop. Vic Chesnutt is like a son to me, but he knows how I feel. Everyone in the business here in Nashville knows how I feel. You ask them about real country music, and they’ll say, “That’s old hat.” Well, that’s bull. Their sales were down 10 percent last year. They’ve completely made a mess of everything. And to tell you the truth, they brought it all on themselves. They deserve it. If they want to stay in the business, they need to go back to basics. Don’t be ashamed of the steel guitar! The steel guitar is a beautiful instrument. Don’t be ashamed of the fiddle! Don’t record with a symphony orchestra! You don’t need that junk. Country music is supposed to be country music. It’s for that man out there in the Mississippi cotton fields. It’s for our everyday working man. Well, you know what I’m talking about. I won’t go on and on.
Like I was saying, I was always known for my drinking songs and my cheating songs. But drinking has never solved anything. The only thing that stuff does is cause heartache and trouble. When I had my wreck, in ’99, that put the fear of God in me. I quit drinking, smoking, everything at one time. My heart stopped twice on the way to the hospital. It was about seven or eight days before I came to. It was rough, and they really worked hard at keeping me alive. It made me wonder. The reason I believe in the good Lord nowadays is because I’m still sitting here. A few months before I had my wreck, I’d gone out on the back part of my property, on the wooded section, and done a little praying. I’d asked the good Lord to do what was necessary—knock me down with a sledgehammer if he had to—to make me see the light and be able to quit drinking and really get my life together. That’s the first thing I thought of when I came to my senses in the hospital. That’s the reason I quit drinking. Listen, I don’t believe anything in this world could ever disturb or upset me enough to make me start drinking again.
When I got detoxed, I didn’t even want coffee. I’ve always enjoyed a cup of black coffee in the evening with something sweet, like a piece of pie or cake. So I’m back to having a little bit of coffee at night, but that’s about all I’m drinking now. And you know, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. When I’m in the studio or onstage—whenever I’m singing—I can still go into this other world. For the two and a half or three minutes that I sing a song, I just put my heart and soul into it, and it’s like living the song at the same time. I can reach notes now that I haven’t been able to hit since I was in my twenties and thirties. I can taste food again. I get along so much better with people. I don’t have a whole lot of friends, and the friends I’ve lost—those are the ones I didn’t need anyhow. Before Tammy [Wynette] passed on, we recorded a single together, and we did a tour in the States and overseas. It was a very forgiving time. We finally got a chance to sit and talk. And I apologized for my drinking and my ways. Everything ended in pretty good harmony between us. Nobody was mad at each other anymore about nothing.
I’m trying to slow down this year, not spend so much time on the road. I got me three or four nice horses on my property, and that’s what I fool with now. It’s just a wonderful life.
George Jones, 72, is often called the world’s greatest living country singer. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and lives outside Nashville.