George Jones is a country music legend. Esteemed by many as the genre's greatest singer, Jones has been working his vocal magic since the 1950s, when he cut his first records with producer Peppy Dailey on his home state of Texas, where he was born in 1931. Jones is perhaps best known for the music made during his almost twenty-year tenure at Epic Records. Working with producer Billy Sherrill, Jones recorded a string of country classics, including a number of wrenching duets with Tammy Wynette, to whom he was married, often turbulently, from 1969 to 1974. Well documented have been Jones's problems over the years with drugs and alcohol, and his scores of missed performances. Clean, sober, and happily married now at age sixty-one, Jones has just released a new album called Walls Can Fall, his second for MCA.
Long an admirer of Jones's music, Elvis Costello sang a duet with Jones — the Costello tune "Stranger in the House" — on the country star's My Very Special Guests record in 1979. Costello also paid homage to Jones on his Billy Sherrill-produced country album Almost Blue (1981) with a rendition of the Jones standard "A Good Year for the Roses" that hit the top ten in the U.K. When asked to conduct a phone interview from Dublin to Nashville with his country idol on the occasion of Jones's new album, Costello was willing and eager. — P.G.
INTERVIEW: Long time no see.
GEORGE JONES: I'm tellin' ya. You're a long ways from here, aren't you?
I: Yeah, I'm in Dublin. That's where I live now.
GJ: Well, we'll have to try to visit with you when we come over.
I: Yeah. It's been a long time since you've been over here.
GJ: It has. I've just been putting it off 'cause I've had so much going on here. I've gotten into the dog and cat food business and we're running some big promotions and things on that, you know.
I: How do you mean? You own a company?
GJ: No. Sunshine Mills, a company here in the States, is using my name — George Jones Country Gold Pet Foods. I love the dogs real good.
I: It's difficult to keep them, though, isn't it? I mean, I'd love to have a dog, but—
GJ: It's hard to keep one outside 'cause they away or get run over.
I: And when you go away and come back, they bite you 'cause they don't know you anymore.
GJ: That's true. I've got a small one that we carry with us everywhere we go, on the bus and everything.
I: I heard your new record. It turned out really good.
GJ: Yeah, we're real proud of it.
I: You've got quite a cast of people singing you on that first song, "I Don't Need Your Rocking Chair" [Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffle, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis and Travis Tritt]. You've got $50 million worth of country talent on that one track. It's a funny thing. Of the country singers that have come up since we last met, ten years ago, a lot of them seem to be trying to sound not so much like your records on Epic but your records from the '50s and '60s.
GJ: That's just the triumph of good ol' country music, you know, the pure stuff. It's kind of came back. These young artists, hell, companies are signing them every day. New faces, new names -- they're going crazy with it. And the radio stations are complaining 'cause they don't have time to work them all.
I: I must say, I saw a program recently that did a sort of compilation of a lot of new artists, and some of them didn't have the same character that I've always liked about your records. Some of them looked like they escaped out of a soap opera.
GJ: Well, this new album. of mine is going back to tie real old George Jones-type stuff.
I: You have a lot of records to be proud of. I wrote the sleeve notes for a reissue of your Hank Williams record a few years ago, because the record company knew I was a big fan of yours. You're probably the only person who's ever cut a whole album of Hank Williams songs that are any kind of match for the original versions.
GJ: Well, I lived and breathed Hank Williams when I was growing up. Lord, he drove me crazy. He kept my mind all messed up.
I: It's not as though you sing anything like him.
GJ: Not really. I basically used his sound, his instrumentation.
I: I've never been able to work out who was a big influence on the way you sing. People have told me Lefty Frizzell.
GJ: Well, I got a little bit of about three different artists in my voice, besides my own sound: Lefty Frizzell, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams. I've got a little bluegrass touch, and I've got Lefty's slurring — the way I phrase. I'll never forget the first recording session I ever did, in 1954. After about two hours of singing, Peppy Dailey, the fellow producing the session, came out of the control room and said, "George, we've heard Lefty Frizzell, We've heard Hank Williams, now can you sing like George Jones?"
GJ: I said, "Oh, I didn't know you wanted me to do that.° [laughs]
I: Now, what about when you were growing up, before you started to play? I'm interested in what other music you might have heard.
GJ: When I was growing up, you didn't have radios in your car. You had one radio at the house, and the only music you listened to was the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. After I got a little older, and started hanging around downtown, all I'd hear was pop music. You wouldn't hardly hear country music. So we always hung back on Saturday night and got our country music from the Grand Ole Opry.
I: Have you ever considered doing an album where all of the songwriting came from outside the country area, even though you might do typical George Jones interpretations? There are a lot of songwriters whose work you've never touched, like Hoagy Carmichael, or someone more up-to-date, like Tom Waits.
GJ: Hey, I've never thought of that, but that's a good idea. However, it would have to be the kind of material that I could transform my way, to the country style.
I: Oh, I don't mean you should start to sing like a jazz singer, and I don't mean you should make a record like Willie Nelson's Stardust, where he sang standards in the style that they were written. I do want to say, though, that I tend to think of you as an American vocalist — rather than Just a country singer — in the same frame of mind as the great singers in other styles of music, like Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra.
GJ: Thank you. For this kind of record, I would have to have help from someone familiar about this situation, as you are, that could pick out certain types of songs.
I: Well, there you go, George. I'm volunteering. Anytime you want to do this record. I think it's the missing George Jones album.
GJ: Great. I'll tell you what. Let's get a few songs together and see what we can do with them. I would love for you to send me a tape of some of the things you might like to see on an album like this.
I: O.K., I'll send you some things. I may sing them myself, with just a simple acoustic guitar, without trying to copy you — I can't copy your voice, anyway. Then maybe you would hear them more in the vein of how they could be done.
GJ: O.K., great. When are you coming to the States?
I: I don't know. I'm making a record myself next week, and I'll be coming there on tour next year. Maybe we should try to meet up. It would be nice to see you.
GJ: I got to head out of here pretty shortly and go get my hair done.
I: I know. It's been great talking to you.
GJ: Call anytime.
I: I will.