An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse: Car Dealer Becomes George Jones’ Opening Act

Move over Cinderella — the glass shoe is on another foot tonight.

When Brentwood, Tenn., car dealer Barry Smith began recording his voice to someone else’s demo tracks three years ago, he hardly could have imagined that his idol, the great George Jones , would one day seek him out and ask him to open shows for him. But that’s exactly what has happened.

Last Friday, in Tunica, Miss., Smith did his first opening chores for Jones. It was also the first time the 37-year-old Kentucky native had ever performed in public outside of his church. The country traditionalist will be working most weekends with Jones for the rest of this year and will make his Nashville debut when Jones plays the Ryman Auditorium Oct. 21.

As a dealer in high-end cars, Smith has done business with a number of country stars. Moreover, his wife, Sheri Copeland, tours as a backup singer for Ray Stevens . But, until recently, he had never met Jones. That momentous event was still several degrees of separation away. The man who ultimately linked him with Jones was award-winning songwriter Max D. Barnes.

“I had some soundtracks from a friend who had been singing demos for Max,” Smith explains. “I had met Max about seven years ago because I’m a car salesman, and he loves cars. My friend had these tracks where Max would sing the song and right behind it he’d record a soundtrack for my friend to sing the demo. He gave me some copies of those soundtracks.”

Smith took the soundtracks to the “little studio” he had built in his garage for his wife to use. “While she was out traveling with Ray,” he says, “I’d come home from work at night and start singing to those tracks. I’d been singing all my life, gospel music and in church, but I’d never done any shows. I’ve been singing out there in the garage for the past three years.”

Last fall, Barnes came to Smith’s office at the car lot. “I had my guitar sitting there,” Smith says, “and he asked me if I played. I told him, ‘Oh, a little bit.’ And he asked me if I sang, and I said, ‘Oh, a little bit.’ But I was ready for him. … I sang him one of his own songs that had never been cut.”

Barnes was so impressed by what he heard, Smith recalls, that he began to weep. “He said, ‘Man, this is unreal. I’d like to take you to the studio.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go.’” Barnes asked his son, producer/songwriter Max T. Barnes, to handle Smith’s session. “We got a studio for the day before Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Day, because we didn’t have a budget. We were just trying to do it to see if we could get something that could work.”

The upshot was a three-song sampler CD. One cut was the novelty tune “That’s Why I Sing This Way,” which has the refrain, “My mama used to whup me with a George Jones album/That’s why I sing this way.” Barnes took a copy of the song to play for Jones and his wife and manager, Nancy.

“That was about a month ago,” Smith says. “George got the copy, and he came out to the car lot to see me. I wasn’t there — I was over at an auto auction buying cars. But they called me and said George Jones just came by. I said, ‘That’s great.’ But they said, ‘He didn’t want to buy a car — he wanted to talk to you.’”

A very excited Smith promptly called Jones’ office. “I’d never met George,” he says, “but he’s always been my hero. He got on the phone and said, ‘Man, I love your singing, and I want to help you. What can I do for you?’” Smith asked if he would record with him for another version of “That’s Why I Sing This Way.” Jones agreed on the spot, suggesting they record the following Monday.

After the session was over, Smith says Jones called him and said, “I want to tell you, son, I had a ball today. I’d like to work with you some.” The next morning, the woman who serves as Jones’ and Alan Jackson ’s financial manger, contacted Smith and told him that Jones wanted him to open his Oct. 21 concert at the Ryman. “I just started crying,” Smith says. “It just overwhelmed me.”

But it was about to get better. Smith delayed calling Jones back to thank him for the Ryman date for “three or four days,” fearing he might “bug” Jones. When he did call, Jones told him to look at his concert schedule and pick out some other shows he’d like to open.

“In the meantime,” Smith continues, “I’d signed with Fitzgerald-Hartley for management. They had heard my songs and liked them. So I had Larry Fitzgerald call Nancy, and they picked out about nine shows. … We were going to start out Sept. 28 in Renfro Valley, Ky. George came back to the car lot last Monday morning (Aug. 20) just to talk to me and see how I was doing. He said, ‘Why are you waiting until Sept. 28 to come sing with me?’ I told him I didn’t want to be greedy, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come sing with me this weekend in Tunica?’” After Smith did the soundcheck there (in the process earning rave reviews from Jones’ band), “the Possum” summoned him to his bus and told him, Smith says, “I want you to work on every show I’ve got.”

Now, Fitzgerald-Hartley, which also manages Vince Gill , Pam Tillis , Jamie O’Neal and others, is shopping Smith for a record deal. He is signed with William Morris for booking. And he and Max D. Barnes have set up their own publishing company. He’s even had an audience — and an invitation to co-write — with the pope of country composers, Harlan Howard.

A fortune-teller might have seen all this coming. Smith was born — and he swears this is true — in a place called Possum Trot.