Despite dozens of country classics, George Jones confesses he doesn’t always know a smash when he hears it. That’s why he has issued Hits I Missed … And One I Didn’t, a new album of memorable songs made famous by a variety of country stars, from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. (He offers a new version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” too.) Taking questions from his fans of all ages, the Possum provides insight about the gatekeepers at country radio, his favorite country supper and singing a duet with Cher.
1. Your first No. 1 hit was “White Lightning” in 1959. Did you ever think it would be such a big hit?
I was hoping, as every young artist does. I thought it sounded like a big hit, but you never really know. “Why Baby Why” went to No. 4 a few years before and “Just One More” went to No. 3, but I was itching to get a No. 1. I had Nudie [the Hollywood tailor] make me a “White Lightning” suit, and the funny thing is that we recently found it on eBay and bought it back. Now, of course, I named my [brand of] Tennessee spring water “White Lightning.” It was a great song for me, and it is hard to believe that I have been doing it in my shows for 46 years!
2. What is your most requested song?
Of course it is “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Truthfully, I get requests for lots of different songs but “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was/is the biggest song of my career. I’ve had so many big songs, and I can’t fit them all into my show, so we get a lot of e-mails and fan mail asking me to do all kinds of songs. I change out about six to eight songs each year in my show in my attempt to try and give people some of their requests, but I have a bunch that I absolutely have to do. I also try to weave a bunch into a medley to at least give people a bit of some of the songs they want.
3. What led you to records the song “Choices”?
The funny thing about “Choices” is that I had passed on it for two previous albums. Billy Yates, who wrote the song, is a good friend. He used to be my wife Nancy’s hairdresser! He had also written and pitched me “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” so he kept bringing me “Choices.” When we were putting together the songs for The Cold Hard Truth album, he pitched it again and everyone — the label, my producer Keith Stegall — loved it. It sounded good to me that time, and so we recorded it. Of course, we had no idea that I would have the car accident and that the song would so perfectly fit the situation at the moment. It was also my last highest-ranking radio hit. Of course, they probably played it because they thought I was dying or would have died. But the people love it. I do it in my shows and the reaction is the same as if it had been a No. 1 record.
4. I’m an aspiring songwriter, but I have a hard time following the formula for today’s popular song. Do you think a song can be popular today without following the 2-3 refrain/bridge style?
I don’t think that there is a formula for today’s popular songs. Once you’ve incorporated rap and rock ‘n’ roll into the songs, you’ve sort of lost that classic country song formula. You have to wonder, though, what will be remembered. Seems to me that the classic 2-3 refrain/bridge is what is remembered and really works. Other artists, beyond the originators, can record those classic songs and the song still sounds good. Some of the songs performed today are only good for that one interpretation. Who else is ever going to be able to record it? So much of the music today is about production and attitude and the song sort of gets lost. My advice, if you are writing country songs, is to stick to the classic and you might get yourself a hit that a lot of different artists can record — and not just country artists.
5. There’s a lot of talk about Johnny Paycheck’s influence on your vocal style. What, if any, has Johnny Paycheck had on your vocal style?
Johnny didn’t have any influence on my vocal style. I gave Johnny his first job in music. He played guitar in my band under the name Donny Young, his real name. He didn’t even sing then. I would imagine I had some influence on his style.
6. What is your fondest memory of Johnny Cash?
Johnny was just a really good friend. He helped me a lot in my early days. He was a big star, and he took a lot of us out as part of his package show. He had a nickname for me, which was “Little Pal.” He was always there for me. No matter how messed up I was or what I needed, I never had to ask — he was just a solid friend. He was one of my closest friends, and I miss him a lot. We were always in touch and, in fact, I was out at his house just a few days before he died.
7. How did you get the name “Possum”?
I got the name from two radio jocks — Ralph Emery and Tommy T. Cutrer. They had a profile photo of me and decided that my nose from the side looked like a possum.
8. Who is keeping you in line now that Vestal Goodman has gone home?
Well, I miss Vestal, but I know she is in a better place. My wife, Nancy, definitely keeps me in line these days. Truthfully, I have no desire to get in trouble. These are the best days of my life.
9. What was it like to work with Tammy Wynette on the shows that you did following your divorce?
How do you think it must have been? Tough. There was a lot of bitterness between Tammy and I during the divorce. But, as singers, we were great together. In many ways, I think most of our attraction for each other was about the singing and talent. I loved her voice and style. She loved my voice and style. Together, we made great music. But from a personal point of view, we were a disaster.
10. Does your daughter, Georgette, sing?
Our daughter, Georgette, does sing. It’s taken her a while to decide to have a career in music, but she now has a development deal at RCA. She wrote and recorded a few songs that sound really good.
11. Is there anyone in rock, pop or rap that you would like to sing a duet with?
Well, I really like Norah Jones. I like her style, and I like the way she handles herself. She is a class act. Mick Jagger could be fun. I did a couple of duets with Keith Richards but not Mick. My wife, Nancy, would love for me to do a duet with Cher! Now that would be something!
12. What’s your favorite country-fried, home-cooked supper?
My favorite home-cooked supper is fried potatoes with onions, fried okra, baby lima beans and fried cornbread. I’m not a big meat eater, but if I had to include meat, it would be smoked ham. I’m not against eating meat and I do eat it, but I prefer homegrown vegetables.
13. How do you make George Jones sausage taste so good?
We make sure George Jones sausage is good. We buy it all over the country to make sure that my fans get what I think they should get in quality. When we first started with it, I had them vary the samples, trying to get the taste that my mother’s sausage had when she made it. It took a few tries, and they finally got the right blend of spices. Sausage also has to have a certain amount of fat. On some early samples, it crumbled because the hogs were too lean. I told the people that made the sausage that they had to pull it from the shelves because no one wants their sausage to fall apart. They may buy it once because of my name, but they won’t come back if it is not top quality. We finally got it right, and I’m really proud of the taste of my sausage.
14. I am your biggest fan in Sweden. Any chance we might see you live on stage here in Sweden?
We have talked about doing another European tour, and maybe we will. I sort of doubt it — in that I’m 74 and that is a long trip. I don’t like being away from home nowadays for more than three or four days at a time. We are doing a six-week run up in Canada this fall, but it is a lot easier touring in Canada than going to Europe. We can use our buses and drive up. When you tour in Europe, you have so many more arrangements to make for travel and everything. But you can never say never, so maybe I will get to Sweden.
15. You entertain the world with your music. What entertains you and makes you want to keep doing what you’re doing?
I love singing. It’s all I ever wanted to do. Beyond the satisfaction I get from singing … money is a big motivator. I like nice things. I like to give my kids and grandkids nice presents. In terms of what entertainment I like, I love sports, love football. I also like to gamble a bit. I like watching television. I like going out to dinner almost every night with a large group of family and friends. I like picking up the check, and I’m able to be that generous guy because I have been blessed with such an amazing career.
16. Do you hear a lot of feedback from the younger generation on your music?
I get a lot of feedback from young people. They come to my shows. For those people that believe that I only have an older audience, they are crazy. My audience is all ages. You look out into the crowd and you see small children, teenagers, tattooed, body-pierced young people and everyone else. Young people come to the gates of my property, and when they see me, they want to talk about all the old songs. I say to them, “These records were hits years before you were born. How do you know them?” They tell me that they discover my music on the Internet or that they heard their parents play my music. They know all the words to my songs. I see them singing along at shows.
I never have a problem getting the people — at any age — to listen and like my music. The only problem I have in getting my music heard is the gatekeepers of the music industry that decide they no longer want me in the business. They have new artists that they are developing, and they don’t want me to take up a slot. The gatekeepers have a lot of money invested in the new acts, and the last thing they want is for one of us “veteran” artists to get any attention.
17. Why do you think country music stations shy away from playing more oldies?
Again, I think it is the gatekeepers. Radio and record companies are all big conglomerates and have corporate agendas. “Marketing partnerships” can only be formed for new product. The investment — and payoff — is in the new music, not the oldies. The people have nothing to say about what they hear, and they can only have an opinion about what they are offered up. Plus, as an artist gets older and has success, they are no longer so easily bossed around and told what to do. They have a bit of success and some money and now they no longer want to be pushed around. They are no longer willing to do so many free shows.
Radio stations have become so bogged down with overhead and debt that they need to play music that they can get some sort of marketing dollars to go along with it. Truthfully, it is a mess. I feel sorry for a lot of the radio stations. I have a lot of friends at radio, and they tell me how hard it is — how they would love to play some of my music — but they have to do what they are told. For many of these radio guys, they love country music, and they are put in a tough position. But I think satellite radio is a great thing and they play all kinds of music — old and new. I think in a few years, everyone will listen to satellite.
18. In your song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” you talk about the Red-Headed Stranger, the Man in Black and the Okie from Muskogee. In your opinion, who do you think is going to fill their shoes?
As time goes by, the names change as to who will fill their shoes. Once it was people like Randy Travis, George Strait, Ricky Van Shelton, Alan Jackson. Now I guess it would be people like Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins. But … the truth of the matter is that none of them have the personality and defiance and originality of the Red Headed Stranger, the Man in Black or the Okie. These guys were the real deal. These guys were more than just performers or “stars” of the moment. They were writers. They wrote about what affected people, they sang from their heart. Their sheer talent changed the business — they didn’t change themselves for the business. I wonder how many stars of today can say that. Well, I guess Toby Keith might be able to say that.
19. Where do you see country music headed?
My fear is that there will be no country music. As it gets watered down and homogenized, it seems to be losing what made it country. It seems to me that the record business is slotting everything that is not good enough for rock or pop into the country category. But I also think that artists will continue to come along and try to do real country music. They seem to be exiled to small independent labels and don’t get the marketing push that is needed these days, but they still try and sing country.
20. What are your future plans?
My plans call for me to continue to tour but to try and take it a bit easier. I did about 90 shows this past year, and I’d really like to cut it down to about 60. We’re thinking about an Australian tour early next spring, but we’ll see. That is sort of like my thoughts about Europe. I’d like to do it, but who knows? We’re talking about what we’ll do for the next album but, of course, that depends on how I’m singing at that point and if there is still a market for my music. I guess my big plan is just to continue to try and do what I do with my music and to continue to enjoy my life and help those that are close to me.