I’ve been thinking about that steak since George Jones died.
Oh, it’s not that I’m that much of a steak eater. Being a freelance journalist is more of a hamburger existence. Secondly, a steak sits heavily in the stomach of a 61-year-old who used to drink as much as George Jones. Well, perhaps that’s not possible.
But this steak was going to be purchased for me by the greatest pure country music singer of all time. A dandy fellow some called “Possum.”
When he died Friday morning (April 26), Lisa Kristofferson, wrote me, “Ah, man … he was such a sweetheart.”
Of course, I was contacting her for comment from her husband and a guy I am proud to call a friend — Kris Kristofferson.
I figured that, well, since George was the best singer in the history of country music, perhaps I could get a quote from the guy I consider the greatest songwriter ever. Oh, perhaps this is too much hyperbole. Let’s just say that Kris’ songs still mean the most to me because they connected with my soul back when I was living like a young George Jones or a young Kristofferson. Back when the race to and from eternity was on.
“George Jones was the greatest country singer since Hank Williams and a truly beautiful human being. The world’s a sadder place without him,” said Kris.
I talked to a few others, as I tried to contribute to a story for Reuters news service, which is among my employers.
Actually, I don’t do much country music news for Reuters. But when I got the news Friday morning that George was dead, I went ahead and launched into obituary mode. I couldn’t find out right away what Reuters had in mind, so I just made calls and wrote.
It’s really been one of the ways I’ve coped with death of people I admire and with whom I share a kinship. I just write.
Carl Perkins. Floyd Cramer. Roger Miller. Waylon Jennings. June Carter Cash. Johnny Cash. Vassar Clements. “Uncle Josh” Graves. Marshall Grant. Bobby Thompson. Captain Midnight. Eddy Arnold. Louise Scruggs. Earl Scruggs. Kitty Wells. My friend, Chet Atkins.
Some I knew better than others. Some I called my friends. It’s what I do. I write. Sometimes people pay me to do it. Sometimes I do it because it helps my heart.
In the first couple of hours after I learned George had died, I stuck to the basic script, gathering quotes to supplement my rough draft of the obituary that was being incorporated into the main obit. I’m just a “freelance correspondent.” The full-time entertainment writers also were working on Jones’ death, which is, of course, fine. I was just fortunate enough to have met and spent a sliver of time with the man they were burying.
My personal ties to Jones go way back, when nights flashed neon on the cowboys like Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb and Tom T. Hall down on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Roger Miller would smoke and drink coffee while writing at Linebaugh’s restaurant.
Looking toward the river and downtown from the Wagon Wheel or Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (back when Ms. Bess was queen of the joint), bright orange neon letters screamed “Possum Holler” into the then-low-and-sweaty Nashville skyline back in the early 1970s. I say the letters were orange, but I’m colorblind.
It was Jones’ club. A place where he could go have a drink. Well, actually, back then, George could — and did — have a drink pretty much wherever and whenever he chose. White lightning.
Many years later — after George rode his mower to a liquor store to escape from an angry wife and even after his notorious “I’m not drunk” bust on Interstate 65 near the Old Hickory Boulevard exit in Brentwood provided national news footage of a glazed-eyed and angry man with a whisky belly pushing at the buttons of the shirt from his leisure suit — I had good exchanges with him.
I saw him reunite with Tammy Wynette on the stage at the Tennessee State Fairgounds during what was once called Fan Fair.
And I had to cover the near-death wreck back in 1999, I believe, when he fell off the wagon and drove his Lexus over the bridge near his home. Working as an editor at The Tennessean newspaper, my entertainment writer back then wasn’t available when another editor on the city desk contacted me about the accident.
So, I went into the office and wrote the story, talking to not only people about the wreck but mostly focusing on the Grand Ole Opry where they all were praying for him.
My friends Porter Wagoner and Little Jimmy Dickens spoke to me between their turns on the stage. Tater (Dickens) told me something like, “I hope Mr. Jones is going to be OK,” but there were tears of worry in his voice. Porter simply thanked me for thinking enough about country music and the Grand Ole Opry to call and talk to him.
Then there were the gold eagles. I’m not sure if they were gold. But they were statues atop the gates to the Jones compound in Franklin. I learned from a police report that they’d been stolen. I called George and his wife Nancy about it and wrote a little note for Brad Schmitt’s Tennessean column. (Schmitt was on my staff, and I often contributed a note or two to his gossip column. He called me “The Dirt Man.”)
Nancy called to thank me when the eagles were returned. George got on the phone to thank me, as well.
They were a team. Nancy was his protector and the woman who loved him, who helped him out of the darkness. He always said she saved his life.
He was right.
Over the years, I bumped into them occasionally. Or I made an excuse up to call them. Perhaps somebody else had died and a quote from George Jones would be good. Or maybe I just wanted to call George Jones for the hell of it, because I could.
It’s not like I made those calls frequently or even annually. But the fact they took them spoke volumes.
Now, so far I haven’t spoken much about the music. I don’t have to. I’m listening to it right now — and so should you.
Not just the early great stuff but some of the world-weary, strained-voice stuff of later career. If “Choices” doesn’t make you cry today, you haven’t read this far anyway.
An upcoming TV special and a triple-CD retrospective release gave me the excuse to spend an afternoon at the Jones’ house in November of 2004. But it really was just that — an excuse. I wanted to spend time with George Jones. Heck, I’d have been there if all he wanted to talk about was George Jones Sausage or one of his other product endorsements.
Because while I filled up a full notebook, front and back, on things he told me for the story, there were hours of other conversation and of laughter. We spent most of the afternoon in his TV room. Laughing.
The man they called Possum told me tales of his wild life and then his good life. And I told him tales of my own, which sort of forged a bond, at least for the day.
For too many years, I chased the same devils as Jones, as Kristofferson, as Waylon and Cash.
When I saw him, those days were far in my past. To be sitting next to this sweet, sweet man and getting him to laugh at my own foibles was amazing. I mean, I was there with George Jones, the greatest singer in the history of country music. And he was interested in my life, which by then included adopting a pair of children from Romania. He, in turn, bragged about his own family. One of his granddaughters accompanied us downstairs, where she narrated the tour of the private museum of a good and damaged life.
But the biggest memories are of him leaning back in his easy chair, chain-chewing gum, telling stories, long after the notebook was put down.
This was not the sort of orchestrated interview that modern, media-trained artists stage. There was no prep work. Just a long-haired newspaperman and one of his musical heroes, talking about songs, old movies, the weather, children. I can’t remember for sure, but I think he told me he loved to watch Bonanza reruns.
We took a break to go to the kitchen for coffee and muffins and to talk to Nancy.
I’d like to say there’s a great, happily-ever-after ending to this tale. But, of course, it ends in death. You can get plenty of that on the TV reports of people weeping and performers lamenting.
I choose to celebrate a long and lazy afternoon of laughter. As the late-autumn sun began to angle low, it was time to leave. And George and Nancy were meeting someone for dinner over at Carrabba’s near the Cool Springs Mall, if I recall correctly.
Of course, it could have been the Macaroni Grill at Cool Springs, which Waylon Jennings had labeled “the best Macaroni Grill in the United States.” If anyone tried them all, it probably was Waylon.
George seemed to regret the afternoon’s end as much as I did.
He guided me down the steps from his front porch and followed me out to my old Saab.
“Nice car,” he said.
“Not a Lexus,” I said back.
We laughed as I climbed into my car.
George knocked on the window, so I rolled it down.
“Tim, give me a call and we’ll go out for a steak sometime,” he said. “I’ll buy.”
I wasn’t even sure if he meant it, but it sure made me feel good.
No, he wasn’t a close friend. I think he liked me. I sure liked him. And, for a few hours, years ago, he made me feel like one of his brothers.
Now, I’ll never get that steak.
(Tim Ghianni is co-author of the book, When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & Their Shades of Glory.)