Country radio programmers and disc jockeys packed a large conference room at the Nashville Convention Center Friday (March 7) to witness a conversation between George Jones and producer-songwriter Norro Wilson. They seemed indifferent to the irony that most country stations won't play the 79-year-old singer's music these days because it lies outside their younger target demographic.
The standing-room-only session was a part of the 39th annual Country Radio Seminar.
Wilson, who co-wrote Jones' 1974 hit, "The Grand Tour," was gentle in questioning the legendary performer, opting to ask about his favorite songs and artists than probing into his well-chronicled hell-raising days.
"My life's an open book," Jones said amiably after Wilson introduced him. He and his interrogator sat side by side on the stage on a sofa. Jones (who showed up as scheduled) looked dapper in his pressed khakis, brown-leather flight jacket with fur collar and trademark rimless sunglasses. The crowd greeted his arrival with a standing ovation and thereafter applauded virtually every answer he gave.
Jones recounted that he began recording for Starday Records in Texas shortly after he got out of the Marines. "My first sessions were in a living room in a house north of Beaumont," he said. The sound conditions were so bad, he continued, that he had to stop recording every time an 18-wheeler went by.
Merle Haggard is his favorite male recording partner, Jones said, and Tammy Wynette was his favorite female. He noted he wasn't completely pleased with his pairings with Haggard in the early '80s because they took place when he was just beginning to "straighten up."
To no one's surprise, Jones picked "He Stopped Loving Her Today" as his favorite song. "I didn't believe it would be a hit at all," he said. "I thought it was too sad. ... I call it 'morbid' a little bit."
Morbid or not, the 1980 hit earned him a Grammy for best male country vocal performance and was twice voted the Country Music Association's song of the year.
Jones said the highlight of his career came in 1992 with his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. "I never dreamed they'd pick me so early," he mused, "but they did."
Hank Williams Sr. remains Jones favorite artist of all time. "I can still listen to his stuff and still get a big thrill from it," he said. "He was down to earth, and he never thought he was better than anybody."
Before Williams came along, Jones said he doted on Roy Acuff's music and would give his mother instructions to wake him up on Saturday nights when it was Acuff's turn to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. Later, Williams' contemporary, Lefty Frizzell, was added to Jones' musical pantheon.
Among the current crop of country singers, Jones gave his stamp of approval to Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and George Strait.
What would Jones have done, Wilson asked, if country music hadn't worked out for him? "I might have been a housepainter," Jones reflected. He said he doubted, however, that he would have been a successful one. He recalled that one of his early assignments was to paint the roof of a high school gymnasium. Never good at heights, he said he climbed to the top of an impossibly tall ladder only to drop a gallon of silver paint onto the pristine gym floor.
Jones seemed philosophical about the fact that he is no longer a factor at country radio or on major country record labels. "You used to be able to stop by [radio] stations without an appointment," he said. "It takes an act of Congress to get in and see a record label."
When Wilson alluded in passing to Jones' rowdier days, the singer gestured toward his wife, Nancy, sitting in the audience and said with a grin, "If you know how mean my wife can get, you'll know why I straightened up."
It was Nashville disc jockeys T. Tommy Cutrer and Ralph Emery, Jones remembered, who tagged him with the nickname "Possum." "That's the reason I wear these sunglasses today. They told me I had eyes like a possum."
Last year, Jones lent his name to an enterprise called George Jones University. (Its motto: "E pluribus possum.") The school, which is actually a series of classes, provides instruction and guidance to people who want to get into the country music business. When someone in the audience asked him about it, Jones admitted that he knew little of the undertaking. That being the case, he summoned the school's founder, talent manager and media personality Tandy Rice, to come forward and describe its services.
Jones suggested that modern country music should have a "new name" that would explain why it doesn't sound like it did in the old days. He also said he was displeased with the way the Internet has cut into record sales. "Pretty soon you're going to have nothing."
The singer admitted, though, that his connections with record labels in the past had not been profitable. "I kept going to different labels, thinking I'd find one that paid me. But I never did." He said his main income always came from touring.
In response to a question from the audience about songs he passed over that later became hits, Jones said there were too many to recall. But he did cite "Oh Lonesome Me," a 1958 No. 1 for its writer, Don Gibson, and Mel Tillis' 1967 hit, "Life Turned Her That Way," as examples of his missed opportunities.
As the interview neared its end, Jones introduced his and Wynette's daughter, Georgette, who is currently pursuing a career in music. "I'm just proud that one of our kids could sing," he observed.