George Jones: Last-Ever Interview
Originally published in our April 15, 2013 issue featuring Brad Paisley on the cover.
George Jones is still a badass. Sliding into the driver’s seat of his tricked-out Audi, the 81-year-old doesn’t bother to buckle his seatbelt. Instead, he hits the gas and starts descending, with Country Weekly in the back seat, down the winding driveway of his manor in Franklin, Tenn.
It’s an impressive, sprawling property, 78 acres in total, his
forever-young wife of 30 years, Nancy, says. “You don’t have any rich friends who want to buy it, do you?” she asks. She and George are contemplating selling and moving into a gated community.
George seems fine with that change, but bristles when the idea of turning his current home—with its closets of Nudie suits and walls of awards and photos with presidents and artists like Porter Wagoner—into a Graceland-type attraction is suggested.
“Sh-t,” he says bluntly. “That’d embarrass me.”
Shockingly, he doesn’t think anyone would come.
“You don’t think you’re a legend?” CW asks.
The Possum only laughs and pulls out into traffic.
He’s on his way to his granddaughter Breann’s high school to participate in a question-and-answer session with her music-history class. It’s the ultimate show-and-tell.
“It’s just a thing for my granddaughter,” George explains, admitting he has slowly become comfortable answering questions in a proper interview, or even from a group of teenagers. “I don’t mind it too bad once I get started.”
George has been fielding a number of interview requests since announcing The Grand Tour, his final run as a performing artist, last August. Spanning a full year, the farewell tour concludes Nov. 22 in Nashville with his last-ever show, at the Bridgestone Arena. It’s the epitome of the all-star tribute, assembling friends of George and those whom he has influenced. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Dierks Bentley, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Josh Turner, Tanya Tucker and others are already confirmed, with more A-list names to be announced.
“Yeah, it’s looking great. Or so they’re telling me,” George says, chuckling. “Unless they’re playing a trick on me.”
Pulling into his granddaughter’s school, George parks the car and strides through a back door into a school hallway, where he takes a seat in the band room. Waiting for the kids to assemble, he chats about his recent run of Grand Tour shows (“I think they went good,” he says); singing with Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones on the song “Burn Your Playhouse Down” (“He loves that song. He’s the one who brought it in”); and future recording plans. One idea: another duets album, similar to Burn Your Playhouse Down, with special guests, including some from his final show. He says Little Richard and Chuck Berry have already called about recording.
But most importantly, he opens up about exactly why—like another George, George Strait—he decided to call it quits from the road.
“Well, you know, the age of me, I just don’t have that push,” he says, drawing an analogy to one of his favorite subjects: vehicles. “And hell . . . an old car gets 81, it starts sputtering.”
But even for his age, he’s keenly aware of the changes in country music. Not that he’s all that fond of the new sound, he later reveals to his granddaughter’s classmates. Watching him interact with the kids and hearing the wisdom he imparts is something to behold. It’s like spending an hour with a living history lesson as he opens up on a wealth of topics. (See sidebar.)
At times, George’s chat with the students feels like an in-person afterschool special, one based on firsthand experience. It’s a lessons-learned speech that country scholars could never have predicted he’d be around to give when he was in the throes of his “bad times,” as he refers to his notorious drunken days, which culminated with a 1999 crash that nearly killed him. “The car wreck put the fear of God in me,” he says. The very fact that he is still touring, even if it is for the last time, is remarkable.
The hour with the class goes quickly, and George wraps up by
good-naturedly posing for photos with the class and teachers. In this setting, he can almost pass for an avuncular principal instead of country music’s greatest living singer, the man whose recordings of songs such as “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “She Thinks I Still Care” became a part of American music’s fabric.
Bidding everyone farewell, he makes his way to his car. Once back behind the wheel, he turns up the heat on this particularly chilly Tennessee day and tunes the stereo to WSM 650AM, home of the Grand Ole Opry.
There are more farewell tour dates on the horizon and George is looking forward to them. But then, once the bus is parked, the band dismissed, and the lights come down on that final blowout at the Bridgestone in November, what will he do?
“Probably go nuts,” George says, not missing a beat.
And with that he pulls back out into traffic.
Mr. Jones Goes to School
An hour spent with George Jones can yield pearls of hard-won wisdom. Here’s some of what he shared with granddaughter Breann’s music-history class.
On today’s country: “These kids nowadays, they’re liking this halfway pop-rock stuff. I don’t blame them. Everything changes every few years. But I’ll always love the traditional country music. And they have a right to like what they like. But I’m sorry, I don’t like it—I like some of it, I really do, but most of it, it sounds a lot alike.
On his love of the guitar as a child: “I’d take my guitar and hide it in the woods and cover it with leaves, and before I’d make it to the schoolhouse, I’d go back and get my guitar and sit by one of the trees and pick.”
On his connection with sad songs: “Sad songs, they just seem to overwhelm me. I get into it and I actually feel like I’m living that part when I sing a sad song. It’s like everyday-life things. That’s the way country music used to be. It told a story.”
On his drug and alcohol abuse: “I’m in a business that can’t keep away from people drinking. We start off in lots of honky-tonks, in little bars, and then to the dance halls, and a lot of people come there to have a good time, drink and dance.
I started out drinking Coca-Cola. At intermission, you’d go out and say hi to everybody. You gotta be very strong and a bunch of steps ahead of everybody that drinks and does those things. You know, birds of a feather fly together. If you don’t stay away from those types, then you can’t keep your mind clear.”
On what motivated him in his career: “I fell in love with the country music and the gospel music on the Grand Ole Opry. . . . It was all through me.
I don’t think it missed a big toe. It was something I loved. It’s like today’s people, they want to be a star overnight. You can’t expect to be that, unless you love it. As Waylon Jennings said, you have to have your heart, soul and everything into it. Don’t even think about the money. Let money and glory be your last thing.”
On his infamous lawnmower ride: “I lived in Texas during my bad times, and I came home finally off a two-week tour and ended up in Dallas. When I got home, [my family] had all my vehicles hid from me. As soon as I got out and went in the house, they took my car. Anyhow, one day I was suffering a little bit and I looked out the window and saw this little 10HP Cub Cadet. I said, ‘Aw, no, they’d have took the keys out of that, too.’ My brother-in-law came to make sure I stayed home, but he was at the other end of the house, so I jumped out the window and, sure enough, the key was in it! It cranked right up, and I took off to town. I got down as far as I could go to catch a ride and dumped the Cadet in the ditch by the culvert. . . . These are things that are dumb, and then again, you don’t know why you do them. But you get overwhelmed smelling people’s breath with whiskey and all that stuff. It gets overbearing. It just got the best of me, and it’ll do that to entertainers, if you’re not strong.”