MAKING UP FOR WASTED TIME

In great voice, great health and a great stage of his life, the masterful George Jones gives a guided tour of his Nashville home and its many memories

Nipper, the three-foot-tall plastic dog, its ears cocked slightly to the left, appears to hang on every word as George Jones reads aloud a note just delivered to his house along with the famous RCA label mascot.

"From the master's voice … to the master voice," reads George quietly, wife Nancy at his side. The grin on his face as George sees the signatures of two top Nashville label executives says it all. "Well, isn't that nice?"

It most definitely is. But then, the same could be said of George's life these days.

He and Nancy, married since 1983, obviously adore each other. He's healthier than he's been in years. And he's just released a new CD, the first project of his new relationship with Nashville's RCA label.

And at a time when many younger artists hope to get a good additional decade out of their careers, George is still going strong nearly 50 years after his first charting single. On this particular day, he is making plans to leave the following morning for a tour of Canada that's been mostly sold out for three months.

He and Nancy share a beautiful antebellum-style home on 100 rolling acres a few miles south of Nashville. They have children and grandchildren living elsewhere on the "compound," so George never has to go far to see them.

Yep, life is sweet for the man known as "The Possum."

In the cozy room he calls his "inner sanctum," back off the master bedroom, he relaxes. "We built this little room back here to hide," he says, "but the grandkids always seem to find me!" Somehow he doesn't look like he minds too much.

George is in a great mood. And one of the reasons is the Medal of Arts he was presented by President Bush just a week earlier, acknowledging his massive contributions to American popular culture.

"I would've never dreamed that the President would've picked me," declares George, still in a state of near disbelief. "I think he personally picked me because he's a country music fan. But I didn't know till about 10 days in advance.

"A lady gave me a call from D.C. and told me the president wanted me to be there. And I said, 'Well, my goodness yes!' "

If being a guest of honor at the White House is one thing George never could have imagined as a poor kid back in his native Texas, living in this house would have to be another. It's undeniably large, but with tasteful décor and George's career memorabilia scattered throughout, there's a very comfortable feel to it.

"It's beyond my wildest dreams," he proclaims. "There's a picture in there of the little house that I was born and raised up in. But you never dream these things are gonna happen to you.

"I lived way out in the sticks and you didn't hardly ever get to go to town. Roy Acuff was my favorite back on Saturday nights when all I could hear was the Opry, you know? Then I got to know Roy personally and work with him. It's just unbelievable these things can happen to you."

Back in the days when George was known about as much for his drinkin' as for his singin', it would've been hard to envision the way things have turned out for him. But he's not only off the bottle, he's quit smoking and is even working out on a regular basis – with a personal trainer!

"I feel wonderful, just a little overweight," he grins as he pats his stomach. "But I'm workin' out with a trainer two days a week. And boy, does he work you out! Exercising is something I'd never done during my whole lifetime. I don't know how I'm in such good shape."

While George says alcohol is a thing of the past, there is one remaining step to make sure it's totally out of his life. He's got a great collection of old model cars, trucks and trains in his basement – and they all have little bottles of liquor in them!

"They were Jim Beam collector's items," he confesses with a smile. "In fact, I'm gonna get rid of 'em now if I can find a collector interested in 'em. They've still got the little bottle – unopened. I collected 'em back a few years ago.

"But I don't have alcohol in my life anymore, and I just feel like I don't need it in the place. I don't think it's right to keep it in your home when you don't drink and have no desire to."

Along with improved health, George's lifestyle change has brought another benefit – a renewed interest in gospel music.

"All my life I've loved gospel music," he proclaims. "When I was a little boy, we went to church regular, and my mama played organ and piano every now and then in the church. And we sung them old gospel hymns, and we was raised up on 'em. I got away from church going when I got in this business. In other words, I was on a different path in life, and it wasn't all that good of one.

"Now that I've stopped all that mess and cleaned my life up, I'm really back into gospel now."

Which makes him all the more excited about his new album, an all-gospel project called George Jones: The Gospel Collection. "We got two original songs, and the other 22 are the old-time gospel," he reveals. "The first single is called 'I Know a Man Who Can.' Sheri Copeland sings with me on that and does a beautiful job."

While George is elated about his new album and looking forward to packin' 'em in during his tour, he admits frustration with the state of today's country music, especially country radio.

"I'm at the point now, I can do what I want to do," declares George. "I can work when I want to. And you really don't need radio, but you appreciate it, you know?

"Naturally, you don't want to be thrown aside like they've done us in country music. But I still say the ones they don't play anymore are the real country. We are country.

"Some label people say, 'Traditional country's not sellin' anymore.' I wish they'd come to Canada and see the sold-out crowds we've got, from 7,000 to 10,000 people. Let 'em come and see that traditional country music isn't dead.

"People are hungry for it. They're starvin'! Actually, they've made my crowds bigger, because I'm one of the last traditionalists they're gonna hear. The people can't hear it no more. You definitely can't hear it on radio."

In spite of his frustrations, George is more than grateful for not only the career he continues to enjoy, but the lifestyle that allows him to enjoy it. "I am happier today then I've ever been in my life," he says with heartfelt sincerity. "And I thought I was happy back then. I thought I was havin' a lot of fun. But they had to tell me about it 'cause I couldn't remember. And that's terrible, when you live your life like that and it's wasted. It's just wasted."

It's taken some effort on his part to wind up where is is today, but George knows who gets the real credit.

"Just about all of it goes to Nancy and the Good Lord," he says quietly. "I'd give the Lord number one position, and she'd have to be a close second."

Amen.

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