George Jones’ drunk daddy used to wake him up as a child in the middle of the night and make him sing for him and his buddies or get a beating. Maybe that harsh pressure helped create a country diamond. Maybe it just created a mean SOB who also happened to be able to sing.
I got my love of classic country music from my dad. That along with stock car racing, Evel Knievel, Abbott and Costello, and professional wrestling.
I remember growing up in the steel town of Pueblo, Colorado, my dad had a wire rack full of albums … Slim Whitman, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Freddy Fender. I remember he had a buddy who worked with him at the Post Office who was the spitting image of Freddy Fender. My dad used to call him “Baldemar,” Fender’s given name. I used to sit there on the floor of the living room while they talked, looking at his friend, and the album in the rack, and back at him.
We’d come home on Sunday mornings from City Park, where my mom had taken my sister and me to give my dad a break after working all night, and he’d be lying on the couch asleep with one of his albums playing on the console stereo the size of a small compact car.
The first concert I ever went to was with him and mom when Charley Pride came to the Colorado State Fair.
“No Show Jones”
But mostly what I remember is him giving me a historical perspective of the music. Stories. He’d put on Hank Williams and tell me about the songs he did as “Luke the Drifter” and how he wrote “Hey Good Lookin’” one day while watching his wife Audrey cook dinner. My dad would bring Hank to life, and then kill him … lying in the back of his Cadillac on the way to a show, sodden with booze and half-digested pain pills. He was only 29, he’d say.
And he’d tell me about George Jones. How he’d get a snoot full and not show up at shows. That’s why they started calling him “No Show Jones,” he’d say. This was the guy who did “He Stopped Loving Her Today” despite his doubts about it and it was voted Song of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1980. Then in 1981, they couldn’t find anything better, so they just voted it Song of the Year again.
This was the guy who supposedly, when asked by his wife Tammy Wynette if he liked the new bathroom tiles she had picked out, said he didn’t. Then when he came home that night and saw she had had them installed anyway, he took his shotgun and blew them off the wall.
This was the guy, the story goes, who left his car in front of an airport – the back seat filled with empty beer bottles and Slim Jim wrappers – and a note on the windshield that read, “My name is George Jones. I’m a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Please don’t tow my car.”
Two weeks later, the car was still sitting there.
George Jones, 1980
And Lord how my dad loved Jeannie C. Riley. We’re talking A Big Crush. I grew up with “Harper Valley P.T.A.” playing on that wood monolith console. I used to put that song on in the newsroom when my youngest daughter, Harper, was little and hanging out just to see the look on her face when she heard the word “Harper.”
When I was in college, Jeannie C. Riley was playing in Greeley, Colorado, and I noticed her tour bus was parked in the hotel lot next to my apartment. I got up the next morning at dawn and waited until she came out and got her to autograph a picture for my dad.
I took it down to Pueblo so proud. Such a good son. His response when I presented it to him was simple:
“Why didn’t you get me one of when she was young and pretty?”
Jeannie C. Riley, young and pretty
There was just something about those stars … the hard living, the heartbreak … that I just didn’t seem to find or feel in the contemporary country acts that were around when I was growing up. They’re still there if you look hard enough, I know. While I’ve been writing this I’ve been listening to Billy Strings’ “Dust In A Baggie” over an over before switching to Hank Williams III banging out “The Dick in Dixie” and calling out Toby Keith for claiming he “saved Willie Nelson’s career.” In college I heard the roots of that music of my childhood in Joe Ely. I musta worn the heads on my cassette player in my Chevy Nova with primer spots down to nothing listening to “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta” over and over and over.
One time in the mid-1980s Joe and his band were playing at a venue in nearby Fort Collins. I went to the show. I’m standing in the bathroom peeing and who walks up to the urinal next to me … Joe Ely.
I didn’t do the classic turn in midstream and say, “Hey, you’re Joe Ely,” but the look on my face obviously told him 1) I was star-struck and 2) I was stoned.
I just stared.
He just smiled.
“You have a good evening,” he said, zipping back up and going out and playing an amazing show.
Up with People
Later, my wife Lesli and I had just moved back to Northern Colorado to Johnstown from Santa Fe. I was working as a reporter for The Breeze and writing freelance for an arts and entertainment magazine in Fort Collins. I got the assignment to do a story about the Greeley Independence Stampede: a big rodeo and carnival in Greeley over the course of the week before July 4.
Since it was a music publication, I looked at the schedule of acts and saw “Up With People” were performing. That group of Cherry Cheeked Christians that were supposed to be a hip alternative for the kids to Heathen Heavy Metal.
So I made arrangements to cover their performance. I showed up and these kids just knew I was there to write some sort of smirking and mocking “I Partied with Up With People” piece. They smiled. They thanked me for doing a story on them. They answered my questions and ravaged me with politeness like a pack of wolves wearing turtlenecks and gingham dresses before sending me stumbling back out into the night.
A couple of years later, still smarting from that Stampede story, I noticed that George Jones was playing that year. I had to get an interview and redeem myself. I had to meet George Jones. They say journalism is your ticket to ride and meet anyone, and this was going to be my vehicle.
So I started calling his press agent.
“Well, honey,” she said, “here’s what you do. You send me a fax asking for an interview and telling him why you want one. I show it to him. If he wants to do the interview, he will. If he doesn’t, he won’t.”
As the concert got closer, I still hadn’t heard.
“I sent him the fax,” his press agent said. “He isn’t saying yes, but he isn’t saying no. That actually might be a good sign.”
Finally, the night of the concert arrived.
“Look,” his press agent said in my next of an increasing series of frantic phone calls, “he saw the fax. He still isn’t saying no, but he’s not saying yes. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave a backstage pass with your name on it. Come back before the show and wait at his bus. That’s the best I can do.”
I did just that.
Out walked The Possum
Standing outside his tour bus I went over the questions I was going to ask. Was I really going to get to interview George Jones? THE George Jones. What would my dad, now dead, think? In college I had been able to get press credentials for the Denver Broncos summer training camp in Greeley. My dad was also a big Broncos fan. I had invited him up to spend a couple of days. With my credentials I was able to get him right out on the field next to the players. Finally, a guy who lugged a mail satchel for 30 years and wore out two hips in the process seemed to understand why his only son had gone into journalism.
And then the doors of the bus opened, and out walked The Possum.
Before I could even speak, a whole group of Stampede bigwigs and their squash-blossom-bedecked wives descended on him asking for a picture. George Jones was all sweet country charm. He took the picture and started to walk away.
“Oh wait,” they said, “we wanted to get a picture with some other people in it…”
George Jones’ eyes went flat like a shark. It was obvious he was not amused. I mean we’re talking “Goddamnit Tammy, I told you I didn’t like the motherfucking tile” not amused. The Stampede folks could feel the sudden drop in temperature on a summer night and the shift in mood themselves, so they scurried around and quickly got another picture. I don’t recall him smiling in that one.
Then, as his band began to play his intro music onstage, he turned and lit a cigarette and started walking alone toward the stage. I began walking with him. He completely ignored me.
This was not the way I wanted to interview George Jones. It felt like when the Washington press corps shouts questions at the President as he’s walking to his helicopter. I had never seen one of them get a good answer in a situation like that.
I continued to follow him up the stairs to the offstage area. He just stood there puffing on his cigarette, staring intently off into space. Behind us a woman was standing with a little girl who looked like maybe she had Down syndrome.
“Go ahead, ask for his autograph,” the woman told the girl, pushing her forward.
The girl walked up behind George Jones and tapped him on the back.
You know how they say when you’re in a car accident everything happens in slow motion? That’s the way it seemed. The girl touched George Jones’ back and it was like an electrical charge went through him. One arm swung quickly back behind him, apparently intending to smack whoever it was that had just touched him. In mid-swing he noticed who it was and stopped his hand in mid-air.
“I’m really sorry, honey,” he said in that sonorous voice that had come out of my dad’s stereo cabinet so many times. “I get really nervous before I play. Not now.”
The woman and the girl and I just stood there stunned as he continued to smoke his cigarette. On cue he put it out, flashed a smile (though you could tell he was still pissed) and went out and played the fastest and maybe shortest set I had ever seen. He did the hits, he banged through songs without much banter between, and then said “good night” and walked offstage.
As he got offstage, George Jones lit another cigarette and started striding toward his bus. I walked along with him. Again, he just ignored me. Maybe he thought this was the piss-poor best Greeley could do for security. Who knows. What I did know was I wasn’t going to try and get an interview.
As we got closer to the bus, he started to undo his pearl-buttoned shirt. The bus was already idling. He took one last drag on the cigarette and threw it on the ground as the bus door opened with a whoosh and he strode up the stairs. Before the doors even closed completely, the bus started to pull away.
I just stared.
MATT LUBICH lives in Johnstown, Colorado, where he and his wife, Lesli Bangert, have owned and run the 118-year-old weekly newspaper The Johnstown Breeze since 1997. He is also the adviser at the student-run newspaper The Mirror at the University of Northern Colorado. You can reach him at email@example.com.