Saturday, May 4, 2013

A final standing ovation; 'Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart'

I was fortunate enough to cover George Jones' funeral service for Reuters. And because it was George Jones, the greatest singer of country music ever, they let me write longer than the norm. A very few things were changed by editors, but cuts were made by necessity (I turned in close to 1,000 words). So for those who want the complete version or simply for my blog archives, here's the untouched version cranked out in the hour after the funeral.

George Jones’ final standing ovation – after a career filled with such salutes – came, fittingly, Thursday afternoon at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
And, equally as fitting, the song that drew the 4,000-plus fans and friends and media to their feet, was Jones’ signature tune, about love and death, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Jones, who died April 26, was in a casket draped by a blanket of yellow flowers, just below the lip of center stage, when the audience leaped to its collective feet to applaud Alan Jackson.
The long-time friend and admirer of the man who so influenced his singing style, Jackson channeled Jones’ country traditionalism when he sang the robust version of that song, ending it by removing his white cowboy hat and waving it toward the heavens while he looked up, tears on his cheeks and said: “We love you, George.”

But Jones would be heard one more time at the end of this service that lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes, but only on the loud-speaker system. After Jackson left the stage, a spotlight was focused on the yellow-flower-draped coffin as the pall-bearers tended to their duties and the family began its exit, “When the Last Curtain Falls,” filled the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The song, with the lines "When the last curtain falls with a final goodbye/And the bitter cold darkness of night/floods the days of our lives..." continued to play on the public-address system as the casket was rolled out the doors of the Grand Ole Opry House and into the waiting black hears for the ride to the cemetery. 

It was Jones’ final farewell to the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable radio show in which he had been a cast member since 1956, almost from the beginning of the career that was celebrated by musicians and politicians and other guests throughout the long service.

The service with its liturgy and levity – yes, there were the occasional “Yep, that’s ol’ George” stories told by the luminaries – focused on redemption.
For while the stunningly successful early years of his career were celebrated,  the focus really was on the last 30 years, the length of his marriage to the former Nancy Ford Sepulvado, who, Jones frequently said, “saved my life.”

During his career, which saw the kid from East Texas skyrocket to the top, Jones’ drug and alcohol abuse, and the incidents that accompanied them, often gained more headlines than his status as the greatest singer in the history of country music.
But country’s King of Broken Hearts – with the help of his wife – was able to chase away those demons for the most part and live out his career as a revered elder statesman of country music.    

Country superstar Brad Paisley -- who was among the performers to take turns on the stage that was filled with floral arrangements, photographs and a rocking chair (a salute to Jones’ “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” classic) --  performed Tom T. Hall's “Me and Jesus” during the service that was focused on gospel songs.
But before he sang, he talked about this good fortune in getting to call the elder statesman his friend.

“I’m lucky enough to have met George when he had gotten right, beat the demons, found Nancy and found God,” said Paisley. “He’s an inspirational story to all of us. If that man can live to be 81, then all of us can fight against the things that bring us down.”
CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer talked about the voice and the songs and the dreams they fueled – the journalist is a part-time country musician by hobby.  “Nobody could sing like George Jones unless you were George Jones,” Schieffer said.

But he also put the spotlight on the latter years of Jones’ career.  He said while “He Stopped Loving Her Today” saved the singer’s career, “It would take a good-hearted woman to save his life.”
“We’ve had few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones,” said former first lady Laura Bush, who sat next to Nancy Jones during the service.  She added she heard that voice frequently during her White House years. “I heard ‘White Lightning’ as George W. worked out on the treadmill listening to George J.” she said, of the former president’s penchant for cranking up Jones CDs while exercising.

She too talked about the love of Jones’ live. “He was blessed to be able to walk through the last 30 years with wife, Nancy, by his side,” she said.
But of course much of the service focused on the singer, travails and all. “He was the voice of the common man,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Jones friend. “He sang the songs that cried for us.”

Tanya Tucker and The Imperials, Randy Travis, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt, Kid Rock, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Chesney and Wynonna Judd all paid tribute to Jones during the service that all four Nashville TV stations carried live. 

 “George was and always will be the greatest singer of all time in country music,” said Barbara Mandrell. “He sang for you and me and now he’s singing in glory for the one who gave him that voice. Hallelujah.”

Vince Gill, who teamed with Patty Loveless to sing his song, “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” that has become a part of every country music funeral in recent years, added  “Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart.”


Thursday, May 2, 2013

In memory of a great man: Interviewing George Jones, a gentle and sweet human being

This story was published by The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville on Nov. 25, 2004. At the time I was senior entertainment writer for the newspaper.  Since George was buried today, I thought you might like to read this. It was not the only time I interviewed George, but it was (as I wrote earlier for ... check out my first-person story for CMT at, one of the most glorious afternoons of my life.
Here is the story as it appeared in the newspaper all those years ago.
The original headline was: He still don't need no rockin' chair, with subhead: George Jones just can't talk himself into retiring; new compilation, TV special show why......

George Jones once turned down a chance to record with Frank Sinatra.
"It hurt me. It is one of my biggest regrets. But I told them I can't sing that way."

If there had been such a pairing - "I think it was gonna be London Town or one of those" - it would have been monumental. Jones has been referred to as ''the Frank Sinatra of country music,'' for a simple reason. He explains: "The Good Lord gives us all some type of talent. You do your best with it.
"If you use that talent doing what you really love to do, that's what makes you successful."

Jones has been called things great and small during his 50 years in country music.
But the moniker of which he is most proud: "The Greatest Singer in Country Music." It is his pride. His joy. His God-given legacy. It also causes him most concern. Jones knows he's abused his gift.

"All them ol' barrooms and smokin' and drinkin'," he laments. "If you could only learn your lesson earlier in life . . . ."
Hard-living into middle-age robbed him of some range and power.

"People say that they wish they could live their lives over, they'd do it different. . . . I'd probably do the same old crap, but only do it worse."
Jones has lived to put his demons at bay while continuing to record and perform. He also has captured the admiration of generations. While taken for granted in Nashville - "They see me out everywhere" - Jones is "Johnny Cash cool" in New York and L.A.

He and Merle Haggard are about the last ones left. That's why it didn't take long to fill the talent roster with many of today's top stars when the word went out there was going to be a special Soundstage TV tribute to the Possum.
The show, to be aired tonight on PBS, is a two-hour special that celebrates Jones' 50 years as a professional musician.

Guests include the likely - Alan Jackson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and more country greats - and the unexpected - Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville and Uncle Kracker.
During the two-hour broadcast, they sing from the Jones songbook. Many of those songs also are featured on the breathtaking triple-disc George Jones - 50 Years of Hits just released by his Bandit Records.

The album came out Nov. 9, the day of the Country Music Awards. Jones did not spend his evening with the celebrated flock at the Opry House; he was signing "400-450 copies" of the album at the Cool Springs Wal-Mart.
"That's where I belonged," he says. "With my fans."

Even Jones was surprised by the turnout. "I expected maybe a dozen people. Here we signed for an hour and a half straight. It went a lot better than I thought."
He pauses to pop a small piece of gum in his mouth. "I'm chewing too much of this stuff. All the time. The other day, I bit my tongue. . . . Almost killed me." He pokes out his tongue to display the sore, red tip. Then he laughs.

"Ol' Haggard says country radio is doing him and me a favor. By not playing our stuff, it makes people have to come out to hear us."
It almost stunned this warhorse that the hastily planned 50 years of hits TV special took almost no time to populate with talent.

"I can't wait to see it," he says. "We had some wonderful artists out there who were kind enough to do it."
Occasionally, they are joined by Jones onstage. The singing wasn't Jones' favorite part. "I enjoyed just sitting there, in the front row, listening. It was refreshing."

He teases that the women, particularly Amy Grant and Martina McBride, chose drinking songs.
There were suggestions that the show only go an hour. And it will play that way in some markets.

But Jones bristled at the idea of cutting it to an hour. "It's something we were gonna do. I wanted to do it at least halfway right.
"I said I don't want anyone left out. We went full-blast. I said this is probably gonna be my goin'-out kind of thing."

This is but one reference to the fact Jones, 73, is aware of his mortality: "I'm lucky to be alive now."
He vows: "I'm gonna work another year or so on tour." Then he quickly recants: "I'm not going to retire from the road completely as long as I can get dates."

He sometimes ponders what he would do if he did retire fully: "I would fish and hunt and do things I want to do. Music takes up all of your time. All of your thinking. That's why a lot of us went way over the line, drowning in a sea of booze.
"Nowadays, it's more convenient for singers, with television and everything. They can work 20 days and then take three months off.

"I missed out on the real big money. If I'd have been born 20 years later, I'd have really cashed in."
Talk about retirement seems just that. After all, he has dates booked. He has a TV special. And there is this masterpiece of a career-chronicling album, one which delights even the legendary singer himself.

So many of these songs are gems the singer himself is rediscovering.
He has to search diligently through a half-century's memories to recall anything significant about particular recording sessions.

"I remember Why Baby Why? (his first hit and the opening track on the album). But as you go along farther, all of the years, it's hard to remember."
That first breakthrough session was held in a "living room in an old house (in Texas) that had egg crates on the walls and the ceiling for the sound. Every once in awhile, you'd hear an 18-wheeler go by."

Many of the later songs were recorded in Nashville, in Owen Bradley's Quonset hut. "Started out in this little-bitty room. Couldn't have been much bigger than this room."
He looks across the spacious TV room. "So many of my hits were cut in there it's unbelievable. White Lightning. Who Shot Sam. A bunch of the older stuff.

"Then we moved across the hallway to a bigger studio. But it's amazing what came out of that little-bitty room."
Jones chugs his White Lightning bottled water. "You know, you hear radio say, 'He's had his day. He needs to make room for the younger artists. ' Well, that'd (tee) anybody off to hear that.

"Country music is like a religion to me."
It's like a business to many of the newcomers. Jones recounts the visit by a TV reporter to the Wal-Mart while he was signing albums on CMA night.

"The reporter asked what do I think about the awards show?
"I said 'Hell, I'm not into that kind of music. I'm into country music.' ''

The reporter backed away before Jones could finish his thought. "I was hoping I'd be asked what I thought about the show moving to New York next year.
"I'd have said, 'You know something, that's the best thing I've heard. This new country, well, they ought to take it to New York and keep it up there.

"It's not country music. These new artists are too big for their britches. And that's what hurts me more, because I love it so much.
"And to see the breath being taken out of it. Well, you wonder if the kids of tomorrow, are they ever gonna get a chance to hear real, traditional country music again? I don't think so."

If tradition is the taste, there now are two important new documents. No. 1: tonight's PBS show.
More important is the 50-song compilation, where every stage of Jones' voice is sampled, from Why Baby Why? in 1956 to Amazing Grace from a year ago.

There will be more from the guy who sometimes regrets not singing with Sinatra. Any talk of retirement will be put off.
"Now, I'm not ready to go, but if the Good Lord takes me, well, I've been here a lot longer than I ought to be."