George Jones has remained one of the more dominant male vocalists in country music since beginning his career in East Texas more than six decades ago. His contributions have been staggering. He's charted nearly 80 Top 10 Billboard Country Songs hits, including "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which reached the top of the chart and earned Jones his first GRAMMY for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male in 1980. He was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2008 and in 2012 was honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award. Frank Sinatra once amusingly called him "the second best singer in America."
Earlier this year, ahead of the singer's 81st birthday in September, he announced he would bid the road farewell with his final tour, which he's calling the Grand Tour in honor of his 1974 album of the same name. Currently in the middle of his U.S. tour, Jones discussed life on the road; recording a new album; his wife, Nancy; and the state of country music today.
You've always said touring was your life. How do you feel about stopping?
It's bittersweet. I love touring and seeing the fans, but I'm ready to slow down and spend more time at home and with my family. I'm sure I'll miss it though.
Is touring harder or easier than it was 20 years ago?
That's easy. It's harder because I'm not as young as I once was, but it's easier because we travel in a bus that was built to our specifications. It has all the comforts of home, including a full kitchen. In the early years, we traveled in station wagons with all our gear strapped to the top. Not too comfortable.
What are you going to do with your free time?
I'm going to play with my grandkids and mow the pastures on my farm in the summertime. I love to get out on the tractor and mow. We have a fully stocked pond so I might do some fishing, too.
Do you have a favorite song or a performance that stands out as you look back on your career?
"He Stopped Loving Her Today." It was my biggest hit and still gets the biggest fan reaction every time. I refused to record the song when it was first proposed to me. I told my producer, Billy Sherrill, that no one would want to listen to it because it was too sad. Every album I recorded, he would bring it up again until I finally gave in and recorded it. I'm glad he was so persistent.
You're in the process of making a new record. How do you approach a session?
We listen to a lot of material to find the best songs to record. I have input from producers, writers, song pluggers, and my wife. I like to get opinions from everyone to see what they like. I've recorded just about every kind of song that [can] be written — up-tempo, ballads, funny, serious, duets, thought-provoking, and controversial. It really depends on the song.
Do you approach a session differently than you approach a live show?
A session is different because I have to learn the new songs. Then the musicians come in and record the tracks, [and] then I come in and sing the songs. My bandleader, Bobby Birkhead, takes care of the set list each night, but it doesn't vary much because we have videos and special effects that have to be timed with the songs.
When you're singing, do you become the song or does the song become you?
I guess I become the song and take on the persona of the song. When it's a ballad or sad song, I'm very serious, but if it's funny or up-tempo, I like to cut up a little.
How do you feel about the state of country music today?
I have been vocal about how I feel about today's country music. I'm not happy about it. The music isn't bad, it just isn't what I call country. Most of it is pop or rock and roll.
Does marriage agree with you?
You obviously have never met my wife or you'd know I wouldn't answer that question with anything but "yes!" Seriously though, Nancy completely agrees with me. I credit her with me still being alive. She has stood by me through thick and thin. She's the best wife anyone could ever have.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)