Back in his wild days of drink and drugs, back when he used to miss more than 50 shows a year, they called him “No Show” Jones.
So I had a sinking feeling that my chances of connecting by telephone with the legendary George Jones weren’t that good, especially when his wife, Nancy, told me the first time I called that the he had retired for a nap at the pre-arranged time for our chat.
Jones doesn’t do many interviews. In some I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like he’s too into it.
But “No Show” is in the past now.
Jones, 77, is on a roll again, riding high in the wake of a new album of previously unreleased duets, “Burn Your Playhouse Down,” and his selection as a recipient this year of a Kennedy Center Honor.
On the phone, despite some background noise by his barking Jack Russell terrier, he’s downright chatty.
“I love it,” Jones says of a touring schedule that keeps him on the road for about about 95 dates a year. “I could never get tired of singing country music. Believe it or not, and a lot of people in Nashville don’t know it or believe it even, but there have been big crowds.”
“You and Me and Time,” the lone newly recorded track on “Burn Your Playhouse Down,” is a duet featuring Jones and daughter Georgette Jones, the only child out of his union with Tammy Wynette. It’s making ripples at country radio, but Jones isn’t enamored of what mainstream country has become.
“This new country needs to find a new title and quit stepping on country music like it’s a steppingstone,” Jones says of the stuff that dominates radio. “Country music is country music, and if they want to do something else, then find a new title. It breaks my heart because I know country music the way it’s supposed to be.”
Jones sets his dial on Sirius and XM satellite radio, where he can hear old-school stars such as Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and, yes, George Jones.
“The dollar signs have moved into the business and they took over,” he says. “They have cut out all the older people. Anybody past 40 or 45, they don’t get to hear traditional country music anymore. It’s mostly teenagers, and I love ‘em because they are our kids, but everybody knows that it’s one thing’s here today and it’s gone tomorrow.”
Although Jones plans to cut back on his touring schedule next year, he’ll still be doing his part to keep that traditional sound alive. He’s working with business partners on a Branson-esque attraction in Dothan, Ala., that will include an 11,000-seat amphitheater, museum and casino. He plans to build a home in the area, too.
“It’s going to be bigger than Branson,” he says. “It’s going to have everything in the world down there, all kinds of restaurants and things. The main thing will be country.”
Likewise, Jones will bring country to the Kennedy Center Honors, where he will be celebrated along with Barbra Streisand, actor Morgan Freeman, choreographer Twyla Tharp and The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend.
“They tell me that’s about the highest award you can get, and it has really stunned me,” he says. “I’m amazed that it has happened to me because it has happened to some of the other good ones, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and so forth.”
You can bet that Jones won’t be a no-show.
“You think you’re enjoying life when you’re doing those drinking days and nights, but you’re not,” he says. “You’re paying for it with your body when you get old enough, which I’ve done.”
He credits wife Nancy for inspiring his turnaround about 11 years ago.
“She saved my life, her and the good Lord. She’s put up with things most women wouldn’t put up with for five minutes. The least I could do was do the right thing for a change. A lot of prayers were answered there.”