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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, continuing our country music series with singer George Jones. Waylon Jennings once said if we could all sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones. Rock stars like Elvis Costello and Keith Richards have also paid tribute to George Jones.

This was his first big hit: "She Thinks I Still Care," recorded in 1962.

(Soundbite of song, "She Thinks I Still Care")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Musician): (Singing) She thinks I still care. Just because I asked a friend about her. Just because I spoke her name somewhere. Just because I rang her number by mistake today. She thinks I still care.

GROSS: I spoke with George Jones in 1996, after the publication of his autobiography, which described the many years he was addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and gave his perspective on his celebrated but troubled marriage to Tammy Wynette.

Jones grew up in rural Texas during the Depression. His father made bootleg whiskey to help make ends meet. Jones first performed at the age of 9 in Pentecostal churches and revival meetings. After helping to save souls in his early teens, he played to the sinners at rough-and-tumble roadhouses. He was underage, but he worked with a married couple who served as his guardians. Jones told me fights often broke out while the band played.

Mr. JONES: Back in those late '40s, when I was appearing in these places with them, you know, we had to put chicken wire around the bandstand, the little stage we had, to keep bottles from flying over and busting our guitars up. It would be - brawls break out every hour or so. But we got through it. It was part of the training, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were those bottles intended for the band, or were they just accidentally hitting you?

Mr. JONES: Not really. Not really. There was one or two that'd get in a fight and start something, and then get knocked into another one, and he'd get mad and he'd join in and - fighting them. So the next thing you know, there's a dozen fighting and tables turning over and bottles are flying, throwing them at each other, you know, and it'd naturally head that way too, you know.

GROSS: So when there was fighting when you were playing, would you just keep playing?

Mr. JONES: We were told to do that. And that's what we done most of the time unless - until, you know, it got really too rough to continue. And then we'd quietly bow out and get out of the way.

GROSS: Let's see, you were married at age 17, divorced a little less than a year later, I think, went into Marines for a couple of years. How soon did you start recording when you got out of the Marines in, I guess it was in 1954?

Mr. JONES: Right away. And in that following February of '54...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: I went into the studio the first time, and we didn't do all that good until '56, I think, or '55, we lucked up with a tune called "Why Baby Why," and then we moved on to Nashville to a - you know, a larger company that could distribute, you know, the records better.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Why Baby Why," recorded in 1955. One of the things interesting about this that I think - really, you're best known for your ballads, and this is really up tempo.

Mr. JONES: Well, the first days were rough. You know, the early days we recorded for Starday Records and really, it was a terrible sound. We recorded in a small living room of a house on the highway near Beaumont. You could hear the trucks. We had to stop a lot of times because it was, it wasn't soundproof. It was just egg crates nailed on the wall, and the big old semi trucks would go by and make a lot of noise, and then we'd have to start over again.

GROSS: So George Jones, let's hear your first hit, recorded in 1955, "Why Baby Why."

(Soundbite of song, "Why Baby Why")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Tell me why baby, why baby, why baby why, you make me cry baby, cry baby, cry baby, cry?

I can't help but love you 'til the day that I die. So tell me, why baby, why baby, why baby why?

Well I got a crow I wanna pick with you. Just like last time when the feathers flew. You're runnin' wild a-kickin' up your heels. A-leavin' me home with a handful of bills. Well, I can't live without you and you know it's true. But there's no livin' with you so what'll I do? I'm goin' honky tonkin', get as tight as I can. And maybe by then you'll appreciate a good man.

Tell me why baby, why baby, why baby why, you make me cry baby, cry baby, cry baby, cry?

GROSS: That's George Jones - his first hit, back in 1955.

George Jones, how did this record affect your life? How did it change your life?

Mr. JONES: Well, it gave me a little more to eat, and got me to traveling around, driving my car and to places close to East Texas - the big cities, Houston, Dallas - and over into Louisiana, sometimes Oklahoma. And it was a local hit for me. It was a national hit for Red Sovine and Webb Pierce, which back at that time, Webb Pierce was about the number one big star that was recording at the time.

GROSS: Now, how did you get the reputation as "No Show" Jones...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Well...

GROSS: ...of not showing up for dates?

Mr. JONES: Well, that was easy as time went by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: No, I just - I missed a few dates back when I was doing a little bit too much of my drinking. And later on, I got into drugs and -but I didn't really miss as many dates as it's been built up to be. But a lot of things the fans and people didn't know, that the management that I had around me at the time were also booking dates on me on the - a lot of times, several dates on the same date and getting advance, you know, monies for the dates. And they knew I would get the blame, you know, for it, that they would never have to refund those monies. So I wound up with so many lawsuits that I didn't know what to do with, so finally got it all straightened out, though, thank goodness, and we don't have to worry about that anymore.

GROSS: Let's hear another one of your songs. And this is "These Days I Barely Get By," which was co-written by you and by Tammy Wynette. And I think you recorded this shortly before or shortly after you separated.

Mr. JONES: I think so.

GROSS: Do you remember which it was?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: No.

GROSS: Shortly after?

Mr. JONES: But I'm sure it was just before we separated and got divorced.

GROSS: Tell me what your life was like when you recorded this?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was already getting - it's one of the lowest points in my life from drinking so much, and this was what led to - a lot to the cause of the divorce - and you know most of the story after that.

GROSS: Okay. Well, this is "These Days I Barely Get By," sung by my guest, George Jones.

(Soundbite of song, "These Days I Barely Get By")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I woke up this morning, aching with pain. Don't think I can work, but I'll try. The car's in the shop so I thumbed all the way. Oh, these days I barely get by.

I walked home from work, and it rained all the way. My wife left and didn't say why. She laid all our bills on the desk in the hall. Oh, these days I barely get by.

GROSS: George Jones, recorded in the late '70s.

I'm wondering, if you're truly living the lyric that you're singing about, do you think that that helps you make it even more expressive?

Mr. JONES: The song, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Well, I certainly do. I know when I'm singing a song on stage or recording one in the studio, I have to get deeply involved in it and if not, you can't put the emotions and the feelings - and I don't think they come out if you don't.

GROSS: Let me play the song that you say turned your life around, and this is "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Now, you had this song for about a year before recording it, and you asked the songwriter to rewrite it several times. What was the original song like? How is it different from what you recorded, and why did you think it needed to be changed?

Mr. JONES: Well, when I first got the song and first heard it, it didn't have the last verse of the - recitation part. I keep telling them that the lady had to come back, you know, the girl had to come back one way or the other, either to see him or come to his funeral or something. And they went back and rewrote - and wrote the last verse then, where I do the recitation, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Okay. Do you still sing this...

Mr. JONES: And that was when she came to the funeral, you know.

GROSS: Do you still sing this song a lot?

Mr. JONES: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Okay. Recorded in 1980, this is George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

(Soundbite of song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) He stopped loving her today and placed a wreath upon his door. And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.

You know, she came to see him one last time. Oh, and we all wondered if she would. And it kept running through my mind: This time he's over her for good.

He stopped loving her today and placed a wreath upon his door. And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.

GROSS: My interview with George Jones was recorded in 1996. The song we just heard him sing, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," was co-written by Bobby Braddock, who also co-wrote Tammy Wynette's hit "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Braddock will talk about writing those songs after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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