TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The great country singer George Jones died today. He was 81. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him.
In Jones's New York Times obituary, Jon Pareles describes him as the definitive country singer of the last half-century. Jones was famous for his hits like "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Race is On" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and for the songs he recorded with Tammy Wynette - to whom he was married from 1969 to '75. For many years he was also famous for his drinking and his erratic behavior.
I spoke with Jones in 1996.
So you were married at age 17, divorced a little less than a year later - I think, went into the Marines for a couple of years. How soon did you start recording when you got out of the Marines in I guess it was 1954.
GEORGE JONES: Right away, in that following February of '54.
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, I don't we hear "Why Baby Why" recorded in 1955. One of the things interesting about this is that I think really you're best known for your ballads and this is really up-tempo.
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 a highway near Beaumont. You could hear the trucks. We had to stop a lot of times because it wasn't soundproof, it was just eight crates nailed on the wall in the big old semi trucks would go by and make a lot of noise and 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")
JONES: (Singing) Tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, baby, why you make me cry, baby, cry baby, ah, baby cry. I can't help but love it till the day that I did so tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, baby why. Well, now I've got a crow I want to pick with you just like last time when the feathers flew.
(Singing) You're young and wild and kicking up your heels, leaving me home with a handful of bills. Well, I can't live without you and you know it's true but there's no living with you so what'll I do? I'm going honky-tonking, get as tight as I can, and maybe by then you'll appreciate a good man. Tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, why, baby, why you make me cry, baby, cry, baby, ah, 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?
JONES: Well, it gave me a little more to eat and got me to traveling around, driving my car 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: You went through many years of drinking to excess and then some years of doing cocaine as well. I imagine there was a long period during which when you performed you were often very drunk. How did that affect your performance?
JONES: I thought it made me do a good job but I found out later I didn't sound as good as I thought I did, you know? Nah, but really, to be honest with you, I did drink performing but I didn't usually go to excess with it until after the shows. Usually after the shows is when I stayed up picking in the rooms and stuff like that and partying and ruining my health. And all the other things that came, you know, with it.
GROSS: How did you finally give up drinking?
JONES: Well, first of all, I went in rehab. And I went back during the first couple of years, you know, four or five times just for a couple of days at a time. You know, when these things would come back on you, you'd get your sickness, you know?
JONES: And all of a sudden, one day, you know, it was just over with, you know. And so that's been, I'd say, I'm guessing around 11 years ago.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. What's it like to sing drinking songs now? Do they have a different meaning to you?
JONES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's - life itself is different. You know, I thought I lived in a science fiction movie or something all them bad years but, no, it's - I wake up now, you know, and enjoy the farm, enjoy the horses I got and just have a great time knowing your family and knowing things that you never did know before. You know, and realizing what you got and what you're thankful for.
GROSS: Now, have you ever - always taken your voice for granted? I mean - here's what I mean. It came so naturally to you. You never seemed to have had to work at singing. You just had this gift. And sometimes when people just having something, they don't realize how special it is.
JONES: Well, a lot of times you can't see the forest for the trees. We don't wake up when we ought to sometimes, if you know what I mean, and I never did take it all that serious. The only thing I took serious was I loved to do it and the people liked to hear it. And that's - my happiest times was when I was on stage and they seemed to be enjoying it. That made me enjoy being there.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you think of your voice as a gift? I mean, do you think of it as a gift?
JONES: Oh, naturally.
JONES: Naturally. It's - I think there's only a few every now and then that come along that are lucky enough to have a little different sound in their voice and the drive and the heart, the soul, whatever you want to call it. It's just a little something different that we're blessed with, you know.
GROSS: George Jones, recorded in 1996. He died today at age 81. You can hear a longer version of our interview on our website freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JONES: (Singing) Just because I ask 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. Just because I haunt the same old places where the memory of her lingers everywhere. Just because I'm not the happy guy I used to be, she thinks I still care.
GROSS: Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg on the words we've used to describe the horrors of the Boston bombing and the West, Texas explosion. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.