George Jones is indeed a household name. Whether his name brings to mind favorite songs like “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” “Choices,” or his earlier hits like “We’re Gonna Hold On” or other duets with singing partners Tammy Wynette and Melba Montgomery, George Jones leaves a memory. The song that may now come to mind might be “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” as we ponder who could ever fill the empty space that George Jones leaves on the face of country music.
But when you think of George Jones, there are many things you may NOT think about – simply because you’ve not heard about them. Things like what a genuinely great person he was, what made him tick, what television programs he liked to watch, his favorite eating place, his biggest fans, and what he did to get by the demons of his past.
From start to finish, and from the reflections of everyone we spoke to, George Jones was not just a country music superstar. He was much, much more. He was also a gem among men, though he would never have thought of himself as such. It’s been said that Jones treated everyone like family – that he was never too busy to offer a kind word, an autograph, a photo op or anything else he could do for just about everyone he came in contact with.
One fan related that Jones was signing autographs for hours, when he had to be near-dragged away to catch a plane, and yet he still lingered, saying, “If we could stay, I’d throw something on the grill.” Jones himself was once quoted as saying “I tell you, the biggest friends I’ve ever had are the fans; I’ve had so many prayers…sent up for me, that it could probably fill heaven, and it must have, because it saved me – it saved my life, and that’s where I feel the real friends are of an artist, is out there in those fans.”
And true to that thought, if you talk to any George Jones fan, you’ll soon find yourself encapsulated in a world of warm, kind thoughts and reflections that would make any artist proud.
Yes, Jones had his demons, but as longtime publicist and friend Kirt Webster related, “Let’s face it – those demons were a long time ago…and it takes a strong woman to run those demons off. And that was Nancy Jones. She was the definite turning point in George’s life. If it weren’t for Nancy Jones, we wouldn’t have had George as long as we did. She and George had a great relationship, and it was because she had helped him put those demons behind him.”
Music was such a huge part of Jones’ life, and that which he is most remembered for. But behind the man with all the hits was something very special.
Webster continued, “He was just a great man – a friendly guy and he loved everybody. You can’t fake or buy passion – and people sensed that. When you were around George Jones, he was the same with everyone. He wasn’t fake – and he couldn’t fake who he was. Whether it was at the Grand Ole Opry House or at the Cracker Barrel, when someone wanted an autograph or a photo or to have a conversation, he’d say “absolutely.” As in most entertainers, they are so willing to give of themselves that it is the people around them that have to drag them away, and it was no different for George. Many times it was Nancy, Bobby Birkhead (tour manager), or I having to pull him from the fans to do what he had already scheduled. He always would tell us, ‘Without the fans, we wouldn’t be able to go out and eat.’ His fans were that important to him; they were his friends.”
If you’ve ever eaten at the Cracker Barrel in Franklin, Tenn., you may have caught first hand the truths behind these words. Lori Morse, one of the Jones’ favorite Cracker Barrel servers, mused, “George and Nancy came in a lot. They were absolutely adorable together – and you could tell there was a lot of love there. And he was absolutely amazing…he was always thinking about his fans. He always took a minute to give them what they wanted. He never had a problem taking pictures with people, and he signed autographs all the time. He even took it to the point that if it was someone’s birthday, and he found out about it, he would sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them.”
Morse further related, “I remember one time when Josh Turner met a terminally ill child at Cracker Barrel to have lunch with him for the ‘Make A Wish Foundation,’ and while he was there, George was there, and George went over and met him also and sang to him … so he got Josh Turner and George Jones. I was so moved that he took the time to visit with that little boy – who was only about 6 or 7 years old. But that child thought it was the greatest thing in the world. And I think the fact that George Jones was so well liked by people of all ages is a true testament to who he was. He was an icon in country music, and he was so important to country music, but he never, ever made anyone feel that they weren’t as important as the next person. And we are really going to miss him around here. We’re all very sad that we’ve lost our friend.”
Craig Campbell of Campbell Entertainment affirmed, “I was working with Eric Lee Beddingfield when he wrote and recorded ‘The Gospel According To Jones,’ and I was with him when we happened to run into George and Nancy in a restaurant, and Eric was able to tell him about the song. When George agreed to sing on the track and later appear in the video, he made the dreams of a young artist come true. After that, Eric and his family became very close to the Joneses. I saw an amazing, kind, gentle, grandfatherly side of George in the way he treated the Beddingfields like his own family.”
We also spoke with Billy Yates, who penned a total of six songs for Jones. “The first song I wrote for George was with Frank Dycus and Kerry Kurt Phillips. It was Dycus’ idea, and thankfully he shared it with us. And when we were finished with it, we made a cassette recording of it. Well, I’d started writing for Hori-Pro publishing at that time, and so I took it and turned it in to them. They in turn took it over to MCA and played it for Renee Bell, and she loved it. So she sent it out to George, and he put it on hold. So then, out of the blue, I get this call at the publishing company, and it was GEORGE JONES! And he says to me, ‘I got this song you guys wrote, and I’m gonna cut it next Wednesday.’ It was life-changing for me.”
Yates further charged that Jones was surprising, in that he had some unexpected insecurities. “The George I knew – who enjoyed watching Westerns and hanging out at the house – was the same guy who was very worried about what people would think when he hit the stage…which for an icon and a legend, is an unusual thing. He was just this normal guy, which made him even more special to me.”
Relating to losing Jones, Yates expressed his sadness, “He was a friend – he was quirky and funny. At times, he was just like a kid in a candy store, because he grew up with NOTHING. But as an artist, he was able to buy some nice cars and things like that, and he was very proud to show you those things, because to him it meant that his music was as important to the fans as it was to him. It was so neat to see, understanding where he’d come from. I was so sad to lose him, because I fell in love with all his songs as a kid – then got to meet him and be his friend. So I went through the grieving process as a fan, but also as a friend, so it was doubly sad.”
“George’s service came together very quickly,” related Jeremy Westby of Webster & Associates, the Jones’ publicity firm. “Everyone loved George, and when we put out the calls, no one was much over 24 hours getting back to us – and that included Laura Bush and Mike Huckabee. And it certainly made our jobs easier, because we were grieving, too. And when we looked out over the audience, it was pretty amazing to see who was present.”
Westby further expressed, “For me, George was like a family member. We’d go to see them, and their front door was always open. George would have us just come on in, and we’d shoot the breeze. It was a wonderful thing getting to know him. I remember when George was happy, he’d always talk like Donald Duck. He was even doing it the last time we saw him at the hospital. I’ll remember him being that guy. He was such a legend, but he never really believed it himself. In his spare time, he just wanted to cut the grass, go to Cracker Barrel, watch Westerns or “Matlock,” or sports on TV, spend time with Nancy or his grandkids, and stuff like that. He was just this happy-go-lucky guy who loved his wife and enjoyed being a normal, everyday Christian guy.”
In closing, I asked Kirt Webster what he thought George would want to be remembered for, aside from his music. “I don’t think he’d expect to be remembered for anything other than his music,” stated Webster fondly. “It was his passion and that which made him who he was. He loved his fans, he loved performing, he loved that it was something he could share with Nancy and his family…What more would he have wanted? I can’t think of a thing.”