James Carothers delivers straight-up country tunes in a deep, growling baritone that can’t help but remind you of George Jones. By more than mere coincidence, the legendary Jones happens to be one of the great influences on Carothers’ style. “It’s always been classic country for me,” says Carothers, a Tennessee native who now operates out of Nashville. “George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings – those are the artists I gravitated to. They were true characters and great singers.”
Now, Carothers has taken his admiration for Jones one step further. On September 7th, just days before the late great Jones would have turned 87, Carothers released his new album, lovingly titled “Still Country, Still King: A Tribute to George Jones.” For the album, Carothers covers some of Jones’ most iconic songs, including “One Woman Man” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” long considered the greatest country tune ever written. Carothers also made an interesting choice of five songs that were not necessarily major hits for Jones. For the first singles off the tribute album, Carothers released “Sinners and Saints,” which first appeared on Jones’ 1999 album “Cold Hard Truth,” and “Someday My Day Will Come,” which debuted on the charts for Jones in 1979 but failed to crack the Top 20.
“We did pick five that were a little less known,” Carothers notes, from the inside of Nashville music club The Local. “Like ‘Sinners and Saints,’ that was co-written by Darryl Worley and it was an album cut. Not that many people know it. The hard part about this was narrowing down the songs because Jones made so many studio records. I think he has more chart hits than anyone and has the record for the most Top 40 songs.” For certain, Carothers knows his Possum history. Jones, often nicknamed “Possum,” does indeed hold the mark for the most charted singles (168) in country history as well as the most Top 40 hits with 143.
Carothers has enjoyed a connection with his singing hero from youth right on up to present day. Born near Jackson, Tennessee, Carothers moved to New Mexico with his family at a young age. His dad sang gospel and country while his grandfather performed with gospel quartets. Carothers grew up with a heavy diet of Jones, Haggard and other staunch traditionalists. “Those were my main influences,” Carothers says in his deep-voiced drawl that still bears a hint of Tennessee south. “It’s natural for me to sing traditional country, but the more I sang, the more I developed my own style.”
The Jones link started to come full circle after Carothers made the move from New Mexico to Music City, slightly more than three years ago. “A friend told me that they had just opened this George Jones place [The George Jones] downtown,” Carothers recalls. “I was fairly new to town so I went down there and told them I sing the old country and I was looking for a job. The lady I met there was like ‘Well, do you know any George Jones songs?’ I said that I did and she went, ‘You don’t do them too slow, do you. I don’t want people getting put to sleep.’ I told her I didn’t think so.” The lady asking the pertinent questions turned out to be Nancy Jones, George’s widow and the mastermind behind the venue. She suggested that Carothers fetch his guitar and come back to play a few tunes. His impromptu audition was an obvious smash. “She hired me on the spot,” Carothers says with a wide smile.
Carothers has continued to perform at The George Jones along with other downtown Nashville hot spots. His regular stints at the Jones venue, which incorporates a museum along with a smokehouse-style restaurant and rooftop bar, spurred his decision to make the tribute album.
In the course of the conversation, a natural question arises: Has Nancy Jones heard the record? Carothers grins and assures, “Oh, yeah. We played it for her first, because we wanted to make sure we did it right. She said it was a good album and she even gave us permission to use the small picture of George on the cover. My goal for this album is to get more people excited about George Jones.”
While paying homage to the legendary Jones, Carothers is certainly out to create his own legacy. He’s released a previous album, titled “Relapse,” which was well-received by reviewers. This past year, he was nominated for an Ameripolitan Award in the Outlaw Male category. He writes a hefty amount of his own material, generally with friends or band mates.
“I am working on another project right now,” Carothers notes. “We’ll start releasing singles this fall. If they do well, I can release more of them as we go along. It will be more of an original project, and it’ll definitely be country,” he adds with a smile. And if you want to catch him live, you can usually look no further than the watering holes of downtown Nashville. “We play through the week at the bars down here,” Carothers says. “There’s a high probability of running into me in Nashville, because I play out so often. I’m mostly at George’s but I play a lot at Alan Jackson’s and Dierks Bentley’s places. We are fortunate to stay pretty busy.”
Of hit tribute to Jones, Carothers says, “We just tried to do our best and pick out ones that people like and ones we like ourselves. Just a great time together and great music.” And just like his hero, he’s keeping it country.
“Still Country, Still King: A Tribute to George Jones” is available now. For more on James Carothers, please visit his website.