Keeping Up With Jones
AARP The Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July & August 2006
Fluffy, hot biscuits, fresh out of the oven and smothered with redeye gravy, with a thick slab of smoked ham on the side, are a great start to any day. But the biscuits and gravy I am eyeing are hardly standard fare. They are the signature menu item at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, the ultimate comfort food in my ultimate comfort city. After 30 years of visiting Nashville, I have finally arrived at the home of the gods–a white clapboard cafe attached to what once was a motel way out on the edge of town by the Natchez Trace. I am on the verge of understanding just why an ideal day in Music City USA begins here.
Yet as pleasing to the eye and mouthwatering as the biscuits and redeye gravy may be, I am not able to clean my plate. I seem to have developed a mild case of the nerves. Chalk up my condition to the anticipation of meeting my tour guide. If you’re going to see Nashville right, there is no better way to experience it than with George Jones, the King of Country Music, leading the way.
George Jones has spent most of his adult life in recording studios around Nashville singing classic cheatin’ songs in a powerful wail, from between clenched teeth, that would give Pavarotti pause. His record–or records–speaks volumes: 166 hit singles, from “White Lightning,” “Golden Ring,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” “High Tech Redneck,” and “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he is one of a select few country stars to receive the National Medal of Arts.
As soon as I spy him driving into the Loveless parking lot behind the wheel of a Ford van with his wife, Nancy, riding shotgun and his two most trusted backup singers and longtime pals, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, in back, I apologize to the waitress for the half-finished plate. “George Jones just ruined my appetite,” I tell her, smiling sweetly.
The NO SHOW personalized license plate on the van is a joking reference to his proclivity for missing gigs back when he was just as famous for his wild ways as he was for his music. He’s able to laugh at that reputation now. Newfound sobriety and a renewed work ethic following a near-fatal car accident–while driving drunk and talking on a cell phone in 1999–have energized him. These days he doesn’t just show up; he plays for half an hour longer.
At 74, The Possum, as he is known, could easily be resting on his laurels and letting his catalog, including his latest album, George Jones: Hits I Missed…And One I Didn’t, do the talking. Instead, he’s on the road every weekend (nearly 100 shows last year) and spends much of his downtime as he did the previous day, laying down tracks in the studio with young gun Blake Shelton and old-school honky-tonker John Anderson, as well as working on a collaborative venture with his fellow living legend Merle Haggard. And he still manages to squeeze in time to show off the real-deal version of his hometown to a visitor who thinks he’s seen it all. Within minutes of shaking hands, George has me confessing to a limited familiarity with Nashville.
Rise and Shine
“I don’t know all the history of this place,” George says, smiling shyly, as he surveys the Loveless lobby within arm’s reach of the autographed glossy photo of George and Nancy on the wall of country music stars behind the register. That’s understandable, because the Loveless opened its doors in 1951, four years before George hit town as a wet-behind-the-ears kid from the Big Thicket of southeast Texas by way of Beaumont. But he does know the Loveless is his kind of place. “We used to come out here all the time with different people back in the ’60s, for the biscuits, the ham, for a little bit of everything,” he says, patting his ample belly–food is one of the renewed pleasures following his renouncement of vices. “It’s just a good homey atmosphere, real country.”
Many of his fellow diners at the Loveless happen to be huge George Jones fans.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that many of his fellow diners happen to be huge George Jones fans. Before he and Nancy can finish their breakfast, fans are lined up with pen and paper in hand for an autograph. George obliges each and every one. One older man wearing a gimme cap wants to talk literature when he recognizes the familiar face.
“Hey there!” he shouts, grinning excitedly. “You don’t know me, but I just read your book "I Lived to Tell It All". You were the wildest, man!”
George manages a sheepish chuckle. “I ain’t supposed to be here, I tell you that.”
“I related to a lot of that,” the fan tells him. “I’m a survivor, too.” Gimme Cap bought the autobiography because he wanted to get to know George before he saw him for the first time at a recent concert at the Ryman Auditorium. The fan couldn’t have picked a better place. No one knows that better than George. The Mother Church of Country Music just so happens to be the next stop on his Nashville tour itinerary.
Tapping Toes and Tapping Roots
The Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and hosted the Grand Ole Opry during its glory years, from 1943 until 1974, when the Opry moved to the suburbs. The venerable red-brick structure fell into disuse for almost 20 years before it was revived as Nashville’s finest all-purpose concert venue, even hosting the Grand Ole Opry again every now and then. “The Ryman is second only to the Mormon Tabernacle in natural acoustics,” Nancy Jones points out.
Her husband is beaming at the building when we pull into the parking lot. “It’s my favorite place to play,” George says. He’s considerably more relaxed now than he was way back when he was riding his first hit, “Why Baby Why,” and he was very, very scared.
“George Morgan and Little Jimmy Dickens were standing off to the side, talking to me,” he explains, walking into the sacred space after signing an autograph for a little girl in a wheelchair at the entrance. He remembers becoming especially nervous when the stagehands informed him he couldn’t play guitar because he wasn’t a member of the local musicians’ union. “Hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my hands,” he recalls. “I was already shaking. When they told me that, I like to had a heart attack. Ernest Tubb was on stage singing, and right when he finished his song, they called me, and I said, ‘I just can’t go out there. I don’t have anything to do with my hands.’ As bad as I wanted to be on the Opry for the first time, I didn’t want to if I had to go out there like that. Dickens or Morgan–one of ’em, I can’t remember which–throwed their guitar over my shoulder and said, ‘We’ll take responsibility. You go ahead.’ So I did. It worked out.”
It sure did.
Deep in the Heart of Nashville
In a blink, George ducks out a side door of the Ryman, walks down a set of stairs, and crosses the alley into the rear entrance of an establishment identified as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. It is a route he’s taken many times, along with a number of country stars, back in the days when the Opry was in residence at the Ryman.
“We used to slide through the back door, have a beer or something,” George mentions as he walks briskly through the darkened bar, prompting heads to turn and cries of “George!” to erupt. This time, though, he’s just passing through, heading straight for the front door and Broadway, Nashville’s main drag. He’s not much on honky-tonks these days, and if he’s going to drink, it will be George Jones’s White Lightning bottled water, thank you very much.
On Broadway he surveys the streetscape like a proprietor. Tootsie’s is only one of several honky-tonks on the block, along with Robert’s Western World, the Bluegrass Inn, Second Fiddle, and Nashville Crossroads. These bars with stages are the most reliable venues for visitors to hear real live country music in its element. The storied Ernest Tubb Record Shop and some bar-bars are also on the street. Hatch Show Print, whose vintage posters are my favorite Nashville souvenirs, is one block down. The Nashville Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame are one block up. It takes less than a minute for a crowd to materialize once George hits the pavement, smiling a smile that telegraphs he made his peace with celebrity long ago.
Pickin’ ‘n’ Grinnin’
George beelines down the block, ducking into a storefront on the corner. The sign above the entrance reads Gruhn Guitars. “Gruhn is the place in Nashville for guitars,” George says as he gazes around twelve thousand square feet of vintage guitars like a kid in a candy shop. Within seconds, he plops on a stool, picks up an instrument, and commences to make sweet harmonies with his backup singers, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, running through “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” his voice hitting the notes as no one else can. Each pause between songs is met by a rousing round of applause from the growing audience that has followed him into the store. He is clearly in his element. When he stumbles on the lyrics of one of his own songs, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” he jokes to the gathering, “I didn’t write the song by myself. The other guy knows the rest of it.”
George wraps up the miniconcert after glancing at his watch. It’s time to go. There’s more to see.
Stars Crossed Paths
As George sneaks out the back entrance of Gruhn Guitars to his waiting van (he knows all the hidey-holes in Nashville), he is surprised by Shooter Jennings and a camera crew making a pilot for a reality show starring Jennings for the CMT network. George has known the son of the late Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter since Shooter was a baby (“He was raised pretty good by his mama, I tell you”) and delivered a resounding endorsement at the beginning of Jennings’s debut album.
The two musicians hug, smile, and catch up while another crowd gathers, joined by a Gray Line tour bus that screeches to a halt when the driver notices the sidewalk rendezvous. George and Shooter revert to a dialect familiar to those in the “bidness.”
“How long you gonna be in town?”
“We play the Gaylord Friday.”
“Friday? I have to go to work myself Thursday. I’ll be back in Sunday; maybe you can come see us. I’d love to take y’all out. Give me a call. You got my number?”
“Yeah, I got your number. I was nervous to call because everyone else is [calling].”
“What are you nervous about? You got you a hit going. Well, we’ll catch you later. See you Sunday, I hope.”
As Shooter and entourage depart, more fans move in for autographs, including a bearded fan with a dog.
“Hey, Buddy, say hi to George Jones!” the fan with the canine says.
Judging from how its tail is wagging, the shepherd’s a huge George Jones fan, too.
“Now I know what ol’ Hank Williams went through,” George murmurs as he struggles up the stairs into the side entrance of the Ryman and heads back to the dressing room to gather his gear. He’s peopled out and clearly looking forward to our last stop–his buddy, Manuel the tailor, whose shop near Music Row is one destination few out-of-towners are aware of.
If they only knew.
Dressed to Thrill
Manuel Cuevas is hardly just any tailor. He’s the Picasso of Nashville clothiers, whose flamboyant, sparkly stage creations have adorned the figures of Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan, among others. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.
Manuel Cuevas is the Picasso of Nashville clothiers. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.
Manuel and George have known each other since before either was a Nashville fixture, back when Manuel was working in Los Angeles for his father-in-law, Nudie Cohn. Cohn was creator of the Nudie suit (think Liberace decked in western wear), once a staple of every country star’s wardrobe. When he moved to Nashville in 1989, Manuel became the new Nudie, the gaudy rhinestone-and-spangle standard for every aspiring country music star.
“Manuel’s the only one to get it right the way we like it. He knows my taste. I’ll give him an idea–usually it’s just a little embroidery or something, or a rope on the sleeve–and he runs with it. It doesn’t take but a week or ten days to get Manuel to make me something,” George says as he emerges from the dressing room clad in a stylish denim outfit.
“Looks good,” he opines while Manuel fusses with the waist.
“I never fit him, ever. Nothing ever fits. I haven’t made him a good suit in 45 years,” the cherubic Manuel gripes, elbowing George as he measures him. Theirs is a relationship so familiar that every conversation is peppered with insults. “He has me make five pair of jeans every week. You know what that is? That’s a nightmare!”
George gives as good as he gets. “You know me, I’ll never put no pressure on you. This jacket don’t fit right. Nothing fits right. How come you never get anything right?”
“Everything is the wrong thing, every day is the wrong day,” mocks Manuel. “When you start complaining, that’s a sign it’s good.”
While they’re joshing, Nancy and Sheri and Barry are working the racks, and before you know it, they’re looking like stars, too, as they emerge from the dressing room, decked out in jackets that start at around $2,500.
In the midst of the couture chaos, George pauses and reflects upon the observation that he seems to be enjoying himself. “Well, I am,” he says. “I’ve had another chance on life. When I quit smoking, I started gaining weight, and it’s all in my belly,” he explains, patting it. “I can hit high notes now I couldn’t hit when I was 20.”
Then, no more drinking, no more doping?
“Nooo. I wouldn’t give you a dime for a toddy or a beer,” he says with a sense of finality. “And I quit on my own, with the help of the Good Lord and my wife. I drank for over 50 years. I did it all. But I had her there helping me. She didn’t give up on me. She stayed by my side when I was really needing her. It paid off for both of us.”
After one final pose–in which he strikes an “It’s Not Unusual” profile after Manuel says “Tom Jones” –George Jones calls it a day and heads for the van one last time, walking out arm in arm with Nancy. He needs the downtime because there’s more music to be made tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, until he can’t. That’s George Jones’s idea of being a senior. Slowing down is okay. Retirement is out of the question. And from all appearances, he’s liking it just fine.