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Shooter Jennings on George Jones: 'An Incredible Man and an Incredible Talent'

'His voice was like a mystery of the world, like the pyramids,' says Jennings

George Jones
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
April 27, 2013 9:00 AM ET

When I was a kid, George Jones was around my house a lot. My dad [Waylon Jennings] always thought he was the greatest singer alive, and they were friends and able to relate to each other in different ways. He lived 20 minutes away in Nashville and would come over and they’d do what friends do: eat dinner, hang out, joke around and sing some songs – especially if some friends who were fans were around. George always wanted to make people laugh; I remember him doing a great Donald Duck impression. They also had a kinship because my dad had gotten clean as well.  

George was a very deep individual with deep emotional feelings, and was able to portray them with his voice. His voice and his ability to sing a song was so strong that it transcended the eras. It transcended almost everything. He was able to touch so many people for so many generations that his career can’t really be wrapped up and defined in one song, one sound or one period. But the song that epitomizes him for me is "Choices" [off 1999's Cold Hard Truth]. I was aware of his battles, and I just think there’s a somber honesty in that song that captures what he’s about. "The Door" is another favorite; it’s the perfect example of a masterful delivery and performance. He could dial in heartbreak in a second. It’s an ability that’s beyond comprehension. Like my dad said, "If we could all sound like we wanted to, we'd sound like George Jones."

Q&A: George Jones on How He Lived to Tell It All 

It's hard to know how he did it. There were a lot of folks in the beginning: Hank Williams kind of created that dark country sound, there’s Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce. But it’s like George was born with it. There wasn’t anyone like him before and there really hasn’t been anyone since. He had a voice like butter. His comprehension of music came directly from the heart and was not anything that was contrived or fake. It was just what happened when he opened his mouth and he sang a note. It’s like a mystery of the world, like the pyramids. 

My dad sobered up around ’84 or ’85, and George had some battles that lasted longer than that. But I think his demons were just as important as the positive side of life to his talent; it brought an understanding to the songs. He could sing the songs and you could believe it because he believed it. It all just goes into what makes a man, and George Jones was an incredible man, and an incredible talent.

He sang on my single "Fourth of July" back in 2005. I couldn’t believe he said yes to it. We were all just nervous as can be and trying to get him out of there as fast as we could. But he came in and told a big long story and was just cuttin’ up and cracking up. At the very end of that story, he said, "When are we gonna get paid for this?" and started laughing. We just took that out and put it on the end of the record. He just was just warm and happy to be there and making everybody feel comfortable. The fact that I will have that song for the rest of my life means a lot to me, a whole lot.

As told to Patrick Doyle

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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