Monday, May 06, 2013

Call The Wrecker For My Heart

"The Possum," George Jones, finally bought the farm at age 81, at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville on April 26. To his family's eternal credit, last week's funeral was declared open to the public. Some of Country music's greatest stars, with some unusual dignitaries, gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House along with thousands of fans, some of whom began gathering before dawn, for the memorial service. For those who couldn't attend the funeral personally, the event was live-streamed on the Internet, two different cable channels covered the obsequies, and as a tribute to Jones' transformative effect on country music, all local Nashville television stations broadcast the farewell in tribute. It was a ceremony fit for the King of Country Music, but Roy Acuff already claimed that nickname, and it's no longer accurate to call George, "No-Show" Jones. He was in the middle of a nationwide tour that was to have wrapped up in November with an all-star concert in Nashville. For a man who missed all those performances earlier in his career, he sure died with his boots on.

For those few poor souls unfamiliar with the singer, let's just say he was the Elvis of Country music, and I ain't talking Costello. Sam Phillips once referred to the Nashville music bidness as "having a follower's mentality," and in a town full of imitators, George Jones, like Hank Williams before him, must have been the most imitated singers in country history. His backwoods soul, seemingly linked to a bottomless well of pain, made for classic songs like, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," sung movingly by Jones acolyte Randy Travis at the funeral. Until that one came along, Jones' signature song was a tune written by former Memphis teen-heartthrob Dickie Lee called,"She Thinks I Don't Care," or as we other jealous songwriters laughingly referred to it; "She Stinks But I Don't Care." Dickie Lee could afford to laugh. Jones made him rich. George's rowdy side was best illustrated by a famous story from his raucous marriage with Tammy Wynette. George was schnockered and wanted to drive to the liquor store so Tammy hid the car keys. A half-hour later, the police stopped Jones on the highway, driving to the package store on a riding lawnmower. Jones credited his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, with straightening him out for good. I owe her too.

During the decade I spent writing songs in Nashville, a period I refer to as my "Babylonian Exile," having George Jones record one of your songs was akin to, as I said, getting a cut by Elvis, or Jimi Hendrix, for that matter. I was a new hire at a fledgling publishing company that paid me a pittance each week for gruel, but did offer me access to the recording studio. I had been in Country Music City for a couple of years and had such rotten luck, I used to sprinkle rejection on my Corn Flakes for breakfast. Once, during a Memphis-in-May-type downpour, I parked my car and ducked quickly into an office building on Music Row for a writing appointment, but the other guy never showed up. As I stood waiting for way too long, I fixed my gaze on the parking lot below and spotted my car with the headlights still on. Soaked, I dove underneath the hood to find the battery dead and no one around in the driving rain. While waiting for a tow-truck, I started to write the lyrics to a song titled, "Call the Wrecker For My Heart." After I became quasi-employed, I presented the half-written tune to my songwriting partners, but they thought it so corny, they didn't want to have anything to do with it.

Each week, the boss held a company demo session for those writers with just a single song to record. I brought "Wrecker" to the session and everyone seemed well pleased with the result, although finding a prospective artist for a parody song was admittedly difficult. My friend and stablemate, awarded writer Eddie Burton, also had a song on the same session and took a cassette tape (remember those?) over to the house of his friends, Nancy and George Jones, to listen. George loved Eddie's song, and while they discussed it, the tape continued on to the next song, which was mine. Before they could turn it off, Nancy said, "Wait a second, I like this one, too." So they listened again. Later that month, Eddie took me aside at a staff meeting and said, simply and with a smile, "You got your Jones cut." I didn't just want to kiss him, I actually did. My song was to be on an album called, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," and co-incidentally, it not only appeared as the track after Burton's on the LP, it was also the B-side to Burton's song. If that's confusing to younger readers, a B-side is the flip side of a 45 RPM record. If the A-side sells a million, so does mine, only 45s weren't doing so well in the mid-80s, and the record died a quick death. Still, a B-side on George Jones was, and is, my proudest accomplishment as a songwriter. It should have cemented my reputation.

The music business being the venal pit of writhing greed that it is, however, new owners bought out my employers and decided to downsize. Since I was among the lower-tier writers, in pay and reputation, I was unceremoniously hustled out the door, George Jones cut and all. Instead of my Jones song being a great beginning, it was the beginning of the end for me in Nashville. Unable to latch on elsewhere, I ultimately returned to Memphis with my country tail between my rock and roll legs. The Jones LP of which I was so proud, for whatever reason, became the single album he recorded in the eighties that did not make the elevation to Compact Disk. Thus, my song was never digitized, never played on the radio, and faded further into obscurity. I had to content myself with having written the George Jones song no one had ever heard, and when I was asked the title, folks had a good but unnerving laugh at my expense. Last I checked online, the few test CDs of the album were going for $129.20. When the funeral was over, and after everyone from Laura Bush to Kid Rock had spoken, and Barbara Mandrell called Jones "the greatest Country singer of all time," sales of George Jones albums were up a reported 1000 percent. So, I figure that after 28 years, my novelty tune might get heard after all, and I can say yet again, "Thank you, Old Possum, for recording my song when everyone around me told me that it was silly. You too, Mrs. Jones."



Anonymous said...

"No Show Jones" how bout "Hard Luck Haspel"

Alan Copeland said...

Since George has gone, all the liquor stores in Nashville will have to lay off some help.

Ron Hall said...

Great story, Randy. Many writer would love to have that credit on thier resume.

Clyde said... listening to the crickets and waiting for a train whistle to blow.

Father Farken said...

B. B. King sez, "When you look @ all formats of music, George Jones is the most unique stylist bar none."Randy! Your song "Call The Wrecker For My Heart " provided the caricature of all George's broken heart songs filled with pain & humor. It's ashame he didn't go through all the contents in your suitcase full of muse...but maybe like Elvis Presley...He's only playing possom. The Peace of The Lord! Father Fergus Farken

Anonymous said...

Isn't Dickey Lee's song that George recorded entitled, "She Thinks I Still Care"? And, don't feel badly. You still became a well known Memphis talent and a great D.J. Lots of people don't even make it that far in music.