Category Archives: Rockabilly

Sizzling with Wanda Jackson

Sizzling with Wanda Jackson

The Legendary rockabilly beauty performs at Workplay.



Bob Dylan called Wanda Jackson “an atomic bomb in lipstick.” (click for larger version)



September 29, 2011

Touted as the Queen of Rockabilly, singer Wanda Jackson was the first woman to sing in a seductive, growling rock ‘n’ roll style. Jackson was discovered by country and western singer Hank Thompson in 1954 at age 17, recording her first country hit “You Can’t Have My Love” with his band. A year later, she briefly dated a then-unknown Elvis Presley, who told her that she should start singing rock ‘n’ roll. In 1956, she took his advice and hit the Top 20 country charts with the rocked up “I Gotta Know.” The following year, she recorded the smoking “Fujiyama Mama,” which hit number one in Japan despite the opening verse: “I been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too. The things I did to them, baby, I can do to you!” The sexuality of Elvis that had shaken up America appeared tame compared to Jackson’s sizzling style.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I sat in my car in the French Quarter in New Orleans and rang up Jackson at her hotel room in Del Mar, California, where she was scheduled to perform that evening. She graciously agreed to a short chat, sharing stories of her sexy, dynamic style, which, of course, upset the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 during her first appearance there. Earlier this year, she recorded The Party Ain’t Over with the White Stripes’ Jack White. Jackson will perform at Workplay on September 30. Visit for details.

Black & White: When you met Elvis on the Ozark Jubilee tour in 1955 and he suggested that you sing rock ‘n’ roll, were you reluctant to give it a try?
Wanda Jackson: Oh yeah, because I didn’t think I could sing it. He convinced me that I could. As the music became more and more popular, it was sweeping the nation—and it was my generation’s music—so I loved it. I finally found a [rocking] song when a friend of mine wrote a special song for me, kind of a transition from country into rock. The song was “I Gotta Know.” It opens with a line that has a real country melody and then would break into rock ‘n’ roll, then back to that one line of country and then back into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s really a clever song. It’s still one of my most requested numbers today.

Wanda Jackson poses with boyfriend Elvis Presley in 1955. (click for larger version)

You put glamour and sex appeal into country music. Is it true that your mother designed your stage clothes in the early days?
By the time I was 16, it was high heels and everything. I had gotten very tired of the cowboy outfits that the girls wore. I didn’t look too good in those and I knew it. My mother had always sewn for me since I was a little girl, and she sewed beautifully. So we just got our heads together and we knew that I felt better in the straight skirts rather than full ones. And I wanted no sleeves, I wanted spaghetti straps. Kind of a sweetheart neck, a little cleavage. I thought fringe would be good, it would still indicate kind of a western look. So we used the short silk fringe. It really shimmied and shook when I walked. I wore the long earrings and high heels and big hair. CMT (Country Music Television) did a series on the 40 top women of country music, the most influential. I think I was number 35 on that list. They said I was the first one to bring a sexy look into country music. So since that day, I’ve worn the fringe and the low-cuts and the sparkly outfits. I still do.

I read that your first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry didn’t go over too well. Was it your style?
Yes, the dress I wore was the problem. (laughs) I only did it [played the Opry] the one time because I just really didn’t care for anything about it [the Opry]. I had been used to working with Hank Thompson and the big bands with drums and horns and the whole western swing–type music. And, of course, the Opry was very country. They didn’t allow drums. They had a lot of rules. I wasn’t a member, I was just a guest. So when I showed up in one of the dresses that I wore, I was told that I couldn’t go on the stage of the Opry dressed like that. They said, “Women can’t show their shoulders.” So, I put on a jacket and covered myself up. And I was very unhappy with the whole situation, so I said I wouldn’t ever do it again. And I didn’t until earlier this year when I was given a lifetime achievement award. It took place at the old Ryman Auditorium. I got to go on with the kind of band that I wanted, and I did rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. So I did go back but I had it my way when I did.

Were you singing in your seductive, growling voice at all before you started singing rock ‘n’ roll?
No, actually it took the right song to bring that out. I didn’t know I could do it. (laughs) But I just felt it that way and that’s the way I sang it. I don’t know where it came from but it took rock ‘n’ roll for me to find that I could do it.

What’s the story behind you recording with Jack White?
Well, he was interested in recording me, giving me kind of a fresh sound. Of course, it was all cover songs but they were hand-picked by Jack. And it makes for a really exciting album. I’ve had so much publicity around it. At this age, having an album in the Top 20 or Top 50 or something, it’s pretty exciting for me.

You’ve got a birthday coming up on October 20. What’s it like being on the road at age 73?
Oh yeah, you would have to remind me. It’s coming ’round again (laughs). Touring is all I’m used to, I never have quit. I may have not been in the spotlight all those years or on the charts but I’ve never quit touring. It’s been 57 years that I’ve toured, so it’s my way of life and it’s all I know. &

All Souled Out — The famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closes.

All Souled Out

The famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closes.

March 10, 2005

In the late 1960s, the small northwest Alabama town of Muscle Shoals became a magnet for many top recording stars. Attracted by a phenomenally tight and versatile house band later known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, many black rhythm and blues singers, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and others, flocked to FAME Studios to discover that the studio’s legendary funky sound was created by a quartet of white men—Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett, and Roger Hawkins. “The Muscle Shoals Sound” soon was in such demand that the four musicians decided to start their own studio a few miles down the road in Sheffield, and in 1969 opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in an old casket warehouse. The first sessions at the new facility were for Cher’s album 3614 Jackson Highway, so named because it was the studio’s address. R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria” was the studio’s first hit. Leon Russell dubbed them the Muscle Shoals Swampers on the back of one of his albums, and Lynyrd Skynyrd referenced “the Swampers” in the hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Mick Jagger twists the knobs on the console at Muscle Shoals Sound, where the Rolling Stones recorded three songs for the Sticky Fingers, including “Brown Sugar.” (click for larger version)

The Rolling Stones recorded three songs there (“Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move”) for the album Sticky Fingers while on their 1969 tour. Bands not from the U.S. had to apply for either a touring or a recording visa to be permitted to work in the country. The Stones’ first choice had reportedly been Stax Records studio in Memphis, but since Memphis had a higher profile in the recording industry, the band opted for the relative obscurity of Muscle Shoals. Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player David Hood recalls that the Stones sessions were supposed to be top secret. “We worked during the day, then at night they brought in the Stones. We were supposed to keep it a secret that they were coming because they didn’t have the proper work permits to record in the United States,” says Hood. “They flew from Miami and had chartered an old Super Constellation four-motor prop plane. It was smoking and leaking oil, so half the group wouldn’t get on the plane (in Miami). So they flew in on Southern Airways, so it was kind of hard to keep it a secret.” The recording of “Wild Horses” is documented in the film Gimme Shelter. (In one memorable scene, Keith Richards smiles through rotten teeth as he proudly flashes a Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken souvenir.) The unassuming life of a small Alabama town was a perfect respite for rock stars accustomed to being mobbed by fans. One story has it that the Stones would tell curious waitresses in Muscle Shoals’ diners that they were Martha and the Vandellas. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reportedly wrote “Wild Horses” while lounging in the grass in front of the Executive Inn in Florence (right across the river from Muscle Shoals). Hood remembers the Stones being very business-like. “When people come to a recording studio to work, they’re not doing a lot of showbiz stuff, they gotta work,” he explains. “The way [the Stones] worked up their songs, it was different from us. Whereas we were very quick and would learn a song in 30 or 40 minutes and have it recorded in an hour, they worked all night or sometimes a couple of days on one song. They pretty much knew what they wanted, but they would work a long time to get it because they weren’t polished musicians.”

Pops and Mavis Staples confer during the recording of the Staples Singers hit “I’ll Take You There.” Pops was reportedly disappointed that he didn’t get to play guitar on the session. (click for larger version)

In 1972, Paul Simon showed up in Muscle Shoals looking for the “black musicians” who had backed up Aretha Franklin. “We worked as a rhythm section together so much that we got really tight. We were very fast,” recalls Hood. “Paul Simon rented the studio and booked us for four or five days to cut one song. And we got it on the first or second take. So that’s what led to us recording ‘Kodachrome’ and ‘Love Me Like a Rock’ and other stuff. We had all this extra time.”

The tiny town was once a vital component of the recording industry.

Jimmy Cliff came to Muscle Shoals to record “Sitting Here in Limbo” for The Harder They Come soundtrack. “They sent him here trying to make him sound non-Jamaican,” says Hood. “This was before Bob Marley and the Jamaican thing caught hold, so they were trying to Americanize his sound.” Bob Seger cut “Old Time Rock & Roll” and “Mainstreet” at Muscle Shoals Sound. When Bob Dylan was recording there, he brought in Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler to record Dylan’s gospel masterpiece Slow Train Coming. Hood said the Dylan sessions were the only ones to draw a crowd of people hanging around outside the studio. When asked if Dylan, who had just converted to Christianity at the time of Slow Train Coming, exhibited any signs of having become an evangelical Christian, Hood says, “I think more than anything else that was a way to cut a different kind of record, a different style. Jerry Wexler [Atlantic Records] is the one who brought him here. Jerry’s a very shrewd businessman, and he saw that this was a commercial thing here, Bob Dylan changing the message of his songs. He saw it as an opportunity. I’m afraid I’m taking a little of the glamour out of this stuff.”

Cher poses in front of the original studio location.

By 1978, the business had outgrown its Jackson Highway space and the studio moved into a 31,000-square-foot building. The company was sold to Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1985. Citing a lack of business, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closed its doors in February 2005. As to the secret of the Muscle Shoals sound, Hood has a simple definition: “It was our goal not to sound like ourselves, but to sound like the band of the artist we were working with.” &

Gyrations Galore

Gyrations Galore


Dressed to Kill: Elvis impersonator David Lee. The 4th Annual Elvis in Dixieland competition will take place at the BJCC on Saturday, June 19.

Ladies, it’s that time of year again, when plunging necklines on rhinestone-studded jumpsuits reveal hairy chests glistening with sweat as grown men imitate the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. On June 19, at 2 p.m., popular Elvis impersonator David Lee stages his Fourth Annual Elvis in Dixieland competition in Ballroom A at the BJCC. Past contestants in the impersonator showdown have presented every phase imaginable in the King’s celebrated career: the dashing 1950s Elvis with hips too hot for “The Ed Sullivan Show;” the Las Vegas Elvis (including a couple of guys who look as though they might have eaten too many fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches in preparation for their roles); and one inventive fellow who recreated Presley’s character in the film G.I. Blues.

This year’s festivities include special guest Edie Hand, Elvis’s cousin and a former actress on the soap opera “As the World Turns.” And if that’s not excitement enough, there will be children impersonating Elvis in two categories, one for contestants younger than five, and another for older kids. Imagine, a three-year-old sporting phony sideburns and singing “In the Ghetto.” Proceeds from the competition benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. For more information, call 205-266-3030 or visit

The Set List — Hank Williams, Jr., .R.E.M., and others.


The Set List

Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank Williams, Jr.
Though he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at age 11, performing his late father’s tunes, Hank Williams, Jr., later chose to rebel against the expectations heaped upon him as the son of the greatest country music singer of all time by cranking up the electric guitars and extolling the virtues of smoking pot while sipping Jim Beam. Never mind that his dad had been shooting up morphine long before Hank, Jr., puffed his first joint. Maybe the real reason he chose to rebel was that his father nicknamed him Bocephus, after a dummy used by a Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist. Regardless, Hank, Sr.’s devout legions didn’t quite know what to make of Junior’s version of a hillbilly, but his undying allegiance to the Confederate flag had them in his corner in no time. Originally viewed as an embarrassment by hardcore country fans, Williams Jr.’s, crass songs were merely caricatures of the plaintive, stark beauty of country music. For the past decade, however, he’s been more or less a saving grace in a world where Shania Twain and Tim McGraw are revered more than Loretta Lynn and George Jones, though he’ll never live down those jingles that promote “Monday Night Football.” (Saturday, September 13, at Oak Mountain Amphitheater, 7:20 p.m.; $10-$39.75. R.S.) —Ed Reynolds

Jay Farrar
It’s been hard times for those who prefer Son Volt to the suddenly-sanctified Wilco. Jay Farrar didn’t even rate a mention in the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (despite his long history with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo), and then Farrar’s first post-Son Volt project got swamped in the wake of Wilco’s lousy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Fortunately, this bought Farrar the time to record ThirdShiftGrottoSlack, an EP on which he finally ditched Americana and started exploring his avant leanings. Now, all of his visions have come together with Terroir Blues, a 23-track collection of gorgeous, quiet compositions augmented by noisy interludes and assorted reprises. Neil Young couldn’t have come up with a better mix of ambitious indulgence and genuine talent. The critics, naturally, aren’t pleased. Farrar probably couldn’t be happier. (Wednesday, September 17, at WorkPlay, 10 p.m. $20.) —J.R. Taylor

Hayseed Dixie/The Kerosene Brothers
Or Bill Dana opening for Jose Jimenez. Hayseed Dixie has been more successful than they could have hoped by playing bluegrass covers of AC/DC and Kiss. Now it’s time for the Kerosene Brothers to tour on Hayseed’s coattails—and those are mighty short coattails since The Kerosene Brothers are Hayseed Dixie in their purest form, before an indulgent side-project kinda took over their careers. Choose Your Own Title shows the Kerosene Brothers bringing that Hayseed energy to their own fun originals, with no hint of any deep insight having been buried by their successful alter-egos. It’s simply one good joke after another, and it’s not their fault if the joke has become more believable than most acts’ sincerity. (Wednesday, September 24, at The Nick.) —J.R.T.

They should be calling it the “Sorry About the ’90s” Tour since Michael Stipe can no longer tell the executives at his record label that questions about sales performance are “mean-spirited.” There have even been rumors of advance money being handed back, although that remains unconfirmed.


Let’s concede that some people out there are looking forward to buying R.E.M.’s recent best-of compilation, even after hearing the crappy new single. Meanwhile, the vast majority of fans haven’t really cared about anything R.E.M. has recorded since 1992. The fans haven’t missed a thing, either. Pete Buck still drinks and plays too much, Mike Mills remains the only talented member, and none of them know how to produce a rock album. The Michael Stipe co-produced American Movie, however, was a pretty cool film.

Sparklehorse, incidentally, is an R.E.M. tribute band, in that leader Mark Linkous’ rote sound collages—occasionally containing a good melody—are a tribute to how so many lame art-rockers have been able to limp along thanks to R.E.M.’s support over the years. Thankfully, that’s pretty much over, too. (Wednesday, September 24, at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, 7:30 p.m. $15-$60 R.S.) —J.R.T.

The Polyphonic Spree/Starlight Mints/Corn Mo
Redefining both cult-rock and the cult of Mitch Miller, Tim Delaughter’s (former singer for Tripping Daisy) traveling band of white-robed glee clubbers sounds like an honest big deal on Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree. They also do a fine job of burying the lame Sunshine Pop scene that came skipping out of the 1960s. Unlike their hippie forebears, this 24-piece ensemble plays off orchestral arrangements and fun synth touches to create truly entertaining pop masterpieces.


Corn Mo

There’s also the occasional artistic misfire. But the only real problem is that nobody seems to remember how to actually produce a record by a big choral group nowadays. You have to see the band live to appreciate some of the delicate touches that are wiped away in the album’s traditionalist rock mix.

Starlight Mints are a proudly trippy act in their own right, getting past their dull power-pop roots and now indulging in a lot of privileged quirkiness on Built for Squares. And it’s left to Corn Mo to represent the Great Spirit in his role as the Heavy Metal/Prog-Rockin’ God of the Accordion. (See feature, this issue.) (Thursday, September 25, at WorkPlay, 8 p.m. $15) —J.R.T.

Caitlin Cary/Mimi Holland
College begins, and this former Whiskeytown girl stays on the road, and that’s pretty good news for fans of both country-pop and spoken word. There’s simply no live act that better captures the simple charm of a witty Southern gal—except maybe Rufus Wainwright. And the band plays up the jangle-pop subtext that makes I’m Staying Out such an impressive recovery from Cary’s lousy debut album. (Cary only, Friday, September 12, at Laser’s Edge CDs, 5:30 p.m. Free admission; Cary and Holland, Friday, September 12, at WorkPlay, 9 p.m. $15.) —J.R.T.

Blue Rodeo
Remember how stupid those Brits looked battling it out between Oasis and Blur? Canadians were reduced to taking sides between Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip—two interesting, brooding bands that each took their time compiling an album’s worth of decent live material. Blue Rodeo gets some bonus points for being a lot more Canadian, though, slowly compiling an epic farmland rock opera. In the process, they managed a few masterpieces and a lot of pleasant minor tunes. They’re still a big deal back home, but it’s always enjoyable to see Blue Rodeo working small clubs and pulling out greatest hits for an audience that’s never heard of them. (Friday, September 12, at The Nick.) —J.R.T.

Leon Redbone
It’s funny how quickly Leon Redbone has been forgotten in the midst of the continual O’ Brother mania, despite his having a long-standing set list that could’ve passed for a rough version of the film’s soundtrack. He’s certainly contributed to his own low profile, too. A night at the local public library seems like a step up from touring kiddie shows, but at least it’s one less tax dollar being spent on a professional storyteller. And though his Panama Jack routine was thoroughly tired by the ’80s, he’s spent his old age priming himself as a blues guitar god capable of replicating lost artists. Redbone’s death will be like losing Tiny Tim, taking a good section of the Great American Songbook with him. (Friday and Saturday, September 12 and 13, at the Hoover Public Library, 8 p.m. $15.) —J.R.T. &

To Hell with the Grand Ole Opry

To Hell with the Grand Ole Opry

A visit to a Montgomery memorial for Hank Williams, Sr., yields an encounter with the guitarist who backed Williams in the 1940s.


“Well, Hank, we hope you’re gonna be around with us for a long, long time,” quipped singer Red Foley as he introduced Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. “Well, it looks like I’ll be doing just that, Red,” replied the singer with weary confidence. Three years later the Opry grew tired of Williams’ unpredictable no-shows and drunken performances, so they fired him. Within a year his lifeless, 29-year-old, morphine-addicted body was discovered in the backseat of his baby blue Cadillac by Charles Carr, who was driving Williams to a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio.

Fifty years after Williams’ death, Carr stands beside the singer’s big, gaudy tombstone in a Montgomery, Alabama, cemetery on a cold, windy New Year’s Day. The former chauffeur autographs miniature replicas of the Cadillac, lending an eerie touch of the commercial as a hundred fans gather to commemorate the anniversary of Williams’ passing. Carr recalls that fateful trip, his first driving Williams out of state to a show. “I was home for Christmas holidays. My dad and Hank’s dad were friends-that’s how I got the job. I can’t tell you much about Hank’s life, but I’m an expert on his death ’cause I was the only person there.” He dismisses rumors that Williams died of a drug overdose: “Falstaff and a half-pint of liquor were the only things involved.” Next to Williams’ grave stands the equally ostentatious tomb of first wife Audrey. Red roses adorn Hank’s grave, yellow grace Audrey’s. Between the two lies a small marble slab erected by Williams, Jr., after recent vandalism of the family plot. It reads: Please do not desecrate this sacred site.

A couple of miles from the cemetery the gathering reconvenes at the Hank Williams Museum, a morbid shrine that features Williams’ legendary Cadillac and the clothes he was wearing when he died. The automobile is on loan from Hank Williams, Jr., who drove it around Nashville during his high school years (Dolly Parton reportedly offered Williams, Jr., $100,000 a year to exhibit the automobile in Dollywood, but he lets the museum display it at no charge.) Country Music Television’s new documentary about Williams, portraying him as a drunkard and a junkie, is screened at the museum. Those close to Williams are not pleased with the film. Jimmy Porter, Hank’s original pedal-steel guitarist, registers his disgust. “Why do they have to paint the dark side? Is that where the money is? I never saw Hank ever take a drink.”

Two nights later, one-time Opry star Stonewall Jackson (a direct descendent of the Confederate general) plays the Guest House Hotel in Montgomery to conclude three days of Williams tributes. Only 30 or so fans bother to attend. Jackson spends more time talking than singing as he recalls starting at the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 “when I was too broke to pay attention.” The beefy singer has seen his Opry appearances dwindle to very few, and he doesn’t hesitate to voice displeasure. “If I owned the Opry, I’d start firing people,” he mumbles. He reflects on Williams’ influence in his life. “If it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be in south Georgia somewhere, pickin’ cotton. Hank was more of a poet to me than anything else.” Backing up Jackson is Williams’ main pedal-steel guitarist, Don Helms (1943 to 1953). At one point, Jackson turns to Helms and says, “I wish we had some of those pills with a smiley face on it. I think George Morgan [the Opry star who had a hit with 'Candy Kisses' and father of current Opry member Lorrie Morgan] always had some of those.”

Don Helms’ regular gig for the past decade has been playing pedal-steel guitar for Williams’ long-lost daughter Jett, who had to fight Hank Williams, Jr., for her share of the Williams’ fortune after discovering who her father was in the early 1990s. Helms was asked to play the Opry with Jett on the same Friday night he usually works with Stonewall Jackson. He skipped the Opry to be part of Williams’ 50th anniversary tribute in Montgomery. The 75-year-old Helms sits down on a plush couch in the Guest House lobby late that evening after his set with Jackson to reflect on his decade working with the greatest country music performer of all time.

B&W: So are you going to be in trouble for not playing with Jett tonight at the Grand Ole Opry?

Don Helms: I didn’t know she was going to play until the past week. When I worked with Jett last, which was a couple of weeks ago, we said good-byes and we were off till February. So I told Cecil (Jackson, head of the Hank Williams Museum) I’d come down here. I said, “I’ve celebrated the observance of Hank Williams’ funeral for 49 years in some other city. I’ve always been somewhere else. And this is the 50th anniversary, and I want to come to Montgomery.” I said I’d pay my own expenses and I’d come down there and if you’ve got anything you would like for me to do or be a part of, you have it lined up when I get there.

B&W: Jett does a lot of her dad’s music, doesn’t she?

Helms: Yeah, but she won’t sing “Cold Cold Heart” ’cause that was Hank’s favorite. She, being a woman, I have to play every one of Hank’s songs in a different key than he did-(Suddenly Stonewall Jackson walks by on his way to his hotel room.) Stonewall, I enjoyed it, brother. It was good to see you again. (Helms turns to me and grins.) I always used to call him “Gallstone.”

B&W: I wanted to ask you about a song Hank did called “No, No Joe.”

Helms: He didn’t record that in Nashville, and I didn’t record it with him. But what the song was about was Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader. I don’t even remember what the problem was, but it was some kind of political thing he was trying to do. He was trying to shaft the United States and this song was written about that. I’ve never played it far as I know, ’cause it’s not something he featured on stage. And, too, when the political problem was over, it was out of touch anyway. All those situations. Once the problem’s solved, you ain’t got no need to play it (laughs).”

B&W: Was Hank political at all?

Helms: No, I mean, like we all gripe about elections, and if your man don’t win, you bitch . . . I mean gripe (laughing). . . . An entertainer is a fool to declare in public his preference in religion or his politics. Because the first thing you do, whether you mean to or not, is divide your audience right down the middle, at best.

B&W: Was the Opry a fun place to play in the old days?

Helms: Well, there was always some kind of bull goin’ on, some guy tellin’ jokes, playin’ tricks. It was just a fun place to be. . . . It was a happy place to be. It’s not quite like that anymore. It’s a little more subdued. The camaraderie’s shot to hell. I don’t think anybody has any fun at the Grand Ole Opry anymore. Maybe the audience does. And I don’t work there anymore, so I can say what I please.

B&W: When I watch old Opry clips, I’m always drawn to the interaction between Hank and June Carter. Anything special about their duets that you recall?

Helms: June Carter was that way with everybody. She was just a vibrant, silly little girl that everybody loved. She wasn’t necessarily that way in person, but on the stage she would come across as the lovable little girl with pigtails that could kick her shoes off and make you laugh. There was a certain magnetism . . . Hank was much more attracted to Anita Carter than he was June. So was I. . . . We worked a lot of tours with the Carter Family when they first came to the Opry.

B&W: What did Hank think about people like Tony Bennett making pop versions of his songs?

Helms: He thought that was the greatest thing in the world, for anybody to do his songs. He aspired to be a writer, not a singer. Even up to his death, he would rather listen to somebody else’s record of his song than he would his own record. He aspired to be a writer . . . and I think he made it. &

George Jones

George Jones


Having relinquished his reputation for being too drunk to appear on stage, George Jones had gotten as predictable as April rain over the past 20 years. However, Jones’ performance at Oak Mountain May 25 was anything but predictable. Though still relegating his best hits to medley-status, the 70-year-old singer abandoned his uptight sing-and-get-the-hell-off-the-stage philosophy for a more relaxed approach, as though he were entertaining at a backyard barbecue. Stylishly attired in white boots and a western-stitched powder blue suit, Jones bears a striking resemblance to the late Charlie Rich. His silver hair remains considerably long, meticulously brushed into place, as if manicured rather than sprayed.

In the past, Jones’ voice has been as precise as Pavarotti’s. The classic nasal whine and resonating bottom tones are strong as ever, but on this night, Jones struggled with high notes, often singing flat through entire phrases. Instead of detracting, the loss of vocal control added an intriguing accessible element that complemented the singer’s admittedly simple approach to performing: “We don’t need anybody flyin’ around on a rope. We’re just a plain, ol’ country music show.”

A plain, ol’ country music show, indeed. Before Jones came on stage, a video screen behind the band’s instruments hawked a recent George Jones recording, urging fans to simply raise their hands and the latest CD would be delivered to their seats for 10 bucks. During the show Jones bantered with the crowd, bemoaning the current state of country music, “Ya’ll notice that they don’t write songs about drinkin’ and cheatin’ any more?” he asked at one point. The crowd vocally shared his dismay. Moments later, a young, obviously intoxicated fan leaped onto the stage to hug Jones and tell the singer how much he loved him. Jones replied, “Well. I love you, too, son.” As security personnel dragged the besotted fellow from the stage, Jones asked them to take it easy on the kid. “He’s a good boy. I remember those days,” he laughed.

Proudly admitting that he was drinking “spring water, though I don’t know how much spring it has in it,” Jones acknowledged several birthdays in the audience. With surreal abandon, he sang “Happy Birthday” to a couple of people instead of squeezing all the names into one version. An American flag was brought out toward the show’s conclusion, as Jones introduced a husband and wife duo that had opened the concert. “They’re gonna sing ‘God Bless the USA’ by Lee Greenwood or Ray Stevens or whatever his name is,” Jones said flippantly. “I get ‘em mixed up. All I know is, one’s funny and the other one isn’t.”