Most of us have idols in our line of work. You know, those people who influenced us so much we just wouldn’t be who we are without them. For the majority of folks, getting just a minute to meet our idols would be life-changing. In one of the most endearing relationships in country music, Alan Jackson not only got to meet his idol George Jones — he became one of the Possum’s closest friends.
Though Jones and Jackson came from two different eras, they were clearly cut from the same cloth. Though they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, equals.
When Alan Jackson landed a record deal in 1989, George Jones already had well over 50 album releases and 10 No. 1 singles. In other words, Jones was already a legend. Jackson, on the other hand, was a mailroom helper at the now-defunct The Nashville Network.
At that time, Jackson surely would never imagine he’d be singing an emotional rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at Jones’ 2013 funeral at the Grand Ole Opry.
Few people realize it, but Alan Jackson kinda-sorta got his start on a singing show, too. In 1986, then 27-year-old Jackson moved to Nashville with his wife. He took up a job working in the mail room for TNN, a TV station that actually had some pretty big clout at the time.
One day, Jackson — who simply went by “Al” at the time — found himself at a taping of You Can Be A Star, the singing competition show that helped launch Trisha Yearwood’s career. The fresh-faced singer got the opportunity to sing the show into commercial break, and wouldn’t you know it, he used what could’ve been his only shot to sing George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Jackson once told Wide Open Country “He Stopped Loving Her Today” may have had the biggest impact on his young career of all the songs out there. It’s “as near a perfect country song as you could ever imagine,” Jackson says.
The chance performance did actually help Alan Jackson meet some important folks in Music City. Jackson eventually signed to Glen Campbell’s publishing company and met Keith Stegall, who was a judge on the show at the time.
As serious Jackson fans know, Stegall went on to produce nearly every Alan Jackson record, including his 1990 debut Here In The Real World. And, in no coincidence, Stegall eventually went on to produce records for George Jones as well.
In 1990, right around the release of Here In The Real World, Alan Jackson scored a chance encounter with George Jones. At the time, Jackson had a lot of promise and a few budding hit songs. But Jackson also grew up idolizing Jones, so of course he had a bit of a fanboy moment.
Jackson had Jones sign a picture for him, and on it, Jones wrote, “Keep it country, George Jones.” In a lot of ways, that served as Jackson’s motto for the rest of his career. In fact, Jackson dubbed his 25th anniversary tour the “Keeping It Country” tour in honor of Jones’ classic signature.
Jackson first paid tribute in song to Jones with the 1991 single “Don’t Rock The Jukebox.” The song became one of his biggest hits, in part because of the message. In it, he implores fellow bar patrons to play country music on the jukebox to help ease his heartache. “I want to hear some Jones,” he sings.
As Jackson’s career skyrocketed in the early 1990s, George Jones’ slowly faded. But Jackson did everything he could to shine a light on his traditional country heroes. That included his rebellious Hank Williams cutoff attire at 1994’s ACM Awards, where he had his drummer “play” with no sticks as a protest for being asked to sing to recorded tracks instead of perform live.
That same year, Jackson joined Jones on his album Bradley Barn Sessions. The pair sang “Good Year For The Roses,” but despite Jackson’s status as one of country’s hottest stars, the tune didn’t do well on radio. In his 1996 autobiography I Lived To Tell It All, Jones said “Alan was white-hot on the radio, and programmers wanted his voice. But some didn’t want his if they had to take mine. The vast majority of Alan’s other single records have gone to number one. His duet with me was his first not to crack the top 50.”
Then, in 1999, Jones finally had another hit on his hands. His song “Choices” (produced by Keith Stegall) cracked the top 30 for the first time since 1993 and scored a CMA nomination for Single of the Year.
So, the Country Music Association asked Jones to perform the tune during the telecast — but due to time constraints, only a verse and a chorus. Jones refused to do an abridged version of a song that had such a personal connection, and stayed home from the awards altogether in protest.
Now his buddy of nine years, Alan Jackson refused to let that slide. So he made the choice to honor Jones instead. During his performance of “Pop A Top” on the show, he abruptly stopped his performance and sang a few lines of “Choices” to a rousing standing ovation. Clearly still peeved at the CMAs, Jackson took his guitar off and abruptly left the stage.
The next day, Jackson sat down to explain the decision on TNN’s Prime Time Country. “I felt strongly about it,” Jackson says. “I’ve been on award shows for 10 years and they’ve been real good to me. I’ve had to fight to try to do my whole song. And they ask most artists at one time or another to reduce to your song and it’s not unusual, and people say, ‘Well everybody has to do that.’ But George Jones isn’t everybody.”
Jones actually called in to the show to thank Jackson personally for the performance. “You made this old boy feel awful proud last night,” Jones said. “That was really something else.”
A few months later, George Jones’ “Choices” won the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. And then in 2000, Jackson and George Strait released “Murder On Music Row,” a song using an actual murder that took place on music row as a metaphor for how traditional artists such as George Jones would never make it in the current music industry.
Despite country music trends moving away from his traditional sound, The Possum continued to tour relentlessly for the next 14 years to adoring fans. And Jackson, well, he kept his sturdy ascent to the top of the genre on track.
When George Jones announced his final show ever for November 2013, he just had to have Jackson be a part of it. So, he sent him a letter on his letterhead (which is amazing, by the way) requesting Jackson play a song or two with Jones.
“I might be 81 years old, but I am not in the grave yet!” the wry Jones says. “You have been a true friend and I love you for that. All these years of you and Denise spending time with Nancy and I is so much appreciated.”
The touching letter really shows the depths of his appreciation for Jackson. “Thanks for always being there for me,” Jones says. Then, he signs off with the same signature that inspired Jackson so many years ago. “Keep it country, George Jones.”
That kind of vulnerability and honesty from somebody who most consider the greatest country singer ever just goes to show how close the two really were. And of course, Jackson framing the letter is the perfect touch.
Sadly, George Jones never made it to his final show. The country legend passed away on April 26, 2013. Jackson did have several opportunities to honor Jones, like at his funeral and at the CMA Awards later that year. At the memorial service, he sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with George Strait.
The amazing relationship shared between Alan Jackson and George Jones will go down as one of country’s most endearing friendships.