I grew up around country music. My father, an amazing fiddle and steel guitar player, loved all of the old greats and was always playing their records, covering their songs, or both. I grew up listening to Merle Haggard, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and the list goes on and on.
So, as a writer, I was excited when I recently got a chance to go to Nashville for a travel story. This was a media tour and the list of stops included the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, the Johnny Cash Museum, the George Jones Museum, and many others.
My father has been gone for more than thirty years, but moving through those hallowed halls of Nashville and hearing the music he loved brought back so many memories and emotions. Nashville is a big city and growing by leaps and bounds. Some 85 new people move there every day and yet, it still has a warm, welcoming, friendly feel to it.
As I mentioned, one of our stops was the George Jones Museum.
It opened about a year and a half ago and nearly everything inside came from the personal collection of George’s wife, Nancy. I had hoped to meet her and was disappointed that she wasn’t there. Someone suggested I check back the next day, but given our busy schedule that seemed impossible.
However, the next day I got some unexpected free time and immediately headed right back down to the George Jones Museum just to see…
Nancy Jones wasn’t there when I arrived, but came in just a few minutes later. When I asked if I could speak with her, she immediately came out of a back office, listened as I told her who I was, then graciously walked me over to a table to sit down and talk. I asked about the museum's extensive collection.
“I started that 32 years ago," she said, "and I used to laugh at George because he’d say, ‘Why do you do that? Nobody cares about that stuff.’” She paused, then went on to say, ”He never realized that he was a legend or an icon, you know? I told him I was going to put it in a museum one day and he’d say, ‘Well, go ahead, nobody’s going to come.’”
Over the years she saved everything she could get her hands on including every item any fan gave or sent to her husband, as well as every gift and card he ever gave to her.
When George Jones was dying she told him she would work to create the museum and continue developing the line of White Lightning Whiskey and Moonshine they’d both been working on at the time.
She created more than a museum, it’s an entertainment center. It includes the museum, a restaurant, a tasting center where visitors can try and buy the whiskey and moonshine, and a rooftop bar.
Nancy, who’s credited with helping George finally stop drinking, said they decided to produce the whiskey and moonshine because as George once said, “Alcohol controlled me all my life, now I’m going to control 'it'".”
His legendary devotion to the bottle is well-documented throughout the museum. In one area, there’s a John Deere tractor that tells the story of how years ago George was so drunk his brother-in-law took away his car keys. George simply went out, got on the tractor, and drove for an hour and a half to get to the liquor store.
There are also photos and stories recounting how he got his “No Show” nickname because of the many shows he missed – thanks to alcohol. As the story goes, it was Nancy who later made him go back and do all those concerts he missed – for free. She’s been working with writers and producers about a story on his life. The title of the movie will be “No Show Jones.”
She's proud of the museum and how it’s all come together. There are displays and exhibits highlighting the history and stories most people already know about George, but she also shares a few things people didn't know about him.
"He played the fiddle, and people didn’t know that. He’d only play it when he was in Louisiana. He played it like Cajun country. He’d always grab the fiddle and play, and then Jimmy C. Newman taught him a little about how to speak Cajun. He'd sing on that stage and they would go absolutely wild. The Cajuns loved George Jones.”
Nancy created the museum so his many fans would have a place to come and celebrate his memory and his music. While I was there, she introduced me to a father and son who had just arrived from Hanover, Germany.
“I started out with country music way back in ’63,” Manfred Ronsch recalled. “And in the mid-60’s I discovered a new voice and it was George Jones. From that day on I collected all of his records.”
He saw Jones in concert three times, His son, Mathias, also became a fan.
“Since I was a little boy, country music is all I’ve ever known,” Mathias explained. “I can remember there was always this steel guitar, and this slow heartbreaking music, especially with George Jones.”
They both agreed that when George sang about life struggles, hard times, and loss, you knew he’d lived it.
“When George sang, I believed him,” said Mathias. “I believed he knew what he’s talking about.
When Jones died in 2013 and they heard there was going to be a final “No Show” concert to honor him, they both flew to Nashville to see it.
In Germany, they explained, it’s difficult to get information or updates on country music or what’s going on in Nashville. They began corresponding with the museum staff about their plans to come and see the museum and possibly meet Nancy. For Manfred, it was very meaningful to meet the woman who helped George give up drinking and turn his life around.
“I’m 69 years old and this is so emotional. I loved that man so much and I love this little lady that helped turn his life in the right direction. (Meeting her) was amazing, amazing, amazing!”
Mathias said they were struck by the many photos and personal items on display throughout the museum.
“In Germany, there are no radio shows or TV shows, no newspapers with pictures about George or about country music. So, this is really special for us just to see personal pictures and personal belongings we’ve never seen before.”
Thanks to Nancy, George Jones won't be forgotten.