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A Conversation With Country Superstar George Jones

The country singer, known for "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and many other hits, died Friday at age 81. Fresh Air remembers Jones with excerpts from a 1996 conversation with Terry Gross about his autobiography, his addictions and his perspective on his celebrated but troubled marriage to Tammy Wynette.


Other segments from the episode on April 26, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 26, 2013: Interview with Barbra Streisand; Obituary for George Jones; Commentary on the word "horrific."


April 26, 2013

Guests: Barbra Streisand - George Jones

Guest: TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, Barbra Streisand received the 40th annual Chaplin Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was presented to her by Bill Clinton. Today we feature our interview with Streisand. I wish I could sing my introduction the way Judy Garland did when Streisand was a guest on Garland's show in 1963.


JUDY GARLAND: We have a very exciting show planned for you tonight. We've got marvelous people.

(Singing) We've got Barbra Streisand. I think she's nice, and she has such poise, and she's got such elegance. It's a joy to have her on my show.

GROSS: Before Streisand talks about her long career, including that appearance with Judy Garland, let's get in a Streisand mood with an excerpt of her wonderful 2009 concert at the Village Vanguard. This is "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most."


BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) Spring is here. There's no mistaking robins building nests from coast to coast. My heart tries to sing so they won't hear it breaking. Spring can really hang you up the most. Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers. And to them I'd like to drink a toast. I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours. Spring can really hang you up the most.

(Singing) Love came my way...

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand, recorded at the Village Vanguard in 2009. We went deeper into the past when I spoke with her last December. Barbra Streisand, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you on our show.

STREISAND: Thank you.

GROSS: You have an album that came out recently called "Release Me." And I want to play a track from that. This is an album of previously unreleased tracks.


GROSS: And the first thing I'm wondering is, like, did you have to be convinced to do this, to bring out previously unreleased tracks?

STREISAND: No, no, no, no, it was my idea because, you know, I've had these things for a long time, a collection of these unreleased songs. And these were songs that I did, basically in, you know, very few takes, a lot of them one take because we ran out of time at the end of a session, and we used to do four songs a session, three days. I completed my album in basically three days.

We didn't do that many takes. We didn't have any way to fix things. And they were - there were flaws in some of these things. So I thought let's put this out. Let's put it out, and it's OK to expose, you know, whatever flaws I might have thought were there. I kind of enjoy things now that I don't think are perfect.

GROSS: Yeah, I've always liked things that aren't perfect, things that are more off-the-cuff. There's a track I want to play that I think is just a really interesting document, in addition to being a beautiful recording.

STREISAND: What is it?

GROSS: It's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" with Randy Newman at the piano, recorded in 1970. What's the story behind this session?

STREISAND: Right, right. I like that song. I remember coming up to my apartment and playing the piano, and we just did it sort of in, you know, I think one or two takes. And I like the simplicity of it. I like it a lot. So here it is, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, so here it is, and this is from Barbra Streisand's latest album, which is called "Release Me."


STREISAND: (Singing) Broken windows and empty hallways, a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray. Human kindness is o'erflowing, and I think it's going to rain today. Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles with frozen smiles to chase love away. Human kindness is o'erflowing. And I think it's going to rain today.

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand, recorded in 1970 with the songwriter of that song, Randy Newman, at the piano. And that's on her latest album "Release Me," which is an album of previously unreleased recordings. Barbra Streisand, your mother sang. Did she want to be a professional singer?

STREISAND: She did, but she said she was very shy. So she couldn't quite understand how I had the courage to stand out there and sing. She would sing at Bar Mitzvahs. My mother had a beautiful voice. My mother took me to Nola Studios because she wanted to record two songs, and so she had me record two songs when I was 13. And she was kind of a lyric soprano.

GROSS: Did your mother sing a lot around the house when you were growing up?

STREISAND: Yeah. My sister and I used to laugh, and I used to record her. I think when I was 18 I got a tape recorder, and I would record my mother. Some of it is on my "Just for the Record" collection.

GROSS: Which I happen to have right here.

STREISAND: Will you hear my mother?

GROSS: Yeah, that's what we're about to play.



GROSS: And this is - honestly, for any, like, serious Barbra Streisand fan, this has, like, so many interesting, like, demos and TV broadcasts. And it's filled with interesting documents.

STREISAND: Yeah, I said "Just For the Record" because it's - most of these collections, these box sets, aren't they just recordings that we've heard before. But this was really just for the record. So my mother happened to sing "Secondhand Rose" in the same key as I did. I put them together, or me singing with Michel Legrand at a piano before I recorded "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" I'm very proud of that box set.

GROSS: Oh, it's wonderful. So what I want to play is your mother singing "Secondhand Rose," recorded in 1965.

STREISAND: Oh, cute.

GROSS: Yeah.


STREISAND: Where's mother. Mother, mother? Come sing a song for us, mother.

DIANA ROSEN: (Singing) Father has a business, strictly secondhand, everything from toothpaste to a baby grand. Stuff in our apartment came from father's store. Even things I'm wearing, someone wore before. It's no wonder that I feel abused. I never have a thing that ain't been used.

STREISAND: (Singing) I'm wearing secondhand shoes, secondhand hose. All the girls hand me their secondhand bows. Even my pajamas, when I don them...

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand cross-faded with a recording of Streisand's mother singing "Secondhand Rose" in 1955. That mix is on the Streisand box set "Just For the Record." So was your mother jealous of you or competitive with you when you started to have, you know, a career?

It's interesting you should ask that. I didn't realize it until one Christmas night when people were giving me presents, and she kind of went off a bit and started getting very emotional about why aren't you giving me presents, I'm her mother, I'm the mother, that kind of thing. It was the first time I realized that she was actually jealous of me. And that was hard to take, I must say.

I know you're trying to do a movie adaptation of "Gypsy." Does that feeling that she was jealous have anything to do with you wanting to do this classic musical about a stage mother who becomes jealous of her daughter's stardom?

STREISAND: Yeah, I think that's true. I can totally identify. But I have to play the other part, right. I have to play the mother.

GROSS: Right, right.

STREISAND: But I - it's almost like, you know, channeling my mother, yeah.

GROSS: You tell a story in the liner notes for the recording that we just heard from when you were 13 about how back in those days, you wanted to buy sheet music, but you and your mother didn't really have any money. So you convinced your mother to pretend that she was Vaughn Monroe's secretary and pick up sheet music.


STREISAND: That's right.

GROSS: And I thought: That really is chutzpah. And was your mother game to do that? And why, of all the singers in the world, why Vaughn Monroe?

STREISAND: You know, he was famous at the time.

GROSS: Well sure, but so were a lot of other singers.

STREISAND: I didn't know them. But I thought gee, I don't know if somebody told me, or how did I figure that if you called, since they want you to record their songs, the publishers would send you free sheet music. But it worked.

GROSS: Oh I get it, I get it. Oh, that's really funny. And so what songs did you order? Do you remember?

STREISAND: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I just found the letters that I wrote my mother when I was 17, 18, my first job away from New York City after the Bon Soir. So I was 18 years old, and I was giving her a list of songs to get the sheet music to, some - you know, Harold Arlen, I loved Harold Arlen. I discovered him when I was about 17.

GROSS: Don't tell me when you were already performing at clubs, your mother had to pretend she was Vaughn Monroe's representative?

STREISAND: I think so.

GROSS: Really? Oh boy.


STREISAND: I think so.

GROSS: So we heard a very early recording by your mother. I want to play a very early recording of you. This is something you did at age 13 in 1955, that's...

STREISAND: That's the same day. Yeah.

GROSS: The same day? OK.

STREISAND: As my - well, as my mother recorded her two songs. Yeah.

GROSS: So this is also from the Barbra Streisand box set from a few years back called "Just for the Record." And let's hear it, and then we'll talk about it.


STREISAND: (Singing) You'll never know just how much I miss you. You'll never know just how much I care. And if I tried I still couldn't hide my love for you. You ought to know for haven't I told you so, a million or more times?

(Singing) You went away, and my heart went with you.

GROSS: It's so interesting to hear you before you were really formed as a singer, before you're, you know, an adult. When I know it's you, I can recognize that it's you. If you just played it for me, I'm not sure - if you give me a blindfold test, I'm not sure I'd recognize you. But so many of the characteristics that you're kind of famous for as an interpreter aren't quite there yet. What were you expecting to be when you were 13, and you were singing?

STREISAND: Well, I was known on the block, you know, when I was a child, as the kid with no father and a good voice.


STREISAND: That was my identity, you know. But...

GROSS: A negative and a positive. What were your aspirations then?

STREISAND: Probably to be just famous, I think.

GROSS: It's funny, because once you became famous, I think you receded from - I mean...


GROSS: You know, you, like, you don't make many movies. You don't get many concerts. You don't seem to really like the limelight that much anymore. My guest is Barbra Streisand. We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Barbra Streisand. When you were young, you went to a yeshiva for girls. A yeshiva is a Jewish school...

STREISAND: It was a yeshiva for boys and girls.

GROSS: For boys and girls.


GROSS: OK. So how did what you studied compare to what students in public schools got? Did you get a lot of Jewish education in the yeshiva?

STREISAND: Half the day was Hebrew; half the day was English. So we learned how to read Hebrew. Of course, they didn't teach you how - what it meant. That was odd, you know, to not understand. You could read it, but you didn't understand what we were saying.

GROSS: So did going to yeshiva influenced you wanting to make the film "Yentl," which is about a girl whose father is a rabbi and the girl really wants to - this is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. The girl really wants to study Torah, but you have to be - this is set in Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.

STREISAND: Turn-of-the-century. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And the only way you could study Torah then was to be a boy.


GROSS: And so when her father, the rabbi, dies, she doesn't want to be on the wife-homemaker track...

STREISAND: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: So she dresses as a boy and goes to a yeshiva, where she hopes she will never be exposed as a boy. So did going...

STREISAND: And falls in love with a boy...

GROSS: And falls in love with a boy.

STREISAND: ...who thinks she's a boy.


GROSS: Yeah. So did going to yeshiva yourself influence you wanting to make that story into a movie?

STREISAND: No, it's - the parallel was me wanting to direct a movie, and people saying, but she's an actress. How is she going to direct the movie and be in it, and so forth? That's the parallel. So you have to - I had to put on a man's gear to be accepted.

It's like to be accepted in a man's role as a, you know, that handles finances, as well as just the, as just, you know, acting. You know, it's kind of a man's role to handle money, produce something, actually. It was just so paralleled in a way that it was - it worked for me.

GROSS: I want to play a clip from "Yentl." This is the scene in which you've entered the yeshiva. Mandy Patinkin plays another yeshiva student who thinks you really shy, so he's kind of taken you under his wing. And the yeshiva students, the boys, are all like stripped naked and swimming in the lake.

And you're sitting with the book over your eyes because you don't want to see them naked. And they're all saying hey, take off your clothes and come on in, you know. And in this scene - so Mandy Patinkin is saying, come on in. And he's just gotten out of the water, and he standing next to you, stark naked. And you're just, like, like horrified.

And so this scene covers, like, him telling you to take off your clothes, come in the water, you being horrified. And then, as he's shaking you and telling you come on, come into the water, you - something switches in you and you realize you're feeling things you never felt before, and that you love him. And that segues into a song that we'll also hear, which is called "The Way He Makes Me Feel." So this is Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin in "Yentl."



MANDY PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Come on, Yentl. I'll teach you.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) No. No, no.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Don't be afraid.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) I don't really want to learn.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Don't be afraid. You're not going to drown. I'll hold you.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) No. I don't like swimming.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Take off your clothes.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) No. Stop it.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) I'll hold you. Take your clothes off.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) No. No.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) You're going to get all wet.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) Please stop it. I don't - no...

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Aw, stop it. Come on. What are you ashamed? You embarrassed?

STREISAND: (as Yentl) I don't want to. I don't want to. Just drop it.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) All right. All right. All right. All right. If you're that scared. I'm not going to force you.

STREISAND: (as Yentl) Next time.

PATINKIN: (as Avigdor) Sure. When you're ready.


STREISAND: (Singing) There's no chill, and yet I shiver. There's no flame, and yet I burn. I'm not sure what I'm afraid of, and yet I'm trembling. There's no storm, yet I hear thunder. And I'm breathless. Why, I wonder? Weak one moment, then the next I'm fine.

(Singing) I feel as if I'm falling every time I close my eyes. And flowing through my body is a river of surprise. Feelings are awakening I hardly recognize as mine.

GROSS: So that was my guest, Barbra Streisand, and Mandy Patinkin in a scene from "Yentl," which Barbra Streisand also wrote and directed.

So one of the things I find really interesting about this movie is the way you wanted to make a musical, but it's not like the characters are getting up and singing songs.


GROSS: It's all, like, these are thoughts that they're thinking that they express - when I say they, I mean you. It's only you who sings.

STREISAND: Because It's her point of view.

GROSS: It's your point of view. So it's singing what's in your mind.

STREISAND: So it's an interior monologue.

GROSS: Exactly. An interior monologue. And so I'd like you to talk a little bit about the kind of musical you envisioned this being and the kind of transitions you wanted to make between dialogue and singing, which I think is always the most difficult part of a movie or a stage musical, but more so a movie musical.

STREISAND: Well, that's why I chose to do a lot of it, you know, in her head, so that transition becomes easy as you're talking about it. She's thinking these things, and only when she's alone, when she's far away from people, can she sing out and be heard, you know, in terms of her own voice.

I think it made it much easier. And believe me, I would've loved to use Mandy singing, but the Bergmans, Michel Legrand and I all agreed that that would've made it more a conventional musical.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Barbra Streisand in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with Barbra Streisand. This part starts with the Broadway musical that made her a star.

You worked with Jule Styne on your second Broadway musical "Funny Girl." Great composer. Did he work with you directly on the songs?

STREISAND: God, I don't remember. I adored Jule. He was very funny, very kind, very supportive. And he had come down to the Bon Soir to hear me and then he brought everybody there to...

GROSS: That was a club in New York.

STREISAND: A club in New York, in the Village. Yeah. I remember at one point questioning the validity of "People Who Need People." I thought isn't it people who don't need people are the luckiest people in the world? But...

GROSS: Good point.


STREISAND: But I loved the song, so.

GROSS: But of course he didn't write the lyrics so he'd be the wrong guy to challenge on that.

STREISAND: Well, you know, I meant Bob Merrill.

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: But Jule was so prolific. Can you imagine that he wrote "Gypsy" too? I did a little bit in my show recently. I put together a Jule medley that goes from "Hallelujah, Baby" to "Gypsy" to "Funny Girl."

GROSS: If you took liberties with the melody in "Funny Girl", in any of the songs, would Jule Styne say anything to you? Or would he appreciate that?

STREISAND: Marty has a funny story about "Wholesale" because I would sing it slightly different and the conductor at that time...

GROSS: This is your first show, "I Can Get it For You Wholesale."

STREISAND: Yeah. "I Can Get it For Your Wholesale." He didn't like that. He would complain to Marty. But...

GROSS: Your agent, manager.

STREISAND: My manager - of 50 years. But when I did "Funny Girl" I had a fantastic conductor, Milton Rosenstock, who I adored. And we loved each other and he loved following me. Just like Bill Ross or Marvin Hamlisch, you know, because they had to be - it's like somebody breathing with you, somebody watching you, seeing how you're phrasing it that night. You know? And that is a great asset to any musical performer.`

GROSS: Well, that's a way - I'm wondering if you think that that might be a way that you changed Broadway. Because I think you probably took more liberties with melodies than Broadway singers typically did or do. And it was a very, you know, for its time a very contemporary style of singing that was maybe also, a little, you know, different for Broadway.

STREISAND: Well, I didn't have a kind of a soprano voice.

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

STREISAND: Yeah. Yeah. I guess it was new. I don't know.

GROSS: And you have a way of reworking melodies and holding certain notes longer than they were written to be held.


GROSS: It's probably stretching...

STREISAND: Carrying it over to another phrase or another sentence, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah. And also just - especially in, like, on the higher notes, I think you tend to hold certain notes and bend certain notes and change certain notes in a way that is distinctively Barbra Streisand.


GROSS: And when people imitate you I think that's one of the things they're picking up on.


GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: I'm not aware of it, really.

GROSS: I was wondering if you were, like, if you had any sense of what...

STREISAND: No. I just get inspired by the music, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STREISAND: Maybe a horn line or something.

GROSS: Right.

STREISAND: But I just play with it, you know. As long as it doesn't interfere with the integrity of the lyric.

GROSS: Right.

STREISAND: And I love to state the melody as written in the beginning. And then play with it, you know.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear - since we're talking about "Funny Girl" - why don't we hear "People" from the original cast recording.


GROSS: And here's my guest, Barbra Streisand.



STREISAND: (Singing) People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. We're children needing other children and yet letting a grownup pride hide all the need inside acting more like children than children. Lovers are very special people...

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand from the original cast recording. So there's a very iconic moment in television history in which you and Judy Garland sing together.


GROSS: This is on the "Judy Garland Show" in 1963 and it's like the end of her career and the very beginning of your career.

STREISAND: An amazing moment. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, I've seen this. Like, public television has shown...

STREISAND: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the "Judy Garland Shows" at various times over the years. And it's just, it's really an incredible moment. And you're singing your famously slowed-down version of "Happy Days Are Here Again" and she's singing "Get Happy," which she did in the 1950 film "Summer Stock." Was she a hero of yours? Did she influence you? I mean, I know you remade "A Star is Born" but...

STREISAND: I didn't know of her in my early years and I wasn't particularly a fan until I walked in to a recording session that she was doing live on some place on 30th Street. And it said Judy Garland and asking people to come in, like an audience. And then she astounded me. It was like oh, my god is this woman great. So I became a big fan.

I was already living in New York, I guess. I was probably 16, 17 years old. And so it was really a thrill to be on her show. And she was wonderful to me and very kind and very sweet and very supportive. And we became friends.

GROSS: Oh, you did?


GROSS: Do you have any memories of that night when you performed together?

STREISAND: Oh, yeah. I can remember it distinctly.

GROSS: Anything you'd like to share?

STREISAND: No, just she was holding my hand and I thought, gee, she seems nervous. At that time, I wasn't nervous. I was still very young, about to do, I think, "Funny Girl." And now, when I think back on it, I think, oh, my God, I know exactly what she's feeling.

Or, you know, the fears. It's like, as you get older and people are, kind of, looking for you to fail more, I think - not people, not the audience - but, I don't know, critics or producers or whatever. And I just felt her. I felt her anxiety.

GROSS: So does that mean, like, you've gotten more nervous?

STREISAND: Well, that's a difficult question. It's like part of me is much more relaxed than I've ever been.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STREISAND: Less frightened, less anxious. On the other hand, it's a, you know, coming-of-age-thing - and she was much younger than I am, but you reach a certain age and you wonder, well, do I give it up? Do I retire? Or do I want to get more in before my time is up? It's kind of a dual thing. One day I think, god, you know, I don't need this pressure or, you know, promotion or whatever.

I could just travel around the world. But then I think I'd get bored and I'd need to create. I need to be creative and time is going so fast. And, you know, I do wonder how I want to spend the rest of my life.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Barbra Streisand, I know you have to leave now. You're on a tight schedule. I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And whatever you decide to do about performing or not performing and onstage or screen, I wish you the best with it.

STREISAND: To be or not to be. That is the question.

GROSS: To be or not to be. Yeah.


STREISAND: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much.


GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles...

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days...

GARLAND: (Singing) ...come on, get happy.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...are here again. The skies...

GARLAND: (Singing) You better chase all your cares away.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...above are clear again.

GARLAND: (Singing) Shout hallelujah.

STREISAND: (Singing) So let's sing a song...

GARLAND: (Singing) Come on, get happy.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...of cheer again.

GARLAND: (Singing) Get ready for the judgment day.

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days are here again.

GARLAND: (Singing) The sun is shining.

STREISAND: (Singing) Together.

GARLAND: (Singing) Come on, get happy.

STREISAND: (Singing) Shout it now.

GARLAND: (Singing) The lord...

STREISAND: (Singing) There's no one...

GARLAND: (Singing) waiting to take your hand.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...who can tout it now.

GARLAND: (Singing) Shout hallelujah.

STREISAND: (Singing) So let's tell the world...

GARLAND: (Singing) And just get happy...

STREISAND: (Singing) ...about it now.

GARLAND: (Singing) We're going to...

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days are here again.

GARLAND: (Singing) ...the promised land. We're heading across a river. Soon your cares will all be gone.

STREISAND: (Singing) There'll be no more from now on.


GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles.

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days...

GARLAND: (Singing) And just get happy.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...are here again.

GARLAND: (Singing) You'd better chase...

STREISAND: (Singing) The skies above...

GARLAND: (Singing) ...all your worries away.

STREISAND: (Singing) ...are clear.

GARLAND: (Singing) Shout hallelujah.

STREISAND: (Singing) So let's sing a song.

GARLAND: (Singing) And just get happy.

STREISAND: (Singing) Of cheer again. Happy times...

GARLAND: (Singing) Happy times...

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy nights...

GARLAND: (Singing) Happy nights...

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days are here again.


GROSS: My interview with Barbra Streisand was recorded last December. Our thanks to engineer Carlos Ascencio.

Coming up, an excerpt of my interview with the great country singer George Jones. He died today at age 81.

This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. The great country singer George Jones died today. He was 81. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him.

In Jones's New York Times obituary, John Pareles describes as the definitive country singer of the last half-century. Jones was famous for his hits like "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Race is On" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and for the songs he recorded with Tammy Wynette - to go meet was married from 1969 to '75. For many years he was also famous for his drinking and his erratic behavior.

I spoke with Jones in 1996.

So you were married at age 17, divorced a little less than a year later - I think, went into the Marines for a couple of years. How soon did you start recording when you got out of the Marines in I guess it was 1954.

GEORGE JONES: Right away, in that following February of '54.


JONES: I went into the studio the first time and we didn't do all that good until '56 I think or '55 we lucked up with a tune called "Why Baby Why" and then we moved on to Nashville to a, you know, a larger company that could distribute, you know, the records better.

GROSS: Well, I don't we hear "Why Baby Why" recorded in 1955. One of the things interesting about this is that I think really you're best known for your ballads and this is really up-tempo.

JONES: Well, the first days were rough. You know, the early days we recorded for Starday Records, and really it was a terrible sound. We recorded in a small living room of a house on a highway near Beaumont. You could hear the trucks. We had to stop a lot of times because it wasn't soundproof, it was just eight crates nailed on the wall in the big old semi trucks would go by and make a lot of noise and we'd have to start over again.

GROSS: So George Jones, let's hear your first hit recorded in 1955, "Why Baby Why."


JONES: (Singing) Tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, baby, why you make me cry, baby, cry baby, ah, baby cry. I can't help but love it till the day that I did so tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, baby why. Well, now I've got a crow I want to pick with you just like last time when the feathers flew.

(Singing) You're young and wild and kicking up your heels, leaving me home with a handful of bills. Well, I can't live without you and you know it's true but there's no living with you so what'll I do? I'm going honky-tonking, get as tight as I can, and maybe by then you'll appreciate a good man. Tell me why, baby, why, baby, ah, why, baby, why you make me cry, baby, cry, baby, ah, baby, cry.

GROSS: That's George Jones, his first hit back in 1955. George Jones, how did this record affect your life? How did it change your life?

JONES: Well, it gave me a little more to eat and got me to traveling around, driving my car to places close to east Texas, the big cities. Houston, Dallas, and over into Louisiana. Sometimes Oklahoma. And it was a local hit for me. It was a national hit for Red Sovine and Webb Pierce. Which back at that time, Webb Pierce was about the number one big star that was recording at the time.

GROSS: You went through many years of drinking to excess and then some years of doing cocaine as well. I imagine there was a long period during which when you performed you were often very drunk. How did that affect your performance?

JONES: I thought it made me do a good job but I found out later I didn't sound as good as I thought I did, you know? Nah, but really, to be honest with you, I did drink performing but I didn't usually go to excess with it until after the shows. Usually after the shows is when I stayed up picking in the rooms and stuff like that and partying and ruining my health. And all the other things that came, you know, with it.

GROSS: How did you finally give up drinking?

JONES: Well, first of all, I went in rehab. And I went back during the first couple of years, you know, four or five times just for a couple of days at a time. You know, when these things would come back on you, you'd get your sickness, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JONES: And all of a sudden, one day, you know, it was just over with, you know. And so that's been, I'd say, I'm guessing around 11 years ago.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What's it like to sing drinking songs now? Do they have a different meaning to you?

JONES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It's - life itself is different. You know, I thought I lived in a science fiction movie or something all them bad years but, no, it's - I wake up now, you know, and enjoy the farm, enjoy the horses I got and just have a great time knowing your family and knowing things that you never did know before. You know, and realizing what you got and what you're thankful for.

GROSS: Now, have you ever - always taken your voice for granted? I mean - here's what I mean. It came so naturally to you. You never seemed to have had to work at singing. You just had this gift. And sometimes when people just having something, they don't realize how special it is.

JONES: Well, a lot of times you can't see the forest for the trees. We don't wake up when we ought to sometimes, if you know what I mean, and I never did take it all that serious. The only thing I took serious was I loved to do it and the people liked to hear it. And that's - my happiest times was when I was on stage and they seemed to be enjoying it. That made me enjoy being there.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you think of your voice as a gift? I mean, do you think of it as a gift?

JONES: Oh, naturally.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

JONES: Naturally. It's - I think there's only a few every now and then that come along that are lucky enough to have a little different sound in their voice and the drive and the heart, the soul, whatever you want to call it. It's just a little something different that we're blessed with, you know.

GROSS: George Jones, recorded in 1996. He died today at age 81. You can hear a longer version of our interview on our website


JONES: (Singing) Just because I ask a friend about her, just because I spoke her name somewhere, just because I rang her number by mistake today, she thinks I still care. Just because I haunt the same old places where the memory of her lingers everywhere. Just because I'm not the happy guy I used to be, she thinks I still care.

GROSS: Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg on the words we've used to describe the horrors of the Boston bombing and the West, Texas explosion. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:The recent events in Boston and West, Texas were different in many ways but people used the same language to describe them, particularly the words horrific and surreal. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts on how we talk about horror.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Mass shootings, bus crashes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks - we've gotten adept at talking about these things. Acts of God or acts of man, they're all horrific. At least that was the word you kept hearing from politicians and newscasters describing the Boston bombings and the explosion at the Texas fertilizer plant.

That may not strike you as surprising - the events were horrific, after all. But it's actually a new way of describing things. Horrific is an old word; it turns up in Thackeray and Melville. But until recent times it was rare and literary.

It didn't start to take off until a few decades ago, and it's been on a tear ever since - 10 times as common now as it was in 1970. Words sometimes catch on that way, like a pair of boots you've had in the back of the closet for years until one morning you pull them out and start wearing them every day.

But why now? I wondered if it had to do with the bleaching of horrible. Milton used horrible for the dungeons of hell. Now we use it for bad hair-dos. But horrific doesn't mean the same thing as horrible or horrifying - it's not just a fancy word for scary. The way it's used now, horrific doesn't describe events themselves so much as the reaction they evoke.

Horrific sights transfix and repel us at the same time. I asked a friend what he thought the word meant, and he sent me a link to a photo that appeared last month after the University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome leg fracture during an NCAA game.

It showed three of his teammates at courtside. The one in the middle had his arms around the other two and was gaping at the injury in wide-eyed horror. The one on his right had turned away, his face twisted in anguish. And the one on his left was staring ashenly up into space. Those are the three faces of the horrific: We gawk, we pull back convulsively, we turn away shaken.

But that's an extreme example. Most of the scenes we call horrific aren't immediate; they come to us remotely via TV or the Internet. And they're rarely as gut-wrenching as that one. The media were pretty circumspect about showing the most graphic pictures of the Boston carnage, just as they were after Sept. 11.

Of course there were plenty of websites eager to oblige the aficionados - this is the age, after all, that has enriched the English language with the term gore porn. But most of us found grist enough for our imaginations in the clips of the explosions and the blood-spattered sidewalks, not to mention the frequent intonations of the phrase body parts.

Imagination plays a big part here. The horrific feeds on glimpses and aftermaths: the image of a column of smoke, a bloody sidewalk, a devastated house, repeated incessantly. And like most people, I keep watching, switching from one channel and website to the next in the hope of seeing more. I can't really tell if the repeated images desensitize me or re-sensitize me to violence - probably both, one after the other, every time the pictures go by.

That's how we've learned to take this in. Think of the famously horrific images of the past half-century - the Oswald shooting, Challenger, the twin towers. It goes without saying that everybody has seen them, but is there anybody who has only seen them once?

Horrific belongs to television. The word started to catch on at the moment when the medium realized that audiences would watch raptly as they looped the same unsettling images, and its popularity surged along with cable news. The word appears more on TV news than in newspapers, and far more than in fiction or the movies. Behind horrific is the realization: Oh my God, this really happened.

But there was another word that kept appearing in the stories about Boston and Texas - surreal. That one didn't come from the public figures and commentators the way horrific did. It bubbled up from the firsthand reports of the witnesses on the scene. You could think of the two words as bookends.

The things we see as horrific have an indisputable realness that we alternately confront and shrink away from. Surreal is the word we reach for when reality overwhelms us, until it takes on what Merriam-Webster defines as the irrational reality of a dream. Though in these settings, it's more often another kind of unreality that comes to mind. It was surreal, the ones who saw it kept saying, like a scene in a movie.

As it happens, that's also new way of talking too. Surreal was a bit of arty jargon until it too became popular in the '60s. That initially had a lot to do with the counterculture - the word shows up a lot more frequently in Rolling Stone than on CBS News.

But the particular surreality of disaster scenes had another source. In Susan Sontag's last book, "Regarding the Pain of Others," she noted how often the words surreal and movie were coupled in eyewitness accounts of the 9/11 attacks. And she pointed to the affects of four decades of big-budget disaster films. Who needs the irrational reality of dreams when you have "The Towering Inferno?"

We have different ways of confronting these ghastly events: as horrific or surreal, as spectators gaping at reality or as eyewitnesses dissociating from it. We can experience them as television or as a movie, but always through a screen.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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