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George Jones: A Wild Reputation, A Big Texas Sound.

The country musician nicknamed "The Possum" is known for his wild lifestyle as much as he's known for his No. 1 hits. In 1996, he joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All.

This interview was originally broadcast on May 8, 1996.

12:02

Other segments from the episode on August 31, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 31, 2010: Interview with Merle Haggard; Interview with George Jones; Interview with Bobby Braddock.

Transcript

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Merle Haggard Reflects On His Outlaw Country Past

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's country music week on FRESH AIR, and today, the series continues
with Merle Haggard, George Jones and songwriter Bobby Braddock, who
wrote Jones' hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

We start with songwriter and singer Merle Haggard. Music writer Peter
Guralnick has said about Haggard: There is no one in contemporary
popular music who has created a more impressive legacy or one that spans
a wider variety of styles.

Haggard's best-known songs include "Mama Tried," "The Bottle Let Me
Down," "Okie From Muskogee" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." He
was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Haggard hardly seemed destined for success when he was in and out of
reform school and prison. The prison experience is reflected in some of
his songs. Let's start with one of his best-known songs.

(Soundbite of "The Bottle Let Me Down")

Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Musician): (Singing) Each night I leave the bar room
when it's over, not feeling any pain at closing time. But tonight your
memory found me much too sober, couldn't drink enough to keep you off my
mind.

Tonight the bottle let me down and let your memory come around. The one
true friend I thought I'd found, tonight the bottle let me down.

GROSS: I spoke with Merle Haggard in 1995, just a week before he
received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. He told me how he
started hopping freight trains as a kid.

Mr. HAGGARD: I lived in an oil community called Oildale, and there was a
daily train that went into the oil fields, and it was a steam train back
in those days. And I actually grew up every evening, you know, kind of
looking forward to seeing that old train pull out of there with about 40
or 50 oil tankers back during the war, you know.

And so I was – it was less than a stone's – well, maybe 150 feet from my
back door to where the railroad track ran. And I actually grew up right
next to it.

And my dad worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, and he only lived – I was
nine when he passed away. But I think probably the first time I ever
jumped on that old oil tanker was probably, I was about five years old.
My mother would've died if she’d known I'd been up there.

We used to put pennies on the track, you know, and we'd hop that old
train, ride a block or two and jump off. So it was something we learned
to do young. And we'd watch the brakemen and the trainmen do it. You
know, it wasn't really all that hard.

GROSS: What's the worst or the most surprising experience that you had
on a freight train?

Mr. HAGGARD: The worst? There was a lot of bad experiences. I got on a
freight in Oregon one time and it was, believe it or not at Eugene, and
it went up into the Cascades and into a snowstorm. And I was traveling
in the ice compartment.

And it – me and two other hobos was in there, and it got rather cold in
that metal. And I remember they stopped up in the mountains and then
climbed up out of that ice compartment. And I'm shaking so bad that I
dropped my suitcase off the top of the freight, and I had to get off for
a while to gather up my clothes.

GROSS: It just sounds awful. Did you have frostbite?

Mr. HAGGARD: Somehow, somebody watched out for me. I didn't get anything
like that.

GROSS: Merle Haggard is my guest.

Now, there's a new CD collection that brings together your recordings
from 1963 to 1977. It's called the lonesome fugitive. And why don't I
play one of the songs featured on there that you wrote. This was first
recorded by you in 1968. It's "Mama Tried."

(Soundbite of song, "Mama Tried")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome
whistle blowing and a youngun's dream of growing up to ride on a freight
train leaving town, not knowing where I'm bound, and no one could change
my mind, but Mama tried.

One and only rebel child from a family, meek and mild, my Mama seemed to
know what lay in store. Despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad,
I kept on turning 'til Mama couldn't hold me anymore.

And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer
me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried. Mama tried to raise me better, but
her pleading, I denied. That leaves only me to blame 'cuz Mama tried.

GROSS: Merle Haggard, is this song autobiographical?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, it really is very close, at least. There's some
things we fudged on slightly to make it rhyme, but the majority of it,
I'd say 97 percent of it's pretty accurate, I guess.

GROSS: Your father died when you were nine, is that right?

Mr. HAGGARD: Nine, right.

GROSS: So your mother had to raise you alone after that.

Mr. HAGGARD: She, yeah – and I was, to say the least, probably the most
incorrigible child you could think of. I was just – I was already on the
way to prison before I realized it, actually. I was just – I was really
kind of a screw-up. But – and I really don't know why. I think it was
mostly just out of boredom and lack of a father's attention, I think.

GROSS: I think you were 14 when your mother put you in a juvenile home.

Mr. HAGGARD: No, she didn't put me in a juvenile home. The authorities
put me in there for truancy, for not going to school. And that – they
gave me six months in, like, a road camp situation. And I ran off from
there and stole a car. And so then the next time I went back, it was
something serious. And I spent the next seven years running off from
places. I think I escaped 17 times.

GROSS: How would you escape from reform school and youth institutions?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, there was different institutions and different
methods. There was – some of them were minimum security, some were
maximum security, and some of them were kid joints, and some of them
were adult jailhouses.

And I just didn't stay nowhere. I was just – I think Willie Sutton was
my idol, if you know him. At the time, I was in the middle of becoming
an outlaw and escaping from jail and escaping from places that they had
me locked up in was part of the thing that I wanted to do.

GROSS: So what was your most ingenious escape?

Mr. HAGGARD: Probably the one that was the most ingenious was one that I
didn't actually go on. I was - San Quentin, I was all set to go with the
only completely successful escape out of San Quentin, I think, in 21
years.

But the people that gave me the chance to go were the same people that
talked me out of it because they felt like that I was just doing it for
the sport of it, and then it was a very serious thing to the other
fellow that was going.

And they had a big judge's chamber sort of desk that they were building
at the furniture factory in San Quentin. And I had a friend who was
building a place for two guys to be transported out. That was before
they had X-rays and things of that nature.

And they just – and I could've gone, and I didn't go. And the guy that I
went with wound up being executed in the gas chamber. He went out and
held court in the street and killed a highway patrolman. And so it was
really good that I didn't go.

GROSS: Was that a real sobering experience for you?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah. I've had a lot of those things in my life. And, you
know, those are the sort of things that a guy, unknowingly, like myself
– I guess I was gathering up meat for songs, you know. I don't know what
I was doing.

I really kind of was crazy as a kid, and then all of a sudden, you know,
while I was in San Quentin, I just - I one day understood that – I saw
the light, and I didn't want to do that no more. And I realized what a
mess I’d made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of
there, never did go back. And went and apologized to all of the people I
wronged and tried to pay back the people that I'd taken money from,
borrowed money from or whatever.

I think when I was 31 years old, I paid everybody back that I'd ever
taken anything from, including my mother.

GROSS: What did you say your mother when you changed your life around?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, it was just obvious. I mean, there was no – I don't
think there was ever any time that anybody in my family was worried
about me staying with this. It was just the way that – you know, some
people grow up in the Army and, you know, it's hard to be 18 years old.
And, you know, they send 18-year-old boys to war because they don't know
what to do with them.

And I was one, I wound up going to prison rather than war. And instead
of growing up in the middle of a battlefield with bullets flying around
me, I grew up on the isolation ward of death row. And that's where the
song "Mama Tried" gets close to being autobiographical.

GROSS: You were on death row?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah, I was – I got caught for making beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAGGARD: I was making some beer up there, and I got too much of my
own beer and got drunk in the yard and got arrested. It's hard to get
arrested in San Quentin, but I did.

And they sent me to what was known as The Shelf, and The Shelf is a part
of the north block, which you share with the inmates on death row. And
that was the, as you put it, the sobering experience for me.

I wound up with nothing to lay on except a Bible and an old concrete
slab and woke up from that drunk that I'd been on that day, and I could
hear some prisoners talking in the area next to me. In other words,
there was a alleyway between the back of the cells. And I could hear
people talking over there.

And I recognized the guy as being Carol Shessman(ph), the guy that they
were fixing to execute. And I don't know, there was just something about
the whole situation that I knew that if I ever got out of there, if I
was lucky enough to get out, I made up my mind while I still had that
hangover that I was all finished.

GROSS: How were you lucky enough to get out?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, I went back down on the yard, and went down and asked
for the roughest job in the penitentiary, which was a textile mill. And
went down and just started building my reputation, you know, started
running in reverse from what I'd been doing and started trying to build
up a long line of good things to be proud of, and that's what I've been
doing since then.

GROSS: Did your musical ability have anything to do with people noticing
you in prison and thinking that you could make it when you get out? I
mean, did that help you at all in the (unintelligible)?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah, that was the basic reason, I think, that these
friends of mine talked me out of going on that escape. I mean, they felt
that I had talent, and they felt that I was just an ornery kid and could
probably make something out of my life.

And, you know, believe it or not, in the penitentiary, there's some
pretty nice people and very unfortunate people. And they love to let
somebody, so to speak, get up on their shoulders. You know, they like to
boost somebody over the wall if they can. If they can't make it
themselves, they, I think sincerely, love to see someone else make it.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1995 interview with Merle Haggard. We'll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: It's country music week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 1995
interview with songwriter and singer Merle Haggard.

When you started writing songs, did you realize that you could write
autobiographical songs from your own life or did you think you had to
copy other people's songs?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, I really didn't realize what method to take at first.
I must’ve wrote maybe 1,500 songs that weren't any good, or at least I,
you know, I never kept them.

And finally, with a lot of help and a lot of people who had written hit
songs who I'd become friends with, such as Fuzzy Owen, who became my
personal manager. He was a songwriter, and he helped me. He taught me
how to write songs.

And finally I wrote one that was worth keeping, and I think I've written
about 300 keepers or so, maybe 400.

GROSS: Do you remember the first one that you felt: This is worth
keeping?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah. It was a sort of rock and roll song, a Elvis-type
rock and roll thing. It was called "If You Want to Be My Woman." Glen
Campbell opened his shows with it for years, and I still do the song.
And I wrote it when I was about 14.

But I didn't keep very many. That was probably one out of the 1,500 that
got kept.

GROSS: Could you sing a couple of bars of it?

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) You like riding in the country in my Cadillac.
And you keep...

Mr. HAGGARD: I don't know.

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) You keep pushing me back.

Mr. HAGGARD: (Unintelligible), the money that I earned, but if you
refuse to give me something equal in return. Don't look at me like maybe
you don't understand. If you want to be my woman, you know you got to
let me be your man.

GROSS: And how old were you when you wrote it?

Mr. HAGGARD: Something like that.

GROSS: How old were you?

Mr. HAGGARD: Fourteen.

GROSS: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So this is just about the time that you started that whole round
of reform schools.

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah. I might have been as much as 15 or 16 when I wrote
that song. It was between 14 and 17. I'm not sure.

GROSS: Now during all the years that you were in and out of prisons and
reform schools, did you ever think, I can make a living with music?

Mr. HAGGARD: No, very best, I counted on extra money, as I was saying,
you know, like maybe a hobby. I figured I was going to have to have some
other means of employment, you know, or support.

GROSS: So what made you think, well, I can make a living out of this?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, when I came out of the penitentiary, I went to work
for my brother, digging ditches and wiring houses. He had an electrical
company, Hag Electric(ph).

And he was paying me $80 a week. This was 1960. And I was working eight
hours a day there. And I got me a little gig playing guitar four nights
a week for 10 bucks a night.

There was a little radio show that we had broadcast from this little
nightclub called High Pockets(ph). It just all started from that. Some
people that were local stars around heard me on this radio program and
came down and offered me a better job in town.

And it wasn't just a matter of weeks until I was part of the main clique
in Bakersfield, and it was hard to get in that clique. There was a lot
of people like Buck Owens, and there were people that were really good
and proved how good they were later on with their success.

And Bakersfield was some sort of – I don't know, it was like country
music artists found their way to Bakersfield and then had this success
out of there. I don't understand why, actually. Maybe because of the
migration that took place in the '30s or whatever. There was a lot of
people that came out there from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas that had
a lot of soul. And this thing we call country music kind of came out of
those honky tonks, you know, and some of the same area that a lot of
other things came out of.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to adjust to success and stardom, having come
from poverty and, you know, having lived in prison off and on for so
many years? I think it's hard for a lot of people to adjust to that.

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, you know, a lot of people may or may not understand
how hard it is for a person coming out of an institution, you know,
whether it be a prison or whether it be some sort of a mental
institution, whether it be the army or whatever.

There's a thing that happens, like when you leave the penitentiary. When
you've been there for three years, you have friends and you have a way
of life, and you have a routine and a whole way of life that you just
give up all of a sudden.

One day you're there, and the next day, you're not there. And you don't
have any more friends from the outside because things went on when you
left, and you can't find anybody there. And the people you left behind
in prison are really your only friends.

And there's a period of adjustment that took me about 120 days, I don't
know, about four months. A couple times, I really wanted to go back. And
it just – it's really a weird sensation. It's the loneliest feeling in
the world about the second night out of the penitentiary.

GROSS: My interview with Merle Haggard was recorded in 1995. Our country
music week continues in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
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George Jones: A Wild Reputation, A Big Texas Sound

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, continuing our country music series
with singer George Jones. Waylon Jennings once said if we could all
sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones. Rock stars
like Elvis Costello and Keith Richards have also paid tribute to George
Jones.

This was his first big hit, "She Thinks I Still Care," recorded in 1962.

(Soundbite of song, "She Thinks I Still Care")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Musician): (Singing) She thinks I still care. Just
because I asked 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.

GROSS: I spoke with George Jones in 1996, after the publication of his
autobiography, which described the many years he was addicted to alcohol
and cocaine, and gave his perspective on his celebrated but troubled
marriage to Tammy Wynette.

Jones grew up in rural Texas during the Depression. His father made
bootleg whiskey to help make ends meet. Jones first performed at the age
of nine in Pentecostal churches and revival meetings. After helping to
save souls in his early teens, he played to the sinners at rough-and-
tumble roadhouses. He was underage but he worked with a married couple
who served as his guardians. Jones told me fights often broke out while
the band played.

Mr. JONES: Back in those late '40s, when I was appearing in these places
with them, you know, we had to put chicken wire around the bandstand,
the little stage we had, to keep bottles from flying over and busting
our guitars up. It would be brawls break out every hour or so. But we
got through it. It was part of the training, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were those bottles intended for the band or where they just
accidentally hitting you?

Mr. JONES: Not really. Not really. There was one or two that'd get in a
fight and start something and then get knocked into another one, and
he'd get mad and he'd join in and fighting them. So the next thing you
know, there's a dozen fighting and tables turning over and bottles are
flying, throwing them at each other, you know, and it'd naturally head
that way too, you know.

GROSS: So when there was fighting when you were playing, would you just
keep playing?

Mr. JONES: We were told to do that and that's what we done most of the
time, unless - until, you know, it got really too rough to continue and
then we'd quietly bow out and get out of the way.

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

Mr. JONES: Right away. And in that following February of '54...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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

Mr. 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 the highway near Beaumont.
You could hear the trucks. We had to stop a lot of times because it was,
it wasn't sound-proof. It was just egg crates nailed on the wall, and
the big old semi trucks would go by and make a lot of noise and then
we'd have to start over again.

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

(Soundbite of song, "Why Baby Why")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Tell me why baby, why baby, why baby why, you make
me cry baby, cry baby, cry baby, cry?

I can't help but love you 'til the day that I die. So tell me, why baby,
why baby, why baby why?

Well I got a crow I wanna pick with you. Just like last time when the
feathers flew. You're runnin' wild a-kickin' up your heels. A-leavin' me
home with a hand full of bills. Well, I can't live without you and you
know it's true. But there's no livin' with you so what'll I do? I'm
goin' honky tonkin', get as tight as I can. And maybe by then you'll
appreciate a good man.

Tell me why baby, why baby, why baby why, you make me cry baby, cry
baby, cry 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?

Mr. JONES: Well, it gave me a little more to eat and got me to traveling
around, driving my car and 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: Now how did you get the reputation as No Show Jones...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Well...

GROSS: ...of not showing up for dates?

Mr. JONES: Well, that was easy as time went by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: No, I just - I missed a few dates back when I was doing a
little bit too much of my drinking and later on I got into drugs and -
but I didn't really miss as many dates as it's been built up to be. But
a lot things the fans and people didn't know, that the management that I
had around me at the time were also booking dates on me on the - a lot
of times, several dates on the same date and getting advance, you know,
monies for the dates and they knew I would get the blame, you know, for
it, that they would never have to refund those monies. So I wound up
with so many lawsuits that I didn't know what to do with, so finally got
it all straighten out though, thank goodness, and we don't have to worry
about that anymore.

GROSS: Let's hear another one of your songs, and this is "These Days I
Barely Get By," which was co-written by you and by Tammy Wynette. And I
think you recorded this shortly before or shortly after you separated.

Mr. JONES: I think so.

GROSS: Do you remember which it was?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: No.

GROSS: Shortly after?

Mr. JONES: But I'm sure it was just before we separated and got
divorced.

GROSS: Tell me what your life was like when you recorded this?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was already getting - it's one of the lowest points
in my life from drinking so much and this was what led to - a lot to the
cause of the divorce and you know most of the story after that.

GROSS: Okay. Well, this is "These Days I Barely Get By," sung by my
guest George Jones.

(Soundbite of song, "These Days I Barely Get By")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I woke up this morning aching with pain. Don't
think I can work, but I'll try. The car's in the shop so I thumbed all
the way. Oh these days I barely get by.

I walked home from work and it rained all the way. My wife left and
didn't say why. She laid all our bills on the desk in the hall. Oh these
days I barely get by.

GROSS: George Jones, recorded in the late '70s.

I'm wondering, if you're truly living the lyric that you're singing
about, do you think that that helps you make it even more expressive?

Mr. JONES: The song you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Well, I certainly do. I know when I'm singing a song on stage
or recording one in the studio, I have to get deeply involved in it and
if not, you can't put the emotions and the feelings and I don't think
they come out if you don't.

GROSS: Let me play the song that you say turned your life around and
this is "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Now you had this song for about a
year before recording it and you asked the songwriter to rewrite it
several times. What was the original song like? How is it different from
what you recorded and why did you think it needed to be changed?

Mr. JONES: Well, when I first got the song and I first heard it, it
didn't have the last verse of the recitation part. I keep telling them
that the lady had to come back, you know, the girl had to come back one
way or the other, either to see him or come to his funeral or something.
And they went back and rewrote - and wrote the last verse then where I
do the recitation, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Okay. Do you still sing this...

Mr. JONES: And that was when she came to the funeral, you know.

GROSS: Do you still sing this song a lot?

Mr. JONES: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Okay. Recorded in 1980, this is George Jones, "He Stopped Loving
Her Today."

(Soundbite of song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) He stopped loving her today and placed a wreath
upon his door. And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her
today.

You know she came to see him one last time. Oh, and we all wondered if
she would. And it kept running through my mind: This time he's over her
for good.

He stopped loving her today and placed a wreath upon his door. And soon
they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.

GROSS: My interview with George Jones was recorded in 1996. The song we
just heard him sing, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," was co-written by
Bobby Braddock, who also co-wrote Tammy Wynette's hit "D-I-V-O-R-C-E."
Braddock will talk about writing those songs after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Bobby Braddock: Spelling Success With Country Songs

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our Country Music Week continues with Bobby Braddock, who wrote George
Jones's hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and co-wrote Tammy Wynette's
hit, "D-I-V-O-C-E," before she married George Jones. Braddock also wrote
Tanya Tucker's "I Believe the South is Gonna Rise Again" and Toby
Keith's "I Wanna Talk About Me."

Bobby Braddock was inducted into the Nashville Hall of Fame in 1981.
After decades of lyric writing, he wrote a memoir about growing up in
old Florida. I interviewed him when it was published in 2007.

Let's start with a Braddock song that was a number one hit on the
country music charts in 1968. Here's Tammy Wynette.

(Soundbite of song, "D-I-V-O-R-C-E")

Ms. TAMMY WYNETTE (Musician): (Singing) Our little boy is four years old
and quite a little man. So we spell out the words we don't want him to
understand. Like t-o-y, or maybe s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e. But the words we're
hiding from him now tear the heart right out of me.

Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today. Me and little J-o-e will be going
away. I love you both and this will be pure h-e-double-l for me. Oh, I
wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

GROSS: Bobby Braddock, welcome to FRESH AIR. So, tell us the story
behind this song. How did you write it?

Mr. BOBBY BRADDOCK (Songwriter): "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," I had written a song
called "I L-O-V-E Y-O-U, Do I Have to Spell it Out for You?" And it
wasn't very good, and that sort of inspired this song. I wrote it.
Nobody recorded it. I asked my friend Curly Putnam why did he think no
one had recorded it, and he said he thought the melody was a little bit
to happy for a sad song. And I said, what would you do? And he got
around the title line and just made it sound real mournful, and mine
sounded sort of like a detergent commercial. And I said, hey, let's get
it on the tape like that. And he didn't want any of it, and I wanted him
to have half, so we compromised and he took a quarter of it. And Tammy
Wynette recorded it within, I'd say, probably a week or two after that.

GROSS: Can you sing us the more upbeat version that you originally
wrote?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADDOCK: Okay. What I had was - everything else was the same except
the title line. I had...

(Singing) Oh, I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

And Curly changed it to...

(Singing) I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e.

Which made it a lot, lot better. And that little change made the
difference, I think, between it being a hit and just gathering cobwebs
and nobody ever having heard it.

GROSS: Let's talk about another of your most famous songs, a song
recorded by George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." And after we
talk about it a little bit, we'll hear it.

Now, this song tells a story. Would you describe the story?

Mr. BRADDOCK: It's the story of a man whose love was so strong, that the
only way he could get over this woman was to die. I think he was a
terrible role model.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADDOCK: A very bad role model. The man was obsessed with this
woman, and he never got over. He never moved on. Again, this is one I
wrote with Curly Putnam. I thought it was just an okay song. I didn't
think it was that great a song. And when the producer, Billy Sherrill,
played me George's recording of it, I went, wow. This is something
really great. I think in this instance, the artist and the production
elevated the song to a place that it wouldn't have been otherwise. I
really attribute so much of the success of this to George Jones and his
producer.

(Soundbite of song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Country music singer): (Singing) He stopped loving her
today, and placed a wreath upon his door. And soon they'll carry him
away. He stopped loving her today.

You know, she came to see him one last time. Oh, and we all wondered if
she would.

GROSS: Bobby Braddock, the word schmaltz is probably not a word that's
used a lot in country music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But it's a word that comes to mind with parts of the song -
schmaltz being, like, overly sentimental or, you know, almost maudlin.
Did you think this is really going to be over the top?

Mr. BRADDOCK: I think in the hands of anyone other than George Jones, it
would've been really schmaltzy. And there's such an intense
believability about it. There's a little story that goes with this, and
I think it's okay to tell it, that as George was performing in it - in
those days, the recordings were pretty much done - the vocals were often
done with the band on the original track in session, as opposed to now,
when they're done separately, later on. And George had sung this once.
And at that time, his ex, Tammy Wynette, came into the control room with
her new boyfriend, who was also a friend of George, George Ritchie.

And she sat down next to the producer, Billy Sherrill, in the control
room. And Billy said, George, you need to sing it one more time. And so
as George sang it, he was looking in the control room and Tammy's face
was - I mean, Tammy Wynette, the love of George Jones' life at that
time, her face was illuminated, and he was looking right at her as he
sang that song. So I think that probably put a little more poignancy
into what was going on that day.

GROSS: That's the take he used, huh?

Mr. BRADDOCK: Mm-hmm. That's the take that we hear. Yeah.

GROSS: We're listening back to our 2007 interview with country music
songwriter, Bobby Braddock.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with country music songwriter
Bobby Braddock. He co-wrote the George Jones hit "He Stopped Loving Her
Today" and Tammy Wynette's hit "D-I-V-O-R-C-E."

Now you were signed to Tree Music, which I think was probably the
biggest country music publisher. Is that fair?

Mr. BRADDOCK: It was. It wasn't the giant then that it is now. And, of
course, it is now Sony/ATV/Tree.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now, what was the approach of Tree Music to matching -
well, to deciding whether a song was worthy of being recorded, and if
so, who would be chosen to sing it? Or who would be asked to sing it?

Mr. BRADDOCK: My memory is of just turning in a bunch of songs, them
liking the songs and getting out there in the street and getting them
cut, which is pretty easy. There were not a lot discussions about it. If
they didn't like a song, they told me, you know. And more than likely,
the next song or two I brought them that were decent, they would they
would like.

GROSS: Did you ever think: Oh, not him. Don't give it to him.

Mr. BRADDOCK: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I thought that a lot. Yeah, and that still
happens.

GROSS: Do you say anything? Or do you figure, well, maybe it'll be a hit
anyways?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADDOCK: Yeah. I think maybe it'll be a hit anyway. Eventually, I
became a song-plugger myself, and got quite a few - the Toby Keith
thing, "I Wanna Talk About Me." I got that cut. And I got...

GROSS: What do you mean when you say you became a song-plugger?

Mr. BRADDOCK: I just decided to go out and start pitching my own songs
around.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. I'm glad you brought up the Toby Keith record. This is
unusual, because it's a kind of rap country song. So what gave you the
idea to do that?

Mr. BRADDOCK: I think it's the only number one country rap song, you
know. And there probably don't need to be any more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADDOCK: I got the idea for that song, Terry, by - I had a friend
who I talked to quite a bit on the phone. And she was going through a
lot of stressful personal things. And she - at that time, she seemed to
pretty much dominate the conversation with things that were going on in
her life. So she was the inspiration of the song. And I was producing -
had just begun producing a young man named Blake Shelton. And I had a
lot of successes with producing in the past few years.

And he went around doing this little rap thing, just to cut up, and I
thought it would be good to write a country song in rap form for him to
record. And the record label thought, well, this wouldn't be a good
first record for a new artist, and they were probably right. So then I
took it to Tobey Keith's producer, and he immediately liked it for Toby.

GROSS: And he had a number-one hit for five weeks.

Mr. BRADDOCK: For five weeks in a row. Yeah. It's probably as big a song
as I ever had. It's probably as big as "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? That's Toby Keith, recorded in 2001, "I
Wanna Talk About Me," written by my guest, Bobby Braddock.

(Soundbite of song, "I Wanna Talk About Me")

Mr. TOBY KEITH (Country Music Singer): (Rapping) We talk about your
work, how your boss is a jerk. We talk about your church and your head
when it hurts. We talk about the troubles you've been having with your
brother, about your daddy and your mother and your crazy ex-lover. We
talk about your friends and the places that you've been. We talk about
your skin and the dimples on your chin, the polish on your toes and the
run in your hose, and God knows we're gonna talk about your clothes.

(Singing) You know talking about you makes me smile. But every once in
awhile, I wanna talk about me. Wanna talk about I. Wanna talk about
number one. Oh, my, me, my. What I think, what I like, what I know, what
I want, what I see. I like talking about you, you, you, you, usually,
but occasionally, I wanna talk about me. I wanna talk about me.

(Rapping) We talk about your dreams and we talk about your schemes...

GROSS: You know, a lot of people think of, like, George Jones country
music and say Toby Keith country music as being two different forms
altogether, from two different eras of county music. You've, of course,
had hits in both styles, both eras. Do you see that those two being as
disconnected as some other people do?

Mr. BRADDOCK: I haven't really thought about it that much. Of course,
sonically, it's different because, for the most part, it's from
different eras.

GROSS: What are some of the sonic differences from the different eras?

Mr. BRADDOCK: For one thing, I can identify from different eras by the
amount of reverb...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRADDOCK: ...and the amount of delay that they have on, which are
technical things. I tell you one difference now is singers are tuned.
There are singers out there who do not have really good pitch who
probably could not have gotten deal years ago who now, if they look good
and they have an interesting delivery and have an interesting
personality, then they might get a record deal because their flatness or
sharpness can be tuned.

Toby Keith is not one of those. Toby live sounds pretty much like he
does when he's recording. The attitude - Toby's got quite a bit of
attitude, chutzpah. George comes from a different era, and it's more of
a - from the perspective of somebody, maybe, who does not have as much
self-confidence. And this was an era when country music was about she
went off and left me. You know, my heart's broken.

I can't imagine Toby Keith saying baby, you left me. I love you so much.
Please come back to me. Country singers did a lot of that back in the
'50s and '60s. You don't hear as much about that now. They inject
themselves into the songs personally a lot, too. You know, you hear a
songwriter saying, well, I wouldn't say that. Thankfully, you don't hear
a lot of actors saying well, I wouldn't say that, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, well, that's the point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You're acting.

Mr. BRADDOCK: I know. I know.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BRADDOCK: So that's the big difference.

GROSS: Bobby Braddock, it's been great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

Mr. BRADDOCK: Thank you so much for having me on your show.

GROSS: Country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, recorded in 2007. Our
Country Music Week continues tomorrow. We're collecting all the
interviews from our Country Music Week series on one Web page. You'll
find the link on our website: freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
129550239

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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