PEORIA — The Possum has lived up to his nickname over the years, at least during his infrequent passes through Central Illinois.
If not playing possum literally, country legend George Jones has managed to scuttle under the media radar.
Prior to Saturday’s impending Peoria Civic Center show, the Possum’s last pass through was seven years ago at Illinois State University’s Braden Auditorium.
The ISU show’s promoter agreed Jones’ interview average hadn’t much improved since the last time we’d checked.
“Oh, sometimes he’ll decide to do one at the last minute. You never know. So don’t give up hope.”
We clung to that hope until our knuckles turned whiter than the Possum’s hard-earned silver mane.
Then let go.
He’s now at the 80 marker, which perhaps suggests the living legend is mellowing toward the prospect of the interview.
Whatever the reason, this time he said “yes.”
Do you feel like a legend these days? he’s asked.
“No … Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard are still alive,” he notes, deferentially, even though he holds seniority (Nelson is 78, The Hag a mere 74).
Do you get pretty tired of all the “living legend” hoo-ha, or do you really kind of enjoy it?
“Well,” he begins, “it IS nice to know people think you’re a legend — especially a LIVING legend,” he adds.
Flashing back to his Texas childhood, when he was growing up as the youngest in a Jones litter of eight, country music was still in its relative infancy.
In fact, it was almost too soon for “last living legends.”
It was a time when the super-sized Jones clan was housed in a literal log cabin outside Saratoga, Texas, a hard-living land of oil fields and lumber camps.
“I remember being … extremely poor,” he says.
Still, there was the respite from it all through the music that permeated that bleak Depression-era reality. But living legends?
“There are none that I can recall,” he muses. “But maybe Uncle Dave,” he adds, referring to Uncle Dave Macon, The Dixie Dewdrop, born just a few years after the Civil War and in his 60s by the time little George was finding his musical way.
“And Jimmie Rogers (1897-1933) and Bob Wills (1905-1975) would have been thought of in that regard,” Jones offers.
Otherwise, it was still a young genre transitioning from the folk and vaudeville traditions of the 19th century to the ’20s technological upswing spurred by radio and phonographs.
Asked if he gets the feeling any of today’s country singers were raised in log cabins under harsh conditions, Jones cuts them some slack.
“Well, you just never know,” he says. “I’m pretty sure all of them were not born spoon-in-their-mouth. And you have to remember, by the time they get enough notoriety to be on the radio or TV or touring, the record label has polished and shined them up. I know several young artists that have had a pretty rough time of it.”
Rough times, perhaps, but when it comes to the music itself today, Jones doesn’t mince words.
Asked to describe country music of the 21st century in three words or less, he sums it as “not really country.”
On the occasion of Jones’ 2005 ISU show, GO! solicited comments from several of his local admirers, including Ray Prince, president of the Illinois Country Music Association.
“It would be awfully hard to put someone above George Jones,” he said. “He’s THE country singer, and has been for as long as I can remember … he puts every ounce of his being into his music.”
Jones won’t argue that last point. “Oh, no, he’s right … I give everything I have.”
That point is especially a stickler when it comes to rivers of ink spilled on behalf of the bad press he was receiving pretty routinely in his hell-raiser days.
The worst thing he ever read about himself in print, he says, “is that I let my fans down by not showing up at a concert that they had paid to come see — it was totally untrue, and I had to read it more than once.”
When it comes to analyzing his own music, which first exploded with 1959’s No. 1 “White Lightning,” Jones is fairly open.
The song, he says, that most embodies who he is these days is “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” from 1992’s “Walls Can Fall” album.
To wit: “I don’t need your rockin’ chair, your Geritol or your Medicare; well, I still got neon in my vein, this gray long hair don’t mean a thing; I do my rockin’ on a stage, you can’t put this possum in a cage; my body’s old but it ain’t impaired; I don’t need your rockin’ chair.”
To which Jones adds: “… at least not yet.”
In that aforementioned 2005 GO! story, Prince and fellow local Jones fan Harold Walker (of the New Prairie Ramblers), picked “Choices” (Walker) and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (Prince) as the summits of Jones’ art.
Jones: “I think both of these are the story of my life — living and dying with the choices that I have made.”
However, “I do think, career-wise, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ is the most recognized song I have ever recorded, and my biggest hit.”
Since Jones’ wife of nearly 30 years, Nancy Sepulvado, is often credited with saving her husband from the potential ruin of his “wild-man” days, she offers to step into the interview momentarily to give her side of the story.
“It has been up and down,” she admits. “A lot of good times and a lot of bad times. But, thankfully, the good definitely outweighs the bad.”
The epic Possum saga is forging on into its 60th year, with no end, and definitely no rocking chairs, in sight.
“I think if you ask anyone my age why they keep working, they’ll say, ‘If I retire, what am I going to retire to?’”
“What would I do with my time?”
At a glance
What: George Jones
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Peoria Civic Center Theater, Peoria
Tickets: $35 to $65
Box office: 309-673-3200
Keeping up w/Jones
Victories and losses from the wild life and hard-won times of a certified country legend:
-- Among A-list male country singers, Jones is the only octogenarian (he turns 81 Sept. 12) still regularly touring and headlining major venues.
-- George Glenn Jones was the eighth child (out of eight) of a hard-drinking Texas pipe-fitter, also named George Jones — George Washington Jones, to be precise.
-- GJ’s career began with his first professional band in 1947, which led to his own radio show and a new nickname, “The Possum” (a radio co-worker noted an uncanny resemblance to the varmint).
-- Four “I do’s” — two before he was 24, one to a fellow Grand Ole Opry legend (Tammy Wynette), one an enduring lifesaver (his current union with Nancy Sepulvado, which just clocked its 29th anniversary March 4).
-- GJ’s unlikeliest fan: Frank Sinatra, who crowned him “the second best singer in America.” (Guess who held onto the main title?)
-- GJ’s Possum handle was upstaged by another, circa the stormiest sector of his life — the early ’70s through the early ’80s. In between the cocaine abuse, the heavy drinking and worse came the famously missed concerts, hence the new moniker: No-Show Jones.
-- Re: the latter: The peak of GJ’s missing-in-action era was 1979, when records show he failed to turn up at more than 50 concerts … or roughly one per week.
-- Close call(s): GJ nearly missed this weekend’s show, and the thousand others since 1994, when he underwent emergency open heart surgery. His 1996 autobiography wasn’t called “I Lived to Tell It All” for nothing.
-- Three years later, he nearly died in an SUV crash.