It was to be a trip to country music Valhalla, the summit meeting in August of the two men widely considered the genre’s greatest living singers: George Jones and Merle Haggard.
The Country Music Hall of Fame members were set to create another duets album, a follow-up to their 1982 collaboration, “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine,” still prized by aficionados not just because it brought two legendary names together, but because it captured some of the finest performances of their long and storied careers.
The new collection, “Kickin’ Out the Footlights ... Again,” released on Tuesday, includes some stirring pairings between Jones and Haggard, but it turned out considerably different from how Jones envisioned it.
Instead of a full-fledged meeting of musical minds, their joint recording sessions were cut short and a planned Country Music Television special documenting the project was scrapped. Now, the album largely consists of the two separately singing a small handful of the other’s songs, with a few genuine duets sprinkled in.
To hear Jones tell it, Haggard changed his mind about what and how much he wanted to record when their studio time rolled around late last summer.
“He’s a loner, and it’s hard to get to know Merle,” Jones, 75, said with a chuckle, relaxing on a sectional 270-degree leather sofa that wraps around a big-screen TV monitor in the audio-video room of his mansion, which overlooks his 78-acre estate here outside Nashville. He was dressed summer casual, his silver hair swept with civil engineer-like precision across his scalp in the signature ‘do created for him by his stylist, who jets in from Atlanta whenever Jones wants to look his best. He’s wearing tan loafers, a plaid short-sleeve shirt and blue shorts that reveal a long scar on his right leg from bypass surgery.
“He’s my favorite singer, so I feel like I can tell the truth on him. He’s one of those people who only does something when he feels it’s necessary. Some people pick on him a little because of that -- and he deserves it!” Jones said, laughing.
In a separate interview, Haggard said the idea of the CMT show rubbed him the wrong way. “I’m the one who put a stop to it,” he said from his home in Shasta County. “We hadn’t even finished the recording and they wanted us to go across town and perform it! It would have been a car wreck.
“Sometimes something might look good on paper, but when you start moving bodies around and trying to get people to perform, it don’t make much sense. It makes sense to me to take a little more time.”
As for the reduced number of true duets that wound up on the album, Haggard said: “It leaves the ones where we do interact, it makes them more important.”
Said Jones: “We had a lot of fun -- there was a lot of picking on each other while we were doing it. I wanted to do more real duets, but I still love him. I believe in the old saying that if something’s meant to be, it’ll happen. I believe things work out for the best.”
The singers met in 1962 in Bakersfield -- where Haggard was born in 1937 --when they were both promoting new singles at country radio station KUZZ, later bought by Buck Owens as part of his multimedia empire.
Even before that they were fans of each other’s music, and “Kickin’ Out the Footlights” provides essentially a master class in country music appreciation, several of the songs looking at life through the wisdom, and occasionally regret, gained from so many decades of living it.
Haggard puts his melismatic stamp on Jones’ hits including “The Race Is On,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and “I Always Get Lucky With You,” while Jones takes on such Haggard standards as “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “The Way I Am.” The four bona fide duets include the title track and a loosely chatty yet poignant version of the Duke Ellington-Bob Russell tune “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” that closes the album.
The project is emblematic of the reality for veteran performers, even those like Jones and Haggard whose music skills are undiminished by age. Unless they team up with hot, younger acts or concoct something as attention-grabbing as the Jones-Haggard teaming, it’s nearly impossible to win the support of record companies or radio.
“If you ain’t a cute little fellow or a girl with a cute butt, they’re not interested,” Jones says.
Not that he’s struggling in his golden years to eke out a living. His hilltop manor defines the word “stately.” It’s well off the quiet road that ends in a cul-de-sac at his front gate, which opens onto a gravel drive lined by Bradford pear trees, winding about a quarter of a mile to his door.
But he rails against the emphasis on image in country music today, a priority, he says, that would have left him without a career had it been in place in the ‘50s when he started recording. Long known as “No-Show Jones” because he was frequently too drunk to perform, Jones finally quit drinking and smoking after crashing his SUV into a bridge because he had been imbibing. The near-fatal accident, seven years ago, left him with a collapsed lung and a lacerated liver.
“I’ve felt so much better,” he says, the only beverage in sight being bottles of his private-label “White Lightning” water (named for his 1959 hit), taken from a spring running through his property.
Despite having broken his right wrist in a fall on Oct. 20, he’s expected to make his Halloween night show with Kris Kristofferson at Carnegie Hall -- his first appearance at the venerable facility since 1962.
He’ll also be trying out his voice in public for the first time since doctors identified grass and pollen allergies as the culprit for a nagging cough that’s hampered the famously elastic voice.
“I can hit the high notes, but I’m having trouble with the lower ones,” Jones said in August, periodically clearing his throat and taking sips of water to keep the vocal gravel at bay. He’s now on allergy medication “that seems to be working wonders,” his manager, Evelyn Shriver, said this week. “I haven’t heard him in concert yet, but he says the difference from his point of view is incredible.”
The show also brings him one more opportunity to engage in what he considers almost a form of worship.
“I’m an old fogy, but country music is almost like a religion,” he says. “I love it more than just for the money -- it’s tradition.”