In North Carolina, way back in the hills, there’s a centuries-old tradition of cooking illegal liquor. Whether you feel that’s right or wrong, good or bad, may be determined by any number of factors but the objective truth is moonshine whiskey greatly impacted the course of United States culture on several occasions. Ever wonder why so many people will never trust the government or politicians? Press play. Ever wonder if the “moonshine” you can now buy in liquor stores is really moonshine? Press play. “White Lightning” was George Jones’ first #1 country record, sure, but it’s also the cork in a jug of profoundly strong history.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
That Good Ole Mountain Dew
Speaking hypothetically, here’s one way to make moonshine. First, you need malt. That’s a mixture of grains (usually some combination of corn, barley and/or rye) sprouted in water then laid out to dry, halting germination at the point where enough of the grains’ starches have converted to the sugar needed to fuel fermentation in the next step. Then, you need water. Now, the foremost authority on moonshine would have to be Popcorn Sutton, who always said if you’re trying to make good liquor then you can’t use city water at any stage of the process because of all the chemicals in it. But most people who’ve made moonshine in the United States spent at least a week breaking the law in a pretty conspicuous way to do it, so let’s assume we’re out in the hills, somewhere far away from modern civilization, near a natural source of pure spring water. Once you’ve done a few runs in a new spot without any trouble from government agents or passers-by, maybe you’ll set up a more permanent operation. Until then, you’re looking for a decent-sized mound of earth so you can dig out one side and, using clay, pack a big metal trash can in there to make a furnace. After you get the trash can in there, you level off the top of the mound so it works as a stovetop, then build a fire in your new furnace and heat up a bunch of water until you see it just start thinking about boiling. Remove the water from the heat and stir in your malt. Once it’s cooled down enough, pour this mixture into barrels and leave it to ferment (or “work”) itself into a sour mash. Depending on the time of year and temperature, mash may take as long as a month to work off but you’ll want to start checking it after about a week to make sure the taste is bitter, indicating you’re headed toward a run of good moonshine.
However long it takes the mash to get funky, you should use this time to build a still. That’s “still” as in “distilled spirits,” which is what you want to make and how you want to make it. If we picture a chemistry lab, the distillation apparatus is the one where the science lady with half her face covered by huge goggles has a Bunsen burner going under a big glass container of colored liquid, causing the liquid to evaporate into steam which travels through coiled tubes, more glass containers, and more tubes… Until a few, tiny drops of liquid come out of a spout at the end of the chain. Those few drops of liquid are the distilled, concentrated extract of elements with the lowest boiling points in the original container over the Bunsen burner, the first ingredients to cook off into vapor and race through all those tubes toward condensation at the end. But we don’t have a chemistry lab and we’re trying to cook a hell of a lot more booze than just a few drops, so we need to build a still. The furnace we already put in the ground is our Bunsen burner, so the first container in the chain needs to go right on top of that. Even if we had giant pieces of glassware, it wouldn’t be easy hauling them out to the hills, so we’re probably talking about welding together a huge vat made of copper or, if Popcorn Sutton has his way, stainless steel. This first container is basically a giant stock pot (sometimes called a “boiler”) and the sour mash goes right in there. When the heat from the furnace brings the mash to steaming temperature, you’re officially making liquor, so seal the top of the boiler with a lid to send the vapor through a pipe to the next container. Then do your best to keep the fire at a consistent level for the duration of the run. What we’re hoping to distill here is as much ethanol alcohol as possible and as little as possible of anything else. But ethanol does not have the lowest or highest boiling point of everything in a sour mash so we’ve got to get fancy with our process in order to extract an ingredient from the middle of the mash. The next container in the chain is called a “thump keg,” often an actual keg or barrel, meant to trap most but not all of the heat coming in from the boiler with the vapor. As steam swirls around in the thump keg, it loses a bit of heat and the elements with higher boiling points fall out of the cloud into liquid while the ethanol and a few other things remain above their vapor points and continue forward through the next pipe. Many moonshiners put a second thump keg at this point in the chain to further refine their product through a third distillation, creating a more pure concentration of ethanol alcohol. (The three “X”s we’ve all seen on jugs of hooch in cartoons were supposedly used in real life to indicate triple-distilled contents.) The pipe leaving this second thump keg travels not to another container but through it. This final container (called the condenser or “cooling drum”) is another keg but full of cool, running mountain water supplied by the separate aqueduct system you built off a nearby stream while waiting for your mash to sour. (Like I said, it takes at least a week of breakin’ the law to make moonshine.) The final section of pipe is called the “refrigeratory” (which is the source of the word “refrigerator”) or, more simply, “the worm.” The worm is shaped into a tight coil inside the condenser keg so as to maximize the hot steam’s exposure to the cooler temperature of fresh spring water, speeding condensation of the vapor into liquid dispensed at the end of the still.
According to conventional moonshiner wisdom, the first portion of liquid distilled from a batch of sour mash (called the “foreshot”) is straight poison, containing all the junk with a low boiling point nobody would want to drink if they knew it was in their liquor – methanol, acetone, a few aldehydes, just real nasty shit. The liquid after the foreshot (called the “heads”) still has more junk in it than anyone would want to drink but also enough ethanol to make it worth setting aside to throw it in with the mash on the next batch. Same thing for the liquid at the end of every batch, called the “backins” or “tails.” Somewhere in the middle, though, between the heads and the tails, if you did everything right and consistently applied the correct level of heat during each distillation, about one third of the liquid extracted from each batch of mash will be the “hearts,” good moonshine whiskey, smooth with a slightly sweet taste. The more successful you are at finding the target temperature for vaporizing ethanol and little else, the more potent your whiskey will be. One common method for gauging the proof of moonshine is the bubble test: pour the young whiskey in a mason jar, screw on a lid, shake the jar and inspect the size of bubbles. Small bubbles mean you fucked up somewhere along the line but if the bubbles are large and pop quickly, conventional wisdom states you could be looking at upwards of 180-proof liquor.
But, remember, this is all hypothetical and you should do none of this because it comes nowhere near covering all the complications a person must consider in order to avoid a near 100% certainty of causing serious injury, possibly even death, to themselves or others in attempting to make or procure moonshine. For example, unscrupulous bootleggers who don’t care to secure your repeat business may introduce various adulterants to bunk whiskey in order to fake the bubble test. Some moonshiners have made the mistake of using old automobile radiators as a condenser, causing themselves and their customers to go blind or die from drinking lead and/or antifreeze in their whiskey. Here, too, we find a common safety measure, the bottle cap test: pour a little young whiskey in a bottle cap or sewing thimble, then light it on fire. Ethanol is known to burn blue while lead, in theory, should burn red. (“If it’s blue, you’re true. If it’s red, you’re dead.”) The problem here, of course, is not all clear liquids which happen to be dangerous or fatal produce a red flame when they burn. Speaking of fire, the only reason the bottle cap test is possible is because of how flammable concentrated ethanol is in both liquid and vapor form. Any mistake sealing the entire vapor path of an indoor still could produce a gas leak, leading to an explosive fire. Same thing if any sort of clog causes a buildup of pressure in the still. These risks present further reasons why it’d be a good idea to cook outdoors in a remote location even if making moonshine were legal, which it inherently is not.
With a Rebel Yell
American adults who want to distill and sell whiskey without breaking the law can totally do it. You just need a federal permit from the ATF and probably a distiller’s license from your state government. Then you’ll need to pay all the associated taxes and fees, abide by a whole slew of regulations, submit to safety inspections and, hey, you’re good to go. But the main argument for cooking moonshine instead is: “fuck every bit of that,” which is precisely what makes it moonshine. Even if nobody’s certain about the origin of the word “moonshine,” it just about has to involve cooking untaxed whiskey outdoors by the light of the moon so government agents wouldn’t see the smoke from the furnace. This practice began in the early 18th century in the Old World, after Scotland and England became Great Britain and their new government came up with some new taxes to fund the new nation. Two years after the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1789, our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, came up with the same solution to pay national debts incurred during the American Revolution.
Hamilton’s tax on distilled liquor instantly became known as the “whiskey tax.” Because everyone knew what he was really doing. Because, in Hamilton’s day, the middle and upper classes drank rum. Whiskey, on the other hand, was consumed by the poor in such great quantities it had become a wholly separate economy, especially in communities on the geographic fringe of modern civilization, slowly pressing into and serving as a nice human shield against the wilderness to the west. These rural folk treated homemade whiskey like currency. Farmers grew everything they needed to make whiskey, so they made whiskey. If a farmer didn’t own a still, someone in his area did and they’d probably let him use it for no greater fee than a few jugs of whiskey from the run. Once the farmer had all this whiskey – which, by the way, happened to be worth far more money than the crops used to make it – he could store it in barrels to sell, offer as payment to hired farm laborers or even trade for goods at a store in town. Likewise, most working class people without a moral aversion used bottles and barrels of whiskey in the barter system of colonial America, the same system which recognized fur and tobacco as currencies at remote trading posts. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t simply taxing the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits. He was trying to cut a brand new government in on whiskey’s status as liquid money. And the reason he did this was not to create new social programs for the greater good, not to improve infrastructure or the lives of average American citizens in really any way. Rather, Hamilton’s whiskey tax was enacted as a plan to pay back loans to the kind of people who can fund an upstart nation with the millions of dollars required to fight and win a revolutionary war, a.k.a. the wealthiest people on the planet, for whom the rate of the whiskey tax was lower and for whom such taxes represented a much smaller percentage of their income. He wanted to tax the poor to pay the rich. The United States government had no problem collecting from major commercial distilleries, who were also taxed at a lower rate in return for their ability to pay lump sums in advance. But the poor sons of bitches Uncle Sam sent to collect taxes from country communities who thought they’d literally just fought an entire war in order to not have to put up with this specific variety of bullshit, well, they got told to take a hike and the ones who didn’t listen got hurt – beaten, tarred and feathered, you know the drill. Any other government agents (a.k.a. G men) or tax collectors (a.k.a. T men) who came around saying they had a problem with it could expect the same reception. Alexander Hamilton asked President George Washington to treat these beatings of U.S. officials as acts of war against the new nation and he tried to convince Washington to respond with military force. Washington refused… Until a couple years later, when he deployed the military against its own citizens in order to prevent the all out class warfare looming in what is now known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1794, a U.S. Marshal was sent to tell at least 60 Pennsylvania moonshiners about the federal court dates they had scheduled back in Philadelphia for not paying whiskey taxes. Pittsburgh was then a small but growing town serving as the last real stop for anyone headed further west, out into the middle of nowhere. When residents of the area heard about a marshal coming their way with subpoenas, a mob of 30 people or so went down to the local tax collector’s house intent on running that marshal out of town. Turns out, the marshal wasn’t inside but the taxman was and he was armed, so he shot and killed a member of the mob outside his house. The mob left but then returned the next day having grown in size to well over 500 people. This is kind of what the T man thought would happen, so overnight he’d sent for the cavalry and now had 10 U.S. Army soldiers inside his house when the inevitable gunfight broke out. The soldiers shot and killed the mob’s tactical leader, so someone set fire to the T man’s house and gave everyone inside no choice but to surrender. Fast forward a couple weeks, the mob has grown into a full-blown militia of approximately 7,000 disaffected poor people gathered in a field outside Pittsburgh debating their options, everything from a demonstration march through town to dragging landowners out of their homes to meet a guillotine. This mob had begun referring to themselves as the “Whiskey Rebels” and the residents in town sent a messenger to say they were on the side of the Whiskey Rebels and they would really prefer the demonstration march over the guillotine. Many of the people gathered in that field were the actual feet on the ground during the American Revolution. No one had any reason to doubt the Whiskey Rebels were prepared to fight another revolution for themselves. So Washington finally did as Hamilton asked and ordered 13,000 members of the U.S. Army to assemble for battle and begin the march toward Pittsburgh. But Washington also sent “negotiators” ahead of the army, probably not so much to negotiate as to make sure the Whiskey Rebels had plenty of warning they were about to be slaughtered by a military roughly twice their size. By the time troops made it to Pittsburgh, there was no longer a Whiskey Rebellion. However, G men and T men were never any more successful in collecting whiskey taxes from country areas, where much moonshine continued to be made.
Pick Your Poison
Then, about a hundred years after the Whiskey Rebellion, the entire nation had a temperance tantrum. If a society uses bottles of homemade liquor like currency to such a degree government officials get dollar signs in their eyes when they think of taxing it, it’s fair to say that society may have a little bit of a drinking problem. Colonial America definitely had a drinking problem and the Revolutionary War definitely made it worse. (It would be really depressing to go into the detailed evidence of this but it’s worth noting a primary source for modern concepts of alcoholism came from this exact point in time and space, a Pennsylvania doctor named Benjamin Rush, published in 1784.) Throw a Civil War in the mix and, by the early 1900s, just about everyone who wasn’t drunk all the time was ready to pass some kind of law to keep people from getting so drunk all the time. Many concerned adults joined one anti-alcohol group or another to push a range of potential solutions, from zero-tolerance “Ban All Alcohol” to more moderate variations on “Hey, we like to have a beer now and then but everyone needs to admit things are completely out of control right now.” Though this wide ideological spectrum appealed to just as wide a variety of people for a multitude of reasons, they were all viewed as part of one political movement, called Temperance. To some, temperance meant they didn’t want a saloon and/or a liquor store in their city and/or county because they didn’t want to live with an abusive alcoholic or have to worry he was out buying booze with the only money the family had to survive the week. Many religious denominations called for temperance because they believed drunkenness was a sin, a moral weakness without which crime and poverty would disappear leaving society to thrive. To the ruling class, who knew whatever laws were passed wouldn’t apply to them anyway, temperance meant a more efficient workforce clocking in without hangovers and without drinking on the job. Most individuals in the temperance movement were not of the Ban All Booze variety nor did they campaign and march and vote for what became the 18th Amendment in hopes of or even imagining it would be used to entirely outlaw alcohol.
But one individual did: Wayne Wheeler. Cool name, not a cool guy. Wayne Wheeler’s one of those villains, you can kind of see where he’s coming from because he was injured as a child in a pitchfork accident caused by a farmhand showing up to work drunk. But the little kid in that story grew up to be an authoritarian, extremist, mass-murdering zealot who bent this nation to his will through the Anti-Saloon League, no mere group beneath the umbrella of Temperance but the most effective of all. Wheeler took over the ASL in the first decade of the 20th century. Coming from his background as a lawyer, he understood the machinations of American politics. He coordinated with local ASL chapters around the country to ally with federal and state politicians running on platforms anywhere near the temperance agenda, then presented himself to Washington D.C. as the head of a major grassroots movement prepared to steamroll any elected official who wouldn’t get on board. As far as D.C. could tell, it looked like this guy really did front such a crusade because Wheeler had co-opted about a century’s worth of political activism.
After the American Revolution, when that Pennsylvania doctor published his report on alcoholism, one of the things he suggested was it may be more treatable if regarded as a disease rather than a lack of willpower. This proved to be a very influential idea and concerned citizens soon began forming activist groups to dissuade family, friends and neighbors from exposing themselves to alcohol. Over the next hundred years, these temperance groups campaigned and voted to enact varying degrees of prohibition laws in certain towns, counties, even whole states, limiting or banning saloons and/or sale of hard liquor. Their mission was greatly helped by natural alliances with other groups fighting for other causes. For example, anything resembling a women’s rights group was all-but-guaranteed to support temperance. There were many reasons for this but two big ones were 1) women couldn’t vote at this time and 2) by custom, often by law, nearly all saloons served an exclusively male clientele. As such, women (and their children) were largely relegated to the role of abused victims and horrified witnesses in this culture of alcoholism. Consider Carrie Nation. Widowed after her husband drank himself to death, Carrie dedicated the rest of her life to a war against alcohol. She first made a name for herself by breaking custom to enter saloons and sing church hymns at the men drinking inside, then graduated to breaking laws by taking a hatchet with her to destroy alcohol supplies. Arrested for such behavior at least 30 times, Carrie was given many opportunities to explain her actions to courtrooms and reporters, thus spreading her message that saloons were an active enemy of American families, contributing to all manner of sin and vice in men, the worst of whom were as likely to drunkenly beat their wives as hear any criticism on the topic. Needless to say, Carrie Nation also believed women should be allowed to vote and most notable suffragists supported temperance. Susan B. Anthony, suffragist and supporter of temperance. Fredrick Douglass, suffragist and supporter of temperance. In fact, one of the main anti-suffragist arguments in America was we shouldn’t let women vote because the first thing they’d vote for was a national imposition of total prohibition. But it wound up happening the other way around.
Federal Prohibition passed in 1919, then women (or, at least, white women) got the vote in 1920. Prohibition went through first largely due to Wayne Wheeler’s talent for exploiting the momentum of various other causes (even those at odds with each other) and directing them in service of the Anti-Saloon League. For instance, the temperance movement aligned with the goals of suffragists like Carrie Nation but also with innumerable religious organizations, most of whom (yes, even the women) were against women having the right to vote. Wheeler was able to gloss over such philosophical differences and corral the sympathetic goals of all these factions into a single-issue campaign powered by the ability to attack alcohol from any and every possible angle. The religious temperance groups, in particular, had set a precedent for shaming would be upright citizens of their communities into making pledges of moderation or tee-total abstinence from alcohol. Wheeler used a similar strategy to gain political power. His Anti-Saloon League hounded candidates of all parties in local and federal elections until they were forced to take a stance one way or the other on Prohibition. Just about any politician running on promises to improve anything about the world had to at least pretend to support Prohibition and, once they did, Wheeler had ‘em. When an elected official who’d so much as muttered slight approval toward temperance failed to follow through, Wheeler turned on a negative PR campaign like the flick of a light switch: “Look at the hypocrite, the flip-flopper, the bribe-taker, the defender of the status quo,” etc. If that didn’t bring someone back to the fold, Wheeler moved on to extortion and violence. Those paying close attention will note Prohibition only became federal law after Wheeler made an alliance with the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist hate-group who got behind Prohibition because of their White Protestant identity, their hatred of Irish and Italian immigrants and their hatred of what they viewed as a Roman Catholic drinking culture. With KKK strong-arm tactics, widows, preachers and all other winds in his sail, Wheeler brought the 18th Amendment to fruition, outlawing the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This language did not ban possession or personal use and the precise meaning of “intoxicating liquors” was left undefined, a matter for some further piece of legislation. And you will never guess whose job it was to write that further piece of legislation.
In a bill called the Volstead Act, Wayne Wheeler made it a federal crime to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor,” which he defined as any liquid over 0.5% alcohol by volume. In a development nearly nobody had requested or anticipated, any alcoholic beverage stronger than kombucha became illegal in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson promptly vetoed the Volstead Act but was overridden by the Senate and House, who voted to uphold “the will of the people,” even though it was truly the will of only an extremist minority and the vast majority of “the people” had no idea what was about to be brought down on them. Not even the majority of prohibitionists were teetotalers and nearly everyone in America differentiated between hard liquor and wine or beer but now Wheeler’s dream of absolute Prohibition had come true and, in 1920, the U.S. government began enforcing his law. Well, kinda. Prohibition laws made exceptions for “medicinal” alcohol prescribed by doctors and purchased from pharmacies, so booze remained legal for anyone who could afford the higher price of a longer supply chain. And you won’t find many stories about wealthy families being brought up on charges for having a wine cellar or serving booze at a party, with or without a prescription. But everyone else who wanted to take a drink had to break the law, which is what they started doing. Not only did criminalizing alcohol fail to bring about the promised improvement of our nation’s moral fiber, it thoroughly undermined respect for all branches of government, especially the justice system, as most American adults chose to openly participate in illegal activities.
Winemakers began shipping bricks of grape juice concentrate to market with labels giving detailed instructions for how to avoid “accidentally” breaking the law by accidentally allowing the grape juice to ferment into accidental wine. American men and women drank together as never before, gathering in unprecedented numbers in illegal speakeasies, which were quite often operated by or affiliated with a mob outfit. Right under ski masks, semi-trucks and subprime loans, Prohibition was one of the best things to ever happen to organized crime in this country. As for the cops, even if they and their bosses (and their wives) weren’t speakeasy patrons themselves (which they probably were), bribes and threats kept the law looking the other way. So Wayne Wheeler got the federal government to hand him a special unit of what eventually became the IRS and a sizable budget to hire the agents he needed to enforce his Volstead Act. As there were no real qualifications necessary to become an agent of Wheeler’s unit, it was quickly staffed with anyone who wanted the job and these assholes were soon crawling all over the place with no idea what they were doing, most of them even more crooked than the cops. Wheeler’s men took the same bribes as local police to ignore the major crime outfits but they still had to keep up appearances, which meant heading out of the cities to go after country moonshiners and speakeasies unaffiliated with mob bootlegging operations. In other words, the U.S. government empowered a bunch of thugs to enforce organized crime’s monopoly on illegal alcohol distribution in most major markets of the nation. This is how Chicago came under the thumb of Al Capone, who was targeted by Elliot Ness and his Untouchables, yes… But this unit of officers were called “untouchable” because of their surprising ability to resist the near-universal corruption laid bare by Prohibition. And it had to drive Wayne Wheeler nuts. He witnessed his dream come true only to have it fall apart before his eyes, his own agents helping to undermine the righteous plan. But there is no justifying what he did next.
As the law made exception for medicinal alcohol, it also exempted industrial manufacture of alcohol used for cleaning agents, fuels, paints and various other products, which usually contained ingredients a person wouldn’t want to drink but so does a sour mash and we all know how to take care of that, right? Much of the hooch sold in bottom-end speakeasies “fell off the back of a truck” on the way to some janitor supply company, then went through some sort of distillation or filtering process before being served in cocktails with strongly flavored mixers to mask the alcohol’s poor quality. So, in 1926, the Prohibition Bureau rolled out a solution: murder. Wayne Wheeler forced manufacturers of industrial liquids to add formaldehyde and other inextricable poisons to products containing ethanol, for no other reason than to make ingestion fatal. Critics of his plan suggested they could simply add a revolting and non-concealable flavoring agent to prevent humans from drinking these liquids but Wheeler refused to consider such alternatives. Only fatal levels of poison would suit his agenda. Some estimates of how many U.S. citizens he murdered are as low as 10,000, others as high as 50,000. As you can imagine, this would be a difficult statistic to track. When Americans wanted to know why their family and friends were dead, Wheeler basically said it was suicide. According to him, all those people knew they were breaking the law and the federal government was not in the business of keeping outlaws safe from harm.
While the backlash was enough to entirely discredit Wheeler and end his career, federal Prohibition was not repealed until 1933. A few states with laws predating the 18th Amendment stayed dry for several more years. The last one to go wet was Mississippi, who held out until 1966. His impact on American legislation was slow to fade away but Wayne Wheeler’s impact on our culture may have been permanent. Prohibition could hardly have been more successful in revealing the government’s vulnerability to corruption or the justice system’s preferential treatment toward upper class citizens. Because, in truth, the United States never banned alcohol. Prohibition changed approximately nothing for the ruling class, slightly inconvenienced the white collar crowd and had federal law enforcement siding with big city crime bosses to wage war against everyone too poor or remote to take part in the newly sanctioned ecosystem of alcohol consumption. The best argument to be made for Prohibition’s egalitarianism would be Wayne Wheeler’s wholesale poisoning of industrial alcohols except I didn’t happen to come across any dead senators when researching the topic. In 1930, a bootlegger named George Cassiday was arrested and admitted to having spent the previous ten years selling illegal liquor to roughly four out of five members of the U.S. Senate. Cassiday told his story in a series of articles for The Washington Post but not one senator was ever named or arrested in connection with the case, even though the senate gave him offices in government buildings to make it easier for politicians to illegally buy liquor. There were countless speakeasy busts all over the nation in which local mayors, councilmen, judges and police officers were rounded up and hauled away with all the other criminal drinkers. And those were just the ones too drunk or too stupid to pretend they’d been working undercover when the door got kicked in. No adult could fail to observe the absurd hypocrisy of it all. And, yeah, the good ole boys cooking moonshine up in the hills resisted arrest because they resisted everything about this. Going out there on a still hunt was a great way to get your head blown off and it really didn’t matter if some murderer in Washington D.C. had given you a badge.
Trying to catch a moonshiner in the act of transporting goods wasn’t likely to be a car ride through the park, either, since most rural operations large enough to be pursued by the feds were making more than enough cash to spend some on soupin’ up their car engines in order to outrun the law. Drivers who didn’t get caught were paid very well and had plenty of time to stand around bragging about their talent behind the wheel. Pretty soon, these guys were racing their hot rods against each other instead of the cops. As Prohibition phased out, stock car racing caught on with non-criminals around the country, moving from the straightaways and backroads onto tracks built for real race cars. By the time race promoter Bill France Sr. managed to get everyone on the same page with rules and regulations by forming NASCAR in 1948, many of the younger drivers had never worked as bootleggers. However, both Wendell Scott and Junior Johnson, two early heroes of NASCAR, were known to have history running moonshine. Wendell was once caught in the act and given three years probation. Junior did a year in prison after feds busted him with a working still but he was never chased down on a run.
In 2008, Popcorn Sutton was busted with over 500 gallons of untaxed liquor on his property. In 2009, rather than serve a year and half in prison for offering to sell nearly 1,000 gallons of moonshine to an undercover agent, Popcorn chose to take his own life. He was 62 years old.
Lightnin’ Started Flashin’
The song “White Lightning” isn’t exactly about outrunning the law with a trunk full of moonshine but you wouldn’t know it from the music. Buddy Killen’s standup bass turns over like an engine and all the sudden you’re chugging down a mountain, Pig Robbins’ piano tinkling around somewhere in the back with all the glass jars and Floyd Robinson’s guitar lines whipping by the windows faster than passing tree trunks. Then it all drops out when the air goes sideways in a hairpin curve, George Jones wheezes out the words “white lightnin’” and puts the pedal to the metal again. But, like I said, that’s just the way it sounds. There is no car chase in the lyrics. The protagonist of our story is Pappy, the singer’s father, who brews such “powerful stuff” everyone comes to him in Popcorn Sutton’s home state of North Carolina, which went dry in 1908 – over a decade before federal Prohibition – and stayed dry until 1937, which is the recipe for moonshine country. Pappy’s supplying the whole area. Even city slickers make the trip out to the boonies to get a taste. G-men, T-men and revenuers are trying to shut down the party but they just can’t find Pappy’s still.
“White Lightning” was George Jones’ first #1 country single and his first to cross over to the pop charts, climbing about a quarter of the way up the Hot 100 to #73, the biggest pop record of his career. Having already established we could reasonably expect the previous generation of country music fans to call anything with drums on it pop country, the instrumentation and arrangement take this track far beyond that point, as deep into rock & roll territory as material Jones previously used a fake name and put-on voice to record. He cut “White Lightning” near the end of 1958, the same year Jerry Lee Lewis went #1 country and #2 pop with “Great Balls of Fire,” inarguably a rock & roll song. “White Lightning” sounds like Jerry Lee triple-distilled, which probably wasn’t an accident since Jones had already turned in a clone of Jerry Lee’s first hit. “Maybe Little Baby” (recorded in 1957 with Grady Martin and Hank Garland on guitars and Floyd Cramer on piano) rocks harder than anything by Thumper Jones and is an obvious attempt to piggyback on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” from earlier in the year. If we were building a case against rock & roll’s bad influence on America’s youth in 1957, “Maybe Little Baby” would be near the top of the stack of records to play in the courtroom. There’s no mistaking George Jones is hornier than a cartoon wolf in this song and it’s the only thing the song is about. To put it bluntly, he sounds like a guy who pops Viagra just to walk around in tight pants. “Maybe Little Baby” was recorded for Mercury-Starday but not released as a single, possibly/probably because Don Pierce heard nothing but a rock song, hated it, had no idea how to sell it and didn’t even try. At least Jerry Lee Lewis had yelled about having chickens in his barn so the suits at his label could pretend “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a) country and b) about a party, too, not just sex. By the time Jones and Pappy Daily cracked the code of putting lyrics set in the country on top of a rock song then shipping it to country radio, Mercury-Starday had dissolved and pushing Jones’ singles was no longer Don Pierce’s problem. Mercury’s promo team had an easier time selling “White Lightning” because Jones kept his voice and accent with the lyrics on the country side of the fence rather than hide behind a put-on voice, fake hiccups or other rock & roll cliches he’d used in the past. Strip the vocals from the track, though, and it’s a rock song, written by none other than J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. The Big Bopper. Early in 1958, Bopper hit the pop Top 10 with “Chantilly Lace,” a song originally cut for Pappy Daily’s small D Records label in Texas, then moved up to Mercury once it began to sell in big numbers. The timing could not have been better for Pappy. Just as Mercury decided the merger with Starday wasn’t meeting their expectations, here came a huge pop hit from Pappy’s little farm club label. It’s possible his relationship with George Jones would have been enough for Mercury to keep Pappy around but “Chantilly Lace” removed any doubt.
Back in 1957, JP Richardson was just a Beaumont, Texas DJ who’d created the Big Bopper as an on-air persona. When he decided to take a swing at his own music career Pappy signed him as an artist to a little indie label and as a writer to Starday’s publishing company, which was the best way for a songwriter to get George Jones to record their songs. The first Richardson composition cut by Jones was “Rain, Rain” in late 1957. This was the same session as “Maybe Little Baby,” so Grady Martin and Hank Garland are on guitars here, too. We probably have Garland to thank for the smooth cocktail lounge samba vibe hanging over most of the song like curtains, occasionally parting to reveal glimpses of an entirely separate hardcore country song. “Rain, Rain” surely perplexed Don Pierce just as much as “Maybe Little Maybe” and was similarly held back from release until much later. The first Richardson track to see light of day as a George Jones single was “Treasure of Love,” recorded the same night as “White Lightning” in late 1958. This is one of the most legendary recording sessions in all of country music history. Most of the stories focus on George Jones showing up to work that night half-drunk and getting the rest of the way there between songs. But it’s unlikely many people would care how drunk he was if he hadn’t also laid down four incredible master takes. Three of the four songs were Richardson compositions, partly an attempt to see if the guy who just wrote a hit song for himself could write one for Pappy Daily’s biggest artist but also partly a result of Richardson’s willingness to list George Jones as a co-writer on two numbers, kicking more money back to Pappy. “Treasure of Love” is one of Jones’ greatest recordings, a no-frills honky tonk song kicked off by Dale Potter’s fiddle clearing the way for steel guitar, half-sloppy tic-tac bass and a backbeat that sounds like it was played on an aluminum trash can. Jones’ drunken rhythm guitar is off-time for nearly the entire song. Richardson’s lyrics were heavily inspired by “A Satisfied Mind” and there’s no chance Pappy Daily missed such thematic similarities to Starday’s biggest earner, the song Don Pierce chose first when splitting their catalog. “Treasure of Love” also happened to be George Jones’ most unique vocal take to date, a showcase for the techniques he’d developed while searching for his own voice. Since this was exactly the thing Pappy always asked him to do, “Treasure of Love” was the first single released from the session. Charting at #6 country, it was a big enough hit for the b-side to get plenty of airplay, too. “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)” was another Richardson-Jones composition. Though the title came from a line in Titus Turner’s “All Around the World,” a Top 5 R&B hit for Little Willie John in 1955, the Jones song is clearly a separate work, the kind of goofy little ditty tailor-made for his humorous side. When the “Treasure of Love” and “Grits Ain’t Groceries” record finally began moving back down the charts, it came time to release the next single and they only had one more Richardson song in the can.
Once you know to listen for it, you can hear how loose Jones was on the whole session but “White Lightning” being the biggest pain in the ass to record, it’s always the song in all the stories. Jones just couldn’t get it right, false start after false start. Buddy Killen played the bass intro 11 times until his fingers blistered. He played the bass intro 40 times until his fingers bled. He played the bass intro 80 times until his hand fell off. It all depends who you ask. They did make it past the first verse to get a few complete takes but they never got one without Jones mangling at least a word or two. Finally, they just gave up, deciding whichever take contained the fewest mistakes would have to do. Most country fans know about Jones getting hung up on the word “slug” in the released version of the song but, right after that, when all the instruments hit a stop listen closely and you’ll hear Pig Robbins hit a bum note when he brings back the piano between the next “might mighty pleasin’” and “yer pappy’s corn squeezin’s.” Pig Robbins is one of the greatest piano players in country music history. When you hear piano on a George Jones song anywhere between this session and the year 2000, odds are you’re listening to Pig Robbins. But “White Lightning” was his first major session, ever. So when Jones screwed up right before all the players hit that stop, Pig probably assumed they’d stop the take and start over as they’d already done so many times this night. Then he heard everyone else keep going and had to rush back into place, making one tiny little mistake. (Of course, all the other musicians in the room had the advantage of being able to see what everyone else was doing. At the age of three, Pig was trying to climb up into a chair with a half-open pocket knife he’d found in a pair of his father’s pants when he fell and accidentally stabbed himself in the eye. His parents were given conflicting medical advice on whether or not they should have the now-sightless eye removed. By the time they made a decision to remove the eye, what’s known as a sympathetic infection caused Pig to become blind in his other eye as well. His take on it was: “My music teacher used to say you shouldn’t look at the keys anyway.”)
Small mistakes and all, “White Lightning” was sent to press and given advance promotion through letters of recommendation from J.P. Richardson to his former colleagues in radio. Dated January 31, 1959 and written on official Big Bopper stationery, the typed letter opened by thanking his DJ and programmer friends for playing “Treasure of Love” (a subtle reminder of how well George Jones’ previous record did on their stations), then made sure they were aware he’d also written Jones’ upcoming single and how much he’d appreciate any “help” in “getting it out there.” These letters were almost certainly written, signed and mailed (with J.P.’s consent) by someone on staff at Mercury rather than he himself because, on the given date of January 31, he happened to be dealing with the flu while on a Buddy Holly tour in the middle of nowhere. Three days later, on Tuesday, Feb. 3rd, every DJ and programmer who’d been sent one of these letters woke up to the news: Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper had all died in a plane crash in the middle of the night. Six days later, “White Lightning” came out. And maybe this rock & roll record would have gone #1 country without all those DJs and programmers honoring J.P.’s final, direct request of them. It’s a great song and surely would have been a significant hit no matter what. But these are the facts.
It’s a fact Pappy Daily and Mercury chose “Treasure of Love” over “White Lightning” as the first single from the session and, in the late ‘50s in major label country, there was no such thing as a “bunt strategy” to load the bases before bringing out your home run hitter. You came out swinging for the fences on every a-side or you got sent back to the farm club, fast. They had every reason to believe “Treasure of Love” was the bigger hit. All those already given plus the fact this recording session took place four days after the CMA was formed with the singular purpose of wrestling country music platforms back from rock & roll. The Country Music Association didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from people who work in the same industry talking to each other and having the same conversations over and over until some of them decided to actually do something about it. So, yeah, Pappy hedged his bets by having Jones cut a rock song in the session but if he believed the CMA (a.k.a. all his friends, coworkers and competition in the country music industry of Nashville) had a chance at succeeding in the one goal they all agreed to work toward together, “Treasure of Love” was the clear choice. And, hell, if this song wasn’t a hit record on anything calling itself country music radio then maybe they all ought to just go back home to Texas and jukeboxes, right? It’s also a fact “White Lightning” is the last of the blatant first-wave rock & roll songs to go #1 country. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley did put a couple more records in the Top 5 over the next year or so but rock & roll had finally begun to establish its own identity as a popular genre and the CMA did help reclaim country music’s platforms. From here through most of the 1960s, country radio largely quit letting rock artists cross over unless they were sufficiently country. In the absence of rock music, country radio was mostly left to the Nashville Sound of country, pop country and pop masquerading as country with a little Bakersfield Sound and a twist of Johnny Cash’s one-flat-tire post-rockabilly thrown in the mix. The country charts reflect this, listing artists with a more traditional sound, like Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn alongside the Jim Reeves-in-a-tuxedo brand of pop country artist. These were the glory days of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, covered at length in the previous two episodes. It’s true George Jones was never produced by either man but his uncredited producers in the Quonset Hut over the next ten years were A-Team musicians, like Buddy Killen, Bob Moore and Tommy Jackson. As such, every second of every George Jones record cut in Nashville during the 1950s and 1960s owes a profound debt to Owen Bradley. In fact, from “White Lightning” forward, we can treat his entire career as a living document of evolving definitions for the Nashville Sound because what you’re hearing is essentially the Nashville studio system running on auto-pilot behind George Jones, the Greatest Country Singer Ever.
The Greatest Country Singer Ever
It’s difficult to say when George Jones became the Greatest Country Singer Ever. At some point in the mid-to-late 1950s, Joe Carson is supposed to have gotten drunk and confronted Ray Price with the news Jones had become better than Price, therefore the best country singer alive. This is the earliest instance I’ve found of anyone heaping such a superlative on George Jones. The list of similar statements made since is endless. Jones’ earliest major influence as a vocalist, Roy Acuff, once said he’d give anything to be able to sing like George Jones. Buddy Killen, who in his lifetime worked with just about every Nashville artist you can name: “I can say, without hesitation, that George Jones is the greatest country music singer who has ever lived.” Buddy also said, “I’ve never known another singer who has the phenomenal respect as a singer by his peers as George Jones has.” One of those peers would be Dolly Parton, who said, “Anyone who knows or cares anything about real country music will agree that George Jones is the voice of it.” Tom T. Hall: “I’ve never talked to a country music person whose favorite singer wasn’t George Jones.” On his 1980 album Music Man, Waylon Jennings wrote a song called “It’s Alright,” with these lyrics in a verse: “George might show up flyin’ high, if George shows up at all / But he can be, unconsciously, the greatest of ‘em all / From the Beatles and me in Nashville, to the ‘billies and the Rolling Stones / if we could all sing like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.” This belief is not exclusive to professionals working in the Nashville music industry. In 1988, Buck Owens said, “I thought George was the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Elsewhere, Buck described his own early records by saying, “you’re sure gonna hear George Jones because he was a big influence on me as far as the singers go.” Emmylou Harris once said, “When you hear George Jones sing you are hearing a man who takes a song and makes it a work of art – always. He has a remarkable voice that flows out of him effortlessly and quietly but with an edge that comes from the stormy part of the heart. In the South we call it ‘high lonesome.’ I think it is popularly called ‘soul.’” Merle Haggard famously impersonated other country singers as part of his act ever since the beginning of his career. After doing some impersonations on TNN’s Prime Time Country talk show, Merle was asked by host Gary Chapman why he never impersonated George Jones, to which Merle responded, “Y’know, some people… I like to do George’s songs. I do Jimmie Rodgers songs. Some people it’s beyond that.” When Jones died, Merle Haggard eulogized him in Rolling Stone magazine by writing, “His voice was like a Stradivarius violin: one of the greatest instruments ever made. He could interpret any given set of words better than anybody I’ve ever heard. You’d have to go back to Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb to compare, and he may have outdone them both.” In 1980, Johnny PayCheck was interviewed on television by Tom Snyder, who asked PayCheck to name some of his influences. The first name out of PayCheck’s mouth was George Jones, who he then called “the all-time best.” Haggard and PayCheck are perhaps the most important endorsements, as these are two of the most commonly suggested “people’s champions” put forward by country music fans who would challenge George Jones’ place on the throne.
Believe it or not, this is a subject of intense emotional debate for many people, so we must lay out precise terms and with care. The suggested honorific is Greatest Country Singer Ever. It’s got nothing to do with who writes the songs, plays the instruments, produces the sessions or anything about the recordings other than the vocal performances. It’s got nothing to do with commercial success, so forget about George Jones having more entries on the country singles chart and more Top 40 country singles than any other artist ever. Forget Eddy Arnold and George Strait are the only artists ever to chart more Top 10 singles than George Jones. It’s got nothing to do with career longevity, so forget about him being the only human being to appear on the country Top 40 in seven different decades. Nobody’s talking about who had the most hits or sales or anything to do with money or fame. If it helps, think of the title as Greatest Country Vocalist Ever. It doesn’t mean he has to be your favorite country singer or the one with the voice you like the best or listen to the most. It’s about how much he can do that other people can’t. It’s just as much a matter of athleticism as it is a matter of art. What makes George Jones the Greatest Country Singer Ever was partly determined at birth, partly a result of dedicating his entire life to the genre. Anatomy, dexterity, skill and experience were the color palette from which Jones’ creative intelligence painted a body of work no other human could reproduce.
One of the most common arguments against classifying Jones as the Greatest Country Singer Ever lies in a theory I’m about to debunk: he stole it all (or even a significant percentage) from Johnny PayCheck. According to this erroneous theory, Jones heard PayCheck sing, copied his style, then reaped fame and fortune. But George Jones had absolutely developed his own identity as a singer by the time he heard PayCheck. As mentioned in the first episode of this season, you can hear George Jones start to show through the Hank Williams imitation all the way back in 1955 on “Why Baby Why.” His biggest hit of the following year, “Just One More,” goes further in his own direction. There’s still a lot of Hank in the bleating moments (and more than a little Ernest Tubb) but neither Hank nor Ernest could ever have put over this chorus the way Jones does. By 1957 some of Jones’ sessions were held in Nashville’s superior studios with better equipment, bringing a huge boost in quality and clarity across the board, particularly on the vocal tracks. According to Jones, “When I went to Mercury I got my first halfway decent sounds. ‘Window [Up Above]’ and ‘Color of the Blues’ didn’t sell that big, but they got me a lot of radio play.” This is where we (and probably even Jones himself) begin to get a sense of what he’s truly capable of. The second time he walked into Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut, in the fall of 1957, Jones recorded “Color of the Blues.” About a year later, going by Donny Young at the time, Johnny PayCheck walked into the same room for his first session as a recording artist. Owen Bradley had signed Donny Young to Decca and become his producer. They recorded three songs in this first session and it is extraordinary how much of the Johnny PayCheck sound he already had in his voice at 20 years old. Listen to his first single, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time for Me,” which PayCheck wrote to suit his own talents as a vocalist. There’s some Hank Williams in there, to be sure, and a little of his friend Roger Miller (who sang harmony on the b-side) but mostly he sounds like a young Johnny PayCheck. If you close your eyes and listen, you can visualize his lower jaw jutting forward on the low moans and kicking over to the side when he yelps, just the way he did for the rest of his life. “I Guess I Had It Coming” is another great performance of another song he wrote for himself. The day after Donny Young cut this, George Jones recorded “White Lightning” and “Treasure of Love” in the same room while drunk off his ass.
You will hear many of the same traits in the styles of these two singers, which isn’t surprising when you consider their lists of influences were all-but-identical. The most important difference between their lists of influences is George Jones was on Johnny PayCheck’s list for several years before Jones could possibly have known PayCheck existed, let alone heard him sing, let alone spent such time listening to him as would be required in order to clone his phrasing. When Jones did a fan Q&A session for CMT.com in 2005, someone point-blank asked him about this Johnny PayCheck thing. Jones said “Johnny didn’t have any influence on my vocal style” and “I would imagine I had some influence on his style.” It’s true Donny Young arrived in Nashville in the late 1950s and got booked as one of several backup singers on some George Jones sessions. However, there is no sane argument a studio backup singer had any significant impact on Jones’ singing style at this or any other point in his career. The very first George Jones session Donny Young worked, Jones walked in the room and sang “Mr. Fool.” Even if we had reason to believe Jones and PayCheck had met prior to this session (which we don’t), Donny Young was not doing shit like this in 1959 because nobody was doing shit like this in 1959. Jones tumbles through eight precisely placed pitches in the space where most other vocalists would only be able to put three, then belts out a sound that can only be compared to a tornado siren. If you ever want to make a country singer nervous, play “Mr. Fool” for ‘em and say their recording contract depends on their ability to sing it exactly the way George Jones does. Donny Young’s next recording session for Decca took place about nine months later, after he spent the entirety of 1959 singing harmony on every George Jones session except for one. The single chosen from Donny’s session doesn’t just sound like George Jones, it was written by George Jones and there’s a pretty solid chance George Jones taught him how to sing it in person. Donny Young’s “Shakin’ the Blues” is practically a George Jones impersonation. PayCheck’s voice was always deeper and huskier, which is possibly why some fans retroactively credit him for the way George Jones’ voice sounded later when it dropped with age. But the similarities you hear between PayCheck and Jones were always a product of PayCheck doing Jones, not the other way around. There is no chance of Donny Young arriving in Nashville sounding the way he did without studying Jones’ Starday records. When he then got hired to sing backup on Jones’ Mercury sessions, he continued studying Jones in person, absorbing everything he could. The proof is right there on the records. You can run through everything Jones cut in this period and you will not find one instance of him changing something about the way he sings in order to sound more like one of his background singers.
September 1959: Jones does nothing he hadn’t been doing for years on “The Last Town I Painted.” Same thing the following day for “Revenooer Man,” PayCheck’s rewrite of “White Lightning.” (Swinging for the fences every time in late 1950s major label country music meant taking whatever kind of followup hit you could get after a #1 record. “Revenooer Man” is what happens when that followup hit is successful enough to try again a third time. Donny Young wasn’t around when “White Lightning” kicked off the Moonshine Trilogy but he showed up in time to sing on the first followup, “Who Shot Sam,” a liquor party with a little twist of manslaughter. “Who Shot Sam” went #7, so PayCheck closed out the Moonshine Trilogy by writing “Revenooer Man,” which is basically “White Lightning” from the government’s perspective.) Even though this is a song written by PayCheck, presumably pitched to Jones by PayCheck in person, thus providing every opportunity and reason for Jones to adopt some of PayCheck’s mannerisms, even if only as some kind of an inside joke, nothing about this vocal sounds like anyone other than George Jones. Jones was a recording artist with several major hits to his name, in comparison to Donny Young, whose records did not sell. One man had a reason to keep borrowing from other singers while trying to find a commercial voice of his own, the other man didn’t.
Jan. 8th, 1960: Jones cuts “Out of Control,” “Glad to Let Her Go” and “You’re Still on My Mind.” And we’re still not hearing anything you’d be surprised to hear on George Jones records from three years earlier, much less some radical shift in the wake of Donny Young arriving on the scene. In Donny Young’s first session of 1961, he cut a version of “Window Up Above,” George Jones’ recent #2 hit. We’ll get into the Jones record later but, again, it is so extremely easy for anyone who cares to compare these recordings side-by-side and make a decision regarding which singer probably had a greater influence on the other. Donny Young’s “Window Up Above” has a faster tempo and he certainly cannot hit all the same notes but he otherwise apes the George Jones recording nearly verbatim. They traded and licensed the master to various indie labels for use as a soundalike.
Now, I’m not gonna say PayCheck had no influence whatsoever on Jones as a singer but it is ridiculously ignorant to argue he walked away from some bit harmony work on these sessions having left a discernible mark on Jones’ singing style, especially when every piece of evidence suggests the opposite occurred: PayCheck spent his time in these sessions learning to parrot Jones as best he could. When Decca dropped an unsuccessful Donny Young from his contract, George Jones (by this time a friend and supporter) helped him get a deal at Mercury with Shelby Singleton, the man then producing Jones’ own sessions. Shelby had Donny Young cut “One Day a Week,” yet another indicator of how many Johnny PayCheck tropes were firmly in place from the beginning of his career. The way he delivers the word “walk,” for example, belongs 100% to him. However, this is also yet another vocal performance heavily indebted to George Jones and with very good reason. Only months earlier, Shelby Singleton had produced two huge hits for Jones. “Tender Years” and “Aching, Breaking Heart” are both hall-of-fame vocal takes. “Aching, Breaking Heart” hit #5 and “Tender Years” was Jones’ second #1 record. Around the time Pappy Daily took Jones away from Mercury in 1962, an unsuccessful Donny Young was again dropped from his record deal. Skip ahead a couple years, late 1964 at the earliest, George Jones hires Donny Young to play bass and sing harmony in his backing band on tour. It’s here, singing together night after night for perhaps a year in the mid-1960’s, when it is theoretically possible Johnny PayCheck had some influence on George Jones’ phrasing, although never to a degree which would justify the notion Jones somehow owes his success to PayCheck’s greater talent or innovation.
The truth is there happen to be two other singers who worked with Jones in the mid-‘60s who it would make a lot more sense to suggest were unsung influences on him. If we’re throwing around such theories, then the names we need to be throwing are Melba Montgomery and Gene Pitney, two aggressively idiosyncratic voices one could argue influenced Jones. Yet even here the word “influence” should not be taken to mean some transfer or xerox of vocal technique. Rather, these were all marvelous singers who each brought such a unique sound to their side of the table it could not help but inspire the others to push themselves toward great heights. We’ll get deeper into this later but George Jones began working with Melba Montgomery in 1963, after having Pappy Daily sign her to United Artists because of how much Jones actively wanted to record with her. They cut several duet albums and toured together for several more years than Jones ever spent with PayCheck. During this time, George Jones fell in love with Melba Montgomery. Oh, and listen to the way they sing together on “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” If anyone’s going to influence the way a person sings, how could it not be a long-time duet partner, especially one they were in love with? Then there’s Gene Pitney, the pop singer who broke in 1961 on “Town Without Pity,” followed in 1962 by two major hits (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart”), then another smash in 1963 with “24 Hours from Tulsa.” When the British Invasion happened, American kids stopped buying American accents, so Gene Pitney’s label decided to try selling him to adults. George Jones records sold to adults, he was on Gene Pitney’s label and that was all it took for their duet sessions to be scheduled.
The label completed the triangle by pairing Gene Pitney with Melba Montgomery as well. We’ll get there but, for now, please understand these singers were all making huge choices in these recording sessions, practically daring each other to extremes. Everyone with a microphone in their face brought their A game because they didn’t want to be left in the dust. And it’s probably worth knowing, when Gene Pitney met George Jones in a hotel room to sing with him for the very first time ahead of these sessions, he said he could tell from the start Jones had no intention of changing anything about his phrasing or the way he sang to record these duets. Pitney said he realized he’d have to be the one to adapt his style if they were ever going to get anywhere, which is the same decision made by anyone who ever successfully sang with George Jones, especially everyone hired to sing backup vocals in the studio or on tour.
In the fall of 1965, Johnny PayCheck (now going by this name) had his first minor hit with the song “A-11.” Since he was still on tour playing bass in George Jones’ band when the record hit, Jones would introduce PayCheck in the middle of a set, then hand over the stage so PayCheck could play “A-11” for the crowd. With George Jones’ blessing, PayCheck soon quit the band to follow his own career. Have a listen to the next #1 George Jones single, “Walk Through This World with Me.” How much Johnny PayCheck do you hear? How much Melba Montgomery or Gene Pitney? Trace amounts, perhaps, but it’s a high concentrate of Jones.
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Everyone who’s been on Patreon since the end of Season 1 heard me talk about writing this episode a long time ago, even if they don’t know it. In order to avoid making everyone feel like they’re watching the bonus material on a DVD before they’ve even seen the movie, my Patreon posts always make an attempt to share what I’m working on and how without getting deep into specifics or spoilers. This episode is what I was talking about in a post a while back (and again recently) on how the only honest approach to non-fiction is a willingness to abandon the way you want to tell a story if research turns up something different than what you expected or if you realize the facts would be better understood presented in a different way. The entire time I was making Season 1, I thought I knew what the first sentence of Season 2 would be. I thought it would be “speaking hypothetically, here’s one way to make moonshine” because I thought this was going to be the first episode of Season 2. There are a lot of reasons why I thought this but the biggest one is my approach to bringing these stories to life often includes an attempt to recreate the process of discovery experienced by most people who lived through this history. In Season 1, you heard Buck Owens talk about the difference between having hit country records and having a #1 country record. He had developed a big enough audience with his early hits to have a career and everything but “Act Naturally” took him to a completely new level on its way to going #1. Well, that’s what happened to George Jones several years earlier. He had some hits before “White Lightning” and country fans around the nation were beginning to pay attention but this record gained him a massive fanbase and changed his entire life. An exponentially greater number of people heard his Starday records after hearing “White Lightning” than however many people bought those Starday singles the year they were released. So if I were trying to recreate that process of discovery for you in 2021, then “White Lightning” would seem like the obvious place to begin. However, “White Lightning” was not released into a vacuum. It was released into the country music market created by everything covered in the introductory episodes of this season. People responded to “White Lightning” the way they did because they were living in that world and, at a certain point in my process, I realized that world needed to be built in order for your process of discovery to begin.
And it has now begun.
When the podcast returns, we’re headed right back to George Jones’ years on Starday, just like we’d have done in the late 1950s after discovering a young country singer through the song “White Lightning.”
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- George Jones – “White Lightning” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Maybe Little Baby” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Jerry Lee Lewis – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- The Big Bopper – “Chantilly Lace” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Rain Rain” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Treasure of Love” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Little Willie John – “All Around the World” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Waylon Jennings – “It’s Alright” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Just One More” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Color of the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “It’s Been a Long, Long Time for Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “I Guess I Had It Coming” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Mr. Fool” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “Shakin’ the Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Last Town I Painted” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Revenooer Man” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Who Shot Sam” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Out of Control” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Glad to Let Her Go” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “You’re Still on My Mind” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “The Window Up Above” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “One Day a Week” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Aching Breaking Heart” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Tender Years” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Melba Montgomery – “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Gene Pitney – “I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Johnny PayCheck – “A-11” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Walk Through This World with Me” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
Alright, these Liner Notes should be fun…
When I said the KKK hated what they viewed as a Roman Catholic drinking culture, that is precisely what I meant and nothing more or less. I did not say they were correct in that or any other view and I did not say that members of the KKK were any less hypocritical than nearly everyone else discussed in that segment of this episode. The various groups I referred to multiple times who supported Temperance and Prohibition for religious reasons obviously included many Roman Catholics.
There was this one little thing I found out about while researching this episode that was a pretty amazing connection between the intro and the song “White Lightning” but, from a storytelling standpoint, it just didn’t make sense to include it anywhere in the main episode. So here it is now: Pig Robbins loves going to NASCAR events. There’s an article in a 1982 issue of Illustrated Speedway News with him saying “The thunder of those engines… The smell of burning rubber on the asphalt… The cheering of the crowd, which is almost constant at Talladega because of all the passing… Well, it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s hard to describe the tingle that goes through my body. I’m not kidding. It’s almost like a powerful piece of music to me.” End quote. I just thought that was a cool thing and wanted to share it.
I expect a certain amount of people to hear the whole point of this episode as “fuck Johnny PayCheck” just as their main takeaway from the previous two episodes was “fuck Chet Atkins,” regardless of how many positive things I said and how careful I was to supply proper context. So, let’s get into it. First off, talking about a bunch of random people who decided Johnny PayCheck should get credit for something he didn’t do is in no way a criticism of Johnny PayCheck. He wasn’t one of the people who believed this. The reason nobody’s ever gonna find a quote from Johnny PayCheck saying he should get credit for the way George Jones sang is because PayCheck knew who his own influences were. A lot of folks who want this “Jones took a lot of his style from PayCheck” theory to be true are certainly gonna get pissed off by someone saying it’s actually the other way around but I don’t care. They’re wrong.
One reason I know how common this theory is among country fans is also the reason I know how easy it is for everyone who’s not a complete shithead to change their mind about it: I believed it was true for a long time. The reason I thought it was true is the same reason so many people still believe it, which is that until fairly recently the evidence seemed to back it up. Most people have never heard many of the song clips in that segment of this episode because the songs weren’t released until decades after being recorded. Many of the songs that were released still came out at least a few years after the sessions. For everyone paying attention to this stuff in real time, trying to put together a picture of what happened and when, the only thing they had to go on was the records that came out and the labels on the records didn’t include information about how long ago the sessions took place. Now that we do have comprehensive box sets that do come with that information, now that everyone reading this has had that information placed into greater context by this episode, the only way to argue PayCheck dictated George Jones’ vocal style is by ignoring all of the facts, which I would and did call ridiculously ignorant. When I researched a theory I believed to be true, I found out it was based on incomplete and inaccurate information, at which point I understood the theory was wrong and updated my beliefs. Anyone who can’t do the same thing will continue to have huge problems with this podcast.
While we’re on PayCheck, it’s worth pointing out he didn’t only play bass. Among other instruments, he could also play pedal steel guitar and he did sometimes do that as a Jones Boy and in the bands of other country artists.
As for my sources, other than those mentioned in the episode, one of the best sources for George Jones’ time at Mercury is The Complete Starday & Mercury Recordings box set released by Bear Family Records. While all of their box sets usually come with pretty great booklets giving all kinds of information on the recordings, this box set actually comes with a hardcover book by Kevin Coffey. There are all kinds of great pictures and the whole first part of the book is sort of a chronological narrative around the recording sessions with bits of biography on George Jones or the songwriters of the material or the musicians, etc. The part that was most useful for me, though, was in the back, where they give as much data as possible on the recording sessions, when they happened, which musicians were in the room and so on.
My other main sources are all on the Season 2 Library page and I think it makes the most sense to discuss each of those sources in the Liner Notes of the episodes to which they are the most relevant. So we’ll get into those later.
The most important source for all the moonshine stuff in the intro is a documentary which I believe may be officially titled The Last One but which I first saw years ago on YouTube with a title something like This Is the Last Damn Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make (video embedded above) and which is, of course, a quote from Popcorn Sutton. (This is the first time I’ve ever had to come back and make any kind of correction on Cocaine & Rhinestones. It’s just a comment in the Liner Notes but, still, worth correcting. I don’t know if it’s due to the name change on that documentary or what but there seems to be some confusion amongst various sources. Popcorn was definitely lying about that being the last run of moonshine that he made because it was filmed several years before his last bit of trouble with the government. And the filmmaker was not involved when Hank Williams Jr. partnered with Popcorn’s widow to make legal whiskey bearing Popcorn Sutton’s name. That’s all.)
As for the rest of the history of moonshine and the Whiskey Rebellion and Prohibition, I did the same thing I had to do for all of the not-explicitly-musical history in this season, which is cast a wide net and try to land a general consensus of what is agreed upon by most historians using the most up-to-date information. As we’re seeing so often in the United States right now and for the past several years, a lot of folks want to pick one source of information for their history and that one source often has a lot more to do with what any given person would like to believe is true than any desire to find out what is true. So I didn’t pick any single source and no significant portion of anything I said was unique to one source to such a degree it would need to be named here. However, this is a pretty fascinating corner of American history, so there are a lot of books written on these topics, from serious and dense to lighter collections of trivia and factoids. Though you won’t find all of the information I gave in these few books, some I can recommend would be Bootleg by Karen Blumenthal, Moonshine by Jamie Joyce and Prohibition by Edward Behr.
Okay, meet me back here in a couple weeks if you’d like to hear some more about George Jones’ time as a Starday recording artist.