I FIRST HEARD GEORGE JONES’S music when I was a little kid growing up in Tennessee in the 1960s. He was always a big star, especially in the South, but when I was young I thought country music was really corny and embarrassing — all the flashy suits and stuff. I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll kid; I liked the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees. I didn’t really get to appreciate country music until I was in high school, when I realized that my favorite bands, like the Grateful Dead and Neil Young and Bob Dylan, loved it. Because I was a superficial adolescent following the trends, I took another look at country music and grew to love it, especially George Jones. I think he’s the greatest of all the country western honky-tonk country singers, and one of the great song stylists in any genre. He had that special genius for conveying emotion, which is just something you’re born with. He was a brilliant performer — a rare and beautiful thing.
When the Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas 2009 asked me to create an installation, I decided to do a giant George Jones head, for two reasons. Number one was that George got his start in Houston, and had his first big hits there; he grew up in East Texas, not far away. Number two was that it was really hot in Houston when I was there, and I kept thinking of a line from that song “Ragged But Right”: “I got a big electric fan to keep me cool while I sleep.” Without fans and moving air, there’d be no civilization in Houston.
So I made a giant George Jones puppet head. I already had a small puppet head of George in my studio in Los Angeles, and I envisioned this head filling a whole room. The version I made for the Rice Gallery was 26 feet long, and about 14 feet tall at its highest point. It was also interactive: you could pull a rope and its mouth would open and close, and its eyes opened and closed, too. If you peeked into the back of the head, there was a puppet show inside that you could watch, with motorized marionettes dancing in a honky-tonk. It was George sleeping it off in a hot Houston night. When you pulled the rope, George’s giant mouth — which was like eight feet tall — opened, and whiskey breath wafted out from inside the puppet.
When I got back to LA, the phone rang. “Wayne, this is George Jones,” the man on the other side of the line said. I couldn’t believe it. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever done for me, son. I can’t believe you did that. That is somethin’ else.” He was the sweetest, most appreciative guy. “Son, next time you’re in Nashville, you call me up and I’ll take you out to the biggest steak dinner you’ve ever had.”
My one regret, when I heard the news, is that I never did hook up with George for that steak dinner.