Interview with Bob Allen
When George Jones died recently, it was great news for Bob Allen. Not that Bob was happy. Bob loved George Jones.
It’s just that once he wrote a massive book about the country star, and now, due to renewed interest in Jones’s career, Bob was about to make some money. A publisher decided to reissue the book and asked Bob to update it, and now there’s a new version, and Bob has a bit more money in his pocket.
You can order the book from Amazon: George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend (Updated Edition) by Bob Allen
If not for Bob, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading this. No, Bob is not my father. What I mean is, the reason I moved to Sykesville is that I read an article Bob wrote in the Baltimore City Paper about Jonathan Herman and Sykesville way back in 1998 or so, and after reading the article, we drove out for a look, we bought a house, and the rest is history, of a very minor sort. Bob is from around here. He went to Sykesville High School, was inspired, or maybe even rescued, by a teacher there, and he still lives in Eldersburg on the old farmhouse where he grew up, then left behind, then returned to after many years away.
I thought I would interview him. And I did, and it was the easiest interview I’ve ever done, because Bob’s a writer, and all I asked were basically three questions. Bob did the rest. Like I said, he’s a writer, and he wrote us a story.
First, I asked him to tell me about the book.
Jack, the book was first published in 1984, by Doubleday. I moved from Eldersburg to Nashville in 1976, with ambitions of being a country songwriter (lots of dollars if you hit it big back in those days). I started freelancing articles to make a living and to get entry into the music business, and that eventually took on a life of its own.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, I was Nashville editor of Country Music Magazine, the biggest and I think the best of a half-dozen or so national publications that were covering country music back then. Later, I spent a year as a staff writer and senior editor for Nashville, the city magazine that existed back then.
I was always aware of George Jones, because he is such a legendary and influential figure in country music. By the late 1970s, he was making headlines, both good and bad.
For various reasons, he sort of became a darling of the mainstream culture and media, because he was such a gifted, authentic and roots-oriented singer. He had his picture made with Andy Warhol and was in People Magazine quite a bit. Ironically, as his fame enlarged, the trajectory of the downward spiral he’d been on since divorcing singer Tammy Wynette deepened.
I first met him when he was approaching the bottom and agreed to an interview for Country Music Magazine. That was my first real meeting with him, and that was, I think, in 1978.
Time went on, I moved from Country Music Magazine, to Nashville Magazine, then back to being a freelancer again. At that point in my career, I had already written one “quick book,” but longed to write a real book.
Jones, meanwhile, had had a multi-million-seller with a song called “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He won a Grammy Award and a slew of other awards.
From Darling to Deranged
Meanwhile, he was getting deeper into cocaine, alcohol, and a state resembling insanity (because of the coke, I think). He had a drunken driving arrest near Nashville that got national media attention, totaled several cars in other states, was stabbed by a guy who was in the process of repossessing his car, and had a slew of lawsuits against him for everything from concert no-shows to abusing two women by trying to force them to drink whiskey backstage.
Meanwhile, while they were trying to book him into New York’s Bottom Line (where he once no-showed and stood up a roomful of music journalists who were there to sing his praises, no doubt), and trying to get him straight and in the studio long enough to record a follow-up to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” he was living out of his car and living on the run.
Suffering paranoid, coke-fired illusions that people were out to get him, he’d often drive aimlessly for days at a time, to Florida, Alabama, Nashville, God knows where, then eventually back to Nashville, only stopping long enough to duck into a motel under cover of darkness.
At one point, he was down to like 98 pounds and was institutionalized a couple of times, but always managed to smuggle drugs into the mental hospital.
I had floated a book proposal on Jones a couple years earlier, and it got turned down. Ironically, now that he’d become both famous and infamous, I got a call back from the same agent who wanted to try again to shop my proposal to one of the NY publishing houses, which this time she succeeded in doing.
Inspired by Raging Bull
What drew me to Jones’s story is the very same thing we were talking about in your back yard last week: why do some people, like Hendrix, work all their lives toward achieving a particular kind of success, then when they achieve it in spades, they melt down? That was what attracted me to Jones and his story.
Plus, by then, I had seen the movie “Raging Bull” several times and was totally dazzled by it. I saw Jones as sort of the Raging Bull of country: an amazing, untamed life force who was often his own worst enemy. I have to say Jones also reminded me of my father and my uncle, who were haunted by the same demons as Jones, though to a much lesser extreme.
Strangely, I even saw parts of myself in Jones, as those were not particularly happy years for me, what with unfulfilled professional ambitions and watching one romantic relationship after another painfully crash and burn. I really felt like an outsider back then, almost like a renegade, an outcast.
Once I got a contract and a $30K advance from Doubleday (by far the biggest advance I’ve ever gotten before or since), I threw myself feverishly into writing and researching the book. I traveled to Alabama, various parts of Texas and elsewhere, interviewing every family member, friend, former associate or fellow musician I could find.
Thirty Grand and Non-Stop Work
That entire year I think I took a grand total of three days off. There were no weekends or holidays for me. I just worked. Additionally, I didn’t turn down any freelance assignments during that time. Looking back on that year of marathon interviewing, writing and research, it was one of the most exhilarating periods of my life.
And I wrote the hell out of the book. I don’t think there is a page that didn’t go through four or five drafts, if not more. My first two drafts would be handwritten, then I’d switch over to my Selectric typewriter (state of the art at the time) and pound out two or three more drafts, until I had every sentence and every word precisely as I wanted it. And that certainly paid off; every once in a while, whether for research reasons or whatever, when I go back and reread sections of the book, I feel like it stands up well.
During the year that I wrote it, I was living in Nashville, but for a couple of months in the summer I came and visited my parents and worked on it in my house here (in Eldersburg), which I bought from my father in 1979.
At the time, I had rented it to a friend of a friend who taught at Westminster High. He lived here for quite a few years, and even stayed on for a while as a roommate after I moved back here. He was always amenable to me reducing my rent and moving into my old bedroom, where I worked, and I guess slept. All in all, that was a great time. I felt a lot of pressure, but I think it made the book that much better.
In 1994, the Doubleday hardback and paperback versions of my book had both gone out of print and I managed to get the rights back. So I was able to place it again with a long-gone company called Birch Lane, which paid me a little bit to update it, which I did. Then Birch Lane went into bankruptcy, and I got the rights back again.
When Jones died a year ago in April, I knew if there would ever be any interest in republishing it that was the time. So I eventually got in touch with a company called Hal Leonard, which publishes a lot of country and rock related books.
Death and the Final Pages
They paid me a modest but fair advance to write about a 40-page update, which I did last fall. It took about four to six weeks of intensive research and writing, but for whatever reason, I got into the zone, had a blast doing it, and did what I consider some of my best writing in recent years.
I love writing projects that are research-intensive that I can just throw myself into. It’s an almost magical feeling to start with a bunch of random events and a mild sense of chaos, and just pound and pick away at it all day long, day after day, until it somewhat mysteriously becomes a precisely organized and polished final product.
It’s exhilarating, and sometimes when a project like this is completed, I feel a sense of letdown, of sadness. For a while, life just seems rather pointless and rootless without something in which I can immerse myself.
So that was Bob’s answer to my first question. Then I asked him about Sykesville High School and his travels here and there, and he was off again.
Sykesville High was a great place, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences there for anything. Some of the teachers were great, while some others were either incompetent or, in one case, suffered from mental delusions.
The student body back then was about two-thirds farm boys or just country kids in general, but by the mid-sixties you already had a lot of families moving out here from Baltimore City and County, so there was a suburban influence too.
Up until that time I knew I had a vivid imagination and knew I liked to write, but it never crossed my mind that I was any good at it. Janet Jump was the first one in my life to read an assignment I wrote, then single me out to tell me she thought I had a talent for it and that I was way smarter than I thought I was.
First Words of Encouragement
Having an inquiring mind and tending toward rationalism, by the 10th grade I was already growing skeptical of religion or all the religious excuses people and nations used to justify the awful things they do to other people. In a very subtle way, in our classroom discussions and the readings she assigned us, it opened my mind to an extent it had never been opened before, and pretty soon I was questioning every belief and assumption that had been spoon fed to me since I was a little kid.
By then I was already an avid reader, and she introduced me to writers I wasn’t aware of, and reading them accelerated this process. I think she kind of let me know that there wasn’t something wrong with me because I looked a little deeper into things than most people, and there was nothing wrong with, essentially, being an intellectual.
Janet graduated from St. John’s College, in Annapolis, which is a liberal arts school with a curriculum based around the great books of the Western world. (One of her daughters later graduated from there.)
At that point, I’d never heard of St. John’s and was planning on attending Western Maryland (now McDaniel), just as a matter of convenience and the economic advantage of living at home, even though by that time my primary family was disintegrating, and I felt a lot of justifiable rage toward my parents, who were nice people, but awful parents in some ways.
Janet not only made me aware of St. John’s, but I later applied and was awarded a State Senatorial scholarship to attend, which I otherwise couldn’t have afforded to do. (My brief stint at St. John’s is an entirely separate story.)
Janet was one of two teachers I had in high school who were so inspiring and articulate that they really did open new worlds to me. The other was Randy Richardson. He taught history; Janet taught English, and when they discussed faraway places and long-gone times in class, I was able to visualize them.
I think it was right there at Sykesville High School, in their classrooms, that I first got the urge to travel and see as much of the world as I could.
So go ahead, Bob, tell me about St. John’s and your travels.
I attended St. John’s for two and a half semesters, then crashed and burned. Too much, too soon. The jump from little old Sykesville High to being surrounded by National Merit Scholars and people with 800 SAT scores was too much for my fragile self-esteem.
I immediately ducked into the University of Maryland, College Park to dodge the draft. At Maryland, I ended up writing a ton of copy for both the Diamondback (daily paper) and Argus, which was the student mag that existed then.
Eventually I became music editor of the Diamondback and wrote lots of reviews of both rock and country bands that came through U.M. Everyone from Steppenwolf to the James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad and Doug Kershaw.
When I graduated (a year later than I should have) in June, `71, I literally, the next day, on the spur of the moment, joined some friends who were leaving for California and points west for the summer.
Out of Sykesville and Onto the Road
We drove across the country in a Jeep Explorer with no roof, pulled up beneath underpasses when it rained, camped out in camp grounds, ended up with some friends of my friends living in Haight-Ashbury, where I’d already been back in ’67, when my roommate at St. John’s invited me to spend Christmas vacation with him and his family in Berkeley, California. (We hitchhiked as far as Ohio in the dead of winter, then flew the rest of the way.)
That trip was a real eye-opener. I went to a New Year’s show at the Fillmore, saw concerts in Golden Gate Park, had a blast.
But after a week or so back in Haight in `71, I split and hitchhiked up by myself to Lake Tahoe, where that same former roommate had a summer job. I spent the entire summer there and roaming around other parts of California, then took a side trip to spend about a month with some old friends from Sykesville who, by then, were living near Pikes Peak, and Cripple Creek, Colorado.
I finally got back to Maryland in the fall, paid some college buddies $25 a month to sleep on their sofa, worked multiple jobs and saved for more travels. In April, ’72, I left for Europe.
Further and Further from Home
I ended up in Munich, visiting friends of friends, then down to Greece and spent a month on the Isle of Crete with three British guys I met at a youth hostel.
The four of us decided to go to Egypt, which we did. From there, we hitchhiked across the northern coast of Africa and visited all the Arab countries. Then I split off by myself, went back through Spain, France, and finally back to Germany, where I shared an apartment with friends of friends who lived there fulltime.
In Munich, I ended up working about 6 months in a fancy hotel. I still had a couple thousand bucks and intended to keep going, around the world. But after nearly a year I got word my mother was terminally ill, so I came back home.
A miserable time.
It took me a while to get things together again, but about a year later I flew down to South America by myself and ended up spending seven months on that trip, visiting about 20 different countries, and pretty much going by land from Columbia down to Argentina and Chile, and back north via Central America and Mexico, mostly by buses and occasional train.
And Finally to Nashville
Then, after I was back home again (another miserable stretch), by ’76 I’d decided to move to Nashville, which I did that Spring. Didn’t know anybody down there or even anybody who did know anybody. I just loaded a few things in my VW Beetle and left. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
The reason for the move was that, by that time, I was really consumed by music. I was playing quite often with friends and this was just at the time that the so-called “Outlaws” like Waylon and Willie and Kris Kristofferson were getting lots and lots of national media attention. Basically by bringing more sophisticated lyrics and more candid themes to country music, that made it far more appealing to young rock n’ rollers like me.
I remember standing at the magazine rack at the old MacDougal’s drug store in Eldersburg, reading a copy of Country Song Roundup and an interview from John Prine (another big influence) who was from Chicago but was in Nashville recording an album when he was interviewed. It seems that right from that moment I knew that was where I needed to be.
By then, I’d also started writing songs, along with freelancing music articles and reviews and a little bit of poetry.
Even back in the early seventies, I’d seen many of the great country-rock bands out of California at the time: The Byrds, Burritto Brothers, Poco, Commander Cody, etc. and they were also pointing me in this direction.
I also had an uncle, Lawrence Allen, who was an old country boy from Kansas who worked as a janitor and lived in northern Virginia. He was a Doc Watson and Johnny Cash fanatic and often went to Nashville. He and I went to country shows in a night club called The Stardust (since burned) on Rt. 301 in Waldorf.
Saw Kristofferson there, Tom T. Hall and a bunch of others. My first trip to Nashville was with Uncle Lawrence, and we just hung out and did all the touristy things and had a great time. It took me a couple more years to get around to moving there, but I knew it was just a matter of time.
As to the question of whether country music was popular around here at the time, I don’t know. Neither of my parents were music fans of any kind, and I think top-40 rock dominated when I was growing up, but you need to remember that top 40 radio, like WCAO, the Baltimore station I listened to incessantly, played Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Animals, etc., but also Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bobby Bare and country artists like that.
Back then, there was no great distinction or dividing line as there is on commercial radio today. I really grew up heavily into rock ’n roll, as did most of my friends, but by the time I got to college I was really reading and writing and listening to a lot of music and was far more interested and enjoyed the snob appeal of finding out about new stuff than listening to the same old drivel everybody else was listening to.
Early on, I realized that most people just didn’t listen to music with the intensity and ear for detail that I did. For most people, it was, and still is, just audial wallpaper.
Like I said, after about a year of working in a warehouse and as a carpenter’s helper to one of the best friends I made in Nashville (an aspiring songwriter who later hit pay dirt when Brooks & Dunn recorded one of his songs and had a #2 hit with it), I was able to make a fulltime living as a freelancer to magazines, along with doing some promo writing for the labels.
At 27, I was so relieved to finally be on something that actually resembled a “professional” track, I sort of ran with that and the songwriting took a back burner. The great thing about my freelance assignments is that they eventually took me all through the southeastern states, from Kentucky coal country to hillbilly drag racing in Mississippi, and I loved it down there and felt completely at home and still do.
Bob is still in touch with Janet Jump. I’m in touch with her, too, and maybe soon we’ll have an interview with her. I hear that once long ago, German prisoners of war were held on her farm here in Carroll County.