It's the stuff of legend in Nashville, and George Jones says every word of it is true.
Yes, he was coming off a two-week drinking binge. Yes, he found the house empty and the cars gone. Yes, he took off on a riding mower in search of a drink.
No, he's not proud of it.
"I wasted a big, big part of my life. So many important years were totally lost," said Jones, whose alcohol and drug abuse got so bad he was dubbed "No Show Jones" for all the concerts he missed.
Today, sober and in good spirits, the 75-year-old singer says he has a lot to look back on and a lot to celebrate, including a recent album with fellow luminary Merle Haggard.
Last month, he testified at a Federal Communication Commission hearing, urging more restrictions on media ownership. Jones maintains that radio playlists are being determined by a relative few with little knowledge of country music history, and it's hurting artists and fans.
One of country music's most recognizable figures, with his deep voice and well-coiffed hair, Jones showed up about 30 minutes early for a recent Associated Press interview.
"Now that I show up, I show up early," he cracked.
AP: Why did you and Haggard decide to sing each other's songs on the recent album "Kickin' Out the Footlights ... Again"?
Jones: It's like hearing a new song, a hit song, I think, all over again because it's done with a different voice and in a little different way.
AP: It's been 25 years since you two recorded together. What took so long to do another record?
Jones: I think it's because we both had big label contracts. A few years back with the big labels it was very hard. You had to pay them so much money to use one of their artists. It was hard to get together that way. Today, you can go along and sing with anybody you want to, and it don't make a difference.
AP: "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is considered one of the greatest country songs of all time. Why do you think that song was so special?
Jones: It may sound corny, but all my life I've wanted to write exactly that song, or I've hunted for it. I wanted to hear a song or write a song about how you could express your greatest love for someone. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam brought it over that day and that was the first thing I thought of — "That's the song I've been looking for."
AP: What do you think about the state of country music today?
Jones: They say they're upgrading country music. I tell them they need to find a new title and let us have back our traditional country music. They've stolen our identity. I don't feel like the real thing will be back for quite a while. I'd like to see new artists recording traditional country music. Not for me. I just hate to see it not heard. I hate to see the new country artists not doing their thing because they're told what to do nowadays.
AP: You battled drug and alcohol addiction for much of your career. How did you fall into that?
Jones: When I started the only thing I'd drink was Coca-Cola. I started playing bars and clubs. People expected you — and so did management — to get out in the intermission and associate with the crowds. Most of them would be drunk and spitting on you and blowing their bad breath in your face. Pretty soon, the Coca-Cola wasn't strong enough. ... The only way we really thought we could put up with the environment was to have a drink and join them. Laugh with them and have a good time. It's a natural thing because it all blends in with music.
AP: Is it true that you once took off on a riding mower to get a drink?
Jones: It happened in east Texas when I was married to my boy's mother, Shirley (his second of four wives, the former Shirley Ann Corlea). I had been on about a two-week binge. I came home and naturally nobody was there. All my vehicles were gone and the big tractor was gone. I couldn't find a thing that looked like wheels. It was a Sunday morning and I'm dying, you know. I am hurtin' and I need a drink bad. Finally, after I half-a-day suffered, I finally looked out my bedroom window and I saw this little Cub Cadet sitting there, a little 10 horsepower. I said, "There ain't no key in there. Surely they took that out." I went out there and sure enough the key was in it and it kicked right on. I headed to town as far as I could go on it.
(Jones said he got to the main highway, caught a ride with a motorist and left the mower in a ditch.)
AP: You had a horrible car wreck in 1999 and pleaded guilty to DUI. How did that affect you?
Jones: Finally something put the fear of God in me. I really thought everyday that I was going to die. I think when I came to after about seven days I remember going out to the back of my property and doing a little praying. I wanted him to do whatever it took to help me straighten up my life and get it back right.
AP: What has been the greatest thrill of your career?
Jones: Having such a big song out of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and probably being voted into the (Country Music) Hall of Fame. So many wonderful things have happened to me. ... I've been very lucky. A lot of people, especially people in Nashville, don't see how I could still be here.
AP: What keeps you going?
Jones: I have always loved traditional country music. It has been like a religion for me. I would have played for nothing as long as somebody would have fed me. That's how much I loved it. I still do.