George Jones, Johnny Paycheck Drummer Arnie Adams Dies

Editor’s Note: This remembrance was written by Saving Country Music contributor Kevin Smith, who helped induct the Adams Brothers as Ameripolitan Lifetime Achievement recipients in February of 2023.

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The Country Music world has lost an incredibly important and pioneering drummer. On August 28th, Roland “Arnie” Adams passed away at home, reportedly from a late-stage cancer that he only recently had become aware of. He was 86 years old.

Many may remember him from the Mike Judge-produced Cinemax mini-series Tales from The Tour Bus, where he appeared in two episodes alongside his brothers, narrating tales of life on the road with Johnny Paycheck and George Jones. Roland “Arnie” Adams was born in rural Ohio, on June 29, 1937, in Ross County near Greenfield. Arnie, a son of local fiddler Frank Adams and wife Katharine, grew up in a large family of talented musicians. 

As a member of The Adams Boys band, Arnie, along with brothers Gary and Don Adams, would form the nucleus of two of the significant honky tonk bands in history, George Jones’ band The Jones Boys, and Johnny Paychecks band The Lovemakers. Additionally, as a touring band, The Adams Brothers became a sort of go-to live band for the many stars of the day, and at a time in the early ’60s when actual touring bands were a true rarity.

At the time, there was Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, but not too many others had regular touring bands. In interviews, Arnie and his brothers recalled playing gigs with Loretta Lynn, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Merle Travis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger Miller, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ferlin Husky, Wynn Stewart, Roy Orbison, Melba Montgomery, and so many others.

Perhaps most significantly though, The Adams Brothers spent the entire first half of the ’60s as Jones Boys backing George for hundreds of live gigs a year with pedal steel godfather Buddy Emmons—a staggering feat when you consider the times and the conditions they worked in.  

Arnie Adams came into drumming quite accidentally and unexpectedly. As a young man, Arnie was observed tapping his hand on his leg in time with a live country music performance by local Ohio musician and Starday recording artist Paul Wayne. Wayne was looking for a drummer and commented to Adams that he seemed to have a great sense of musical timing, and would he consider playing drums?  Adams laughed at the ridiculous notion, but ultimately took a crack at it without any substantial lessons, and soon Paul Wayne hired him.

At the same time, Adams Brothers Gary and Don were harnessing their musical chops along with another town resident by the name of Donny Lytle. The young men were being mentored by local club owner Paul Angel, who would record them in his 2-track basement studio. In due time, Donny Lytle would change his name to Donny Young and would make excursions to Nashville, seeking any opportunities he could find as a musician and songwriter. Lytle would again change his name, this time to Johnny Paycheck.

The gigs in Nashville became more substantial, and soon Paycheck was taking Arnie, Gary and Don to play at various venues around the south. One fortuitous night, the phone rang at Tootsies Orchid Lounge adjacent to The Ryman in Nashville. It was a young George Jones asking to speak with Paycheck. Tootsies at the time was ground zero for songwriters and Paycheck was frequently there, seeking to forge lucrative connections.

Jones was in need of a steel player, and Paycheck volunteered to fill the slot. Jones took him up on it, and in short order, Paycheck recruited The Adams Brothers to fill out the lineup. Although this wasn’t the first edition of The Jones Boys, it was by far the most substantial and dependable band George had ever hired.

During the early ’60s, Paycheck would come and go with the band, and eventually, Buddy Emmons was drafted into service, which was a major boost for all involved. Arnie was a constant behind the drum kit at this time, watching the entire phenomenon happen. The stories that have been told about this period of time are fascinating to say the least. The musicianship was at an all-time high, and The Jones Boys for a time were the most sought after and envied live band in country music.

The Adams Brothers made numerous appearances on television backing Jones, Jimmy Dean, Little Jimmy Dickens and others. During this era, Arnie and the other two Adams recorded The Race is On album with Jones, and even recorded a live album at the behest of Pappy Dailey; George Jones Live at Dance Town USA. The album captured a bit of the magic era of Jones, and featured all three Adams jamming with Buddy Emmons. It stands today as one of the great early live country music albums.

Eventually though, the increasingly unpredictable behavior of George Jones would cause the Adams Brothers to sever their ties with him, leaving The Jones Boys band entirely, and going back to work with Paycheck for many more years. This proved to be a good move for a while, as Paycheck’s career was on the rise.

Arnie has shared many of his career highlights in recent interviews. There was the show he did with Paycheck at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Riding high on the success of chart hits like “She’s All I Got,” Paycheck was solidly on his game, and managed to pack out the venerable concert hall, which at that time was a show for the ages. Country acts weren’t common at Carnegie Hall, and this was huge. For Arnie, it was the realization that he had “made it,” and it brought a sense that all the years of playing in dive honky tonks had paid off somehow.

Another time, Adams recalled doing a series of shows with Johnny Paycheck in Las Vegas, with the addition of a horn section. That particular version of The Lovemakers, according to Adams, was so memorable that the great Wayne Newton was stage side in genuine awe of the musical fireworks that were taking place. Newton told Paycheck that he had the hottest band in Vegas and was a bit jealous.

Then there was the time The Jones Boys and George were touring together with Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, who were headlining the tour. It reached the point where Jones had enough of being opening act, and told Buck that he would headline that evening’s show, to which Buck informed him the contract didn’t read that way. Fuming, Jones took the stage and proceeded to play Owens’ entire set of songs. According to Adams, Jones even used Owens’ own jokes.

The audience roared in approval, and upon leaving the stage, George grinned at Owens, flipped him the bird, and said “follow that, Buck!” Owens fumed for a moment, then took the stage and played George Jones songs in response. The audience couldn’t have been more entertained. It wasn’t all fun and games, though, watching Jones make a fool of himself at times, became almost too much to bear for Arnie and Don. Not only were they trying to protect Jones from enraged promoters, and the occasional angry fan that George had mouthed off to, they were also trying to protect Jones from himself, sometimes chasing away moonshiners who would show up unannounced to bring samples of their “white lightning” product for their hero to sample.

Arnie was the biggest of the three Adams and he was supposed to be the “enforcer,” but Don was the one much more likely to get physical and in harms way with people who they perceived were a threat to them or Jones. Watching the Tales from the Tour Bus episodes, you get an idea of what “the wild life“ that Arnie referred to was really like. They had similar adventures with Paycheck.  

Don and Arnie Adams

An interesting opportunity for Arnie Adams came by way of a young songwriter named Merle Haggard. Before The Strangers even existed as a band, The Adams had the pleasure of backing Merle for a few shows. One thing led to the next, and Haggard ended up accompanying the boys back to their hometown of Greenfield for the weekend.

Haggard stayed a week with them and ended up recording a demo of a song he was working on called “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” The recording was done in the same basement studio the Adams Brothers had started their careers in. They ended up doing a concert with Hag in the nearby town of Bainbridge at the little Paxton Theater.

Haggard reportedly was impressed, and needed a band, so he made an offer to Arnie and the boys to go to California with him, and do some more shows. Arnie recalls asking Hag how many shows. Haggard replied, “Just two for now,” and said he could pay them $20 a piece for each show. Arnie and his brothers unsurprisingly declined that offer, and Haggard would eventually find a group of musicians elsewhere, who would become The Strangers.

The Adams would later continue to cross paths with Haggard, and their youngest brother Gary enjoyed pranking The Strangers so much that later in life when asked about The Adams Brothers, Haggard replied that they had “less than stellar “reputations. This particular quote always gave Arnie a certain sense of glee, and he loved telling the story to anyone who might listen.

Much more could be said about the music career of Arnie Adams, and its worth mentioning he was also a songwriter, sharing several co-writes with Paycheck including “Bayou Bum” and “Big Town Baby,” both of which Paycheck recorded. Dale Watson later covered “Big Town Baby,” and The Hacienda Brothers later covered “Bayou Bum.”

Sometime around 1971, Adams decided to hang up the touring life and settle in to a more domestic life back in his hometown of Greenfield, Ohio. He decided to focus on raising a family, and he managed to find work as a prison guard, a carpenter at times, and eventually worked for the railroad. His brothers Don and Gary would soldier on for a time, continuing to play live shows with Paycheck and occasionally Jones.

Arnie had no regrets leaving the music business, but enjoyed the time he did spend in it. Besides his music interests, Arnie enjoyed training quarter horses, and found fulfillment later in life in doing that.  Arnie’s contributions haven’t been overlooked though. In addition to being a star in the Mike Judge TV series, Arnie was recently inducted into the Ohio Country Music Hall of Fame, which he considered to be a great honor. He’s now in there alongside his brothers and Johnny Paycheck.

This past February, Arnie and his brother Don were also happy to attend the annual Ameripolitan Music Awards held in Memphis, Tennessee, and accept the coveted “Founder of The Sound” award. He and Don received a couple of standing ovations. As he hoisted the ceremonial trophy high in the air, he was treated to a genuine roar of thanks from a group of musicians and music fans who wanted to let him know how much his contributions to country music had meant. It was a particularly sweet moment for him, and some of his family were right there in the crowd to savor the moment with him and his brother Don.

Little did those of us who were there realize, we would only have a limited amount of time left to enjoy Arnie Adams and he would be gone. He was indeed one of the early professional drummers in country music, and he played with the absolute legends of the genre and many of its finest musicians to boot. His story is crazy, almost improbable. To this day, there are many musicians in Nashville and beyond, as well as music fans, who know the significance of Roland Arnie Adams.

Hats off to you Arnie Adams, you will be remembered, and thank you for the music, we salute you! 

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Roland Arnie Adams is survived by his brothers Farrell, Don and Darrell Adams. He is also survived by his children Brad, Brent, Tiffany, Lisa, Carla, Rhonda, Curtis, and Lee Ann. He has 28 grand-children and 33 great- grandchildren. His memorial service will take place on Saturday, September 2 at The Murray- Fettro Funeral Home in Greenfield, Ohio. Visitation from 11am to 1 pm at the funeral home. Funeral service at 1pm. 

Arnie and Don Adams with their Ameripolitan Award
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