“He is who is he because of the way he can sing a sad song to the world, and we all feel it. And we all know that he feels it. That’s why we all believe it. Because it’s real.”
—Charlie Starr on George Jones
A lot of folks are raving about Blackberry Smoke’s latest album You Hear Georgia as possibly on the the best in their catalog, and maybe one of the best so far in 2021. One of the songs that’s really resonating with folks is a decidedly country tune from the mostly Southern rock band called “Lonesome for a Livin'” featuring Jamey Johnson.
Even though the public is just now getting to hear it, the song has actually been around for a while. And as Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr reveals, it was actually originally written for none other than George Jones.
It all started back in 2009. Blackberry Smoke and Jamey Johnson had toured together a bit, and Blackberry’s Charlie Starr was riding down the road one day listening to the version of the song “Yesterday’s Wine” recorded by George Jones and Merle Haggard. On a whim Starr decided to reach out to Jamey and suggest they should record the song together just like that version. Jamey agreed, and a recording session was booked. And that’s all the song was supposed to be—Jamey and Charlie recording “Yesterday’s Wine” with Blackberry Smoke backing them up.
At the time, Blackberry Smoke had just started working with their current manager Trey Wilson, who also was working with producer James Stroud at the time, along with none other than George Jones himself. Trey suggested that James Stroud could produce the session, and they could try to get George Jones involved too. “I personally was like, ‘Are you kidding?'” Charlie Starr recalls. “I mean why would George Jones want to come spend a day in the studio with us?”
But lo and behold, George accepted.
“It was pretty surreal to even hear those words,” Charlie Starr tells Saving Country Music. “And I didn’t even think it would happen until George Jones walked into the door. When he did I was like, ‘Holy shit, there he is.’ I had never met him before, and it was such an honor. He was very gracious, and was not at all affected by the way that we look—us basically being a rock and roll band. I actually got a T-shirt made for the day. It says, ‘Don’t fuck with me, I sang with George Jones.’ He laughed and signed it.”
At the time, George was getting up there in age, and they didn’t know how much actual singing he would want to do, perhaps just overdub a line or two. But at George’s insistence, he sang “Yesterday’s Wine” live and in full with Jamey and Charlie Starr. The song ended up as the bonus track on Blackberry Smoke’s 2009 album Little Piece of Dixie.
“It’s still a pinch me moment to think that he was involved in it that way,” says Starr, who a few years later got the opportunity to perform “Yesterday’s Wine” with Jones during his final show at the Ryman Auditorium.
A few years later around 2012, Charlie Starr got word that George Jones was working on a final record, and would be retiring. It was suggested that Charlie write a song to pitch to George, and so he wrote none other than “Lonesome for a Livin’.”
“It was really meant for him, because those lyrics, it’s not me singing about myself.” Starr says. “That character is a honky tonk singer. It was him, or my vision of him anyway. He is who is he because of the way he can sing a sad song to the world, and we all feel it. And we all know that he feels it. That’s why we all believe it. Because it’s real.”
But that final George Jones album never came about. Jones died on April 26th, 2013 at the age of 81. And so the song “Lonesome for a Livin'” just sat on a shelf for five years. Then in 2018, Blackberry Smoke and Jamey Johnson were on tour together once again, and Charlie Starr was hanging out on Jamey Johnson’s bus with Jamey and Jamey’s dad, who mentioned how he listens to the Jamey/Charlie/George Jones version of “Yesterday’s Wine” almost every day, and suggested Jamey and Charlie record another song together.
“I said I’ve got a song. It was for George. It’s a honky tonk ballad. We’d have to change a few lyrics because it was really meant for him to sing. Jamey said, ‘What’s it called?’ and I said ‘Lonesome for a Livin” and Jamey said, ‘I’m in. I don’t even need to hear the song. The title’s good enough.'”
So Jamey and Charlie Starr once again joined each other in the studio with Blackberry Smoke backing them up, and “Lonesome for a Livin'” came to life.
“When I stand back and look at it, I don’t know that it’s Jamey or myself singing about ourselves. It’s just a tribute to George,” says Charlie Starr. “I was telling my wife one day while I was taking stock as you’ll do from time to time about things you’ve done in your life. Singing with George Jones is probably the top of the heap.”