This interview ran in February 2006 a week before George Jones played a concert at Tucson Music Hall.

Country legend George Jones suspects history will not forgive him for his lifetime of transgressions.

Time has a long memory, and he believes certain indisputable facts will not be excused when it comes time to jot Jones' footnote.

"Hopefully it will remember me for my music and forgive me of the things I did that let 'em down," Jones says in a soothing Southern drawl.

He can recount his abuses without skipping a beat: drugs, alcohol. Others would toss women into that litany.

He abused his talent, showing up too drunk to perform and earning the nickname "No-Show Jones." The label sticks to this day in some circles, although now he's better known as "the Possum."

But Jones, the 74-year-old who has been recording country songs seeped in twangy tradition for more than 50 years, doesn't let that bother him. He insists that he's clean and has been since that near-fatal day in March 1999 when he crashed his sport utility vehicle into a bridge. He was convicted of driving drunk in the horrific wreck.

"That wreck put the fear of God in me. So I quit smokin' and drinkin', and I don't sneak around. I don't care what anybody says. I do not mess with any of it anymore," he says, then notes some of his detractors don't trust his assertion that he's changed his ways.

"And that's OK," he says in a forgiving tone. "They can think what they want to. I'm leadin' a good life now. My wife, I've made her happy, and she's naturally made me happy. Everything in life is just different. I think we're livin' it the right way for the first time."

Back in the 1960s and '70s, Jones assumed the star lifestyle. He lived large and in excess. On several occasions, it nearly cost him his career, but that smooth baritone that wraps itself softly and warmly around a lyric about heartbreak and love got him out of trouble time and again. No matter how much he irked his fans, the record company, promoters and others, all was forgiven after one listen to that voice; it had a way of dipping low then swooning high with an ever-so-slight yodel.

Over his career, Jones has charted 166 singles — a record that is unrivaled regardless of genre.

"We kept the charts ate up pretty good back in yonder days," he said in a phone interview last week from his home outside Nashville.

He's won countless country music awards, including two Grammys: best male vocalist in 1980 for his ultimate signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and the same nod in 1999 for "Choices."

On Wednesday — a day after he plays his first Tucson concert in decades — Jones will be up for another Grammy, this time for his recording of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away."

"I don't know how that came about, but I'm very thrilled about it," he says of the nomination, then he chuckles as if he were enjoying a private joke.

The song, the first cut on Jones' latest album, "Hits I Missed . . . and One I Didn't," was never really released as a single; Jones speculates that some disc jockeys enamored of him decided to give the song a spin or two.

"It's been a very good album for us," he says of "Hits," a collection of songs that Jones passed on throughout his career, from "Too Cold at Home" and "On the Other Hand" to the Hank Williams Jr.-penned "Blues Man" — which some, including Jones, say Williams wrote with him in mind.

The album has garnered critical acclaim; All Music Guide gushed: "Jones once again proves here that he is truly one of America's best singers."

Jones jokes now that he passed on those songs because "I was off ridin' my lawn mower or doin' something I shouldn't have been doin'."

The one hit he didn't pass on was the mournful ballad "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which is on "Hits." It's the first time since he released it in 1980 that Jones has re-recorded the song.

"It's almost identical," he says of the new version. "In fact, I think it's better because of the newer sounds you can get in the newer studios. You got newer electronics and engineers. It has really got a clean sound to it."

Some of the songs on "Hits" launched careers for the artists who recorded them. Bobby Bare's big break came in 1963 with "Detroit City," co-penned by Mel Tillis. And Mark Chesnutt had a decent run in 1990 with Bobby Lamoyne Harden's "Too Cold at Home."

Ask him if he regrets passing up any of those tunes and you can hear a shrug in Jones' voice as he explains that he reserves his regrets for bigger issues.

"If I have any regrets, it would be the fast livin' and people that I let down during those times. Only they know who they are. But you know it's just part of growin' up and part of livin', I guess," he explains apologetically. "Some of us take the easy route, but most of us don't. So we just have to live life and learn our mistakes and do what I'm doin' now.

"Oh, I regret a lot of things, but I've learned to live with 'em. Because there's not much you can do about 'em. I've accomplished about all you could. Maybe not the ultimate in popularity, but you know I've made a livin', and that's all I was expectin' out of it. The main thing was that I was able to do what I love to do."

History may not forgive George Jones, but it will surely remember him.

"A lot of times people came to see me and I was a no show," he confesses. "I just had some bad days, and hopefully they will forget those and lay 'em aside. Remember my music and myself; I tried to be honest and nice to people when I meet 'em. I just hope they remember me that way."

Quick Take

George Jones in concert

Presented by: Nederlander Events

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7

Where: Tucson Music Hall

Tickets: $49.50-$59.50 through Ticketmaster, 321-1000

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at 573-4642 or Continued on next page