Mike Judge is behind a new TV show this month, with Cinemax’s “Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus,” an animated eight-episode series looking into the lives and times behind some iconic country music performers.
Some of these folks are household names from Nashville to Norway, but others are lesser-known figures from the country music world. They all have distinct styles and, as “Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus” shows, they all led very different lives away from the stage.
We’ll leave the prime anecdotes and animated hijinks to the experts (the series premieres Friday, September 22 at 10pm ET/PT on Cinemax), but in the meantime, here’s a primer on the musicians that make up the backbone of this illustrated look at country music history.
A rebel among rebels in the country music world, Johnny Paycheck is probably best known for his 1977 country anthem “Take This Job and Shove It.” Though that song may have helped cultivate his defiant persona, his quintessential song might just be “She’s All I Got,” a doomed romantic plea of a song that’s somehow still as lively as his other hits. For a full sense of his career and the tumultuous life he led away from the recording studio, listen to “Old Violin,” which climbed the country charts after he received his sentence for his part in a 1985 shooting incident. You can hear the weight of decades of public and private life in his voice.
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Tammy Wynette and George Jones
Wynette and Jones were country royalty, both when they were married and when they were apart. For the six years that they were together, they’re partnership headlined the country music world. Even after they split, their collaborations were still a highlight of the country landscape, as evidenced by the above performance of “Golden Ring.” But as much as they achieved together, each of them had iconic careers of their own. Wynette found fame with legendary ballads like “Stand By Your Man,” but that same lovely and haunting spirit flows through other classics like “He’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory” and “There Goes My Everything.” As for Jones, who found fame on the strength of heartbreaking songs like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” his distinct singing style helped to shape a legion of southern singers who came in his wake. Just hear all the loss and history he packs into a song like “The Grand Tour.“
Billy Joe Shaver
After the heydays of George Jones and Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver’s most popular songs feel more like a bridge to the next generation of artists that would come lead the sound of the ’80s and ’90s. Another eventual country star who had more success writing songs for more famous performers before pushing to record his own music, Shaver eventually got the chance to put his name on tunes like “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” Songs like “Live Forever” have an oddly hopeful tint to them, even in a storied tradition of down-on-your-luck country hits. Shaver also found a third career as an actor, popping up in TV shows and films, even lending his voice to the “Squidbillies” theme song.
Jerry Lee Lewis
With roots in the early rock and roll and rockabilly pantheons, Jerry Lee Lewis might be the best known of all the “Tales from the Tour Bus” subjects. His hits are legendary: “Great Balls of Fire” and his version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are seminal tracks in laying the groundwork for decades of popular music. Thanks to a handful of biopics and his controversial public image, his private life has come to shape his legacy just as much as the work he did sitting at a keyboard. If you’re looking for another distillation of his musical appeal, try his lesser-known “Wild One.”
A seminal member of the Outlaw Country wave in the 1970s, Waylon Jennings came up playing in Buddy Holly’s band. Over time, Jennings came to define himself and his music by how much he bucked the trend of his predecessors and contemporaries, most notably in “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Along the way, Jennings also found success outside the country world, writing and performing the theme song for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Aside from modeling himself in relation to his country ancestors, he frequently collaborated with his peers — no Waylon overview would be complete without his Willie Nelson duet “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).“
While many country musicians built their careers on building outsized personalities, Foley gained notoriety by maintaining a calmer style. Listen to one of his trademark songs, “Clay Pigeons,” and not only is it a solitary tune about making plans, it’s just him and a guitar. Born in Arkansas (as Michael Fuller) and raised in Texas, there’s still plenty of Foley’s life that remains a mystery, including the exact series of events that led to his untimely passing in 1989. But what Foley left behind is a humble legacy that lives on in versions of his songs and tributes performed by Merle Haggard, John Prine and Foley’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (Be sure to check out “Big Cheeseburgers & Good French Fries” for good measure.)