Nate and Justin Bankston finish our appreciation of Tales from the Tour Bus season one with an interview with Jeff Feuerzeig, the scriptwriter of the Johnny Paycheck, George Jones and Tammy Wynette episodes. Full transcript after the break.
Nate Wilcox: We’ve got the honor of being joined by Jeff Feuerzeig, one of the co-writers of the show. How did you get involved with this project and how far along were they when you were brought in?
Jeff Feuerzeig: Well, I was approached by the producers. There was a great guy who came up with the idea of the show with Mike Judge. He actually brought the Johnny Paycheck idea to him, a guy named Rich Mullins. And I was approached because it turns out that Mike was a big fan of my film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and some of his other producers had just seen my latest film, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, so they thought I would be a good fit for what they were doing because I’m a big music geek.
Nate: As we know from your work. So, were you involved in the initial research, doing the background on Johnny Paycheck and George Jones and Tammy Wynette [episodes], or did you come on later in the process as kind of a script doctor?
Jeff: Oh God, no. I actually didn’t even meet Mike Judge. I just met the producers, and they had a list of stories, one of which was Paycheck. I told them very honestly, I only know ‘Take This Job and Shove It,’ and I was certainly not a fan of Paycheck, nor did I know his incredible story. We went into a writer’s room, me and my buddy and co-writer, Julien Nitzberg, and I just researched the hell out of Paycheck and came up with the arc and a lot of the humor that was sort of built into the story and the tragedy.
I kind of laid out in my mind what an episode would look like. I went out into the field with my buddy, Julien and conducted those interviews with the brothers who played in the band with Paycheck, as well as Swamp Dog and the lawyer who went to trial against Paycheck with the shooting, of course, and the judge. So, it was all done that way.
Nate: What was it like to work on a short form TV show, like what’s the biggest difference between working on a short form in a tight, 30-minute space as opposed to working on a documentary where you’ve got roughly 90 minutes, and can go longer if you need to?
Jeff: There’s not that big of a difference. With The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I had a lot more time. That was four-and-a-half years of editing all the time, then shooting more, and then editing and shooting and just getting it right. With Author: The JT LeRoy Story, that was about a year-and-a-half because I was doing it full-time. For instance, The Real Rocky, my ESPN 30 for 30, the Chuck Wepner documentary, that was done during an even shorter time period.
With network TV, there are deadlines and I’ve learned to sort of break these stories fast and then get them into an edit room with an editor and start shaping it. In this case, it’s animated. So then, after you have a fine cut, which is sort of really a radio play—it’s not visual yet—all the stories told become the visual ideas for the animators to then have some fun with.
Without that story being well-told, with the jokes and visuals built into the telling, there’s really nothing for the animators to work with.
Justin Bankston: We definitely enjoyed that aspect of it. It held together so well, the way that a good talking head documentary does, and when it came time to tell the stories, you had this beautiful look into the past that just took you on more of a ride than you were used to getting in these sorts of things.
Jeff: I’ll give you an example; Paycheck is the pilot episode, and as the pilot, it had to be aces. It had to be great. His story had more drama, more drugs, more love story, more twists and turns…then, of course, that shooting and the trial—it had so many incredible cinematic and visual scenes to be played out. When he’s in the bar (Paycheck), and they’re arguing with the townspeople about beer and they’re switching baseball caps, and Paycheck ends up shooting the guy over the cap, and the cap spins through the air like a cartoon and falls on the ground, all those little details are built into the interview, even thought the interviewees don’t exactly know how I’m getting it out of them. I’m basically circling back and circling back for all those little details that will be funny and visual. Because if they were just telling the story, they would tell it once, and if they tell it again, you’ll get more out of it. You sort of what I call “drill in” on these things, and that becomes these visuals.
Mike Judge definitely came up with the awesome look of the film, which I thought was pretty cool. He had referenced a great artist that I love, Raymond Pettibon, you might be familiar with his work from SST Records and Black Flag and Minute Men and Husker Du and that whole era, but he’s become a very respected fine artist—not that Tales From the Tour Bus looks like Pettibon, but he was an influence.
Justin: That’s really cool to know.
Nate: I’ll have to go back and look at it with a Pettibon lens on my eyes, because I definitely didn’t pick up on that. Now that I’m reimagining it, I can kind of see some of that. You worked on the George and Tammy two-parter, as well, right?
Jeff: That’s correct, yeah, with my buddy, Julien Nitzberg.
Nate: Tell us about that, like how you segue from the pilot into a big two-parter.
Jeff: There was a list of country artists, and I’m definitely attracted to great stories, and I also knew a little about George Jones and Tammy Wynette, particularly some of their hit songs, but I didn’t know the drama and the depth of their individual, and also as a couple, their tumultuous stories. Both of them are certifiably crazy. Crazy makes great drama and great humor and I quickly read two books on the subject and excavated it for all the best of it.
Once again, Julien and I went out into the field and did the exact same process as we did with Paycheck. We conducted those interviews with the best people we could find. Obviously, George and Tammy and Paycheck are deceased, so you can’t get a first-person telling out of them, so it’s important to find other people who were around, who knew them, who could tell those stories. Sometimes we went to prominent journalists who knew the story, but you have to have someone who can tell it, because it can’t come from me, even though I’m conducting these interviews for the screen. My voice can never be in there, but you’re certainly feeling it from behind the scenes.
Nate: With the big overlap with the Jones Boys, which was essentially Johnny Paycheck’s high school buddies; sometimes they played with Johnny Paycheck and sometimes they played with George and Tammy…
Jeff: You mean the Adams Brothers? [Editor's Note: The Jones Boys was the name of George Jones' backing group and Johnny Paycheck and the Adams Brothers were all Jones Boys at various times].
Nate: Yeah, and watching it, it just seemed like such a perfect overlap, and I had assumed that the three episodes had kind of been planned out together, knowing that you had those guys as the anchor and the connection. Was that not the case? Did you do another set of interviews with them for the George Jones episode later, or did you know you were doing the three-parter the whole time you were working on them?
Jeff: The Adams Brothers are quite old. I think the week after we filmed them, one of them had a problem. I think they’re still alive now, but these guys are really old, so we knew we had one shot with the Adams Brothers. As you point out, they span that era and that geographic location of country music in rural Ohio, of all places. They span music history where they’re Paycheck’s backup band and they go on to work and have a great career with George Jones. So, they’ve got endless stories and they’re pretty humorous guys. The interview with the Adams Brothers was primarily about Paycheck, and then at the very end, I had a separate list of questions and topics and story beats that I needed to get out of them, and we did that and then fleshed the rest of that episode out with other storytellers.
Nate: I see. But you knew going in that you were going to be doing three episodes of the series?
Jeff: We didn’t know exactly how many episodes on George and Tammy there would be because their stories were so rich that they could not be contained in one, 30-minute episode. It was impossible, so it deserved Part 1 and Part 2, because they both had their individual lives before they fall in love. Then they’re together and they’re tumultuous. And all the conflict that ensues, and all the craziness, then they break up. That ends up becoming a nice two half-hours, and it’s just how it worked out in that case.
Nate: Cool. It was brilliant, and watching the series, the way that you had the season opener—the Jerry Lee Lewis episode doesn’t quite fit into the arc of the season, but we understand or have a theory as to why it was second—but it seemed pretty natural to go Johnny Paycheck and then George and Tammy, and the second half of the season you’ve got Billy Joe Shaver and the two-parter with Waylon Jennings. In my mind, it was sort of like it was arced out in advance, but I guess that wasn’t the case and you were fleshing out the episodes as you were going, and figuring out how long it would take?
Jeff: Well, there was a list and the theme was “outlaw country music.” I, of course, did not work on those other episodes that you just mentioned, so I can’t really speak to that. Everybody knew Paycheck would be the pilot, there was no doubt in our minds about that. And we knew it would be a tough one to top.
Nate: Back to the George and Tammy thing real quick, you give the second episode with the happy ending and George Jones doing He Stopped Loving Her Today, which was kind of a cheat sort of historically. That was like ’79 – ’80 I think, and he goes on for another couple decades. How hard was it to find a satisfying conclusion to that? Did you think about other alternatives or did you know going in that you were going to have to end with He Stopped Loving Her Today?
Jeff: That’s a tough question to answer. You want a solid ending and you don’t want to end in darkness with George Jones, necessarily. With Paycheck, it ended so poignantly. It’s such a beautiful ending that we felt the other episode should live up to that format in some way, and I think that was the decision that got made.
Nate: One thing that fascinated me about the difference between Paycheck and Jones and their relationship with the Adams Brothers, is that in a lot of ways, they’re the same crazy asshole, Paycheck and Jones, but the Adams Brothers loved Paycheck, but you get the feeling that they didn’t really love George Jones, that the bullshit to quality quotient was very different with George Jones. They admired his music and liked working with him in that aspect, but otherwise, they pretty much say it—the guy was an asshole. Do you think that’s fair, that they loved Paycheck and they liked Tammy Wynette and just tolerated George Jones because it was a great working relationship, when it worked?
Jeff: I think that’s pretty fair to say. You’ve got to remember that as a kid, Paycheck grew up playing with the Adams Brothers, so they knew him as Donny Lytle. They used to beat him up when he was little. Then he evolved into a musician and a solo artist and then he was one of their peers from the same neighborhood. George Jones is not from rural Ohio. That was a great gig for the Adams Brothers and George Jones became, in many ways, country music royalty. He behaved that way and had more money than God and lived a different lifestyle, even though he was a degenerate alcoholic and madman.
Paycheck didn’t go on to that kind of lifestyle. He always remained who he was even though he made money. He blew it all on drugs and alcohol and living fast. He certainly didn’t have his own amusement park, where George Jones, of course, did. I think there was always a class system kind of thing where these guys were the band, the hired hands, the hired guns, not peers.
Justin: That’s awesome. I’m a fan of the Daniel Johnston movie, I thought it was beautiful and I also enjoyed the Half Japanese movie. I was wondering if you saw a connection between these like outsider artists that you had worked with in the past and then Johnny Paycheck who is famous, and like you said, made some money, but was also sort of a cultural outsider in his way?
Jeff: First of all, I’m glad you liked the films. Half Japanese is tough to get hold of these days because it’s only on DVD on Amazon, because that was 1993 when it came out. The thing is, with these stories and music, I’ve always been attracted to outsiders, because a lot of great cinema is outsiders. What is Rocky? He’s an underdog, and underdogs make great cinematic tales. I’m more interested in those type of musicians and artists because I think their stories are more interesting to audiences. In the case of Johnny Paycheck or Daniel Johnston, the mainstream audience doesn’t even necessarily know who these artists are, as opposed to a famous artist.
I would much rather make a movie about a Daniel Johnston or a Johnny Paycheck than a Kurt Cobain. Stories of famous people are really tough to tell because we already know the story. I feel like when people are watching something at the cinema or you’re watching alone in your living room, it’s all about stories, and no matter who it’s about, if the story’s great, I think it can hold you and entertain you and move you. So, that’s just where I’m coming from.
Justin: Well, that definitely came through in the series, specifically in the Paycheck and Jones episodes. The other thing that I thought of is how different is it to work on something with a sensitive living person like Daniel Johnston versus someone like Johnny Paycheck who is dead, so his feelings don’t matter, so did that make a difference in the way you approached it?
Jeff: You want to be respectful and truthful to any person’s life if you respect their art and their work. There’s no doubt about that. With Paycheck, I hope it comes through that humor is a big part of the story and I think that humor is built in to that story. With Daniel Johnston, who is alive, there’s a lot of humor in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, as well. But, Daniel Johnston has an incredible sense of humor, and that’s part of the story. As long as you’re respectful and truthful, there’s room for humor—as long as you’re not making fun of them. Not for one second are we making fun of Johnny Paycheck or Daniel Johnston. Comedy and tragedy, the comic and tragic masks, go hand-in-hand. That’s where the fun is, whether you’re reading a great book or watching a great movie.
Justin: One of the things that I loved about Tales from the Tour Bus is that it does come across really respectful even when the jokes are flying thick and heavy. There’s an obvious baseline of respect for the music and respect for the performers, which you don’t always get with country music, so I did appreciate that.
Jeff: Once again, I started with ‘Take this Job and Shove It’ and I ended up falling in love with that song that Swamp Dog wrote for Paycheck and ended up appreciating his music in and of itself. He’s a great, great singer, it turns out. The guy is much more talented and much more interesting than where I started with him.
As far as the humor goes, when we heard the story about “turtle soup,” for instance, when we were on set, they didn’t research anything about that great culinary option from rural Southern Ohio. When we heard about turtle soup on set, I remember Julien Nitzberg and I looking at each other, and we just wanted to mine that for all the humor it was worth, and of course, it became a great joke in the film. Things like that, you just have to be on the lookout for. Like you said, that episode is filled with humor.
Nate: The turtle soup thing, it’s like everybody had their own theory about the role of the turtle soup in the fight. I think it’s the manager who’s like, ‘They were just discussing the theory of turtle soup and how it should be made,’ and somebody else is saying, ‘No, they had some out in their car and they’re trying to offer it to him.’ The hilarity totally mounted and the manager’s off-color remarks about the turtles were crazy, too.
Working with Mike Judge, and his brand is humor, primarily, and your brand had been sort of off the beaten path musicians, but it sounds like you were bringing the humor, and that Mike and the animators were coming in after and illustrating it. Is that correct?
Jeff: In all fairness, it’s a collaboration. A lot of what’s great about Tales from the Tour Bus is Mike Judge as the deadpan host and he’s setting up those stories and doing an incredible job with that humor. But, of course, he handed off to people like myself and Julien Nitzberg, these stories. We were like, ‘What’s the word?’ We were big game hunting out there and looking to tell stories the way we tell them.
If you look back at my other work, The Real Rocky or The Devil and Daniel Johnston or Half Japanese, there’s always been a lot of humor in those films, but people, right now, like to think of them as music documentaries, but if you’re really watching, there’s quite a few laughs in those films. I was bringing my game, and Mike brought his game. We collaborated and put it together and that’s what you get. You get Tales from the Tour Bus.
Nate Wilcox: And it’s beautiful. Did Mike write his own intros?
Jeff Feuerzeig: The editor roughed in a lot of that stuff, because it had to be laid out in the edit room first, how many times Mike was going to pop up, but in the end, Mike re-wrote that and made it his own, because he has his own style and his own deadpan sense of humor. He did a great job with that stuff. I think those setups are just brilliant.
Nate: Yeah, I mean they put his brand all over it and open it perfectly.
The song selections are such a big part of the episodes and Justin and I talked on our show about the way these characters are so over the top—George Jones with the Donald Duck voice and cocaine psychosis and Johnny Paycheck thinking he’s gonna be a hitman for the Hell’s Angels—but the music selections are so powerful, and also, they contrast between the animation and the actual video or film footage of the music. How involved were you? Did you have carte blanch on the song selections or was that part of the collaborative process? Was it done later? How integral to that was the whole script?
Jeff: I was very involved. First of all, there was a limit to the budget of how many tracks per episode could even appear. So, that was already a huge issue and you had to pick very carefully. Obviously, ‘Take this Job and Shove It’ and then I fell in love with the Swamp Dog song, which is just a genius song, and Swamp Dog was really funny in his interview. He lives in Las Angeles and I’ve seen him play live in Echo Park. We brought him in, and he told his story. What’s so amazing about that is who would ever think that an African-American R&B singer is gonna write Johnny Paycheck’s second biggest hit song? You would never think that there was an African-American involved, so that was pretty cool.
The last song, and I’m forgetting the name of it right now, Mike Judge had fallen in love with that song, and there were two versions of it, and I felt really strongly about the version that got used, but it was also the one that Mike wanted, too. It was very emotional, that song, so we knew that would be a great closer, a real tear-jerker, but he definitely had eyeballed that song. It was a give and take. We all threw our two cents in the ring.
Nate: That song is ‘Old Violin’ and the Swamp Dog song is ‘(Don’t Take Her) She’s All I Got’
Jeff: Yes! ‘(Don’t Take Her) She’s All I Got’ is amazing. There’s actually quite a few versions of that song. If you go on YouTube, you can hear a couple different people doing that song. I think Paycheck’s is the strongest, but Swamp Dog’s original demo is pretty damned strong, as well. It’s just a brilliant song. It turns out Swamp Dog used to be a co-writer with Gary US Bonds, who is also a great R&B singer.
Nate: I had no idea about that. In the vintage “New Orleans” era Gary US Bonds, or later in his career?
Jeff: No, no. The early years’ Gary US Bonds. They were a songwriting team, it turns out.
Nate: That’s some epic stuff. I could go off on a number of tangents about that, but I’ll stick to what we’re talking about here.
How do you balance the needs of the narrative, your need for a story arc, and wrapping it up tidy with the historical accuracy, especially with the 30-minute time limit, and having to get songs in there? It seems like this is a real tightrope to do these shows as well as you did and be as accurate as you were.
Jeff: Well, if you lay out the research and lay out the beats, you’re still basically doing three acts, and you want a nice, three-act structure. I’ve done three-act structure already in my other longer films, and it’s just doing that in miniature. The historical accuracy is sort of built in, and you then pick and choose what’s gonna flow, what’s gonna work together and hang together and what’s gonna narratively move. The humor sort of screams out as the salt and pepper on top of the arc and atop the historical accuracy. The humor’s sort of built in to the scenes.
Nate: Mike Judge has this reputation, other than Beavis and Butthead, and to a lesser extent Silicon Valley, almost everything he has done has sort of been like a (slow burning) fuse. Office Space took forever to catch on. It bombed in the theater but then became an enormous cult success on DVD. Idiocracy was practically buried by FOX studios and then becomes this horribly prophetic movie that tells us where we’re at right now so brilliantly. I fell in love with Tales from the Tour Bus immediately, but almost nobody I knew had Cinemax and nobody had heard about the show. Do you feel like it’s starting to get some momentum? Are people still talking about it, or is it just us freaks that are obsessed with the series?
Jeff: That’s a good question. I think the second season got more publicity, and now I’m running into people that are like, ‘Oh my God! You did Tales from the Tour Bus?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. I did the pilot.’ They’re like, ‘Wow! We saw the Funk season and we went back and started watching the country one.’ That just keeps happening, and I kind of think it’s got a long shelf life. People are definitely talking about it and passing it around. You can’t really predict these things, but it definitely feels like a cult experience right now with people discovering it, which I think is really cool, and with what you guys are doing, it’s certainly going to help that happen.
Nate: We’re happy to make that small contribution. Do you have any plans? Have you been invited back? Do you know if they’re doing a third season?
Jeff: I’m not on the team anymore. I did my bit, which was great, but I’m off doing other projects right now, so I really don’t know if they’re doing a third season, to be quite honest.
Nate: Tell us about your upcoming stuff.
Jeff Feuerzeig: I’m trying to think of what I’m allowed to talk about. There’s a big music documentary that I’m not allowed to talk about that I’m in negotiations to start next month, and I can’t officially tell the world what it is yet. It’s a massive band, I’ll tell you that. It’s a huge feature doc, yeah. I’m excited about it, but it’s too soon to do a public statement on it, unfortunately.
Nate: Last question, you said you had a list of artists. What’s the one who got away, or was there somebody that you guys had considered—if you could have done one more artist, who would it have been?
Jeff Feuerzeig: That’s the best question you’ve asked, so here we go. You ready? I’m a huge fan of The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy recorded arguably the biggest novelty record in history, ‘Paralyzed.’ Anybody listening to this podcast should go to YouTube and listen to it right now. He became the inspiration for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.
Anyway, it’s a much, much larger story. He’s a total outsider, and not only did I pitch doing the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who we called by his nickname, ‘The Ledge,’ but I went out and actually did ‘The Ledge.” I did all the interviews and brought the story back. It went into edit and got through rough cut, and it was fantastic, and talk about funny…it was just amazing, because it was also about the Space Program and NASA and things like that. It had a lot of incredible themes like with David Bowie’s Space Oddity overlapping with ‘The Ledge’ growing up in Texas and being obsessed with the Space Program.
Unfortunately, that episode got killed. It died, and no one’s ever gonna see it, so it’s a tragedy. I promise you, it was great. It was awesome.
Nate: You know there’s a documentary about The Legendary Stardust Cowboy that I think had a similar fate. I’ve heard of people who’ve seen it.
Jeff: I’ve seen it. It’s sort of an unfinished film. It was made a long time ago. Whoever attempted to tell that story, it was a great effort. But, just wrap your head around Tales from the Tour Bus animation and what we would’ve done...I’m telling you, man, it should still be finished and still be released as another tale or bonus episode. It’s that good.
Nate: We’ll definitely start beating the drums. Ever since I heard about the first documentary, I’ve occasionally thought, ‘I should try to track that down.’ I’m glad to hear that you’ve seen it and that it’s out there and people are seeing it. Now that I know that there are two of them just out of reach, I guess (being tantalized is) what being a fan is all about.
Jeff: One is very unfinished. My episode never went to the animators. It just got through story and edit, so it’s an unfinished piece.
Nate: At least it wasn’t burned up in the Universal Studio fire, is all I can say.
Jeff: [Laughs] That’s a good one. It might have been, actually. Everything burned up there. There’s nothing left. All music history is gone.
Nate: Thanks so much for coming on the show, Jeff. This has been great.
Justin: Thank you for the show.
Jeff: Thank you guys. I appreciate your interest in all this, and it was certainly fun to chat about it all. Rock on.
Let It Roll is a series of in-depth interviews with music writers like Ed Ward, Robert Gordon, Paul Trynka, Peter Doggett, Elijah Wald and more.