If you love country music, REAL country music, the debut album by Zona Jones is going to spike your Pleasure Meter way past the red zone!
Zona's collection, Harleys & Horses, is just about the perfect country CD, a revelation of assured performances, superb production touches and flawless song selection. This is proof positive of the old axiom, "Good things come to those who wait."
Zona Jones has spent a decade gathering experience and fans in Southeast Texas. That's why Harleys & Horses sounds so fully formed and so righteously satisfying.
"We've worked on this awfully hard and spent a good bit of time trying to get to this point," says the genial Texan. "But I knew we were on the right track. You'd be surprised at how many people in the honky tonks, beer joints and dance halls come up and say, 'We love the music you play – nobody else does what you do.' People really seem to want to hear this kind of music. I never thought much about it. We were just playing the music that we liked, and they were all going, 'Wow. This is so cool.'"
Hardcore country music is a way of life in Southeast Texas. Zona Jones is the latest in a long line of sterling singers who have graduated from regional stardom there to national prominence. In fact, he has performed in exactly the same clubs that launched the careers of Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd and Clay Walker.
Zona Jones got to those venues on a roundabout route involving ranches, football, churches, law school and secretaries. He is the son of Texas ranchers Gene and Gini Jones, who urged their children to get an education to find a better way of life. Becoming a singing cowboy was not what they had in mind.
"My dad rodeo'd while he was in college and professionally for a short while. He was due to compete in the Phoenix/Scottsdale Rodeo near the time I was born. Well, he had to miss that leg of the trip because I was a month late in coming, and he was waiting at home until I was born and he knew my mom was okay. He missed the rodeo in Arizona that year, so they decided to name me 'Arizona.' Which they shortened to Zona.
After living in Kingsville, Texas until he was six years old, Zona and his family moved to far West Texas. "We didn't have television on the ranch, because we lived way out in the middle of nowhere. The closest town to us was Valentine, Texas (population 219). In a good year, we would have 100 kids, total, enrolled in school, from kindergarten through 12th grade. That's the kind of community we grew up in."
His maternal grandmother had sung in a family group on the radio in Southern Oklahoma during the Depression. She played the boy records, all kinds of records, everything from pop to country, and tape recorded him while he sang along. She taught him to love a wide variety of music. He also listened to his mom and dad's collection of music, the likes of Marty Robbins, Charley Pride, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Johnny Bush, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Lynn Anderson, Skeeter Davis, Elvis and the Beatles.
"My folks insisted that my sisters and I get exposure to as many things as we could. One of those was playing a musical instrument. So I started taking guitar lessons in the second grade. I really didn't like it much. I was more interested in riding my horse and hunting on the ranch with my father and grandfather.
"They wanted us to experience more. So we moved to El Paso for a couple of years. Then after that we moved to Florida. By the time I got to college, we'd moved four times. It was quite a learning experience. We met so many people and made so many lifelong friends along the way. I wouldn't trade the way I grew up for anything."
"All the way along, my mother and father made us work at home and on the ranch. They made sure we were interested in going to college. They worked us so hard that the only thing I could think of was getting a job inside some place where there was air conditioning."
Dutifully, Zona Jones enrolled in Waco's Baylor University to get his education and play football. But his dreams of someday playing quarterback professionally ended when he suffered a series of knee injuries. Nevertheless, the college football experience changed his life.
In the summer of 1981, Zona saw George Strait in concert and was transfixed. He began playing Strait's music for his football buddies. Not long after, the college student began singing, himself. He was soon performing in churches with some of his fellow athletes in a group called The Action Singers. In time, he picked up the guitar again.
As a teen, Zona's taste ran to arena-rock groups like Journey, Boston, Foreigner and Styx. But now the music of Alabama, Earl Thomas Conley, Johnny Rodriguez, Keith Whitley and the other country stars of the time were added to his list of favorites. While in law school at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, he sang country music in a variety show. A videotape of his performance was seen by some lawyers who had recruited him for their practice in Beaumont, then as now a honky-tonk hotbed.
"Strait is really the one who made me love country music again. He brought me back to the music I loved when I was a kid growing up in West Texas. When I started singing in a little band we put together in law school, the people there were very encouraging. After moving to Beaumont, some of the ladies on our staff found out I sang a little. They encouraged me to pursue my singing and playing. Things just sort of evolved from there.
Several of the secretaries regularly went to the famed Beaumont nightspot Cutter's. Its star attraction, Mark Chesnutt, left there when his string of national hit records began in 1990. Chesnutt's place at Cutter's was taken by Tracy Byrd. He graduated to national stardom in 1993. Zona Jones and his band SwingWest staged their debut at the nearby Neon Armadillo club on July 30, 1993. Soon they were playing the regional hot spots Get Down Brown's, Phaz II, Bourbon Street, as well as Cutter's. After Clay Walker left the Neon Armadillo club, Zona and his group became the "house band" there.
"What really made the difference for me was being here in Beaumont," he reflects. "Seeing three of my friends actually make it showed me it could be done."
Within two years of his stage debut, Zona Jones was set to follow Chesnutt, Byrd and Walker to Nashville. In 1995 he was signed to a "development deal" by Warner Bros. Records. But after two years of song searches and studio experimentation, the label deemed him "too country" and decided not to add him to its roster.
The experience was not without its benefits. Zona learned how to unearth quality songs on Music Row, made valuable contacts and gained knowledge and expertise. Famed producer Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, Faith Hill, Phil Vassar, etc.) had helped Zona refine his sound during the Warner years. When the singer began to work on Harleys & Horses in 1999, he recruited the producer to craft its first four tracks.
Around this same time, demand for Zona's music began to spread from beyond his Beaumont base. Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Lake Charles, Louisiana became regular stopping places for him and Swing West. Between working full time by day and playing shows just about every night, months went by before he could return to Nashville to work on his record. When he did, he turned to another of his contacts, Mike Jones. Together, the two produced five more tracks.
During his ongoing song searches, Zona contacted another long-time friend made during his Warner Brothers days in Nashville, Randy Boudreaux, noted as the tunesmith behind such hits as "Alibis" (Tracy Lawrence), "Who Needs You Baby" (Clay Walker) and "Brokenheartsville" (Joe Nichols) not only agreed to provide two songs, he signed on to co-produce the final four tracks with the two Jones boys.
It took more than two-and-a-half years to complete Harleys & Horses. The CD was finally finished on the 10th anniversary of Zona Jones' Beaumont stage debut.
But the wait has been worth it. From its sad ballads "Whiskey Kind of Way," "I'll Give It to You" and "Now We're Even" to its upbeat romps "Honky Tonk Baby," "All of Me" and "I Said All This," this is an album to savor. Whether lingering on the waltz "My Hat's Off to Him," toe tapping to the two-step "Back in Your Arms" or gliding along with the smooth tempo of "In My Eyes," there's something to love in every note. The title tune sounds like Zona's autobiography. The sweet "Two Hearts" is already a wedding favorite in Texas. "One Fool on a Stool" is classic honky-tonk music. And when was the last time you heard a western swinger about a "cathouse?" That's "House of Negotiable Affections," the collection's inescapably ear-catching first single.
"It's been a real labor of love," says Zona Jones of his debut CD. "I made a lot of friends along the way. Looking back, I think it was all just meant to be. I got into this because I love to sing and play music. If it was just about making money, I could continue my law practice and sleep in my own bed every night.
"I don't think I chose country music. It's almost like it chose me. It just jumped out and grabbed me. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do or any other music I'd want to sing."
--- from the official Zona Jones website