George Jones, the man with perhaps the most distinctive and iconic voice in country music, died on Friday in Nashville at the age of eighty-one.
In the first moments after the news broke, thousands of people reached the same conclusion at the same time, a nice instance of hive-mind solidarity, and the Spotify and YouTube tracking numbers will surely reveal a massive spike for his song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which is one of the great sad songs in the American songbook, written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman. Jones took it to No. 1 on the country charts in 1980. Great artists are always preparing us for their deaths, giving us, through their careers, the tools with which to remember them. But rarely is a song so apt. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the ur-country story song, about a man who’d never gotten over his broken heart. The man kept a picture of his old flame by his bed, and her old letters, where he’d underlined “Every single ‘I love you.’ ” The man had lived in torment, released only by death. The chorus goes like this:
He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they’ll carry him away
He stopped loving her today.
The words are fine, but they don’t do the song, or Jones, much justice. His voice was the source of envy, and sometimes envious parody, among his peers. In its most notable and glorious movement, his voice bent and twanged like the sound an old saw makes when you give it a shake. He found vowels in words where no one had ever seen them before. Other pop singers have possessed what is often called “an instrument,” but Jones’s voice was the closest to making this expression real: it was a thing, like a reliable tool dusted off in an old shed, smooth in places, rough in others. It was like honey that had caught a few specks of dirt.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” came along at a time when Jones really needed it. It had been six years since he’d had a No. 1 hit, and he’d spent most of those, and the ones before it, mired in bouts of brutal, destructive, and massively anti-social alcoholism. Booze ruined his first marriage, and gave the world the notorious tale of how Jones, his car keys hidden by his wife, once left home on a riding lawn mower to put-put down the highway to a liquor store. At his worst, Jones could be a country-music caricature. Later, he made a cruel mess of the nineteen-seventies: alcohol and cocaine left him broke. The stories of Jones’s drunken antics are legion, and while their hard-living, hard-loving particulars might inspire a bit of awe (and gave him cred with rock and punk artists), just ask the women in his life what it was like to live with him. Yet, even in some of his lowest personal moments, Jones created great, signature music. He recorded “Bartender’s Blues,” written by James Taylor, in 1978. His rendering of the chorus, with its “four walls around me to hold my life,” may be the best expression of his incredible vocal gifts—despair and joy fighting out their eternal battle.
The recording sessions for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” took a long time, and were contentious. Jones was capricious and unreliable—other words for saying that he was a drunk. He never liked his nicknames. Possum disparaged his middling looks. No-Show Jones impugned his reliability and professionalism. Both were unkind, and both were deserved. He idolized Hank Williams, and it seemed like he was bound to follow him to an early grave. Yet “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was a hit, and three years later, at rock bottom, Jones quit the drinking and drugs, and lived on for three more decades, making music, recording too many albums, lending his golden voice to innumerable duets. He was Nashville royalty, name-checked by every young country singer with any sense. He’d been married to his fourth wife, Nancy, for those thirty years. In the end, he wasn’t the lonely, regretful man in his most famous song.
Jones’s songs lifted country-music aphorisms to a kind of high art, and his life and now death seem to demand aphorism as well, something blunt and simple like: George Jones was an imperfect man with a perfect voice. He lived like a devil and sang like an angel. Well, sure, but let’s skip that. There have been more interesting country singers, better musicians, and songwriters that have left a more indelible stamp on the genre. George Jones was, like Frank Sinatra, a gunslinger for hire—and he probably recorded as many bad songs as he did good ones. But let’s say, for today, that the good ones won out, and the best are the best there are: sad songs (“Things Have Gone to Pieces”) love songs (“Golden Ring,” with his longtime duet partner Tammy Wynette, who was also his wife and then his ex-wife), funny songs (“The Race Is On”), and silly songs (“The One I Loved Back Then”).
It’s barely after noon on the east coast, probably too early for a whiskey. But later, if you’ve got a moment, pour a couple of fingers and cue up some George. I’d start with one of his earliest hits, “Tender Years,” which was recorded in 1961 but may have been the best thing he ever did. George Jones outran and outlived his shadow for half a decade. He lived a long time. But his best songs are short. “Tender Years” runs at 2:28; you may want to set it on repeat.