NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice. Other great singers have come and gone, but this fact held true until Jones died Friday at 81 in a Nashville hospital after a year of ill health.
“Today, someone else has become the greatest living singer of traditional country music, but there will never be another George Jones,” said Bobby Braddock, the Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter who provided Jones with 29 songs.
Over six decades, Jones put 167 records on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart – a history-making 143 of them in the Top 40. Along the way, he won admirers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor and The Who’s Pete Townshend.
That Jones continued touring and recording until this month astonished and delighted fans who had seen him struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, marriages and divorces, lawsuits and brushes with death in auto accidents. His life became the stuff of country legend: After a drinking binge during which his wife took his car keys, Jones commandeered a riding lawn mower and drove to the liquor store.
“Hopefully (people) will remember me for my music and forgive me of the things I did that let ’em down,” Jones said in 2006.
Along the way, he continued to deliver hit after hit.
“In country music, George Jones set the standard long ago,” Johnny Cash once said. “No one has compared to him yet.”
In song, like life, Jones was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His signature song was He Stopped Loving Her Today, a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his love for a woman to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be a hit, won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award an unprecedented two years in a row.
Jones won Grammys in 1981 for He Stopped Loving Her Today and in 1999 for Choices. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center. He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he died.
George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, and grew up in Saratoga, Texas. As an 11-year-old, he made his first money as a singer when he played guitar and warbled Eddy Arnold songs for coins in front of a church. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at am arcade.
“That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward,” he recalled in his painfully self-critical 1996 memoir, I Lived to Tell the Tale. “It started what almost became a lifetime trend.”
He enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and cut his first record when he got out three years later, an original called No Money in This Deal. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 and had a number of hits in the next decade, including White Lightning, She Thinks I
Still Care and The Race Is On.
“I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That’s what country music is about,” he said in a 1991 interview. “My fans and real true country music fans know I’m not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song.”
It was while married to his second wife that the lawn mower ride to the liquor store took place. Country queen Tammy Wynette, Jones’ third wife, from 1969-75,
recounted a similar incident in her autobiography.
The real-life combination of two of country music’s greatest voices was the stuff of fairy tales, but the bitterness of their split often spilled into the public spotlight for years after. They reconciled well before her 1998 death from a blood clot.
Jones’ drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ’70s, and he had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances. Jones was arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges.
A creative downslide started to turn around in 1980 when he recorded Braddock and Curly Putman’s He Stopped Loving Her Today. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn’t master the melody and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude.
It wasn’t until Jones met his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado that he slowly but surely left the vices behind. Within a year of their 1983 marriage, he was clean and sober, Jones
wrote in his autobiography.
She survives him, along with several children, grandchildren and his sister.