By Chris Talbott and Hillel Italie
NASHVILLE, Tenn.— When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice.
Other great singers have come and gone, but this fact remained inviolate until Jones passed away 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 the decades. “No one in country music has influenced so many other artists.”
Jones died in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour, which included a stop at the Fox Theatre on April 19. The date was postponed to May 10 after he went to a hospital with irregular blood pressure.
The Fox will give refunds: see the note attached to the story for more information.
Stars had lined up to sign on to the tour, many remembering Jones’ kindnesses over the years.
Kenny Chesney thinks Jones may have one of the greatest voices in not just country history, but music history. But he remembers Jones for more than that. He was picked for a tour with Jones and Tammy Wynette early in his career and cherishes the memory of being invited to fly home on Jones’ private jet after one of the concerts.
“I remember sitting there on that jet, thinking, ‘This can’t be happening,’ because he was George Jones, and I was some kid from nowhere,” Chesney said in an email. “I’m sure he knew, but he was generous to kids chasing the dream, and I never forgot it.”
Rich and deep, strong enough to crack like a whip, but supple enough to bring tears, Jones’ voice was so powerful, it made him the first thoroughly modern country superstar, complete with the substance-abuse problems and rich-and-famous celebrity lifestyle that included mansions, multiple divorces and — to hear one fellow performer tell it — fistfuls of cocaine.
He was a beloved and at times a notorious figure in Nashville and his problems were just as legendary as his songs. Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he only avoided by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.
His failure to appear for concerts left him with the nickname “No Show Jones,” and he later recorded a song by that name and often opened his shows by singing it. His wild life was revealed in song and in his handsome, troubled face, with its dark, deep-set eyes and dimpled chin.
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ’70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, but Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation.
In his memoir, “Satan is Real,” Charlie Louvin recounts being offered a fistful of cocaine by Jones backstage at a concert.
But when you dropped the needle on one of Jones’ records, all the troubles tied to the man went away, and listeners were left with The Voice and its emotions.
“I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That’s what country music is about,” Jones said in a 1991 AP 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.”
Alan Jackson said of Jones in a 2011 interview: “He just knows how to pull every drop of emotion out of it of the songs if it’s an emotional song or if it’s a fun song he knows how to make that work. It’s rare. He was a big fan of Hank Williams Sr. like me. He tried to sing like Hank in the early days. I’ve heard early cuts. And the difference is Hank was a singer and he was a great writer, but he didn’t have that natural voice like George. Not many people do. That just sets him apart from everybody.”
Jones had No. 1 songs in five separate decades, from the 1950s to 1990s and had fans across musical genres, including Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello and James Taylor.
Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.
“The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die,” Garth Brooks said in an email to The Associated Press. “Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music.”
Dolly Parton said, “My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world.”
Ronnie Dunn added: “The greatest country blues singer to ever live.”
In Jones’ case, that’s not hyperbole. In a career that lasted more than 50 years, “Possum” as he was known to friends and fans, evolved from an east Texas street busker whose family lived in public housing to young honky-tonker to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music.
His songs, like his life, he were rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” the foot-tapping “The Race is On,” the foot-stomping “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” the melancholy “She Thinks I Still Care,” the rockin’ “White Lightning,” and the barfly lament “Still Doing Time.” Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including “Golden Ring,” “Near You,” “Southern California” and “We’re Gonna Hold On.” He also sang with such peers as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and with Costello and other rock performers.
But 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, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time and won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award an unprecedented two years in a row, along with a 1981 Grammy award.
The 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record it, but the song took more than a year to finish, partly because Jones couldn’t master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude (“She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he’s over her for good.”)
“Pretty simple, eh?” Jones wrote in his memoir. “I couldn’t get it.”
Drinking had overtaken his life.
“In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time,” Jones wrote in his memoir. “If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep.”
“I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I’d fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines,” Jones remembered.
He was convinced the song was too “morbid” to catch on. But “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
“There is a God,” he recalled.
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.
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