There are hell-raisers, there are epic hell-raisers, and then there’s George Jones, who concluded his improbable 81-year run of cheating death today. Jones was near the top of the country music pantheon by anyone’s lights. Never exactly a traditionalist (until “country tradition” became what he’d been doing for decades), never even remotely a crossover artist, he was blessed with a voice with incredible power and gravity. Over the course of his 57-year career (he didn’t retire from the stage until last year), his reputation rose and fell and rose and fell again. But his rich, emotive baritone was the North Star by which nearly every male singer in country who came after him oriented his own performances.
Jones’ first #1 country hit, 1959′s “White Lightning” (below), was the closest he ever got to a pop hit — it clawed its way up to #73 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was also a song about alcohol, the vice that defined his life. He got his nickname “No-Show Jones” for his habit of getting so drunk he couldn’t perform on stage. (In his later, relatively more sober years, he tended to open his shows with a song called “No-Show Jones.”) The most famous anecdote about him is a story about his addiction: when his wife hid the keys to his many cars, he drove his lawnmower to get to a liquor store.
But he still managed to get it together when he went into the recording studio, and still toured constantly. He recorded roughly 100 albums, and that’s not counting greatest-hits and repackagings of his old catalog. He had country chart hits every year from 1955 to 1996; at the peak of his career, in 1965, he had five hits on his own, and another five hit duets with Gene Pitney. Jones was, among other things, a great duet singer – most famously with Tammy Wynette, to whom he was married from 1969 to 1975, and with whom he performed intermittently for the rest of her life. Their stormy relationship, from its inception to its collapse, was documented in a series of hits; this version of “Golden Ring” was filmed two years after their divorce.
Behind all the madness — the D.U.I.s, the divorces, the gun play, the stints in rehab, the multiple attempts to build theme parks, the 1979 bankruptcy — was Jones’ craft as a vocalist and interpreter. Listen to “The Grand Tour,” his 1974 #1 country hit (below). Producer Billy Sherrill’s “countrypolitan” arrangement is drenched in upwardly aspirational strings, and the rhythm section’s doing a by-the-numbers lope, but those are just cushions against the brutal force of Jones’ performance: the folksy drawl of its opening lines (“home shweet home,” he lateralizes) balanced by the throbbing ache of his tone, the gradual ramping-up of emotional intensity, the precision of the way his notes bend and fold around each syllable of the lyric.
As his career was tanking and his health was failing, he recorded his masterpiece, 1980′s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — patched together from sessions over the course of a year and a half. It’s a sentimental but stunningly powerful song about aging, death and memory, and when Sherrill’s strings come in on the final verse, they still send shivers up the spine. It revived Jones’ career (and won the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award two years in a row).
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” marked the shift in Jones’ reputation from “wildman hitmaker” to “beloved elder of the clan.” He had a few more years of boozing, and a few more brushes with the law. But his work ethic, once again, carried him through. Jones’ great subject had always been nostalgia, and that served him well as the sound of most of mainstream country moved past his steadfastly square music. He mocked his old reputation with “NOSHOW” license plates and videos in which he rode a lawnmower; he continued to record duets with Wynette, with Merle Haggard, and occasionally with younger artists like Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks who had modeled their art on his own. The title of Jones’ 1997 autobiography was also the selling point for the grand victory tour of his final decades: “I Lived to Tell It All.”