CHICAGO — George Jones, widely recognized as one of the greatest honky-tonk singers of his time and also one of the most self-destructive, died Friday in Tennessee at age 81.
The County Music Hall of Fame vocalist had been taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville on April 18 with a fever and irregular blood pressure.
He left behind a life of turmoil and a string of country classics, including “White Lightning” (1959); “She Thinks I Still Care” (1962); “We’re Gonna Hold On” (1973), with his then-wife, country star Tammy Wynette; and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980).
“The world may have lost the greatest country singer that ever lived,” Merle Haggard said Friday, a comment echoed by Loretta Lynn: “He was one of the best country singers there ever was.”
“While George was known for his wild and crazy days, I’ve known him for 25 years as a friend,” Alan Jackson said. “He had grown into a real good man. Of course, he will always be the greatest singer and interpreter of real country music — there’ll never be another.”
That individuality was tied in with Jones’ honesty about who he was and where he came from. “In his voice admirers rightly hear the suffering, deprivation, heartache, and endurance of the white Southern underclass,” critic Robert Christgau once wrote.
Jones, born Sept. 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, grew up in a working-class family near the site of some of the first east Texas oil fields. He inherited a love of music from both parents and a respect for religion from his mother. But his father was an often violent alcoholic, and Jones would follow the same tragic path at the height of his career.
The singer cut his first records in 1954, and though he was still developing his style, a few trademarks were already in place: his ability to bend and shade notes like a jazz singer, and a high, lonesome wail reminiscent of one of his musical heroes, Roy Acuff. He would also drop his mellifluous tenor voice into the bass register for dramatic effect. It was a voice made for conveying heartbreak.
In the late ’50s, he cracked the upper regions of the country charts with uptempo tracks such as “White Lightning,” a brisk honky-tonk tune that wasn’t far removed from rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. But his slower tempo tunes upped the emotional ante, as heard on the fiddle-streaked “Don’t Stop the Music,” and it was as a ballad singer that Jones made his deepest imprint on country music and the popular consciousness.
The ’60s saw his gifts as a vocalist flourish; he began singing in the middle of his range, bringing a fuller, plusher tone to songs soaked in despair and longing. He embodied a hard county sound, a honky-tonk traditionalism steeped in Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, even as his producers began to orchestrate songs such as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above” and “Walk Through This World With Me.” The music from this period in particular earned Jones the lasting admiration of peers and disciples such as Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Haggard and Elvis Costello.
All the while, his booze-addled private life took one devastating turn after another. Jones was able to laugh off some of it. In one infamous incident during the ’60s, his wife hid the car keys so that he couldn’t drive into town to buy alcohol.
He hopped on a riding lawnmower instead to get to the liquor store. Jones would parody the incident in a 1990s song and video.
The singer’s marriage in 1968 to Tammy Wynette propelled both artists’ careers, separately and together, but they divorced in 1975 as Jones’ alcohol and drug addiction accelerated. He went from being one-half of “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” to being labeled “No Show Jones” for his unreliability as a performer and live act. Yet the soap-opera playing out in his life only seemed to underline the vulnerability and pathos he laid out in his songs, assisted by producer Billy Sherrill. Though the production was often melodramatic — and maudlin misfires like “The Last Letter” cropped up more often than ever — Jones brought a rock-like dependability to most of his vocals.
The hits continued in epics such as “The Grand Tour,” “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and “The Same Old Me.” Some of his album titles were almost ghoulish in the way they reflected upon Jones’ death-spiral lifestyle: “The Battle” (1976), “Bartender’s Blues” (1978), the defiant “I Am What I Am” (1980). And yet amid all the carnage, Jones delivered a masterpiece like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which marks the moment when the narrator’s enduring passion for his ex finally vanishes — at his funeral.
His fourth and final marriage, to Nancy Sepulvado in 1983, helped turn his life around. The hits weren’t as frequent, but with his life back in order, he was able to enjoy a long elder-statesman reign as admirers lined up to sing duets with him, including Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton, James Taylor, B.B. King, Costello, Harris, Haggard, Patty Loveless and Shelby Lynne.
Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and kept releasing solo albums, even as his traditional style was all but erased from the Nashville hit factory. Last year, he announced his farewell tour, which was to conclude Nov. 22 in Nashville. Among the performers scheduled to perform were Jackson, Garth Brooks, Travis, Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Sam Moore and the Oak Ridge Boys — testament to his towering influence.
“The Voice” in the music remains, and it cut across generations. While being interviewed in the late ’90s, Kid Rock cruised around his native Detroit in a Cadillac blasting Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” over and over on the dashboard stereo, and commenting that “George Jones is the greatest singer who ever lived. I don’t think I could really call him an influence because no one can sound like that guy, or can deliver a song with as much emotion.”
Jones is survived by his wife, Nancy, and several children and grandchildren.