George Jones had one supreme talent. He could sing. Every time this country star stepped up to a microphone and opened his mouth, you heard something inimitable, something that might be copied but never successfully imitated. No one else could sing like he could, and no one ever will.
Jones, who died Friday, April 26 at 81, was not much of a songwriter or a guitar player. He wasn’t particularly good looking, and his spangly nudie suits weren’t any more outrageous than any other sartorial extravanganzas on the Grand Ole Opry (although it’s worth noting that he was one of the very last country and western stars to stick with a flat-top haircut). But every time he wrapped his voice around a lyric, he owned it.
When he wasn’t singing, Jones was something of a walking train wreck. He couldn’t stay married, sober, or solvent for long. His offstage escapades with drugs and drinking were sufficiently epic that even people who didn’t know anything about country music knew about “No Show Jones,” his sobriquet earned from a habit of missing performances. (He was also called “Possum,” because he looked like one, especially when he grinned.) They knew about the trashed hotel rooms, and they even knew the story about Jones borrowing the family riding lawnmower for a trip to the bar after his wife hid the car keys. For most of his life, he was a legend in all the wrong places and all the wrong ways.
Despite the ongoing soap opera, the hits kept multiplying over four decades. If you wanted to know what country music sounded like in the last half of the 20th century, all you had to do was play every George Jones song on the jukebox. Some of them were funny and clever (“White Lightnin’,” “Running Bear,” “The Race Is On,” some were wistful (“The Window Up Above”) and some were hardcore heartbreakers (“She Thinks I Still Care,” “Things Have Gone to Pieces.” He had another string of hits, almost as long, with his wife Tammy Wynette (“Golden Ring,” “We’re Gonna Hold On”). That singing partnership was so strong that it survived the couple’s divorce.
But of all his hits, alone or with a partner, none ever quite measured up to his 1980 smash, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, the same team that wrote “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” this might be the quintessential country song. It’s sad, it’s got a story with a twist ending, and there’s even a recitation (one of those passages where the singer just talks the lyrics—an effect every bit as corny as it sounds, but if you can’t pull off a recitation, you can’t call yourself a country singer).
It’s a maudlin song, but when Jones sings it, it sounds as epic and poetic as something written by Yeats or Shelley. Somehow he manages to balance a conversational tone with unexpected note choices that color and charge the lyrics with a power that simply isn’t there when you see the words on the page. Rocking back and forth between understatement and near-operatic passion, sometimes in the space of a single measure, Jones lays down a master class in how to break a listener’s heart in three minutes. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, on the country airwaves today to equal this performance (not that very many were coming close in 1980 either).
The best of country has always involved a tug of war between cheap, shopworn sentiment and honest, undiluted emotion that tears at the heart (sort of like Italian opera). When those elements are in perfect balance, the effects are devastating and unforgettable. You hear it in Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard, early Dolly Parton, and you hear it in George Jones. The others may have been better songwriters, but none of them sang as well as he did. Exactly how he did it is beyond explanation. It’s not even clear that he knew himself. But as much of a mess as he was in every day life, he transformed into an angel when he began to sing. At that point, all he had to do to break your heart was open his mouth and get out of the way.