Photography: Courtesy Jim Shea
Photography: Courtesy Jim Shea

C&I remembers the hard-lived legend whose voice became synonymous with country music.

Many have offered appreciative words about the late George Jones, but it took CBS newscaster Bob Schieffer — a longtime friend and fan of the country music icon — to say it best.

The afternoon before he appeared on stage at the May 2 standing-room-only memorial service for Jones at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, Schieffer told a Music City reporter: “There’ll never be another George Jones.

He was a country song. His life was a country song.

“And the reason he was able to wring the emotion out of the lyrics, whoever wrote them — once they came out of his mouth, they were from George Jones.”

Singer Charlie Daniels echoed those sentiments at the Opry service — and earned smiles and laughs — when he paid tribute to the country great affectionately known as “The Possum.”

In Daniels’ estimation, Jones’ much-imitated yet endearingly unique voice “was a rowdy Saturday night uproar at a back-street beer joint, the heartbroken wail of the one who wakes up to find the other side of the bed empty, the far-off lonesome whistle of the midnight train, the look in the eyes of a young bride as that ring is placed on her finger, the memories of a half-asleep old man dreaming about the good old days.

“He sang for us all, the nonstop partiers, the guys who are alone and the girl done wrong, the puppy lovers, the extrovert, the introvert, and the guy at the end of the bar who never seems to go home.”

When he died on April 26 at age 81, Jones was three decades past his legendary stretch of bodacious hell-raising, a period he unflinchingly described in his aptly titled 1996 autobiography (with Tom Carter), I Lived to Tell It All. As Jones himself ruefully and repeatedly admitted, there was a time when he was known less for peerless perform­ances than reckless self-indulgence, when his excessive intake of booze and cocaine caused him to cancel so many concerts that, in the 1970s, he earned the nickname “No-Show Jones.”

That was a time when it seemed like everyone — from ardent admirers to censorious critics — had a favorite story about Jones’ wild-man behavior. Arguably the most notorious among many: When his second wife, Shirley Corley, tried to limit his access to alcohol by hiding all the keys to his cars, he simply hopped aboard a lawn mower and drove it to a nearby liquor store. (Decades later, Jones recalled the incident in his single “Honky Tonk Song.”)

And yet, even while he plumbed the lower depths, Jones managed to top the charts.

In 1980, when he seemed to be in professional and personal free fall, he climbed back to No. 1 and jump-started his stalled career with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” his classic heartbreaker (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman) about a man whose unrequited love for a woman ends only when he dies. Music historian Barbara Schultz memorably described it as having “the cruelest punch line in the history of country music.”

Although “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would become widely recognized as his signature song, if not the most famous he ever recorded, Jones actually had to be talked into recording it by producer Billy Sherrill, who had realized the song’s hit potential early on. Even after the actual recording was completed — a months-long process slowed by the singer’s heavy drinking — at the storied CBS Studio B in Nashville, Jones remained skeptical about its commercial prospects. In his autobiography, Jones recalled with blunt-spoken candor that, on the final day of laying tracks, “I looked Billy square in the eye and said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch.’  Then I marched out the studio door.”

It took a while — and several million record sales, along with a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance — for Jones to change his mind. In his autobiography, he gratefully acknowledged that “a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song,” just as the love of a good woman — Nancy Sepulvado, his fourth wife, whom he married in 1983 — would later encourage him to get clean and sober.

In 2006, when Jones was asked by the editors of Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America to name his 10 all-time favorite country records, he selected Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” as No. 1 — but couldn’t resist working one of his own into the No. 9 position. “I hope you’ll understand,” he wrote by way of explanation, “that ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ has a very special place in my heart. I just couldn’t help naming it, even if it was my own record.”

Of course, many fans, critics, and musical historians might have advised him to include one or more of his other much-beloved golden oldies, such as “Why Baby Why” (his 1955 breakthrough single), “White Lightning” (his enduringly popular 1959 chart-topper), “She Thinks I Still Care” (a 1962 smash), or “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (his heartfelt 1985 tribute to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and other country icons). Same goes for any of the duets Jones recorded with the late, great Tammy Wynette, his third wife, during their spectacularly stormy marriage.

Jones sang all those songs and many more throughout a career that spanned six decades and was nearing a close this year only because the singer had decided to retire. His farewell tour had been scheduled to end with a final concert November 22 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena — a sold-out event that now will serve as a tribute with Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, The Oak Ridge Boys, and several other luminaries scheduled to perform.

Many of those greats also appeared May 2 at the nearly three-hour Grand Ole Opry memorial, along with Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Patty Loveless, and Ronnie Milsap. Alan Jackson brought some 4,000 of Jones’ fans and loved ones to their feet with his closing rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

As he finished the song, Jackson doffed his white cowboy hat and spoke for anyone who’d ever cracked a smile or shed a tear while listening to Jones’ music: “We love you, George.”

And we won’t stop.

From the August/September 2013 issue.