George Jones, the hard-living heartbeat and herald of traditional country music, who recorded dozens of hits about both good times and regret, has died. He was 81.
Jones passed away Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, according to publicist Kirt Webster. The country crooner, known for heartbreakers like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” had been hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure, forcing him to postpone two shows.
With one of the most golden voices of any genre, it’s easy to see, or hear, why Jones, also known as “Possum,” was idolized not just by fellow country artists, but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, and countless others. With his clenched, precise, and profoundly expressive baritone, he stood the test of time with No. 1 songs in five separate decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
“If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” Waylon Jennings once sang.
Words of his death spread like wildfire Friday morning as his colleagues and fans 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.”
Ronnie Dunn added, “The greatest country blues singer to ever live.”
And that’s not just post-death hyperbole in Jones’ case. In his 50-plus years of stardom, he evolved from a young honky-tonker to an elder statesman, recording more than 150 albums. He became the champion and symbol of traditional country music. His hero, Hank Williams, would have been proud.
Jones’ career survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addition, brawls, accidents, and near-death encounters, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he just missed by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.
Though it didn’t seem to hurt his career much, his failure to appear for concerts left him with the nickname “No Show Jones,” and he later recorded a song by that name, often opening his shows with it.
But his signature song was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a tearjerker among tearjerkers 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 polls as the most popular country song of all time.
Jones won Grammy awards in 1981 for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1999 for “Choices.” 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.
Despite his age, Jones continued to make appearances and put out records, though his hit records slowed. He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he passed away. He was scheduled to complete the tour in November with an all-star packed tribute in Nashville.
“I don’t want to completely quit because I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said in 2005. “I’ll be out there as long as the people want me to be out there.”
Born Sept. 12, 1931 in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, Jones, the youngest of eight children, sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas.
“That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward,” he wrote in I Lived to Tell it All, a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. “It started what almost became a lifetime trend.”
Jones got his big break on radio in the late 1940s with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl. After the first of his four marriages flopped, Jones enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called, “No Money in This Deal.”
The star had his first hit in 1955 with “Why Baby Why,” and by the early 1960s Jones was one of country music’s top stars.
“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.”
In 1983, Jones married his fourth and final wife, Nancy Sepulveda, whom he credited with steadying his private life. He had four children, one with first wife, Dorothy Bonvillion, two with second wife, Shirley Ann Corley, and one with Tammy Wynette.