His nicknames included “No-Show Jones” because of his penchant for missing concerts in the 1970s and “The Possum” because of his deep-set eyes. But “the Greatest Country Singer Ever” is the nickname that will most likely stick.
No sooner had George Jones passed from “living legend” to just plain legend on April 26 at the age of 81 than accolades began flooding in. “He was without question and by far the best!” said Barbara Mandrell. “What a great voice,” echoed Ray Stevens, “and a great friend.” “We have lost another piece of history,” summarized Hank Williams, Jr. “He will be missed by many.”
It’s unlikely, however, that anyone will miss him more than Charlie Daniels. “[His] voice was a rowdy Saturday night uproar at a back-street beer joint,” Daniels eulogized at Jones’ funeral, “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.
“George,” Daniels concluded, “had a song for everybody.”
The numbers alone back Daniels up. From “Why Baby Why” in 1955 to “One Woman Man” in 1988, Jones scored over 60 top-10 country hits, nine of which reached No. 1. At least three of those—“She Thinks I Still Care,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “The Grand Tour”—attained instant-classic status. He recorded top-selling duet albums with Melba Montgomery, Gene Pitney, Tammy Wynette (his third wife), and Merle Haggard.
He even sang hymns and spiritual songs. Country Church Time appeared in 1959, followed by Homecoming in Heaven (1962), Old Brush Arbors (1965), We Love to Sing About Jesus (with Wynette, 1972), and In a Gospel Way (1974).
Jones’ decades of alcoholism and drug addiction and his 1996 autobiography, in which he attributed his eventual sobriety solely to his fourth and final wife, Nancy Sepulvado, suggest he may never have fully internalized the faith about which he sang. But one would be hard pressed to tell from Jones’ gospel recordings themselves. “Were you ever in the valley where the way is dark and dim?” he intoned on the Passion Play-worthy “Cup of Loneliness,” a song he co-composed. “Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?”
With or without Him, Jones poured himself many cups of loneliness. And in 1999, he was admitting as much. “By an early age, I found / I liked drinking,” he sang on his last solo country top-40 hit “Choices.” “Now I’m living and dying with the choices I made.” As always, he sounded both entirely convincing and entirely convinced.
Willie Nelson was born just one year and two weeks after George Jones, but he sounds no closer to calling it quits on his latest album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance (Sony Legacy), than he has at any point in his prolific, varied, and storied career.
In some ways, Let’s Face the Music, which includes two Irving Berlin songs and one by Frank Loesser, is typical Nelson. He has, after all, been branding songs from the Great American Songbook with his uniquely laid-back Texas imprint and growing ever more adept at echoing his uniquely brittle voice with his similarly brittle guitar since 1978’s quintuple-platinum Stardust.
But by calmly stirring tunes by Django Reinhardt, the Platters, and Carl Perkins into his new album’s mix, he also reminds his fans that there’s no such thing as “typical Nelson.” —A.O.