George Jones(Photo: Michael Clancy / The Tennessean)
"The King of Broken Hearts" just broke many more.
Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones,
a master of sad country ballads whose voice held the bracing power, the
sweetness and the burn of an evening's final pull from a bourbon
bottle, has died after an illness that hospitalized him since April 18.
He was 81, and was often called the greatest male vocalist in country
"He is the spirit of country music, plain and simple," wrote country scholar Nick Tosches.
George Glenn Jones was dubbed "The Possum" because of his marsupial
resemblance, and later called "No Show Jones" because of his mid-career
propensity for missing stage appointments. Those monikers seem trifling
in comparison to "The King of Broken Hearts," which became the title of a
Jim Lauderdale-written tribute recorded by George Strait and Lee Ann
Womack. Lauderdale was inspired by country-rock forerunner Gram Parsons,
who would play Mr. Jones' albums at parties and silence the room with
an admonition to listen to the King of Broken Hearts.
"The King of Broken Hearts doesn't know he's the king," wrote
Lauderdale. "He's trying to forget other things/ Like some old chilly
scenes/ He's walking through alone."
Mr. Jones was well familiar with such scenes. He was bruised by
alcohol and drug use, and in later, happier and sober years he wondered
at the adulation afforded him, given the recklessness with which he had
at times treated his talent.
"I messed up my life way back there, drinking and boozing and all
that kind of stuff," he told The Tennessean in 2008. "And you wish you
could just erase it all. You can't do that, though. You just have to
live it down the best you can."
The best he could was to sing about it, with an unblinking emotional
truth that regularly rivaled and sometimes surpassed his own heroes,
Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. He could offer a wink and a smile on quirky
up-tempo hits "The Race Is On" and "White Lightning," but he built his
legacy with the sorrowful stuff. Betrayal, desperation and hopelessness
found their most potent conduit in Mr. Jones.
"Definitely, unequivocally, the best there ever was or will be,
period," is how the Village Voice's Patrick Carr assessed Mr. Jones'
Mr. Jones' signature song was the Bobby Braddock and Curly
Putman-penned "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which regularly lands atop
critics' lists of greatest country recordings. In it, the King of Broken
Hearts sang of a man whose death signaled the end of his unrequited
love. In the studio, the song was difficult to capture, exacerbated by
Mr. Jones' slurring of the spoken-word portion: When inebriated, he sung
more clearly than he spoke. When the recording was finally concluded,
Mr. Jones told producer Billy Sherrill, "It ain't gonna sell. Nobody'll
buy that morbid (expletive)."
But they did. Mr. Jones consistently credited Sherrill with the
song's success, but it was the empathy in Mr. Jones' voice that made the
song's abject sadness somehow palatable.
"I'd rather sing a sad song than eat," said Mr. Jones, who sometimes
lacked for food (he once withered to 105 pounds) but never for sad songs
to sing. His treatment of those songs made him a legend, a designation
which ultimately afforded him an uncomplicated satisfaction that capped a
"That's what you live for in this business, really: to be
remembered," Mr. Jones said in 2002, surveying the Country Music Hall of
Fame and contemplating his place therein.
If Mr. Jones lived to be remembered, then his life stands as consummate triumph.
Check back here today as we update our work on Mr. Jones' life and reaction to his death.