"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, thesweetness and the burn of an evening's final pull from a bourbonbottle, has died after an illness that hospitalized him since April 18.He was 81, and was often called the greatest male vocalist in countrymusic history.
"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 marsupialresemblance, and later called "No Show Jones" because of his mid-careerpropensity for missing stage appointments. Those monikers seem triflingin comparison to "The King of Broken Hearts," which became the title of aJim Lauderdale-written tribute recorded by George Strait and Lee AnnWomack. Lauderdale was inspired by country-rock forerunner Gram Parsons,who would play Mr. Jones' albums at parties and silence the room withan admonition to listen to the King of Broken Hearts.
"The King of Broken Hearts doesn't know he's the king," wroteLauderdale. "He's trying to forget other things/ Like some old chillyscenes/ He's walking through alone."
Mr. Jones was well familiar with such scenes. He was bruised byalcohol and drug use, and in later, happier and sober years he wonderedat the adulation afforded him, given the recklessness with which he hadat times treated his talent.
"I messed up my life way back there, drinking and boozing and allthat kind of stuff," he told The Tennessean in 2008. "And you wish youcould just erase it all. You can't do that, though. You just have tolive it down the best you can."
The best he could was to sing about it, with an unblinking emotionaltruth that regularly rivaled and sometimes surpassed his own heroes,Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. He could offer a wink and a smile on quirkyup-tempo hits "The Race Is On" and "White Lightning," but he built hislegacy with the sorrowful stuff. Betrayal, desperation and hopelessnessfound 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'contribution.
Mr. Jones' signature song was the Bobby Braddock and CurlyPutman-penned "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which regularly lands atopcritics' lists of greatest country recordings. In it, the King of BrokenHearts sang of a man whose death signaled the end of his unrequitedlove. In the studio, the song was difficult to capture, exacerbated byMr. Jones' slurring of the spoken-word portion: When inebriated, he sungmore clearly than he spoke. When the recording was finally concluded,Mr. Jones told producer Billy Sherrill, "It ain't gonna sell. Nobody'llbuy that morbid (expletive)."
But they did. Mr. Jones consistently credited Sherrill with thesong's success, but it was the empathy in Mr. Jones' voice that made thesong's abject sadness somehow palatable.
"I'd rather sing a sad song than eat," said Mr. Jones, who sometimeslacked for food (he once withered to 105 pounds) but never for sad songsto sing. His treatment of those songs made him a legend, a designationwhich ultimately afforded him an uncomplicated satisfaction that capped acomplicated life.
"That's what you live for in this business, really: to beremembered," Mr. Jones said in 2002, surveying the Country Music Hall ofFame 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.