So often in the last fifty years of country music’s history, stars whose names grow to the point where their names glowingly resonate for eternity are artists who have paired their ability to blend outlaw sensibilities and box office appeal with songs bearing enormous and inviting hooks. Typically, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Jr., Kenny Rogers, and Willie Nelson spring to mind when having these conversations. However, in one name not being considered in that conversation, it’s important — on the day that he would’ve turned 90 years old — to wonder where George Jones falls as a global icon compared to the previously mentioned names. Ultimately, it’s in noting that “King George” had the unique ability to be a country mega-star and create songs like 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” that is actually arguably larger in appeal as songs than he was as an artist, which is important. There’s unique selflessness attached to mastery of craft that supersedes marketing jargon and wild behavior apparent here and worthy of celebration.
In a recent Daily Beast interview, broadcaster and notable country music progeny Tyler Mahan Coe — whose latest season of his Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast highlights the vocalist known as “The Possum” — says, “George Jones is to country singers as Michael Phelps is to Olympic swimmers. And all of that is speaking purely to the musical career of George Jones, a catalog which would be crucial and integral to a comprehensive understanding of the genre no matter the circumstances of his personal life.”
Yes, in the annals of the more ribald aspects of country music’s outlaw tradition, few artists are as connected to jaw-dropping, head-shaking, and deplorable stories as George Jones. However, as Coe notes — as difficult for many as it is — if you turn a blind eye to his lifestyle and tune deeply into his music, there are songs in his canon that, due to Jones performing them first, or likely best, have been elevated into the definitional canon of what country’s traditional style and essence will always represent.
Artists like Johnny Cash have found ways to have their lives become attached to their songs which, due to some manner of stellar songwriting, production, and mass marketing alchemy, have elevated their humanity to a place where they are seen as iconic as people as their songs are belovedly regarded as compositions. Comparatively, with George Jones, there’s the songs, the whole songs, and nothing but the songs. Thus, for Jones, a case emerges for songs eclipsing a person, and the person’s work resonating louder, for eternity, than they did in life.
In 2014, Charlie Daniels told CMT that “George Jones is one of two or possibly three of the most influential singers, style-wise, that ever came along in country music. George is the only person I’d ever seen make a five-syllable word out of ’church.’” The late icon who once recounted how “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” continued, “A lot of kids try to sing like George in their own way, and when they do, they try to stretch a word out or make a lot of syllables out of it or something. It was an affectation. When George did it, it was natural. That was his vocal style. It belonged to him, and it didn’t belong to anybody else. No one ever sang like George Jones did.”
George Jones achieved 79 top-10 (ten number-one) country singles as a solo artist in a five-decade career. Those hits include the 1980-released number-one country smash “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song that presents a case of how an artist is unable to realize their greatest strength in the face of it mirroring their own personal weaknesses. In line with this piece, in particular, it’s in the song dynamically resolving Jones’ self-frustration in under five minutes and spurring his pop-country career renaissance — he hadn’t had a chart-topper in six years — and the moment when a legacy greater than his flawed humanity began to emerge truly, that’s important to note.
“He thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it…He hated the melody and wouldn’t learn it,” noted the song’s producer, Billy Sherrill, in Bob Allen’s 1996 biography of the singer. “Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bi***,” Jones said. However, when the song reached the top of Billboard’s country charts, plus earned the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980, Academy of Country Music Awards Single of the Year and Song of the Year in 1980, and earned the unique honor of being the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year in both 1980 and 1981, he stated that “a four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”
To CMT, the Oak Ridge Boys’ Duane Allen says about Jones’ iconic hit, “If he was singing about hurting, I mean, it hurt. He drug those vowels and syllables out and wallowed around on them a little bit, and you could feel it…He got the most out of every lyric of anybody.” As well, Bobby Bare added, “’He Stopped Loving Her Today’…it doesn’t get any better than that. That’s as good as country music will ever get. They might talk about different subjects, but when you say country music, you think George Jones and ’He Stopped Loving Her Today.’”
It wasn’t until Jones’ death in 2013 that the song’s powerful legacy truly emerged as greater than Jones, and equal with the power of country music, overall, as a genre. Poignantly, George Strait — Jones’ heir as country music’s King George — joined Alan Jackson to perform the song during a Jones tribute at the 2013 CMA Awards.
However, even deeper — and speaking to the legacy he leaves in songs and talents that created a shadow from which the genre’s future consistently emerges, look no further than Chris Stapleton resurrecting and recomposing Jones’ 1983 take on “Tennessee Whiskey,” and then one step further, Stapleton’s performance of “Tennessee Whiskey” at the 2015 CMA Awards with pop superstar Justin Timberlake. There’s a lineage there where three artists — Jones, Stapleton, and Timberlake — from different backgrounds, different circumstances, and all with unique stylings, all sing a song that’s intriguingly not just Jones’, or the property of David Allan Coe (who sang it first, though charted lower, in 1981). Rather, it’s an easy point to make that these were all country artists singing a country song that’s bigger than any notoriety, history, or intrigue, or excellence attached to its vocalist.
Whether it’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Tennessee Whiskey,” Tammy Wynette duet “Golden Ring,” or numerous others, when you hear George Jones, you don’t hear “No Show Jones.” Rather, you hear a song that highlights the best of the genre’s century-long existence. George Jones is a legend because he mastered the art of making a country song that resonated — via the power and excellence of his vocal instrument — larger than himself.