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Country music icon George Jones dies at 81

1:41 PM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
George Jones(Photo: Michael Clancy / The Tennessean)
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"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 music 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 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' contribution.

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 complicated life.

"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.

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