George Jones, country superstar, has died at 81

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But his signature song was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his love for a woman to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time and won the Country Music Association’s song of the year award an unprecedented two years in a row.

Jones won Grammy awards in 1981 for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1999 for “Choices.” He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.

He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he passed away. He was scheduled to complete the tour in November with an all-star packed tribute in Nashville. Stars lined up to sign on to the show, many remembering kindnesses over the years. Kenny Chesney thinks Jones may have one of the greatest voices in not just country history, but music history. But he remembers Jones for more than the voice. He was picked for a tour with Jones and Wynette early in his career and cherishes the memory of being invited to fly home on Jones‘ private jet after one of the concerts.

“I remember sitting there on that jet, thinking, ‘This can’t be happening,’ because he was George Jones, and I was some kid from nowhere,” Chesney said in an email. “I’m sure he knew, but he was generous to kids chasing the dream, and I never forgot it.”

Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.

“That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward,” he recalled in “I Lived to Tell it All,” a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. “It started what almost became a lifetime trend.”

The family lived in a government-subsidized housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would rouse the children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him. His father also noted that young George liked music and bought him a Gene Autry guitar, with a horse and lariat on the front that Jones practiced on obsessively.

He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once dropped by the studio to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.

“Hank had ‘Wedding Bells’ out at the time,” Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. “He started singing it, and I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared.”

After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called “No Money in This Deal.”

He had his first hit with “Why Baby Why” in 1955, and by the early ‘60s Jones was one of country music’s top stars.

“I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That’s what country music is about,” Jones said in a 1991 AP interview. “My fans and real true country music fans know I’m not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song.”

Jones was married to Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Jones‘ weary knowledge of domestic warfare was immortalized in such classics as “The Battle,” set to the martial beat of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

After one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys to keep him from carousing. Years earlier, married to his second wife, he had also sped off on a mower in search of a drink. Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, “Honky Tonk Song,” and poked fun at himself in a Big & Rich video that featured him pulling up to a party aboard a mower.

His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late ‘70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation. In his memoir, “Satan is Real,” Charlie Louvin recounts being offered a fistful of cocaine by Jones backstage at a concert.

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