George Jones: The Passing of an Icon
No one could fill the shoes of country’s defining singer.
Originally published in our special May 20, 2013 issue featuring George Jones on the cover shortly after his death on April 26 in Nashville at age 81.
George Jones was known by a number of nicknames throughout his nearly 60-year career. He was dubbed “The Possum” early on for his resemblance to the American marsupial, as well as “No Show Jones” during the late 1970s for his unfortunate tendency to miss concert dates due to his hard-partying ways. But true country fans would prefer to remember George through the words of Waylon Jennings’ song “It’s Alright.” George may not always arrive in the best of shape, a portion of the lyrics attests, But he may be, unconsciously / The greatest of them all. The legendary singer died April 26 in Nashville at age 81 after being hospitalized for a fever and irregular blood pressure. He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Nancy, along with four children and several grandchildren.
The King of Broken Hearts
George, born Sept. 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, understood the hardscrabble life of which he often sang. He battled poverty as well as an alcoholic, abusive father. As with many stars born during the Depression years, George figured that music might be his ticket out of the poorhouse. He taught himself to play guitar and began playing the clubs in Beaumont, not far from his birthplace.
George was discovered by the renowned producer Harold “Pappy” Daily and signed with the regional label Starday Records, which released George’s first five singles, starting with “Why Baby Why” in 1955. That song made an impressive debut at No. 4, paving the way for his eventual stardom. George later moved to Nashville and landed with Mercury Records. He picked up his first career No. 1 hit with Mercury, “White Lightning,” in 1959. “White Lightning” and his 1964 single “The Race Is On” were two examples of the party-type tunes that George loved to wrap his voice around, even though he acknowledged that they seldom did well on the charts. “They’re usually not the hit material,” George told Country Weekly in 1999. “You’ve got to have songs like that so you don’t just do a straight ballad show, though I think people would rather hear me sing ballads.”
Sad, heartbreaking ballads certainly became synonymous with George during the 1970s and ’80s. “A Good Year for the Roses,” “A Picture of Me (Without You)” and “The Grand Tour,” among other ’70s tunes, were perfect for George’s world-weary, aching vocal style. There was also an empathy to his voice, and fans sensed that George was all too acquainted with the subject matter. He became, in the words of the George tribute song written by Jim Lauderdale, “The King of Broken Hearts.”
In 1980, George released the queen mother of heartbreak songs, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a tune he originally balked at recording. He detested it so much that he bet his producer $100 that it wouldn’t be a
No. 1 hit. “I called it ‘morbid’ for a while,” George recalled to Country Weekly, “and it scared me because it was so sad. But boy, how wrong I was.” The song reached No. 1 in 1980, costing George his hundred bucks. Of more important note, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is widely considered by historians as the greatest country song ever written.
Years With Tammy Wynette
George’s first two marriages ended in divorce, mainly stemming from his frequent drinking binges. Following the dissolution of his second marriage to Shirley Corley, George seemed to get his life straightened out after tying the knot with fellow star Tammy Wynette in 1969. They were country’s glam couple of the 1970s and recorded a number of duets, including the ironically titled 1973 No. 1 “We’re Gonna Hold On.” George and Tammy also released several albums in the early 1970s that appeared, if their titles were any indication, to reflect a rosy relationship—We Go Together, Me and the First Lady and Let’s Build a World Together. The couple had one child, daughter Georgette.
But even this marriage became strained, again the result of George’s drinking, cocaine use and wild nights away from home. Tammy actually filed for divorce first in 1973 but reconsidered. In 1975, however, Tammy filed again, and this time there was no change of heart. Somehow, the split failed to deter them from recording, and the two produced several post-divorce hits together, including the No. 1 singles “Golden Ring” and their final duet, “Near You.” George and Tammy reunited, if only on record, in 1995 with the album One.
The divorce from Tammy sent George’s life into a further nosedive. He began to use cocaine more frequently, and his drinking increased, causing him to behave erratically. There were numerous concert dates when George did not even make it to the venue, inspiring the “No Show Jones” moniker.
Recovery and Redemption
In 1983, George was rescued from his life of addiction by his marriage to Nancy Sepulvado. George credits her with weaning him from drugs and putting a stop to his drinking. As Brad Paisley, one of George’s biggest admirers, said in a statement on George’s death, “George’s life is an example of so many wonderful things. And George’s life is above all the strongest example of how the love of a great woman can get a man through anything.”
That same year, George cut his final No. 1 hit, “I Always Get Lucky With You,” co-written by Merle Haggard. He was 51 at the time, an age when many artists start to see their career fortunes plummet. But it marked a resurgence for George. Singles such as “She’s My Rock,” “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and “I’m a One Woman Man” all made their way into the Top 5. During the latter portion of the ’80s, a new crop of traditional-minded young singers, led by Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, were quite vocal in listing George as a major influence. In 1992, Garth and Alan joined George and a bevy of other stars, including Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt, for the tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”
The decade of the 1990s ended with George’s acclaimed album Cold Hard Truth, which produced the No. 30 single “Choices” and received a Grammy award. The album and song hit around the time that George suffered a near-fatal car accident in Franklin, Tenn. It was discovered that he had been drinking, but George vowed to never again touch another drop. “It’s changed my whole attitude toward life,” George told Country Weekly in 1999.
In 2001, George scored his last major chart hit with “Beer Run,” a duet with Garth Brooks. But he continued to tour and record, and was looking forward to his final show in Nashville in November, which was to feature a plethora of special guests such as Garth, Alan, Dierks Bentley, Lorrie Morgan, Kenny Rogers and others. That concert may still go on as a special tribute show to George, though details have yet to be announced.
No artist, on or off the stage, did it quite like George Jones. His will be tough shoes to fill indeed.