George Jones died today. When he was a young man, famous for his hard lifestyle of drink and drugs and for outbursts of anger, nobody would have expected him ever to be an old man. But his fourth wife Nancy, with whom he just celebrated his thirtieth wedding anniversary, helped him settle into a more sustainable life and live to the respectable age of 81.
Most of us are able to keep our failures more or less private. We make mistakes, but the selves we present to the world are our better selves. Things didn’t work out that way for George Jones. Any pleasure he took from the adulation of his many fans was surely tempered by the fact that those fans also knew of his personal failings. Everybody knew the story of the time he piloted a riding lawnmower to the liquor store because his wife had taken away his car keys [ed. that liquor store is one block from the Rabbit Room office, by the way]. They knew about the trashed motel rooms, the fistfights, the holes he shot in the floor of his tour bus. An anecdote is just a sad story told for laughs; George Jones was the subject of more than his share of anecdotes.
I have written elsewhere about the practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities. Two nicknames stuck with George Jones for most of his life: No Show and Possum—No Show for the many tour dates he missed when he was too drunk to play, and Possum for the close-set eyes and sloping nose that gave him a look reminiscent of North America’s only marsupial. I have often wondered what it would be like to be universally acknowledged as one of the greatest country music vocalists of all time (Waylon Jennings once said, “If we could all sound the way we wanted, we would all sound like George Jones”) and yet still be known as “No Show” or “Possum”–drunk or ugly.
I stopped listening to country radio twenty years ago or more. You might say I quit listening to country radio because country radio quit sounding like George Jones. He hailed from an era when country music’s predominant key was hurt. Mainstream country music these days plucks any number of emotional chords, from the various manifestations of romantic love to daddy-daughter sentimentality to swaggering jingoism to a version of down-home country pride that owes more to focus groups than to any time the songwriters and performers have actually spent on tractors or on Main Street. None of it hurts like “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones’s biggest hit, is easily my favorite country song. In fact, I can’t even think what my second-favorite country song might be.
He said I’ll love you ’til I die
She told him you’ll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind
He kept her picture on his wall
Went half crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she’d come back again
Over-the-top sentimentality, you say? Emotional manipulation? Oh, it’s worse than that. There’s a lap steel mimicking human crying throughout.
He kept some letters by his bed
He had underlined in red
Every single ‘I love you.’
I went to see him just today,
Oh but I didn’t see no tears–
All dressed up to go away,
First time I’d seen him smile in years
Now comes the string section—a string section!—to goose up the emotion through the chorus:
He stopped loving her today.
They placed a wreath upon his door.
And soon they’ll carry him away.
He stopped loving her today
And then George Jones launches into a verse of spoken-word with the background singers oo-oo-oohing behind him:
You know she came to see him one last time
Oh and we all wondered if she would
And it kept running through my mind
This time he’s over her for good.
In short, if I were to make a list of things I can’t abide in a country song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” checks most of them off. George Jones himself reportedly said when he finished recording it, “Nobody’s going to buy that morbid son of a bitch.”
And yet this song stops me in my tracks every time I hear it. I stop what I’m doing, look down at my hands, and halfway wish I had some really good reason to feel sorry for myself.
I don’t mean any of this as a back-handed compliment. I genuinely think it’s a testament to George Jones’s genius that he made such a moving song out of elements that are so manipulative and obvious as to be almost laughable. Nor am I appealing to a “purer” music of an earlier, less commercialized era. I’m saying that there is something real and soulful in George Jones’s voice that can’t be neutered by all that overproduction and emotional button-pushing. That hurt you hear in this song is real hurt, George Jones’s hurt, hard-earned and genuine.
A few years ago my wife was in Bread and Company, a shi-shi bakery and sandwich shop frequented by Ladies Who Lunch. In front of her in line was an older man who turned out to be George Jones. The young man at the cash register recognized him. “Mr. Jones,” he said, “I’d like you to know how much your music has meant to me.”
When my wife first told me that story, it hurt my feelings. “My” George Jones should have been hanging out at Bobby’s Idle Hour drinking beer and eating peanuts, not nibbling on a scone at Bread and Company. But now that I think on it, it makes me happy to know that George Jones made it after all—a respectable old man in a respectable establishment where he was called by his real name—not No Show, not Possum, but Mr. Jones.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.