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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice.
Other great singers have come and gone, but this fact remained inviolate until Jones passed away Friday at 81 in a Nashville hospital after a year of ill health.
"Today someone else has become the greatest living singer of traditional country music, but there will never be another George Jones," said Bobby Braddock, the Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter who provided Jones with 29 songs over the decades. "No one in country music has influenced so many other artists."
He did it with that voice. Rich and deep, strong enough to crack like a whip, but supple enough to bring tears. It was so powerful, it made Jones the first thoroughly modern country superstar, complete with the substance abuse problems and rich-and-famous celebrity lifestyle that included mansions, multiple divorces and — to hear one fellow performer tell it — fistfuls of cocaine.
He was a beloved and at times a notorious figure in Nashville and his problems were just as legendary as his songs. But when you dropped the needle on one of his records, all that stuff went away. And you were left with The Voice.
"He just knows how to pull every drop of emotion out of it of the songs if it's an emotional song or if it's a fun song he knows how to make that work," Alan Jackson said in a 2011 interview. "It's rare. He was a big fan of Hank Williams Sr. like me. He tried to sing like Hank in the early days. I've heard early cuts. And the difference is Hank was a singer and he was a great writer, but he didn't have that natural voice like George. Not many people do. That just sets him apart from everybody."
That voice helped Jones achieve No. 1 songs in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s. And its qualities were admired by more than just his fellow country artists but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others. "If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones," Waylon Jennings once sang.
Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.
"The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die," Garth Brooks said in an email to The Associated Press. "Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music."
Dolly Parton said, "My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favourite singer and one of my favourite people in the world."
Ronnie Dunn added: "The greatest country blues singer to ever live."
In Jones' case, that's not hyperbole. In a career that lasted more than 50 years, "Possum" evolved from young honky-tonker to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a well-lined link to his hero, Williams.
Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he only avoided by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.
His failure to appear for concerts left him with the nickname "No Show Jones," and he later recorded a song by that name and often opened his shows by singing it. His wild life was revealed in song and in his handsome, troubled face, with its dark, deep-set eyes and dimpled chin.
In song, like life, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," the foot-tapping "The Race is On," the foot-stomping "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," the melancholy "She Thinks I Still Care," the rockin' "White Lightning," and the barfly lament "Still Doing Time." Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including "Golden Ring," ''Near You," ''Southern California" and "We're Gonna Hold On." He also sang with such peers as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and with Costello and other rock performers.
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 honoured 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 labourer, 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 phoney. 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.
"In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time," Jones wrote in his memoir. "If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep."
In 1980, a 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a ballad by Braddock and Curly Putnam. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn't master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night," and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude ("She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good.")
"Pretty simple, eh?" Jones wrote in his memoir. "I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I'd fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines."
Jones was convinced the song was too "morbid" to catch on. But "He Stopped Loving Her Today," featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
"There is a God," he recalled.
Italie contributed from New York.