The country music legend George Jones, whose resonant and conversational baritone was one of the most expressive voices of any singer in any genre, died this morning at a hospital in Nashville. He’s been hospitalized for a fever and irregular blood pressure, which seems like an anticlimactic way to go out for one of the hardest-living stars in a genre known for hard-living stars. He was 81.
Jones grew up in a Texas housing project as one of eight children, and he got his start in music by playing guitar on the street in Beaumont at the age of nine. As a teenager, he played on a radio station in Jasper, and Hank Williams once invited him to play guitar during a recording session, though Jones claimed that he was too starstruck to actually play. But Jones’s career didn’t start in earnest until he finished serving a three-year stint in the Marine Corps. In 1955, he scored his first hit with the uptempo heartbreak song “Why Baby Why.”
Even in country music, the rare pop-music genre where aging stars are allowed to stay vital, Jones had a remarkably durable career. He scored #1 country hits in five consecutive decades, starting with the ’50s and ending in the ’90s. The first was the rockabilly moonshine-ode “White Lightning” in 1959 — a musical outlier for Jones, but a lyrical predictor of the directions his persona would take.
Musically, Jones may be the all-time great at conveying soul-shattering heartbreak, at depicting himself as a man just barely managing to hold himself together. Rock bands tended to revere Jones, but he never expressed much interest in them, consistently showing a rare unwillingness to cross over to other genres of music. (Late in his career, he’d eventually record with Keith Richards and Elvis Costello, and his great “Bartender’s Blues” was a duet with James Taylor, but it was pretty obvious that these guys were entering Jones’s world, not the other way around.) Jones’s best songs were slow and stately, full of strings and pedal-steel, the music fading to the background to give Jones’s voice the entire spotlight. And his heartbreak songs are among the greatest in country music history: “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Grand Tour,” the immortal “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
As great as those songs were, he was just as famous for his messed-up behavior and for his battles with alcoholism and cocaine addiction. In 1969, he married his third wife, the fellow country star and frequent duet partner Tammy Wynette, and their fights were legendary; the union lasted until 1974. In one famous incident, Jones was drunk enough that Wynette hid his car keys, and he went off in search of more booze on a riding mower. And this wasn’t the first time he’d executed this particular stunt; he’d already done it once, years before, with a previous wife.
By the time of his death, Jones was a member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement winner, and a Kennedy Center honoree. Below, watch some videos of Jones in action.