George Jones has long been the consensus pick for country music’s greatest ever singer. No less a country legend than Roy Acuff, whose tearful, gulping singing had been a major building block of Jones’s own style, once allowed, “I would give anything if I could sing like George Jones.” Waylon Jennings said, “If we could all sound like we wanted to, we’d sound like George Jones.” Through the years a who’s who of country stars—Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Patty Loveless, countless more—have in one way or another endorsed the sentiment. Like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash (and Merle Haggard, who recorded fine duet albums with Jones in 1982 and again in 2006), Jones has become a modern symbol of old-school country-ness itself. “Don’t rock the jukebox,” Alan Jackson, among his chief contemporary disciples, shouts to the world. “I want to hear some Jones.”
What Jones made sure we heard in his recordings was emotional presence. Singing open-throated but clench-jawed, he sounded restrained and melodramatic, could come off soothing and terrifying, all at once. He sang with deep-down wisdom of just how lowdown it can feel to be a damn fool. Listen to him, for example, on the 1960 hit “Window up Above.” He informs his wife in the song, one of a handful of self-penned classics from early in his career, that he’s seen her kissing her lover in front of the house. “You must have thought that I was sleepin’,” he tells her bitterly. “And I wish that I had been,” he adds, making those seven simple words sound like a suicide note, like a noose he can’t slip around his own neck fast enough. He was a slave to each song’s particular passion just like that. His approach to singing, he told me once, was to call up those memories and feelings of his own that most closely corresponded to those being felt by the character in whatever song he was performing. He was a kind of singing method actor, creating an illusion of the real.
The last time I saw George Jones in person was on a late afternoon in Branson, Mo., sometime in the early 2000s. We’d been scheduled to do an interview together earlier in the day but had gotten our times wrong. His wife Nancy phoned me from a Dairy Queen drive-through to apologize (George craved a Blizzard) and to invite me by the tour bus later to say a quick hello. When I boarded his Silver Eagle a few hours later, Jones had just woken from a pre-show nap and was still wearing a pajama short set, robin’s-egg blue, and his hair, which normally rose as swooping and tall as if it had been styled by Frank Gehry, clung limply down the sides of his head. He yawned and rubbed his eyes and said he was sorry several times in a row for missing our date. In that evening’s fading light, he looked like a little boy.
What he didn’t look like then was the alcoholic honky-tonk singer of legend, or a cocaine-snorting country-soul master with 160+ charting singles to his credit over half a century, or a musical genius. He looked happy and healthy and ordinary. After all those no-show concerts through the years, and the tabloid coverage of his brief marriage to Tammy Wynette, after the car crash a few years earlier that had left him in a coma for several days, I was so glad to see him healthy and happy and ordinary.
If you don’t know George Jones’ music, there are all sorts of places to begin. Some would recommend his 1950s hits, songs like “Why Baby Why” and "White Lightning” that today sound like Hank Williams in a rockabilly band. Others prefer his work from the ’60s, when he recorded so many of country music’s—American music’s—most pained ballads: “She Thinks I Still Care,” “Color of the Blues,” “Tender Years,”” A Girl I Used to Know,” and literally dozens more. My favorite period of Jones’s career, though, was the nearly two decades he spent at Epic Records in collaboration with producer Billy Sherrill. In those years, on cuts like “The Grand Tour” and “The Door” and “Memories of Us,” and on his tragic, heaven-bound masterpiece, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Jones sang in a lower register over more soulful rhythms and to piano-centered arrangements that were sweetened—bitter-sweetened, more like—by orchestra and backing choirs. My favorite of the bunch is probably “A Picture of Me (Without You),” a top five country hit back in late 1972, in which Jones tries to explain how it would feel to be without the woman he loves. “Imagine a world where no music was playing,” he begins. Somehow, impossibly, George Jones makes the music of his voice on that line suggest the loss of music from the world. This afternoon, when news came that Jones had died at 81, it sounded like an epitaph.