George Jones, known as “the greatest voice in country music,” died today at a Nashville Hospital after being hospitalized last week with a fever and irregular blood pressure, his publicist said today. He was 81 years old. “The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time,” his friend Merle Haggard said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Amen.”
Born in Saratoga, Texas into an extremely poor household, Jones went on to 143 Top 40 country hits; fourteen went to Number One, beginning with 1959’s “White Lightning,” and they continued through the decades including “She Thinks I Still Care” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Sinatra called him “the second greatest singer in America” (second only to himself) while Keith Richards calls him “a national treasure.” “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” Waylon Jennings once sang.
“Most people’s voices are a gift from God,” Garth Brooks once said. “With George Jones, I think it started out as a gift from God and then they built a body around it because anybody who has ever wanted to sing country music wants to sound like George Jones.”
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Growing up in East Texas, Jones quickly discovered he could sing, busking on the streets of Beaumont, emulating his heroes Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. He began performing on local radio and backing local stars Eddie & Pearl in the late Forties, which brought him face-to-face with Williams. Bigger success came after a stint in the Marine Corps, when Jones scored his first Top Five Hit with 1955’s rousing “Why, Baby, Why,” and he stayed a relevant force throughout the Sixties and Seventies. He married fellow country star Tammy Wynette in 1969, and they recorded hits like 1976’s “Golden Ring” and 1979’s “Two Story House,” even after their divorce in 1975. His 1980 heartbreak ballad “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” on his comeback LP I Am What I Am, went to Number One, earned him a Grammy, Academy of Country Music Awards, and is a strong candidate for the greatest country song of all time.
He had an epic career, and his offstage escapades often threatened to overshadow his accomplishments. He missed dozens of shows in the late Seventies (living up to his nickname “No Show Jones”), and in 1979 his addictions landed him in an Alabama psychiatric hospital. In 1980, he led police on a televised chase through Nashville. In 1999, he crashed his car into a Nashville bridge and nearly died. “Through it all I kept reading articles that said I was the greatest country singer alive,” he wrote in his 1996 memoir. “And singers I respect were constantly saying that too. I was always appreciative, but I never understood how such a supposedly good singer could be such a troubled person. My talent, though it brought me fame and fortune, never brought me peace of mind.”
But Jones never lost his ability to deliver heartbreaking country classics. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2008 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award last year. Jones spent recent years gigging constantly and relaxing outside Nashville. “My relaxation is when I get back to my farm here in Tennessee,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996. “I’m into miniature horses, and we take them to shows. We’re just having a ball. They’re like pets: follow you around just like your puppy dog.”
Jones was in the process of ending his seven-decade career with the Grand Tour. His final Nashville concert, planned for November 22nd, was the cornerstone of the tour, with fans like Keith Richards, Jamey Johnson, Garth Brooks, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers and more set to play with him.
Jones is survived by Nancy Jones, his wife of 30 years, his sister Helen Scroggins and children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. “I’ve changed my way of life. I do believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and do pray often, even though I’m not a saint,” he told RS. “Hopefully, we all don’t have to be a saint to get into heaven.”