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George Jones, country superstar, has died at 81

11:31 AM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
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George Jones - AP Image

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (The Tennessean) -- "The King of Broken Hearts" just broke many more.

Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones, a master of sad country ballads whose voice held the bracing power, the sweetness and the burn of an evening's final pull from a bourbon bottle, has died after an illness that hospitalized him since April 18. He was 81, and was often called the greatest male vocalist in country music history.

"He is the spirit of country music, plain and simple," wrote country scholar Nick Tosches.

George Glenn Jones was dubbed "The Possum" because of his marsupial resemblance, and later called "No Show Jones" because of his mid-career propensity for missing stage appointments. Those monikers seem trifling in comparison to "The King of Broken Hearts," which became the title of a Jim Lauderdale-written tribute recorded by George Strait and Lee Ann Womack.

Lauderdale was inspired by country-rock forerunner Gram Parsons, who would play Mr. Jones' albums at parties and silence the room with an admonition to listen to the King of Broken Hearts.

"The King of Broken Hearts doesn't know he's the king," wrote Lauderdale. "He's trying to forget other things/ Like some old chilly scenes/ He's walking through alone."

Mr. Jones was well familiar with such scenes. He was bruised by alcohol and drug use, and in later, happier and sober years he wondered at the adulation afforded him, given the recklessness with which he had at times treated his talent.

"I messed up my life way back there, drinking and boozing and all that kind of stuff," he told The Tennessean in 2008. "And you wish you could just erase it all. You can't do that, though. You just have to live it down the best you can."

The best he could was to sing about it, with an unblinking emotional truth that regularly rivaled and sometimes surpassed his own heroes, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. He could offer a wink and a smile on quirky up-tempo hits "The Race Is On" and "White Lightning," but he built his legacy with the sorrowful stuff. Betrayal, desperation and hopelessness found their most potent conduit in Mr. Jones.

"Definitely, unequivocally, the best there ever was or will be, period," is how the Village Voice's Patrick Carr assessed Mr. Jones' contribution.

Mr. Jones' signature song was the Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman-penned "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which regularly lands atop critics' lists of greatest country recordings. In it, the King of Broken Hearts sang of a man whose death signaled the end of his unrequited love. In the studio, the song was difficult to capture, exacerbated by Mr. Jones' slurring of the spoken-word portion: When inebriated, he sung more clearly than he spoke. When the recording was finally concluded, Mr. Jones told producer Billy Sherrill, "It ain't gonna sell. Nobody'll buy that morbid (expletive)."

But they did. Mr. Jones consistently credited Sherrill with the song's success, but it was the empathy in Mr. Jones' voice that made the song's abject sadness somehow palatable.

"I'd rather sing a sad song than eat," said Mr. Jones, who sometimes lacked for food (he once withered to 105 pounds) but never for sad songs to sing. His treatment of those songs made him a legend, a designation which ultimately afforded him an uncomplicated satisfaction that capped a complicated life.

"That's what you live for in this business, really: to be remembered," Mr. Jones said in 2002, surveying the Country Music Hall of Fame and contemplating his place therein.

If Mr. Jones lived to be remembered, then his life stands as consummate triumph.

George Jones Milestones

Sept. 12, 1931: George Jones is born in Saratoga, Texas.

January 1954: Jones cuts his first record in Houston, Texas, an original called "No Money in This Deal."

1955: Jones' first Top 5 hit, "Why, Baby, Why," which he co-wrote, is released.

1959: "White Lightning" becomes Jones' first No. 1 hit.

1960s: Jones continues his hit-making streak with hits such as "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Race Is On," "Love Bug," "Walk Through This World with Me" and "A Good Year for the Roses."

1969: Jones marries Tammy Wynette, who became known as the "First Lady of Country Music," with whom he would record over the next decade (even after divorce) classics such as "We're Gonna Hold On," "Golden Ring," "Near You" and "Two Story House."

1975: Jones and Wynette divorce after six years of marriage (Wynette died in April 1998).

1980: Signature hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today" hits No. 1 and becomes Jones' first million seller. The recording also won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

1980 and 1981: Jones wins the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards.

1983: Jones marries his fourth wife, Nancy, to whom he was married until his death. The marriage became a marker for Jones' alcohol and drug rehabilitation, which had prompted troubles that earned him the nickname "No Show Jones" because of canceled appearances.

1992: Jones is inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

1997: Autobiography "I Lived to Tell It All" (Villard Books, 1996) is released.

December 2008: Jones is honored in Washington, D.C., as a recipient of the nation's most prominent arts prize, the Kennedy Center Honor along with Morgan Freeman, Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who.

Sept. 12, 2011: George Jones turns 80, and the Grand Ole Opry celebrates the next night with a tribute concert featuring Alan Jackson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Lee Ann Womack, the Oak Ridge Boys and more.

Dec. 3, 2011: Jones paid tribute to his Country Music Hall of Famer ex-wife and duet partner at a memorial park fundraiser in her home county of Itawamba County, Miss. "I know if she could be here, she would really appreciate it so much," he told the crowd. "She was a great singer and she deserves anything being done for her. And I appreciate it on my part."

Feb. 11, 2012: The Recording Academy honors Jones and six other artists with Lifetime Achievement Awards in Los Angeles. Each received a tribute at the organization's Special Merit Awards ceremony that Saturday afternoon at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. On the red carpet, Jones said, ""I think this is one of the greatest things that can happen to you. It's not the end of my career, I hope, but we're moving up awful close."

May 26, 2012: Jones was released from his second hospital stay of the year for an upper respiratory infection. He had canceled his live performances through the month of June and said in a release he had a new team of doctors treating him, "and it seems to be working." He had spent about a week in the hospital in March as well.

Aug. 14, 2012: Jones, then 80, announced his final tour named for his hit "The Grand Tour" for 60 cities in 2013, after earlier in the year being briefly hospitalized for an upper respiratory infection and canceling several concerts.

Nov. 12, 2012: The Country Music Hall of Famer announced that his final show would be at Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 22, 2013, as part of his 2013 farewell tour, dubbed "The Grand Tour." At age 81, Jones said in a press release: "It is tough to stop doing what I love, but the time has come."

Feb. 26, 2013: Country superstar Garth Brooks is announced as one of a growing list of star performers for the farewell concert, establishing it as the can't-miss event of the year. Other performers who were announced included Alan Jackson, Kid Rock, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels, Don McLean, Bobby Bare and Barbara Mandrell.

March 4, 2013: Jones' final concert is announced as a sell-out and more seats are opened to the public two days later. The next acts announced to perform in Jones' honor are Cyndi Lauper and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Thursday, April 18, 2013: Jones was admitted to a Nashville hospital for observation following a routine check-up that revealed a slight fever and irregular blood pressure.

The Tennessean staff

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