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George Jones, 'King of Broken Hearts,' Remembered

George Jones publicity 2013 P

Singers Shelby Lynne and Dierks Bentley react to news of the country legend's death as THR looks back on his life.

If just a few plaintive bars of George Jones could make us feel utterly bereft when he was around and robust, how much sadder are we supposed to feel now that he’s gone? He was “the King of Broken Hearts,” as songwriter Jim Lauderdale put it when he penned an homage to Jones that ended up becoming a smash for George Strait. If you ever shed a tear to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” mourning Jones now can feel almost anticlimactic.

Of course, there was a secretly thrilling, sad-songs-say-so-much enjoyment to be found in listening to those emotionally fraught ballads that’s hard to recapture in the wake of the singer’s actual absence. As Shelby Lynne tells The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s one of those pains that hurts you when you hear it, but it feels so good. He knew how to do it, man.”

Lynne was one of many singers who’d been scheduled to perform at what was being billed as Jones’ final concert, this coming November in Nashville. The man once dubbed “No-Show Jones” lived up to that nickname by only making it mid-way through a year-long farewell tour before passing away April 26, though he’d appeared on stage as recently as April 6, when he played what turned out to be his final gig in Knoxville, Tennessee.

His love of country -- as in, music -- was all-consuming, as he told Country Weekly in his final interview: “I fell in love with the country music and the gospel music on the Grand Ole Opry … It was all through me. I don’t think it missed a big toe.”

Reactions from his peers, if you could use that term for any of today’s country singers, were immediate on Twitter. Keith Urban even posted a video of himself playing piano and singing a snippet of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” -- and name-checked one of Jones’ other hits, “The Grand Tour,” in adding, “If I'm blessed enough to make it there, I look forward to you giving me the grand tour.”

Blake Shelton mentioned a couple of Jones’ other highly appropriate, self-prophetic eulogies. “Just landed in L.A.,” he tweeted. “Listened to ‘The King Is Gone’ and ‘Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes’ over and over again just like always. Can't accept it.”

Reached by THR for comment, Dierks Bentley said he was too upset to join the parade of commentators… and proceeded to simply cuss.

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Lynne thought about this year being the 25th anniversary of her first collaboration with Jones -- which marked the first and last time in history that any country singer debuted with a George Jones duet as a single --and shared the most basic of communal thoughts: “It’s kind of all coming home, I reckon. You just kind of go, wow, okay. We’re mortal.”

It didn’t always feel that way with Jones, as much as temporality figured into some of his greatest songs. Another immortal, Frank Sinatra, once called Jones “the second greatest singer in America.” (Of course he didn’t mean to imply that Bing, Tony, Ella, or Merle Haggard came first.)

Jones is often thought of as -- and certainly considered himself -- a hardcore country traditionalist. But compared to his nearest rival for the Greatest Country Singer Ever crown, Hank Williams, there was something less regionally specific and more universal about Jones’ note-shaping intonations. As great as Jones had been at adding panache to a hillbilly rocker like “White Lightning,” he was an even more glorious fit for what came to be known in the ‘60s as country-politan, or “the Nashville sound,” a more orchestrated version of country favored by Jones’ longtime producer, Billy Sherrill. A song like “A Good Year for the Roses” was pure country in one sense, but with its lack of twang and sleek grandiosity, it was almost pure opera, too.

He was a soul singer, in Vince Gill’s estimation: “People are drawn to the soulfulness of the way George sings, [even though] it doesn't equate that twangy beer-drinkin' and cheatin' songs would be thought of as soulful,” Gill once said. “You can't define the ache that's in George's voice. It's just something inherently him.” Kid Rock went an extra step and called Jones a bluesman, of sorts: “It's a country voice, but he has such a great blues range, the way he bends all those notes.”

If Jones’ mid-period records featured more strings than steel guitar, maybe that’s because that sometimes sad instrument would have been superfluous alongside Jones’ singing—at least in the estimation of James Taylor, who wrote the song “Bartender” as a Jones homage. “He sounds like a steel guitar,” Taylor once said. “It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled -- it’s like carving with the voice.”

Country music writer/historian Peter Cooper recounted that “Jones told me once that he’d rather sing a sad song than eat.” But the singer wasn’t particularly eloquent about why he felt so personally attuned to the mournful side of music. “Sad songs, they just seem to overwhelm me,” Jones said in his last Country Weekly interview. “I get into it and I actually feel like I’m living that part when I sing a sad song. It’s like everyday-life things. That’s the way country music used to be. It told a story.”

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Jones’ battles with substance abuse in the ‘70s and early ‘80s certainly suggested a tragedian side. But his turmoil-filled relationship with spouse and duet partner Tammy Wynette ultimately seemed more mundane than, say, Sinatra’s eternal fixation on Ava Gardner. And once he married the legendarily supportive spouse who survived him, Nancy, in 1983, and subsequently cleaned up his act, it was hard to think of anyone in Nashville with a more easygoing, happy-go-lucky persona. Tortured was the last word that came to mind with Jones, except, of course, in song, which was almost everything.

But Lynne assures us that the Possum was not just playing chameleon when he sang that material. “When you have George singing it, you’re living that song. He was here, I guess, to make us feel those songs,” says Lynne. “He knew what agony was, in his own private stuff, and he acted it out through the music, and that’s why when we hear him, it’s so deep and touching, because it’s coming from a place of pure, raw emotions,” says Lynne. “And knowing how to sell a damn country song! He was the best at it.”

As a child in Texas in the 1930s, Jones learned how gospel songs were sold, too, and the yearning he experienced in his favorite hymns influenced him as much as the weekly airings of the Grand Ole Opry to which he was glued. That hail-fellow-well-met personality of his rockin’ (chair) years belied a less settled early life in which he ran away from home at 14 and was already a veteran of the honky-tonk circuit by the time he had his first divorce at age 21.

Although he began recording in 1954, it was another six years before the vocal hiccups of “White Lightning” put him on the map -- ironically, the kind of novelty recording that was continents away from the sedate and gimmick-free material he eventually settled into. Jones came to put lightning in a bottle with ballads featuring telling titles like “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” and melancholy-twist weepers like “She Thinks I Still Care.”

Jones had been vocal since the 1990s about his disdain for pop-country, which some observers wrote off partly as jealousy, since, like virtually all heritage artists, country radio had stopped paying him any mind. But he strongly championed a few traditionally minded upstarts. One of them was Alan Jackson, who paid infamous homage to Jones at the 1999 CMA Awards. Jones had been asked to truncate his performance of his nominated song “Choices” to under a minute for the telecast, and he refused and stayed home. So Jackson stopped his own song on the show long enough to sing part of “Choices,” and got a standing ovation for it -- from the audience in the hall, and, of course, Jones at home.

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''I was sitting at home watching the show, and when he did that, I come up out of my chair,” Jones said a few years later. ''It boils down to there only being about two of them -- Alan and George Strait, of course -- that are really what I call country. And the rest of this so-called country music as far as I'm concerned is nothing but middle-of-the-road and crossover and bullcrap.”

Nashville didn’t seem to mind the dissing, as Jones was constantly being called upon to participate in duets or offer cameos on records by everyone from Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks to Shooter Jennings and Aaron Lewis. His Country Hall of Fame induction came 21 years ago, though it wasn’t until 2012 that he got a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys, with a Kennedy Center honorific bestowed by the president that came in-between in 2008.

He toured till the end, although there was some controversy about whether he was up to the task. Years ago, reviewers had brought into question the stability of his voice, as health issues played havoc with his live performances in much as substance abuse once had. Looking at critics’ and fans’ reviews of his final couple of years’ worth of shows, it’s easy to see a philosophical split.

“George wasn't physically able to perform,” one fan posted after his final Knoxville gig. “We learned from the security police in the parking lot that he was on oxygen back stage... We felt sad because of his condition, but I don't think he did his fans any service by trying to perform when he really wasn't up to it... There is an old saying in the entertainment business that certainly is befitting here: ‘Get off stage while they're still clapping.’” But another fan at that same ultimate send-off wrote: “I thought George Jones did a great job, considering his age and his health… I was excited just to be there and see a living legend live in concert! I'd do it again in a heartbeat!”

Sometimes, in the declining years, it can be enough just to watch the artist pick up his brush. And the analogy is not a random one. As another fellow artist and fan, Chely Wright, tells THR, “George Jones painted pictures out of country songs. His unique gift was effortless and those of us who heard his records or heard him sing live knew we were witnessing greatness.”

Now, the question is not just “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” but who’s gonna bend his notes?

Twitter: @chriswillman