by Dan Gibson
George Jones, one of the greatest singers in contemporary music history, the man Frank Sinatra referred to as "the second best singer in America," about whom Waylon Jennings sang "If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones," has passed away.
When musicians die, it seems like there's an obligation to over-hype their accomplishments, to pretend that they moved artistic mountains. Sometimes, that can be an inflation of their cultural relevance, but then there are people like George Jones. He had number one songs in five decades, recorded 150 albums, and continued a line of country music troubadours who could create beauty from amazing sadness, succeeding Hank Williams. His duets with Tammy Wynette were magical, and 1980's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a song that Jones was convinced couldn't be a hit, is generally considered (and rightfully so) one of the greatest country tracks of all time.
Beyond even all that, his personal life was often a disaster (it took him a year to record "He Stopped Loving Her...", partially because he couldn't deliver the spoken word section without slurring his words) and a constant source of material for new songs. Legendarily, when his then-wife Wynette hid the keys to every car they owned, he drove a riding lawnmower seven miles into town to get a drink.
He was a purist, who essentially only listened to the type of music he made, who believed that modern country artists should come up with a new name for their genre, who refused to duet with people like James Taylor because he had never heard of them.
For me, this was the music I heard as a kid. "White Lightning" (above) is one of the first songs I remember hearing, far before I had any idea what the characters were making way back in the hills. I read his heart-wrenching honest memoir "I Lived to Tell It All' in basically one sitting. I was trying to think of a way to swindle my way into his star-filled tribute/farewell concert, which was scheduled for this November in Nashville. I never had the opportunity to interview him, but I have no idea what I would have said if I had. He was one of those people for me that barely seemed real, even though he shared so much of his humanity with the world.
George Jones was 81.