Country legend George Jones dies at 81

He was The Possum. He was No Show Jones. But most of all, he was The Voice.

George Jones’ elastic baritone, rich like churned butter, soaked in bourbon and so expressive it influenced countless country stars, went silent Friday.

Jones, 81, died in a Nashville hospital, said his publicists, Webster & Associates. He had battled respiratory problems for a year.

The legendary singer, whose hits included He Stopped Loving Her Today, She Thinks I Still Care and Golden Ring (a duet with late ex-wife Tammy Wynette), last performed in South Florida in February at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.

He knew his time was near, he said in an interview with The Miami Herald, and this tour, named The Grand Tour after his 1974 hit, would be his last chance to share that voice with fans.

“I will miss my fans and the thrill I get from looking out over an audience of people from young to old and see them singing along to every song,” he said.

No song touched a deeper well of emotions than his 1980 hit, He Stopped Loving Her Today.

Indeed, nothing that has come out of the Nashville songwriting factory since its release can match it for its depth and timeless ache. The song depicts a love so encompassing the singer’s passion will end only when his life does. The tune influenced artists like Randy Travis, Josh Turner, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Brad Paisley and even American Idol teen Scotty McCreery. They all tapped into its traditional delivery and quivering, cinematic ache.

But Jones didn’t need to wear a cowboy hat to prove he was country. He was country.

The song was so powerful it even frightened Jones, whose own life story could fuel songbooks filled with country songs for generations to come.

“I look for a song that moves me that I can relate to. I turned down He Stopped Loving Her Today numerous times because I thought it was just too sad and people would not want to hear it,” Jones told The Herald. “Finally, my producer and friend, Billy Sherrill, convinced me to record it and the rest, as they say, is history.”

If his songbook was impressive — he managed No. 1 country songs in every decade from the 1950s to the 1990s, and listed among his admirers a range of talent from James Taylor, Keith Richards to Frank Sinatra — his misadventures were outrageous.

Jones’ high-profile marriage to Wynette, from 1969 to 1975, earned them the distinction “The First Couple of Country Music.” But their harmony existed primarily on recordings.

After one argument, Wynette hid the car keys to keep Jones from drinking. The nearest saloon was about eight miles from their home. No problem for the wily Jones, who repeated a trick he had pulled during an earlier marriage. While Wynette slept, he hopped onto his lawn mower and drove the slow jalopy to the bar.

Jones referred to these incidents in his 1996 tune, Honky Tonk Song, and his memoir that year boasted the title “I Lived to Tell It All.”

Jones was born in Saratoga, Texas, in September 1931. He was singing in church and on street corners as a boy. By 17, he was married to the first of four wives, he’d served in the U.S. Marines, and scored his first hit in 1955, the spry Why Baby Why. His music defined what came to be known in the ’60s as The Nashville Sound — warmer, ladled with strings as in pop music to soften the twang, but still traditional to the core.

Alas, he embodied some of his tales of woe. His chart-topping 1959 tune White Lightning took a reported 83 takes to capture in the studio because Jones was loaded on, well, the subject of his song. He earned the nickname “No Show Jones” because he’d miss so many concerts due to his heavy drinking and copious cocaine habit. His other nickname, “The Possum,” came from his close-set eyes and pointed nose.

“I was country music’s national drunk and drug addict,” he wrote in his memoir. “If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep.”

His last great song, Choices, in 1999, was released soon after he crashed his car into a bridge while fiddling with a cassette of the song in its demo form. He was critically injured and a half-empty bottle of vodka was found in the car. Choices proved prophetic:

I’ve had choices since the day that I was born/There were voices that told me right from wrong/If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today/Living and dying with the choices I’ve made.

Finally, Jones listened.

His final decade included successful tours, duets with superstar Garth Brooks and Merle Haggard, and marriage to wife Nancy whom he’d credited with helping him achieve sobriety.

Earlier this year he was working with Dolly Parton on a new album, one he figured would be his final studio effort.

“I am so excited to be working on a project with Dolly,” he told The Miami Herald. “She is a dear friend, and I am such a fan of her work. I am just waiting on her to give me the song and to tell me when to sing!”

On Friday, Parton said, “My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all-time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world.”

Jones had finally settled into his peaceful senior years. Two months ago he said some things get better with age.

“Wisdom and knowledge”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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