There was George Jones in 1977, disappearing for three weeks instead of making a New York concert he was headlining. There was George Jones missing 54 shows two years later. And there he was in 1982, in a duet with Merle Haggard, poking fun at it with “No Show Jones,” and the nickname stuck.
There was George Jones in a studio in 1979, in the wake of a public divorce from Tammy Wynette and in the throes of substance-abusing demons, struggling to make it through “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The producer had to patch takes together to compensate for his slurring. Jones figured nobody would buy the morbid ballad about devotion to the end anyway. And there he was 15 years later, proven wrong when his peers voted it the greatest song in country music history.
“I was back on top,” Jones wrote in his 1997 autobiography. “Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.”
There was George Jones in March 1999, two decades post “No Show,” hospitalized after a one-car accident in Franklin, a half-empty bottle of vodka found in his car. And there he was later that year, winning a Grammy for “Choices,” a hauntingly relevant ballad about his battles with drinking and drugs.
“His songs transported you to a place of heartache most men would not admit,” said Tim Russell, a musician, songwriter and producer. “Yes, it was embarrassing, but it was his life. Honesty. That’s George.”
Jones stared down seemingly every angle of scandal that social-media-era entertainers, politicians and athletes fear perpetually, and his response each time was constant, if not raspy.
His voice could silence dance halls before a note of music even played. (To wit, the a cappella, “He said I’ll love you ’til I die,” opening line of “He Stopped Loving Her.”) When he came on the radio, conversations stopped until the song did the same. To this day, nobody cares about his baggage. People care to hear him sing.
George Jones has his place in country music’s pantheon, no doubt. But he belongs in the annals of pop culture and American society too. For modern-day heroes proven fallible, he paved their road back.
George Jones taught us all a little about redemption.