George Jones, country superstar, dies at 81

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice.

Other great singers have come and gone, but this fact remained inviolate until Jones passed away Friday at 81 in a Nashville

hospital after a year of ill health.

"Today someone else has become the greatest living singer of traditional country music, but there will never be another George

Jones," said Bobby Braddock, the Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter who provided Jones with 29 songs over the decades.

"No one in country music has influenced so many other artists."

He did it with that voice. Rich and deep,

strong enough to crack like a whip, but supple enough to bring tears. It

was so

powerful, it made Jones the first thoroughly modern country

superstar, complete with the substance abuse problems and

rich-and-famous

celebrity lifestyle that included mansions, multiple divorces and —

to hear one fellow performer tell it — fistfuls of cocaine.

He was a beloved and at times a notorious figure in Nashville and his problems were just as legendary as his songs. But when

you dropped the needle on one of his records, all that stuff went away. And you were left with The Voice.

"He just knows how to pull every drop of

emotion out of it of the songs if it's an emotional song or if it's a

fun song he

knows how to make that work," Alan Jackson said in a 2011

interview. "It's rare. He was a big fan of Hank Williams Sr. like

me. He tried to sing like Hank in the early days. I've heard early

cuts. And the difference is Hank was a singer and he was

a great writer, but he didn't have that natural voice like George.

Not many people do. That just sets him apart from everybody."

That voice helped Jones achieve No. 1 songs

in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s. And its qualities were admired

by more

than just his fellow country artists but by Frank Sinatra, Pete

Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others.

"If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like

George Jones," Waylon Jennings once sang.

Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.

Merle Haggard put it best, perhaps: "The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen."

"The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die," Garth Brooks said. "Jones has a place in every heart that

ever loved any kind of music."

And Dolly Parton added, "My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite

people in the world."

In Jones' case, that's not hyperbole. In a career that lasted more than 50 years, "Possum" evolved from young honky-tonker

to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a

well-lined link to his hero, Williams.

Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including

bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he only avoided by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.

His failure to appear for concerts left him

with the nickname "No Show Jones," and he later recorded a song by that

name and

often opened his shows by singing it. His wild life was revealed

in song and in his handsome, troubled face, with its dark,

deep-set eyes and dimpled chin.

In song, like life, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental "Who's Gonna Fill Their

Shoes," the foot-tapping "The Race is On," the foot-stomping "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," the melancholy "She Thinks

I Still Care," the rockin' "White Lightning," and the barfly lament "Still Doing Time." Jones also recorded several duets

with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including "Golden Ring," ''Near You," ''Southern California" and "We're Gonna

Hold On." He also sang with such peers as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and with Costello and other rock performers.

But his signature song was "He Stopped

Loving Her Today," a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his

love for a woman

to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be

a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country

song of all time and won the Country Music Association's song of

the year award an unprecedented two years in a row.

Jones won Grammy awards in 1981 for "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and in 1999 for "Choices." He was elected to the Country

Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.

He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell

tour when he passed away. He was scheduled to complete the tour in

November with

an all-star packed tribute in Nashville. Stars lined up to sign on

to the show, many remembering kindnesses over the years.

Kenny Chesney thinks Jones may have one of the greatest voices in

not just country history, but music history. But he remembers

Jones for more than the voice. He was picked for a tour with Jones

and Wynette early in his career and cherishes the memory

of being invited to fly home on Jones' private jet after one of

the concerts.

"I remember sitting there on that jet,

thinking, 'This can't be happening,' because he was George Jones, and I

was some kid

from nowhere," Chesney said in an email. "I'm sure he knew, but he

was generous to kids chasing the dream, and I never forgot

it."

Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log

house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight

children. He sang

in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets

of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that

listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it

with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his

two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he

used up the cash at a local arcade.

"That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward," he recalled in "I Lived to Tell

it All," a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. "It started what almost became a lifetime trend."

The family lived in a government-subsidized

housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would

rouse the

children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him. His

father also noted that young George liked music and bought

him a Gene Autry guitar, with a horse and lariat on the front that

Jones practiced on obsessively.

He got his start on radio with husband and

wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once

dropped by the studio

to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on

guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.

"Hank had 'Wedding Bells' out at the time," Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. "He started singing it, and

I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared."

After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first

record when he got out, an original fittingly called "No Money in This Deal."

He had his first hit with "Why Baby Why" in 1955, and by the early '60s Jones was one of country music's top stars.

"I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That's what country music is about," Jones said in a 1991

AP interview. "My fans and real true country music fans know I'm not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling

in it if I can and try to live the song."

Jones was married to Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in

Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Jones' weary knowledge of domestic warfare

was immortalized in such classics as "The Battle," set to the martial beat of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

After one argument, Jones drove off on a

riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys

to keep

him from carousing. Years earlier, married to his second wife, he

had also sped off on a mower in search of a drink. Jones

referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, "Honky Tonk

Song," and poked fun at himself in four music videos that featured

him aboard a mower.

His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the

late '70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had

started

him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic

performances, and Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss.,

in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a

benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation. In

his memoir, "Satan is Real," Charlie Louvin recounts being offered

a fistful of cocaine by Jones backstage at a concert.

"In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time," Jones wrote in his memoir. "If you saw me sober, chances are you saw

me asleep."

In 1980, a 3-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record "He Stopped Loving

Her Today," a ballad by Braddock and Curly Putnam. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Jones couldn't

master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night," and partly because he

was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude ("She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And

it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good.")

"Pretty simple, eh?" Jones wrote in his

memoir. "I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of

my life. I'd

fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without

slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the

narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record

four simple spoken lines."

Jones was convinced the song was too "morbid" to catch on. But "He Stopped Loving Her Today," featuring a string section that

hummed, then soared, became an instant standard and virtually canonized him. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to

$25,000.

"There is a God," he recalled.