Entertainment & Arts

George Jones: A man falling apart in front of you

In this undated photo, country singer George Jones is shown performing with his guitar

It wasn't hard to find him. A little way past the low stone bridge where he totalled his car - and nearly himself - back in 1998 was a huge inscribed boulder proclaiming the house on top of the rise to be the home of George Jones.

And inside, the man himself - the Possum, Thumper, No Show Jones - was in his kitchen with his fourth wife Nancy, making commercials for his soon-to-be-launched range of country sausages.

The man I met on that cold winter day was polite, softly-spoken and slightly withdrawn. Gone was the alcoholic hell-raiser of earlier times who, when two previous spouses felt moved to hide the keys to the car, simply got on his lawnmower to ride to the nearest bar.

He was replaced by an older, maybe wiser, man who would grin ruefully at any reference to his legendary past.

The legend of George Jones looms high over his career. From the rockabilly records he made under an assumed name, to the epic battlefields of his marriage - both personal and professional - to Tammy Wynette, and on through the period when whiskey and cocaine had such a hold on him that he seem to cancel more shows than he actually played.

But that wasn't what gave him the legendary status. That would be the voice - and what a voice it was.

Equal parts chocolate and bourbon, it flowed over you and round you, lulling you into accepting the often brutal emotional truths it was carrying.

More than any other popular singer, Jones had the ability to sink so far into a song that it never seemed to be a performance at all, just the sound of a man falling apart in front of you.

That's a bit more myth of course, because the Possum was just as capable of recording a daft novelty song or a foot-stomping slab of honky-tonk. But it was the sad songs that stuck.

If you're not careful, those songs can be almost impossible to listen to. The emotion in them is so raw, so deeply felt that it sometimes feels intrusive, like overhearing a private grief that becomes so compelling you can't tear yourself away even though you know you should.

Image caption Jones and fellow country star Tammy Wynette were married for six years and recorded together

Listen to the drunk man parked outside his house with his head on the steering wheel in If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will). Or the man picking his way through the rubble of a wrecked marriage on The Battle album. Or to those battered, bruising duets with Wynette and you'll hear lives honestly reflected in a way that's rare in art of any sort, let alone in popular music.

And above all else, listen to He Stopped Loving Her Today, a song about which entire books could - and have - been published.

It is so often cited as the best country song ever written that it's hiding in plain sight. Jones's vocal is a simply astonishing tour de force of empathic emotion that has never been surpassed. Or even equalled.

The bars along Nashville's Lower Broadway will be filled with people tonight. They'll be dancing in Robert's Western World, in Layla's Bluegrass Inn, in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and they'll drink and they'll fight and they'll make up and some of them will wake up in the morning with their heads resting on their steering wheels.

And across the road, the Country Music Hall of Fame will stand in darkness because George Jones is dead.

Mark Hagen is the producer of Radio 2's "Bob Harris Country", and a former board member of the Country Music Association.

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