On a recent Country Music Television countdown, The Top 40 Men of Country Music, Merle Haggard had this to say about his friend George Jones: "When I wonder how should a song be sung, I wander over into his yard and ask, 'How would George sing it?'"
Jones, whose songs have topped country music charts for 40 years, has earned the reputation of a hard-living drinker whose battle with the bottle has almost killed him time and again. But more importantly, among his peers, Jones, who will play the Pikes Peak Center this Saturday, is widely recognized as one of the great song stylists of American music -- country or otherwise.
Another survey a few years back asked country singers and songwriters to name the most perfect country song ever written. Several of those surveyed, including Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill, named Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a song so sad in its yearning and regret that its impact is no less acute 20 years later. It tells the story of a man who has finally stopped loving the woman he couldn't have, only because he has passed away: Kept some letters by his bed/ dated nineteen sixty-two/ He had underlined in red/ every single "I love you"/ ... He stopped loving her today/ They placed a wreath upon his door/ And soon they'll carry him away/ He stopped loving her today.
Jones' plaintive, soaring delivery of those lyrics is the ideal showcase of a singer who sings from the depths of experience -- something Jones does better than anybody.
Born in Saratoga, Texas, in 1931, as a youngster Jones sang for pennies at a Beaumont arcade. He was married twice before joining the Marines and cutting his first record, "Why Baby Why," an immediate hit in 1955. "White Lightning" was a huge record for Jones in 1959, followed by a string of successful duets with Melba Montgomery in the early '60s and the seminal hit, "She Thinks I Still Care," in 1962.
But Jones' most famous singing partner was his third wife, Tammy Wynette. The two were married in 1969, spent six tempestuous but musically fruitful years together, and were divorced in 1975. In her 1979 autobiography Stand By Your Man, Wynette claimed that Jones came after her once with a rifle, an accusation Jones refuted in his 1996 life story I Lived to Tell it All. But the singing partnership of Jones and Wynette continued past their marriage, producing the haunting 1976 duet "Golden Ring" and a final reunion in 1995, just three years before Wynette's death, that culminated in the CD One and a final tour together.
Although Jones declared himself clean and sober in his book, a New York Times best seller, in 1999 he was almost killed in a one-car accident during which, he later admitted, he was inebriated. A Tennessee grand jury found him guilty of DWI after his admission: "I slipped."
These days, Jones is wasting no time redeeming his reputation of the 1980s when he picked up the nickname "No-Show Jones" for missing so many scheduled appearances. He tours like a demon, hitting as many as 20 cities a month, offering up thanks to audiences and his fourth wife Nancy for sticking with him and seeing him through to real sobriety.
Oh, and that Top 40 Men of Country Music countdown? Jones came in third, behind Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Not bad, not bad at all.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Saturday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m.
The Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Tickets $39.50 and $49.50