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Remembering George Jones, 81, Country Music Giant

April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Country music legend George Jones had a distinctive voice and the ability to convey heartbreak and sorrow in song. He is best known for chart-topper "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Jones died at age 81 in Nashville, Tenn. Jeffrey Brown talks with Larry Gatlin, a fellow singer-songwriter who knew Jones.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: remembering a giant of country music, George Jones.

It was that distinctive voice and the ability to convey heartache and sorrow in song that made George Jones a country music legend. He turned out number one singles in five separate decades and inspired generations of artists, including many of today’s stars.

GEORGE JONES, Musician: Well, I would be lying if I didn’t say I wouldn’t like to be remembered. I hope I am. And I’m sure I will be, by a few anyhow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jones began singing for tips on the streets of his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, at age 11. He first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, and recorded some 150 albums in all.

The hard times he sang about often reflected his own hard living. He got the nickname of “No Show Jones” after years of missing concerts while struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Jones was also married four times, most famously to fellow country superstar Tammy Wynette. They recorded the 1976 hit “Golden Ring” 14 months after their divorce.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of his best-known songs was the 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” about a man who carried his love for a woman to the grave.

George Jones died today in Nashville. He was 81 years old.

More about the work and life of George Jones. It comes from another well-known country singer and songwriter, Larry Gatlin. He and his brothers were among country’s biggest acts in the ’70s and ’80s with dozens of hit singles. I spoke with him earlier today.

Larry Gatlin, welcome.

What made George Jones distinctive? What made him so important in country music history?

LARRY GATLIN, Country Music Singer: Well, first of all, he was very unassuming. We all — you know, all of us said, George, you’re the best, and if not the best — my dear friend Coach Bum Phillips — many years ago, somebody said, Coach Phillips, is Earl Campbell in a class by himself? And Coach Phillips said, well, if he’s not in a class by himself, it darn sure don’t take long to check roll.

So, that’s how people felt about George. He just had that — that edge to his — the way he phrased things. And he kind of go oh, and it’s like that. Every country song I ever wrote in my life, I wrote with George Jones singing in my ear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

It was that much of a — it was that much of a direct influence and impact, huh?

LARRY GATLIN: Oh, well, absolutely.

Like I say, if he’s not in a class by himself — since Jones comes before R. in the dictionary — in the alphabet — that would be Marty Robbins — or P for Ray Price, or even we can go to the Vs, Vince Gill. I know we turned that around.

But some of those great singers like that — he is always considered the — by almost everyone as just the best pure country singer.

And here’s what he was. He was the most unassuming. It almost embarrassed him for you to — for us to fawn over him like we all did. But I never worked a lot of shows with him. The brothers and I — I mean, my brothers and my sisters sang in a backup group with Tammy after George and Tammy had broken up.

So most of the time I was with him would be backstage at award shows and things. But we — the last show we did with Mr. Jones was in Florida two — two summers ago at the Strawberry Festival. I went back, knocked on the bus to go pay my respects. They opened the door and ushered me in.

I said, Mr. Jones, I came to pay my respects. He said, Larry, you know how much I have always loved you boys.

You know, so …

JEFFREY BROWN: That did it, huh?

LARRY GATLIN: We lived a great life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we mentioned in our setup some of the hard aspects to that life, the — in addition to the struggles with alcohol and drugs, I just read, he made millions, he lost millions. A lot of that heartache that he sang about was real?

LARRY GATLIN: Absolutely.

I mean, you know, people ask me, they say, are all of your songs personal experiences? I say, yes. They’re not all my personal experiences, but they are someone’s. And that’s what songwriters do. That’s what singers do.

George Jones could sit there and sing the alphabet and make you think that he was singing it directly to you, and that’s the only song you had ever really wanted.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

And you would be crying because it was George Jones doing what George Jones did. But, yes, we have a lot of funny stories about him, driving the tractor downtown. He got through mowing the lawn and just decided to drive it right on downtown Nashville, and he sold it to an old boy for $25 dollars.

So, we all know those stories. He did have his demons, but towards the end of his life, the last 15, 20 years, Ms. Nancy came in there and just — I wrote her an e-mail today that you, Ms. Nancy, sweetheart, you gave some wonderful years to my friend’s later life.

And, yes, he had demons. We all have demons. But she kind of got him straightened out a little bit. And I think it added to his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s his wife, yes.

LARRY GATLIN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

You know, we’re all used to these — these days to the crossover stars, musicians doing a lot of different genres. I gather he really — he kind of bucked that, right? He just sort of stayed with the style that he himself loved.

LARRY GATLIN: Absolutely.

He was flattop, and a flattop guy in a black suit and a white shirt and a black tie. And he just — you know, he just stood up there and sang like George Jones. I have often said that I thought George Jones was what — to country music what Frank Sinatra was to pop music or Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis. He was just a purest. He did what he did, and he let everybody else do what they did.

And he was the best at it. Like I say, arguably — here’s the deal. If Tiger Woods put the golf ball in the hole the fewest amount of times, he wins. That’s an objective endeavor. So, when you start talking about who the greatest singers were, it’s subjective. Everybody could come in.

But I think, if you took a poll, the old Possum would be pretty much on the top of that list almost every time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Larry Gatlin on the life and music of George Jones, thanks so much.

LARRY GATLIN: God bless. Thank you.