Legendary singer George Jones’ career thrives because of memorable hits that inspire, delight and make fans crya Tonkyn

George Jones, one of the last of country music’s great classic stars, will perform in Rapid City Tuesday, Oct. 23.

What is it about “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” recorded by country legend George Jones in 1980 and voted the greatest country song of all time in a nationwide poll of country music radio listeners?

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The song tells the story of a man who loves the woman who left him for a lifetime – a love that ends only upon his death: “He stopped loving her today. They placed a wreath upon his door. And soon, they’ll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.”

Oh, the bathos – yet for millions of Jones’ fans, including this reporter, the throat tightens and the heart swells every time the song is heard.

Jones himself was surprised at the response to the song. “I didn’t believe it would be a big hit like it was for me,” he said in a phone interview last week while on the road. But along with his fans, Jones says the song is his favorite. “The reason is because I carried that song in my mind and was humming it for a year. A song does that to you – usually it’s a hit.”

At the time, however, sad songs weren’t selling, according to Jones, so after hearing the recording, he was uncertain about how listeners would react. “It really touched me and stayed on my mind every minute of the day,” Jones said. “What scared me was the thought of it being too sad.”

But Jones’ worries were unfounded. To this day, the song proves that a great voice, backed by an unerring emotional intelligence, is bound to create an enduring artistic masterpiece. “I went through my career and searched for that ultimate love song and a good country song,” Jones said of his signature song. “It’s amazing that it was what I was looking for.”

Jones, at age 76 one of the last of country music’s great classic stars, continues to headline as many as 100 concerts a year. The voice still inspires and thrills, according to many reviews and his country music peers.

From Travis Tritt: “… (if) you could sound like anyone you wanted to, every blues singer, every rock singer, every country singer I know would say, ‘Make me sound like George Jones.’”

And from a review by Stephanie Zacharek, a staff writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment on “Jones’ voice sounds beautifully weathered and mellowed, as if it were the voice he was intended to grow into, not simply the aged one he has to settle for.”

Then, there’s this tribute from the late Tammy Wynette, who was also Jones’ third wife:

“… Never have I heard a voice packed with such emotion and feeling and I truly doubt that we’ll ever hear an equal.”

A lot of that emotion and feeling comes from Jones’ tumultuous life, including long years of troubles with women and alcohol – themes at the core of country music, and central to Jones’ lifetime of hits.

A Texan by birth, by his mid-20s Jones was twice married, had served in the Marines and had kicked around on the Texas honky-tonk circuit for a number of years. He found his footing as a performer in 1955 with his first hit, “Why Baby Why.” Other hits soon followed, including his first No. 1 hit “White Lightning,” as well as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “Good Year for the Roses” and “The Race Is On.”

Over the years, the hits and honors continued, as did the steady drinking and its related trials and tribulations – and Jones has heard or read countless descriptions about those times.

“I don’t argue with it,” he said. “Certainly, I wish I never had all that background – drinking all that much. You just have to leave that part alone and go with what you got.”

Jones may have continued down the well-traveled country road to a tragic end but for a horrific car accident in 1999, which nearly killed him. The charge was drunken driving, and the sentence was months of recovery, including a dangerous bout with pneumonia.

It proved a turning point. Jones quit drinking, smoking and even gave up coffee. He resumed his career and his new life as a sober man with the release of “Cold Hard Truth.”

The last verse says it all:

“You think that you’re a real man,

But you are nothin’ but a fool.

The way you run away from love;

The way you try to play it cool.

I’m gonna say this just one time,

Time is running out on you.

You best remember me my friend:

I am the cold hard truth.”

The truth may have been cold and hard, but Jones also points to the role luck has played in his life – both in surviving the rough times intact and in having fans who have stayed with him through it all.

“I’m so lucky to still be surviving and still having as many fans and being able to work and do what I enjoy more than anything in the world. That makes me happy.”

It makes his fans happy, too, and Jones says the relationship with his fans is why touring continues to be worthwhile. “We pay each other back each time I’m in a town,” he said. “The stories of the songs are what we really cook with. When you do have a hit, it means you’re touching the hearts of the people. They are the ones who live the songs. You sing about what happens to them.”

Jones tells it like it is, and that authenticity never fails to connect with his fans. The bond goes to Jones’ heart. “Traditional country fans are the most true,” he said.

His fans, and indeed many noted music professionals, can match that sentiment. For them, Jones is the greatest living country singer. Why? Because like all great artists, regardless of their medium, he speaks to the human condition, high moments and low – and we all can relate to that.