George Jones
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Singer was defining honky tonk balladeer

George Jones, the “King of Broken Hearts” whose honky-tonk balladry defined the highest level of emotion-wracked country singing, died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He was 81.

Jones was among the premier hardcore country performers of the ’60s and ’70s, rivaled only by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and he served as a vocal model for country singers like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam and rock performers as varied as Gram Parsons and Elvis Costello.

Jones had been hospitalized in the midst of “The Grand Tour,” his 60-market farewell trek. He had announced his plans to retire from performing last year.

Vocalist Emmylou Harris once famously summarized Jones’ impact: “He has a remarkable voice that flows out of him effortlessly and quietly, but with an edge that comes from the stormy part of the heart.”

While Jones scored with upbeat hits such as “The Race Is On” and “White Lightning” early in his career, he was known for such intense, tortured singles as “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” steeped in loss and mortality.

Known familiarly as “Possum” for his vaguely marsupial countenance, the seemingly bulletproof Jones lived a life as tumultuous as that of his famed and equally notorious predecessor and inspiration, Hank Williams. Alcoholism and drug addiction more than once threatened to terminate one of country’s most glittering careers.

With nearly 170 chart singles to his credit, Jones is second only to Eddy Arnold in terms of hit production. He released 14 No. 1 country records. Three of those were made with the late Tammy Wynette, who was stormily married to the singer for six years; they continued to duet together successfully after their divorce.

Despite nearly countless arrests, hospitalizations and missed concert appearances (which led to the moniker “No-Show Jones,” immortalized in song by its namesake), Jones’ career stretched into the new millennium.

He was born in Saratoga, Texas. His father was an alcoholic who gave George his first guitar at the age of 8; the youngster began listening to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry as a boy and sang at local revival meetings. As a teen he performed on regional radio and fell under the sway of honky-tonk star Williams, whom he met at a show in Beaumont. “I was too scared to open my mouth,” Jones recalled later.

After a brief marriage, Jones enlisted in the Marine Corps. Following his hitch, he signed a deal in 1954 with Starday Records, a new independent country label run by Houston jukebox operator Harold W. “Pappy” Daily and Jack Starnes Jr. The imprint recorded Jones in a tough honky-tonk format, and he even made some rockabilly-flavored singles, as “Thumper” Jones.

While Jones’ No. 4 1955 single “Why Baby Why,” a duet with Sonny Burns, was topped by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce’s No. 1 cover, the song put Jones on the national map. Several other chart 45s followed, including the No. 3 hit “Just One More” (1956), the first of literally dozens of drinking songs he would cut during his career.

After Starday partnered with Mercury Records for national distribution, Jones released many of his defining hits, including the wrenching top 10 ballads “Color of the Blues” (1958) and “The Window Up Above” (1960) and two No. 1 releases — the galloping homage to moonshine “White Lightning” (1959) and “Tender Years” (1961).

When Pappy Daily moved to United Artists in 1962 as a staff producer, Jones joined him. The association immediately spawned a searing No. 1 single, “She Thinks I Still Care.” His time at UA also produced several top 10 hits, including the bouncy “The Race Is On,” the stunning ballad “Things Have Gone to Pieces” and “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” a weeper about infidelity cut with female vocalist Melba Montgomery.

Jones and manager-producer Daily jumped to Musicor Records in 1965. During five years at the label, the singer recorded nearly 300 songs of variable quality. His output was perhaps typified by his first Musicor hit, the novelty-oriented “Love Bug,” but he also recorded the potent ballads “Walk Through This World With Me” (No. 1, 1967), “When the Grass Grows Over Me” (No. 1, 1968), “I’ll Share My World With You” (No. 2, 1969) and “A Good Year for the Roses” (No. 2, 1970).

In 1968, Jones split up with his second wife; the following year, he married a singer who had idolized him as a girl and was living an equally tortured life: Wynette. After his Musicor contract expired, he jettisoned Daily and joined Wynette at CBS’ Epic Records.

His recordings there were shaped by Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill, who fitted Jones with a glossy, pop-oriented sound. His first Epic hit was a remake of his Musicor single “Take Me,” cut as a duet with Wynette. “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” would reach No. 1 again with “We’re Gonna Hold On” (1973).

Despite his deepening alcoholism and a burgeoning addiction to cocaine, Jones managed several significant ’70s hits of his own. His No. 1 smashes included the prophetically divorce-themed “The Grand Tour” (1974) and “The Door” (1974). Jones’ escalating drinking fractured his marriage to Wynette in 1975, but the pair still produced a pair of post-divorce No. 1 duets, “Golden Ring” and “Near You” (both 1976).

The bathos-suffused “He Stopped Loving Her Today” reached No. 1 in 1980 and collected a Grammy for best male country vocal performance. “Yesterday’s Wine,” a duet with Merle Haggard, hit the top in 1982; the following year, the fragile “I Always Get Lucky With You” became Jones’ final No. 1 country recording.

Personally, Jones was a wreck in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He filed for bankruptcy in 1977 and for a time lived in his car. A 1979 rehab stay was a flop. Alcohol and cocaine abuse pushed his weight down to 105 pounds; he was arrested for assault on more than one occasion, and a police chase that culminated in his arrest for drunk driving was televised locally in Nashville. Finally, straitjacketed, he was confined to an Alabama psychiatric hospital in 1984.

Jones’ 1983 marriage to Nancy Sepulvado, who became his manager, eventually stabilized the singer, though his professions of complete sobriety over the years would prove untrue. The couple exited Nashville to settle in Texas’ “Big Thicket,” Jones’ old stomping grounds. He collected a handful of top 10 singles — including a self-referential 1985 lament about the waning of country’s old guard, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” — through the end of his relationship with Epic in 1989.

He signed with MCA Records in 1991; his five years with the label were distinguished by chart-worthy duets with Sammy Kershaw, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless and — for the last time, in 1995 — Wynette, who died three years later. He published a guarded autobiography, “I Lived to Tell It All,” in 1996.

In 1999, a year after a single-car drunk-driving accident left him critically injured, Jones bounced back with the late-career high-water mark “The Cold Hard Truth,” a gritty Asylum album produced by singer Keith Stegall. It included the single “Choices”; though it rose no higher than No. 30, it captured another Grammy for the singer.

Jones’ latter-day recordings were indie-label affairs. One of his last top 40 country entries was the No. 24 single “Beer Run,” a 2001 duet with crossover superstar Garth Brooks. Though Brooks’ pop-oriented fans had largely left Jones’ gutsy brand of country behind, the singer endured as an icon among the genre’s traditionalists.

After more than half a century on the road, Jones announced that he would retire following a 60-market farewell tour — titled “The Grand Tour,” in honor of his signature 1974 No. 1 hit — in 2013.

Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1993. He received the National Endowment of the Arts’ National Medal of the Arts in 2002 and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2008.

Jones is survived by wife Nancy and six children from his four marriages.

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