FORT WORTH -- George Jones, the master vocalist that a generation of country music legends claimed as their own American Idol, had the knack of keeping his fans on their toes, waiting for his latest offstage dust-up even as they waited for his latest country hits for more than 50 years.
For a man nicknamed Possum, he rarely laid low.
Offstage, he was warm and friendly, self-deprecating and seemed to enjoy his work and his fans.
Although he picked up another nickname, No Show Jones, for his chronic absenteeism, it was the mystery that kept them coming. When he did appear, it was like winning big at the casino.
His character flaws (and famous addictions) seemed to actually enhance his music and reputation. Some part of us wanted him to actually get to that liquor store on a riding lawn mower. We knew somewhere Tammy Wynette was throwing up her hands in frustration.
His range and vocal slides on White Lightning made the crowds giggle and sing along, then just as quickly, his misery in If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will) could make them bottom out emotionally.
I was hooked one night at the Mesquite Rodeo Arena (he did show up for that one). His songs and passionate voice filled the evening air, and a solitary couple danced in a spot of light near the bleachers during Walk Through This World With Me.
Time passed, and Jones became a sturdy and reliable standard-bearer for country music in the midst of changing times.
Though He Stopped Loving Her Today is generally considered by critics to be the greatest country hit ever recorded, by Jones or anyone else, it was the valedictory song Choices that impressed me most during a review of Jones' 2009 Bass Hall show.
It better summed up the man and whatever peace he had made with his sometimes turbulent past, accompanied by a slide presentation that was both poignant and comic.
"You've got to appreciate a man honest enough to show on his highlight reel a clip of himself getting arrested, right there beside a news account of the recent Kennedy Center honor he won," read my review.
He could be funny and disarming in very deadpan ways.
During an earlier show at Bass Hall, he unashamedly hauled out a bag or two of George Jones brand dog food, his enterprise at the time, and touted its virtues for country canines.
Star-Telegram music critic Preston Jones' 2010 review of the Possum's show at Billy Bob's Texas foreshadowed Jones' decline. He was sniffly, weak and irritated, Preston said.
"That inimitable voice, rich with heartache, could not be silenced easily," he reported. "Indeed, much of the evening felt like outright defiance of nature -- the spirit is willing, and the flesh isn't given a chance to be weak."
Jones' last concert in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was in October 2012 at the Arlington Music Hall.
"We originally had him booked last May, but he had to cancel due to health problems," said Michael Hix, president and emcee of the hall. "We rebooked him in October, to a sold-out crowd of 1,100-plus."
Hix termed the news of Jones' death "sobering."
It's a good description of the mood Friday, once the country music community began to come to grips with the reality of losing another giant in the genre and took to social media to mourn.
Veteran entertainer and fellow octogenarian Ray Price said it chillingly in all capital letters:
"Sad day, folks. Today, with the passing of my good friend, George Jones, the door to an era in time is slowly closing," Price said. "With only a handful of us left standing, the country music I knew and loved has also passed away. It is my great hope that the younger generation of singers will remember all of us from that time and carry on. Thanks all."
Then again, George Jones might tell us to lighten up, that the music is stronger than it would seem.
"To those who knew George Jones, our lives were full," Brad Paisley tweeted. "To those of you who don't: discover him now."
"Let's break out his catalogue and play it all day," posted Toby Keith.
This contains material from Star-Telegram archives.
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657