NASHVILLE -- When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice.
Other great singers have come and gone, but his status was indisputable until Mr. Jones died Friday in a Nashville hospital after a year of ill health. He was 81.
"Today someone else has become the greatest living singer of traditional country music, but there will never be another George Jones," said Bobby Braddock, the Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter who provided Mr. Jones with 29 songs over the decades, including his signature song, He Stopped Loving Her Today.
The 1980 ballad, which Mr. Jones was sure would never be a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time and won the Country Music Association's song of the year award an unprecedented two years in a row.
"No one in country music has influenced so many other artists," Braddock said
He did it with that voice. Rich and deep, strong enough to crack like a whip, but supple enough to bring tears. It was so powerful, it made Jones the first thoroughly modern country superstar, complete with the substance abuse problems and rich-and-famous celebrity lifestyle that included mansions, multiple divorces and -- to hear one fellow performer tell it -- fistfuls of cocaine.
But when you dropped the needle on one of his records, all that stuff went away. And you were left with The Voice.
The voice helped Mr. Jones achieve No. 1 songs in five separate decades, 1950s to 1990s.
As word of his death spread Friday morning, his peers paid tribute.
From Merle Haggard: "The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen."
From Garth Brooks: "The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die. Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music."
And from Dolly Parton: "My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world."
In Mr. Jones' case, that's not hyperbole.
In a career that lasted more than 50 years, "Possum" -- the nickname derived from his close-set eyes and pointed nose -- evolved from young honky-tonker to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music.
His failure to appear for concerts left him with another nickname, "No Show Jones," and he later recorded a song by that name and often opened his shows by singing it.
In song, like life, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes, the foot-tapping The Race is On, the foot-stomping I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair, the melancholy She Thinks I Still Care, the rockin' White Lightning, and the barfly lament Still Doing Time.
Mr. Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including Golden Ring, Near You, Southern California and We're Gonna Hold On.
Mr. Jones was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.
He was in the midst of a yearlong farewell tour when he died. He was scheduled to complete the tour in November with an all-star packed tribute in Nashville.
George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house in the oil fields of deep East Texas near the town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang at church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont. On his first outing, listeners filled a cup with coins. Mr. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.
"That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward," he recalled in I Lived to Tell it All, a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. "It started what almost became a lifetime trend."
He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s.
Mr. Jones married Dorothy Bonvillion when he was 17 but divorced her before the birth of their daughter. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called No Money in This Deal.
He had his first hit with Why Baby Why in 1955. Mr. Jones was married to Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations.
After one argument, Mr. Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had hidden his car keys. Years earlier, married to his second wife and living in Vidor, he had sped off to Beaumont on a mower in search of a drink. Mr. Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, Honky Tonk Song, and poked fun at himself in four music videos that featured him aboard a mower.
His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late '70s, and Mr. Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Mr. Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation.
In 1980, a three-minute song changed his life. His longtime producer, Billy Sherrill, recommended he record He Stopped Loving Her Today, a ballad by Braddock and Curly Putnam. The song took more than a year to record, partly because Mr. Jones couldn't master the melody, which he confused with Kris Kristofferson's Help Me Make it Through the Night, and partly because he was too drunk to recite a brief, spoken interlude ("She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he's over her for good.")
"Pretty simple, eh?" Mr. Jones wrote in his memoir. "I couldn't get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I'd fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines."
Mr. Jones was convinced the song was too "morbid" to catch on. But He Stopped Loving Her Today, featuring a string section that hummed, then soared, became an instant standard. His concert fee jumped from $2,500 a show to $25,000.
"There is a God," he recalled.
His publicists listed his survivors as his fourth wife, Nancy; his sister, Helen Scroggins; and children and grandchildren.