The Ol’ Possum.
King of Hard Country.
Whoa Charlie…”HARD Country? I’ve heard of Hard Rock, but Hard COUNTRY?”
That’s how George Jones was classified back-in-the-day…not Traditional Country, but Hard Country. Thanks to a voice that, even when young, sounded well-traveled and road-weary, like a friend who’d been through a thousand heartbreaks, yet gets back up and dusts himself off to live another day.
Anyone who knows George Jones’ story knows one particular heartbreak well…
Tammy Wynette. Married in 1969, the union went sour quickly and disintegrated after six years…although they still performed together. “Golden Ring” became a hit after the divorce, er, D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
Jones was legendary for his alcoholism…the lawn mower incident saluted in Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” happened twice. Once while married to second wife Shirley Ann Corley, the second time with Tammy (wife number three if you’re counting).
If the alcohol wasn’t enough, Jones was introduced to cocaine during the 70’s by new manager “Shug” Baggott, attempting to arouse the ol’ Possum out of a drunken stupor so he could go on stage and perform.
By the end of the decade Jones was broke and alone, having earned the moniker “No-Show Jones” for a slew of missed performances. He also came close to death and found himself in a psychiatric hospital in Alabama.
For many of these tumultuous years, CBS/Epic Records house producer Billy Sherrill stood by his side, and in fact played a pivotal role in Jones’ turnaround…thanks to one song.
Curly Putman and Bobby Braddock are the writers of this tale, described by Jones in his autobiography: “The song is about a man who loved a woman so much, it killed him when she left…he said he would love her until he died, and only on his deathbed did he stop…”
Sherrill liked the concept but felt it needed some tweaking. After Putman and Braddock got the lyrics to Sherrill’s satisfaction, George Jones was brought into CBS Studio B…a long-gone quonset hut in Nashville, to record.
And record…and record.
For starters, Sherrill noted in Bob Allen’s biography George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend… “(he) thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it…He hated the melody and wouldn’t learn it.”
Not to mention Jones thought the melody bore a resemblance to a Kris Kristofferson classic that Sammi Smith made famous in 1971.
And so ol’ No-Show would sing the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” lyrics to the tune of “Help Me Make It Through The Night”…to Sherrill’s increasing frustration. In the 1989 documentary Same Ol’ Me, he recalled one particular time Jones was singing the Kristofferson melody… “I said ‘That’s not the melody!’ and he said “Yeah, but it’s a better melody.’ I said ‘It might be – Kristofferson would think so too, it’s his melody!’
And so it went. Until the four-line recitation that comprises the bridge to the final refrain.
As Jones related in his autobiography…
“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. It took us about 18 months to record a song that was approximately three-minutes long.”
Can you imagine taking eighteen MONTHS to record ONE song?!
Now to clarify…it wasn’t eighteen months of non-stop recording. The liner notes to an old CBS/Epic greatest hits collection tells us that George Jones got so peeved at Billy Sherrill, he walked away from the session…
FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR.
And that’s the dirty little secret about “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. According to those liner notes, an entire year lapsed between the second chorus and the spoken word part at the bridge.
When he finally came back, the recitation and the rest of the track was completed. Then, according to his autobiography, Jones looked Sherrill in the eye, said “ ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a b**ch.’ Then I marched out the studio door.”
Later in the autobiography, Jones wrote the following:
“I went from a twenty-five-hundred-dollar act who promoters feared wouldn’t show up to an act who earned twenty-five thousand dollars, plus a percentage of the gate receipts. That was big money for a country artist (at that time)… To put it simply, I was back on top. Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” collected numerous awards including a GRAMMY for Best Country Male Performance. And while on tour supporting the song, he met the woman who would become his forth – and final – wife, Nancy Sepulvado…The One Who Would Help Him Get Clean Once And For All.
George Jones arguably enjoyed his best period – at least as a solo – after “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Songs like “Same Ol’ Me“, “Tennessee Whiskey“, “The Right Left Hand” and “She’s My Rock” all came in the 80’s. After CBS sold its recorded music division to Sony, Jones moved over to MCA and the partnership with Billy Sherrill ended. Two of his best from the MCA years are “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” and “Choices“.
Today, George Jones is at rest…and I think it’s safe to say he finished well. He was on a farewell tour that was to be capped off by an all-star gala November. Maybe they should keep the date as an all-star tribute to a man who…to paraphrase Faron Young…Lived Fast, Loved Hard…and then finally started to live again.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” was the turning point. Here’s the original recording…