When it comes to country music, George Jones was The Voice.
Other great singers have come and gone, but this fact remained inviolate until Jones passed away Friday at 81 in a Nashville hospital after a year of ill health.
“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 Jones with 29 songs over the decades. “No one in country music has influenced so many other artists.”
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.
He was a beloved and, at times, a notorious figure in Nashville, and his problems were just as legendary as his songs. But when you dropped the needle on one of his records, all that stuff went away. And you were left with The Voice.
That voice helped Jones achieve No. 1 songs in four separate decades, 1950s to 1980s. And its qualities were admired by not just his fellow country artists but by Frank Sinatra, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and countless others. “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” Waylon Jennings once sang.
Word of his death spread Friday morning as his peers paid tribute.
Merle Haggard put it best, perhaps: “The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen.”
“The greatest voice to ever grace country music will never die,” Garth Brooks said. “Jones has a place in every heart that ever loved any kind of music.”
And Dolly Parton added, “My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all-time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world.”