Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GEORGE JONES: (Singing) Tell me why, baby, why, baby, why, baby, why you make me cry, baby, cry, baby, cry, baby, cry.

CORNISH: A defining voice of country music is gone. George Jones died today in Nashville at age 81. He had hit songs going back to the 1950s, a voice that conveyed heartbreak better than anyone and an influence felt well beyond the boundaries of country music. Our co-host Melissa Block visited with George Jones a few years back and has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Walk through this world with me, go where I go.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We visited at his estate south of Nashville and after our interview, sat for some pictures in white rocking chairs on his front porch. George Jones was impeccably turned out, with ostrich leather shoes and that famous perfectly coiffed swoop of silver hair. But here's what I remember best. All of a sudden, he made a goofy face, poking a piece of gum out of his mouth and cracking us all up.

His nickname was the possum.

JONES: I guess I look like a possum a little bit. I didn't like it at first, but then I kept looking in the mirror every morning. I said, good god, you got them little beady eyes. It don't bother me no more, though. They still - I said, well, just go right and call me whatever you want to.

BLOCK: When I talked with him in 2010, George Jones was still performing about 90 concert dates a year. Retirement was unthinkable.

JONES: We don't want to lay down and give up just 'cause we're old. Young people think we're crazy. Oh, one morning you'll wake up and look in the mirror like I did and say, what in the devil happened? Woo, where did it go? Oh, Lordy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Mighty, mighty feeling, that's what's calling sweetly, Shh, white lightning.

BLOCK: George Jones was the youngest of eight kids born in a log house in the big thicket, East Texas, during the Depression. No electricity, but they did have a battery-powered radio. And if you want to figure out where George Jones' voice comes from, he'll tell you it all started there, drifting in over the static.

JONES: The only music we ever listened to out in the piney woods was Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry. That was the only night of the week I was allowed to lay in the middle of the bed with mama and daddy, just long enough to hear Roy 'cause then I had to go back to bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROY ACUFF: (Singing) What a beautiful thought I am thinking...

JONES: After that, along came Hank Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANK WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'm so lonesome I could cry.

JONES: And then, Lefty came along.

BLOCK: Lefty Frizzell.

JONES: And he was so different, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEFTY FRIZZELL: (Singing) Always late with your kisses.

JONES: My lord, he'd take a word and twist it around and the way he would do that phrasing, that just tore me up.

BLOCK: George Jones was 22 when he got his first record deal. It was 1954, Starday Records in Beaumont, Texas, with producer Pappy Daily.

JONES: Pappy Daily came in there and said, George, I've heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, let's see, Lefty Frizzell, I just want to know one thing. Can you sing like George Jones? I said, well, I thought you wanted to sell some records.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Find myself another 'cause there ain't no money in this deal. I mean it, baby, there's no money in this deal.

BLOCK: Whatever it is, the alchemy of Roy, Hank and Lefty mixed with his own wrenching ache, George Jones can pull and bend notes till they make you hurt. Listen to him drape his voice here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) Just because I hang her number by mistake today, she thinks I still care.

BLOCK: It often sounded like George Jones was singing through clenched teeth, as if holding back the pain. And there was plenty of that - decades of hard drinking, drug addiction, violent rages.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONES: (Singing) He embarrasses his child and his wife. Lord, he leads a miserable life. But still he thinks the bottle is his right hand.

BLOCK: There was bankruptcy, rehab that failed, marriages that failed, most famously with his longtime singing partner, Tammy Wynette. All the hard stuff filtered into his songs.

JONES: I'm crazy over a ballad, you know, one that's got a story and it's different, you know, from something you've heard before.

BLOCK: Which brings us to this, a song about unrequited love taken to the grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY")

JONES: (Singing) He said, I'll love you till I die. She told him, you'll forget in time. As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.

BLOCK: After George Jones finished recording this song, he told producer Billy Sherrill it was too morbid.

JONES: I said, Billy, I love the song, but I said, it ain't going to sell. It's too sad. But anyhow, how wrong could one person be? That turned out to be the signature song of my whole entire career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY")

JONES: (Singing) He stopped loving her today. They placed a wreath upon his door. And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.

BLOCK: When people think of George Jones songs, a lot of time as being songs about heartbreak, songs about pain.

JONES: Yeah, it's not that you're unhappy when you're doing a ballad, it's just that I try to live the song. During that three minutes or whatever it is, oh, lord, you know, you try to step in that person's shoes. It seems, for some reason, the words tell you right away that you know how they feel.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Jones, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for letting us come visit you.

JONES: Thank you all for being so nice. I do appreciate very much you all coming.

BLOCK: That's George Jones from our visit in 2010 at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. George Jones died today at age 81. I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE RACE IS ON")

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.