On This Day: Country Music Loses ‘Greatest Singer’ When George Jones Dies in 2013

by Jim Casey

If George Jones isn’t at the top of your list of the greatest country singers of all time (or very, very near the top), get yourself a new list. “The Possum” had pipes all day, and then some. Of course, county music lost one of its greatest voices—and characters—when George Jones died on April 26, 2013, at age 81.

With a distinctive voice that put him in another class from his peers, George Jones lived the last 20 or so years of his life being known as the “greatest living country singer.” That’s not an easy moniker to shoulder. But George proved it with ease every time he stepped on the stage. Of course, over his 50-plus-year career, George earned a lot of nicknames, including the aforementioned “Possum,” for his apparent likeness to the marsupial, and “No Show Jones,” for to his penchant of missing gigs due to his hard-partying ways.

George Jones packed a lot of living into those 81 years. He lived a full life—seemingly overflowing at times—with tales of lawnmower trips to the liquor store and tanked-up recording sessions. Of course, he had noted battles with alcohol and drugs, as well as four marriages. However, there was also a lot to celebrate. Of course, his music, as well as his 1983 marriage to Nancy Sepulvado, who helped get George on the road to sobriety after a 1999 wreck. If you really want to delve into the life of George Jones, read his stellar autobiography, I Lived to Tell It.

The Greatest Voice

With more than 140 of his songs reaching the Top 40 (that’s not a typo: 140), George’s musical honors could fill a museum. Actually, he has his own museum in Nashville now. George earned multiple Grammy Awards, numerous Male Vocalist of the Year Awards (both CMA and ACM), a Nation Medal of Arts in 2002, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and more. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted George in 1992.

George’s catalog of No. 1 hits includes “White Lightning,” “Still Doin’ Time,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and more. Understandably so, he was also one of the most sought-after duet partners. George famously shared the mic with his third wife Tammy Wynette (both while married to her and afterwards), Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, and more.

George Jones Gets His Start

Born in Saratoga, Texas, in 1931, George grew up in nearby Beaumont. After his dad bought him a guitar at age 9, George developed a talent for both playing and singing. Two years later, George played his first gig on a shoeshine stand in front of a penny arcade. Before the day was over, George had amassed $24 in change—a tidy sum in the early 1940s.

Of course, as George recounted in his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It, the money burned a hole in his pocket. “I stepped inside the arcade with $24 in my pockets,” wrote Jones. “I’m not sure I left there with a cent. That was my first time to earn money for singing—and my first time to blow it afterward.”

George left home at age 16 to pursue his career. He found work performing on radio stations, and eventually earned himself a spot on the honky-tonk circuit.

George scored his first charted hit in 1955 with “Why Baby Why,” which peaked at No. 4. Of course, as previously mentioned, the tune was the first in a long string of Top 40 hits.

Country Music Mourns a Legend

If George Jones’ public funeral service at the Grand Ole Opry House on May 2, 2013, was any indication, his impact on country music is immeasurable. A legion of country music’s biggest stars, dignitaries, and fans took time to mourn the legend and bid farewell.

Artists performing musical tributes included Randy Travis (“Amazing Grace”), Brad Paisley (“Me & Jesus”), Vince Gill (“Go Rest High on That Mountain”), Travis Tritt (“Why Me Lord”), Wynonna (“How Great Thou Art”), Ronnie Milsap (“When the Grass Grows Over Me”), Alan Jackson (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), and more.

Attendees and speakers included former First Lady Laura Bush, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, CBS political correspondent Bob Schieffer, Charlie Daniels, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, Garth Brooks, Tanya Tucker, and more.

George Jones has been gone nine years now, but he’s certainly not forgotten. To quote Alan Jackson (after his performance of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at the public funeral service in 2013): “We love you, George.”