Nashville’s creative community is mourning the death of George Jones, who many contend was country music’s greatest singer, on Friday at the age of 81. Billboard.biz caught up with several songwriters and others who worked with him over his six-decade-long career.
Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock, who co-wrote what is considered by many to be the best country song of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” believes Jones transformed the song. “When I first wrote ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ I thought it was an okay song, but not a great song,” Braddock says. “I felt [then], and still do, that both [co-writer] Curly Putman and I had written better songs. George just elevated it somewhere up there in the stratosphere, and Billy Sherrill’s production had a lot to do with it, too. When Billy played it for us I knew it was something really special. I’d never heard anyone sing anything that good.”
“[Jones] just sang with so much angst and so much feeling,” Braddock adds. “You could almost feel the hurt when he sang. He knew how to phrase something that would tug at your heartstrings, just the way he phrased it.”
Country Music Hall of Fame staffer Michael McCall agrees. “He wasn’t the most powerful, strongest singer, but that phrasing was so amazing,” he says. “He changed everything. It’s such a devastating song and such an amazing performance.”
Veteran producer and label executive Tony Brown knows exactly when he first heard Jones sing the song. “I was in a truck stop outside of Oklahoma City. I’d heard everybody say, ‘Hey, have you heard the new George Jones song?’ I hadn’t heard it, and I remember going to the jukebox and putting a quarter in an playing that, and just marveling at his voice.”
Keith Stegall, who produced three of Jones’ albums, says working with the legend was “different than anything I’d ever done before because he was such an iconic figure.” He recalls the first time he went into the studio with Jones. “We had everything set up and we were running the song down and the band was playing and getting the arrangement together and all of a sudden, George’s voice came through the speakers. I remember my eyes welling up with tears [and thinking] ‘Oh, my gosh. Here’s this voice that I’ve been living with and listening to for years. This is it. This is the guy. Here he is in front of me on the other side of the glass.’ It was an awe-inspiring moment.”
Hit songwriter and producer Norro Wilson, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, wrote a number of Jones’ hits, including “A Picture Of Me (Without You)” and “The Grand Tour.”
“When ‘The Grand Tour’ came out I was down at the Opry with [artist] Freddy Weller,” Wilson says. “The whole room was talking about it, and I when I went home, I thought, ‘Well damn, we may have a hit here.’ That was overwhelming. I can’t think of any song that ever got cut that I got more excited about.” --reporting by Vernell Hackett, Tom Roland and Ken Tucker in Nashville