George Jones, country music hall of famer, dies at 81

George Jones, the peerless, hard-living country singer who recorded dozens of hits about good times and regrets and peaked with the heartbreaking classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today," has died. He was 81.

Jones died Friday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure, according to his publicist, Kirt Webster.

With one of the most golden voices of any genre, a clenched, precise, profoundly expressive baritone, Jones had No. 1 songs in four separate decades, 1950s to 1980s. He was idolized not just by 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.

In a career that lasted more than 50 years, "Possum" evolved from young honky-tonker to elder statesman as he recorded more than 150 albums and became the champion and symbol of traditional country music, a link to his hero, Hank Williams. Jones survived long battles with alcoholism and drug addiction, brawls, accidents and close encounters with death, including bypass surgery and a tour bus crash that he only avoided by deciding at the last moment to take a plane.

In song, he was rowdy and regretful, tender and tragic. His hits included the sentimental "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," the foot-tapping "The Race is On," the foot-stomping "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair," the melancholy "She Thinks I Still Care," the rockin' "White Lightning" and the barfly lament "Still Doing Time."

Jones also recorded several duets with Tammy Wynette, his wife for six years, including "Golden Ring," "Near You," "Southern California" and "We're Gonna Hold On."

But his signature song was "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a weeper among weepers about a man who carries his love for a woman to his grave. The 1980 ballad, which Jones was sure would never be a hit, often appears on surveys as the most popular country song of all time.

Jones won Grammys in 1981 for that song and in 1999 for "Choices." He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 2008 was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.

Asked about what he thought about Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and other young stars, Jones said they were good but they weren't making traditional country music.

"What they need to do really, I think, is find their own title," he said.

Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.

"That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward," he recalled in "I Lived to Tell It All," his 1996 memoir. "It started what almost became a lifetime trend."

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