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George Jones: No one's gonna fill his shoes 

Recalling the quintessential country's singer's lasting influence

Superlatives are almost always exaggerations, but in George Jones' case, they're understatements. That's because Jones was America's quintessential country singer -- he was the greatest country singer who ever lived and the greatest we'll ever see.

Jones died today at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He was 81. According to his publicist, the singer had been hospitalized on April 18, suffering from a fever and irregular blood pressure. Jones had flirted with death many times before — most notably in a 1999 car accident — but like the proverbial cat with nine lives, he was given multiple new leases over the years. At the time of his death, Jones — who was nicknamed Possum, for his close-set eyes, and No-Show Jones, for his tendency to miss concerts during his worst years of alcohol and drug abuse — was by most accounts living a more relaxed and mellow life. He is survived by Nancy Jones, his wife of 30 years, a sister, four children and several grandchildren. (For a more in-depth biographical look at Jones' life and music, see Jon Pareles' outstanding obit at The New York Times.)

If you're a Southerner of a certain age, Jones has been a constant in your life for more than half a century. Even if you're not a Southerner, you know his name. You probably know about his crazy antics while drinking and drugging, or about his tumultuous marriage to fellow country legend Tammy Wynette, who died in 1998. Most importantly, you know that voice — his smooth-as-syrup baritone that could soar from a deep purr to a high, vulnerable moan in a single twangy, three-minute song drenched in milky, bittersweet pedal-steel guitar. Even if you don't know his voice, you've heard it in the voices of Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Jamey Johnson and even British new wave and punk pioneer Elvis Costello.

Jones' death is one of those celebrity losses that, for me, is personal. That's because, while I know he has been a constant in all of our lives, what I know most is that he's been a constant in mine. As a child of the South and student of Southern music, culture and history, I see Jones as no more or less a part of my cultural identity than Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, Shirley Caesar, R.E.M. or OutKast; than the reverends Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr.; than political leaders Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Terry Sanford or Harvey Gantt.

I can't remember a time during my childhood growing up in the North Carolina mill town of Asheboro when Possum's voice didn't mingle into the ambiance of my daily life. His warm, tearful vocal tones would ooze from the jukeboxes in local diners, blending with the sounds of waitresses bussing tables, the tinkling of plates and silverware and coffee cups, the chatter about a local liquor referendum or a new factory being built south of town. In my mind, an image of Jones during his earliest years — cowboy hat, Nudie suit, Marine buzzcut — flickers from a small TV in my grandmother's house, him launching into a wild tale about moonshining in the Appalachians: "Well, in North Carolina, way back in the hills, lived my old pappy and he had him a still. / We brewed white lightnin' 'til the sun went down, then he'd fill him a jug and he'd pass it around."

Jones could have stopped singing after his string of '50 and '60s hits — including "White Lightning," "Why Baby Why," "Window Up Above," "She Thinks I Still Care," "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," "The Race Is On," "Walk Through This World With Me" and "A Good Year for the Roses" — and still be considered one of country music's greatest. But he didn't. By the early '70s — during the height of country music's surge into the national spotlight with the popularity of TV shows like Hee Haw and the eventual election of a Southern president, Jimmy Carter — Jones had softened the edges of his twang by recruiting Nashville record producer Billy Sherrill to help him transition from hillbilly to countrypolitan. When he and his new wife, Wynette, whom Jones married in 1969, recorded together, the harmonies were so searingly intimate, the chemistry so wildly explosive — all sex and tears and tumult rolled into beautiful country-pop art — that the sound could take your breath away. It certainly took Billboard by storm, as "We're Gonna Hold On," "Golden Ring" and "Near You" shot to the top of the country charts in the early- to mid-'70s.

With Sherrill, Jones made some of his most tender and timeless music, including one of the greatest country songs ever recorded, the devastating "He Stopped Loving Her Today," in 1980. Throughout the '80s, the man who began his career singing about "White Lightning" continued doing drinking songs, even as his crazy drinking and drugging episodes - like riding a lawn mower to the liquor store or shooting at a friend's car - lessened. In 1981, he reached the top ten with "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)"; in 1983, he scored a No. 2 hit with "Tennessee Whiskey." But by the late '80s, the big hits became fewer and farther between. That's because a younger crop of Nashville stars, aping Jones' vocal quirks and copying his stylistic flare, had taken his throne. It didn't stop Jones from recording and touring, even into the 2000s, when he began to lose some of his vocal power and upper register.

I saw Jones perform in the '80s, the '90s and twice in the 2000s, and the last show I attended, at Ovens Auditorium, was admittedly disappointing. Jones botched "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and other songs, and he let guest singers perform most of the show. But the man once known as No-Show Jones showed up, was gracious and was a powerful physical presence, with his white hair and long trail of Southern music history.

The death of George Jones is up there with the passing of three other Southern American musical icons since my return to the South from New York City in 2002: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and James Brown. Jones once asked in song, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" I suspect no one will.

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