The country legend they called “Possum” was born on September 12, 1931 in Saratoga, Texas, and is still seen by many as the greatest singer in the genre’s history. We must be talking about George Jones.
Jones was an incredible presence on the country scene for nearly half a century, from his first hit “Why Baby Why” in 1955 to his last entry to date, “50,000 Names,” in 2002. Along the way, George scored 13 No.1 singles, including such indelible classics as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “We’re Gonna Hold On.” and “Near You” (with his wife Tammy Wynette), and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Many of them, especially once he had become a beloved favorite of the country fraternity, were only enhanced and made that much more real by his well-publicized struggles with substance abuse, problems in his marriage to Wynette and other challenges.
Possum’s influence on his peers was as deep and as lasting as that on his faithful audience. “George Jones is still my favorite singer,” said Waylon Jennings in 1971. “I think he’s the greatest singer that’s ever been, man. I don’t think anybody can outsing George Jones.”
‘Almost as good as Ray Charles’
Nor was his presence felt only within country. Rock giants sang his praises far and wide, from Bob Dylan to Keith Richards to Elvis Costello to Linda Ronstadt, who said in 1974: “My favorite artist is George Jones. That guy’s so good, almost as good as Ray Charles.”
Costello recorded with “Possum,” as did Richards, who had become a particular fan during his friendship with another devotee, the late Gram Parsons. Keith writes about the later duet, “Say It’s Not You,” in his autobiography, Life. “George was a great guy to work with, especially when he had the hairdo going.” he said. “Incredible singer.”
“Country music is something you love,” Jones told Nick Tosches for High Fidelity magazine in 1977. “Like I love it like Ernest Tubb loves it, like I think Hank Williams loved it. It’s a music you love. When you use strings and horns and all these things, you just don’t have country music anymore…you abuse it. To try to sell two or three hundred thousand more records…hell, a man could always use the money, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to have that big a production on my records, because I’m never gonna sell pop.”
Robbie Robertson was another devotee. “He was unquestionably my favorite country singer,” he said. “He was the Ray Charles of country — the one who could make you cry with his voice. I heard the news he’d died and I listened to ‘She Thinks I Still Care,’ because that just kills. He was a better singer than Hank Williams, and Hank could certainly tell a story. But when you talk about the greatest of the greatest, George Jones was the main man.”
Listen to the All Time Greatest Country Hits playlist.