George Jones, a hard-living honky-tonk singer whose piercing, emotive voice spawned countless imitators and whose marriage to Tammy Wynette was one of the most turbulent in country music, died April 26 at a hospital in Nashville. He was 81.
His publicist, Kirt Webster, told the Associated Press that Mr. Jones was hospitalized for a fever and irregular blood pressure.
Mr. Jones was one of the most honored performers in his profession. Music writers often placed him in the same echelon as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday for his expressive and unguarded style.
“With other country singers, it’s almost about what they hold back. With Jones, it’s almost a cry for help, pure emotion,” said country music historian Bob Allen, describing Mr. Jones’s singing style. “He could bring a palpable anguish to a song.”
In a career that spanned more than six decades, Mr. Jones influenced several generations of singers and put an astonishing 72 hits from 1955 to 1988 on the Billboard country charts — including his first success, “Why Baby Why” (1955), the moonshiner’s anthem “White Lightning” (1959) and “The Race Is On” (1965).
He recorded with fellow country singers Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck but also duetted with such pop performers as Linda Ronstadt, Keith Richards and Gene Pitney.
Within the confines of country music, Mr. Jones was versatile. He recorded up-tempo rockabilly novelties such as “Who Shot Sam” (1959) and smooth, “countrypolitan” ballads like “Tender Years” (1961), where tinkling, cocktail piano replaced the country fiddles.
Throughout his career, Mr. Jones drew attention for his heavy drinking and wild behavior.
In his 1996 memoir, “I Lived to Tell It All,” written with Tom Carter, Mr. Jones recalled driving a riding lawn mower to the liquor store when his second wife hid the keys to his many cars — an incident later alluded to in one of Mr. Jones’s music videos.
George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Tex., in a log cabin built by his father.
The elder Jones — an alcoholic who struggled to support his wife and eight children — worked variously as an iceman, lumberman and pipe fitter. He bought his son his first guitar for his 11th birthday but, according to Mr. Jones, he would also beat the boy if he didn’t sing for his drinking buddies.
Mr. Jones quit school in the seventh grade and began singing gospel songs on the streets of Port Arthur, Tex. After leaving home at 16, he performed on radio and in honky-tonks in East Texas. At 17, he married Dorothy Bonvillion, but they divorced before their daughter was born. His second marriage, to Shirley Ann Corley, also ended in divorce.
After Marine Corps service in California during the Korean War, Mr. Jones returned to the East Texas honky-tonks. He first recorded in the mid-1950s for a fledging Houston label, Starday Records, with a style modeled on twangy honky-tonk singers Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
Mr. Jones’s manager, Harold W. “Pappy” Daily, secured a cast position for him on the “Louisiana Hayride,” where his fellow performers included Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. The live radio show from KWKH (1130 AM) in Shreveport, La., was syndicated to more than 20 stations nationally and competed with the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. By the late 1950s, Mr. Jones joined the Opry cast, as well.
Disc jockeys nicknamed Mr. Jones “the possum” after the singer’s beady brown eyes, flat-top haircut and frequently clenched teeth.
Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Jones worked with two very different duet partners, quavering-voiced teen idol Gene Pitney and Melba Montgomery, a Kentucky-born singer whose husky, twangy timbre proved more than a match for Mr. Jones’s Texas diphthong.
However, his most popular duets were with Wynette, whom he married in 1969. Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, helped alter Mr. Jones’s image from a wild honky-tonker to a sensitive balladeer. Sherrill chose songs for both performers that mirrored their stormy on-again, off-again relationship. And their fans hung on to every word of every song.
“The Ceremony” simulated wedding vows between the singers and became a staple of their stage show. Another duet, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” was released after Wynette filed — and withdrew — divorce papers.
“The Grand Tour,” a solo number that Mr. Jones recorded after their separation, invited listeners to walk with the singer through a house vacated and emptied by his wife. They dueted again after their 1975 divorce on “Golden Ring,” which followed the round trip of a wedding ring from a pawnshop and back after the failure of a marriage.
Mr. Jones never seemed troubled by the seeming lack of privacy in his life.
“Our fans, our people, if they know the truth, they understand you that much better,” he told The Washington Post in 1981. “They’ll either hate or feel sorry for you . . . or love you more. They understand.”
By the end of the 1970s, the darker corners of Mr. Jones’s private life frequently intruded on his music career.
Mr. Jones filed for bankruptcy after a long string of canceled engagements earned him the nickname “No-Show Jones.” Several singers, including Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, tried to help him out by appearing — without payment — on Mr. Jones’s 1979 album of duets, “My Very Special Guests.”
Police arrested Mr. Jones twice in the same week in March 1982. He was riding in a car with his fiancee, Nancy Sepulvado, when she was pulled over for speeding near Birmingham, Ala. After police found a small amount of cocaine in their car, Mr. Jones became belligerent. Although Mr. Jones and Sepulvado were released on personal recognizance, Mr. Jones was later charged with a DUI when he overturned his car the following day.
Mr. Jones claimed to have cleaned up after his 1983 marriage to Sepulvado, but the singer again made headlines in 1999, when he crashed his SUV into a concrete bridge abutment while talking on a cellphone. His injuries included a collapsed lung and lacerated liver. Police found an open pint of vodka under the driver’s seat. The case went to a grand jury and, a year later, Mr. Jones was charged with reckless driving and was required to enter an inpatient alcohol-treatment program.
Besides his wife, survivors include his children and grandchildren and a sister.
His honors included a 1992 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a National Medal of Arts in 2002 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. He received Grammy awards as best male country vocal performance in 1980 for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and in 1999 for “Choices.” He also received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2012.
Despite his erratic behavior, Mr. Jones remained a hugely popular performer, a fact he attributed to his steadfast traditionalism.
“I’ve always been country and I always will be country,” he told The Post in 1981.
He added: “You got to love what you’re doing, not the money or wives or popularity. I don’t care what you’re gonna do — if you’re a pipe fitter, welder, electrician — if you do your job right, you’re going to have a damn good job. Somebody’s going to want you back again tomorrow.”