As I write this review of Jack Isenhour’s He Stopped Loving Her Today (September 12, 2011), George Jones turns 80. Casual fans of country music, or those oblivious of its history, will not be much impressed by a man’s eightieth birthday in an era when eighty is barely above the average lifespan of American males. Those, however, who know a little about George Jones’s past, will find it hard to believe that Jones has completed his eighth decade on this planet.
He Stopped Loving Her Today focuses on a song called by many the greatest country music song ever written or recorded. As indicated by its subtitle (“George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Greatest Country Record of All Time”) Isenhour takes an irreverent approach to his subject. The tone suits perfectly the borderline chaos that surrounded the whole process of producing “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” This is, after all, one of those “if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry” books.
Isenhour reminds readers that George Jones was barely alive when the 1980 smash hit that saved his career was recorded. Jones, by 1979, was so addicted to cocaine and alcohol that he thought of little else. Fans, friends, and family watched in horror as Jones self-destructed, often making a public spectacle of himself, sometimes even as news-camera-wielding vultures merrily recorded his downward spiral toward what seemed imminent death. It was only a question of what would finally kill the man: overdose, cirrhosis, alcohol poisoning, or a head-on collision on some dark highway as Jones made his way toward the neon lights of one more honky-tonk.
Enter songwriters Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman and record producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill neither wrote nor sang the song, of course, but the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” recording is probably more his creation than anyone else’s. Sherrill had Braddock and Putman rewrite portions of the song so many times that neither songwriter is sure today just what portions of the song each actually wrote. He layered the song with violins (not fiddles), back-up singers, harmonica, and a spoken stanza that pretty much steals the show all on its own. Equally impressive, Sherrill managed to wring, almost note for note, a vocal out of a wasted George Jones that, when it was all finally pasted together, constitutes one of the finest George Jones vocals ever recorded – even if it never happened the way we hear it on record.
He Stopped Loving Her Today also offers a slightly different take on the debate about when, or if, country music lost its soul – and why. The debate spans generations, each succeeding one finding someone to blame country music’s loss of its purity upon, be it Elvis Presley and rock & roll, producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley or, more recently, Shania Twain and her computer-generated vocals. Isenhour’s theory and conclusions will probably surprise die-hard country music fans.
Isenhour manages to entertain and instruct at the same time. More devoted fans of the genre will already be familiar with Jones’s personal history but will be enthralled by the details behind the recording of his signature song. Casual fans of the music, or those more recently come to it, will appreciate the great odds stacked against George ever living to see his eightieth birthday, and will perhaps understand for the first time what a true living legend George Jones really is.
Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)