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Classic Tracks: George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

He Stopped Loving Her Today: It's the saddest song, and the most mournful voice, and the most histrionic production and the cruelest punchline in the

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”: It’s the saddest song, and the most mournful voice, and the most histrionic production and the cruelest punchline in the history of country music. But what a magnificent cry America had in 1980 when the first track of George Jones’ album I Am What I Am became the brilliant, infamous superstar’s first Number One single in six years.

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By 1980, the career and life of George Glenn Jones had already been a roller coaster of epic proportions. Born in 1931 in Saratoga, Texas, Jones was the youngest of eight children. During the Depression, his family was the kind of poor that no one born post-World War II can really imagine; the kind of poor at the deepest roots of American blues and country music.

“One Christmas, I got a guitar that was about six inches long,” Jones recalls in his 1997 autobiography, I Lived To Tell It All. “It wasn’t really a guitar at all, just an imitation. But we children were as happy as larks.” He describes a life “rich in love as it was poor in possessions,” until one of his sisters died, probably of pneumonia, and his father turned to alcohol and began a cycle of pain for the Jones family that George would perpetuate.

Jones left home at 16 and began his recording career in 1953, when he was discovered by Starday Records founder/producer Pappy Daily. He had his first hit in 1955 with “Why Baby Why,” which went to Number 4. Jones’ early recordings, including sensational up-tempo songs such as “White Lightning” and “The Race Is On” and duets with Melba Montgomery, were very much in the Hank Williams hard-core country style.

In the late ’60s, Jones met and fell in love with Tammy Wynette, who also became his third wife. In order to record with Wynette, Jones left his current label, Musicor, in 1971, and joined Wynette’s, Epic, where he also began recording with Wynette’s producer Billy Sherrill, who was known for his “countrypolitan” sound.

It’s impossible to talk about George Jones’ years at Epic without mentioning the artist’s well-documented battle with alcohol and drugs. By the time he met Wynette, Jones already had a serious drinking problem. While he and his wife were professing love and fidelity in their hit records, such as “We Can Make It” and “The Ceremony,” their famous union was unfortunately troubled almost from the beginning, largely because of Jones’ excessive drinking, tirades and occasional disappearances. Wynette filed for divorce in 1974, but the couple was persuaded by Epic to continue touring and recording together. This was extremely demoralizing for Jones, and, not surprisingly, his drinking only got worse.

“In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time,” Jones writes. “I had drunk heavily for years and had pitched benders that might last two or three days, but in the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time for half a decade. If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep. It was a five-year binge laced with occasional sickness from sobriety… Some folks think they’re in pain if they’ve had one too many cocktails the night before. They have no idea how it feels to have one too many pints. It’s like going through a violent food poisoning with an ax in your skull.”

During this period, Jones fell in with a new manager, “Shug” Baggott, who gave Jones his first line of cocaine, in an effort to rouse the singer from his drunken stupor and give him the “energy” to perform. Then things really got ugly. By the end of the decade, Jones was psychologically and physically a shadow of his former self; he was broke and alone, and his pitiable condition was being perpetuated by managers and pushers who were living off of what was left of him. It took a career record — this month’s “Classic Track” — to help Jones begin to climb out of that hole.

In his book, Jones commends Billy Sherrill for continuing to cut hit records with him, even through some of those really rough years. The veteran producer never gave up on Jones’ talent, and he continued to offer him top-shelf material to record. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which was written by Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock, was a song that Sherrill felt was meant for George Jones.

“The song is about a man who loved a woman so much, it killed him when she left,” Jones writes in his book. “He said he would love her until he died, and only on his deathbed did he stop… Billy loved ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ He said he was unable to sleep the night after first hearing the song. But he thought it was incomplete… Putnam and Braddock killed the song’s main character too soon in their early versions. Billy kept telling them to kill the guy at a different time and then have the woman come to his funeral. The writers thought that might be too sad, and Billy did, too. But he knew the song, on a scale of one to 10, was about an eight. He saw it as a potential 11.”

Jones says that Sherrill had a notebook “about an inch thick” full of possible rewrites of the song. When the producer was finally satisfied with a version, he brought Jones into CBS Studio B in Nashville, the old Quonset Hut, to record.

In 1979, when tracking for this song began, Studio B was mostly run by veteran engineer Lou Bradley (Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich, etc.), who had joined CBS as a staff engineer a decade earlier. Bradley worked in Studio B for 13 years all told, but his memories of this tracking date are still vivid. “What I remember most was that we’d gone through a difficult year with George, but he was beginning to straighten out his problems, and he came in to record, and I turned to Billy Sherrill and said, ‘Boy, it’s good to have him back,’ and he said, ‘Ninety percent, but I’ll take it.’”

Bradley says that in ’79, songs were mostly recorded live in Studio B, though the strings and some of Jones’ vocals on this track were overdubbed in Studio A by its resident engineer, Ron “Snake” Reynolds. Bradley says he can still picture where all the musicians were situated: “Say you’ve got the piano, and to the left of the piano player is a wall about as high as the piano, and beside that’s the bass player right even with him. Then the drums are behind that, but it’s open; it’s just a shed up over him. Two acoustic guitar players would sit nestled right next to the piano, and then across from them were the electric and the steel, and then the vocal and the background were right looking at the piano.

“Normally, we worked the room with the singer away from the band a little bit,” Bradley continues, “but we did Charlie Rich in there and cut ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and those hits. Charlie played piano, but Pig Robbins would play the piano [on the sessions], and Charlie would like to stand near the piano, and so Billy got to cut everybody standing by the piano, right in the middle of the band, and that’s how we cut Jones that day.”

Like most engineers who worked in CBS Studio B before the label closed it in 1982, Bradley remembers the room as practically ideal. “It was a neutral room,” he recalls, “but I knew all the sweet spots if you wanted to liven something up a little bit, or you needed something not as reflective. That room was just great. We cried when we lost it.”

“Studio B, in particular, was such a great-sounding room that all the leakage you got just sounded warm and rich,” Reynolds says. “It was like recording in a concert hall or something. The musicians sometimes wouldn’t use headphones, because it sounded so good in the room.”

Gear-wise, the studio was equipped with a custom console that Bradley says arrived for duty in Studio B on the same day he did in 1969. “They built it at Columbia in New York,” he explains. “The original console in that studio had Langevin EQs and faders, so when they designed the one to replace it, they used the Langevin EQ and faders again. It was a 16-bus, 24-in console, and we had seven echo sends and returns. I’d keep six EMTs and one live room, and I was probably one of the first guys there to quit printing reverb. The guys that preceded me came from mono 3-track days, and I did too, but I’d probably done more multitrack recording.”

Bradley also remembers all of his microphone selections for the date — mostly lots of Neumanns. The Jordanaires with Millie Kirkham sang the backing vocals into a Neumann U47. Instrument mics were a U67 on electric guitar, a 249 on the steel and KM84 on piano. Drum mics were KM84s on snare, hi-hat and toms, a pair of U67s as overheads and an E-V RE20 on the bass drum. On Jones’ vocal, Bradley used a U87 on this session, though they’d used a U67 on some earlier dates. “That mic complemented his voice, and Tammy’s, too, when we did the duet records. And that’s what he always sang into, so that’s a psychological thing, too.”

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” was recorded 15 ips Dolby to an Ampex tape machine. The string overdubs were recorded by Reynolds at a later tracking date, and some of Jones’ vocals took many more dates to secure. “It took them awhile, but they were striving for something a bit out of the normal,” Reynolds says. “They knew they had something special, especially Billy, I think. One thing kind of funny about it was that the melody was so close to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ [by Kris Kristofferson] that George kept singing the melody to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night.’ He couldn’t get that out of his head. That gave him a bit of a problem early on, and they took their time to get the narration just right.”

The narration part of the song consists of four lines Jones speaks rather than sings: “She came to see him one last time/And we all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he’s over her for good.”

“Pretty simple, eh?” Jones asks in his book. “I couldn’t get it. I had been able to sing while drunk all of my life. I’d fooled millions of people. But I could never speak without slurring when drunk. What we needed to complete that song was the narration, but Billy could never catch me sober enough to record four simple spoken lines. It took us about 18 months to record a song that was approximately three-minutes long.”

Reynolds says that Jones may actually have been overly self-deprecating in this case. “George will knock you out every time,” he says. “He is one of the last few artists that I can remember who would give you chill bumps while he was singing with the band. Billy and I would just look at each other and shiver when George would hit some of those crazy licks that he does, so every time he sings, it’s unusual and it’s good, but it might not be exactly what they were looking for at the time.”

In any event, Sherrill, Jones and the engineers stuck with it over many months before they had the song completed. On the day they finished, Jones writes, “I looked Billy square in the eye and said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch.’ Then I marched out the studio door.”

The song is fairly depressing, but Jones had turned in an absolutely brilliant performance, and Sherrill’s production was nothing short of genius. “A lot of people tried to copy what Billy did,” Bradley says, “and they’d hire that studio, they’d hire the same engineer, and they’d hire the same musicians and background singers, but they wouldn’t get it, because they were listening to the end result, and the end result was what you heard after you walked the path to get there. To really understand it, you’d have to isolate some aspects of the recordings, like the dynamics. I pulled the record out and listened to it today, and you can hear that in the rhythm section, and you can also hear subtle things like the strings come in and you can tell that they’re muted. [Sherrill] did that a lot. He’d make the strings mute on their entrance, particularly if it came in under a verse; it was soft, because the singer was having to sing it soft and low to interpret the lyric, and then the mutes come off when it kicks into the bridge. It just made sense to him to keep them out of the way but let their presence be known.

“I felt like people misinterpreted how he got his sound. He got his sound trying to make the song come off and the singer singing it. That was the most important thing in the room. Not anything technical, not anything musical, not anything but that singer and the song, and all his juices flowed to make that happen.”

In his autobiography, George Jones writes more about the recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” than he does about any other song. “I went from a twenty-five-hundred-dollar act who promoters feared wouldn’t show up to an act who earned twenty-five thousand dollars, plus a percentage of the gate receipts. That was big money for a country artist 16 years ago… To put it simply, I was back on top. Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” earned Jones a Grammy Award for Best Country Male Performance in 1980. It also resulted in CMA Awards for Best Male Vocalist of the Year in 1980 and 1981, and it was the Academy of Country Music Single of the Year and Song of the Year in 1980. Even more importantly, while on tour supporting the Platinum album I Am What I Am, Jones met his current wife, Nancy Sepulvada, whom he married in 1983. Nancy Jones helped her husband work toward sobriety.

The great producer Billy Sherrill is retired now, but Lou Bradley says, “I’d like to get into the studio with him just one more time, because I don’t think anybody cutting records now understands how to cut a ballad any better than he did.” Bradley and Reynolds both went independent when CBS Studios closed in 1982. Both still have very successful careers. Reynolds recorded Shania Twain’s smash The Woman In Me album and is currently in the studio recording Earl Scruggs and a host of famous musical guests. Bradley recorded Merle Haggard’s beautiful 2000 album If I Could Only Fly and is working with the legend on a follow-up.

George Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. And he is still doing beautiful work today; he recorded a back-to-hardcore country album in 1999, Cold Hard Truth, for which he won another Best Country Male Vocalist Grammy.