When I first heard that country music legend George Jones had died, my first thought was, “I hope he’s just playing possum.”
But, alas, it was true. Sadly, I told myself, “He stopped living here today.”
Stars shine and fade, live and die every day and usually a fan is sorry for a few moments until the next big thing comes along. But every once in a while an entertainer comes along who transcends mere mortality; one who has stitched his or her name onto the fabrics of our lives.
George Jones, who died on April 26 at the age of 81, was like that for me -- and, I dare say, countless others.
He had a way with a song, whether something lighthearted like “White Lightning” or sorrowful, as in “The Window Up Above.” He was a true master, one of the few that deserved the label “superstar.”
His life -- to borrow a phrase from his friend, Kris Kristofferson -- was “a walking contradiction; partly truth and partly fiction.” Tales that would seem farfetched coming from a novelist’s pen were routine occurrences in Jones’ life.
His drinking woes were legendary -- there's the story about how his wife hid his car keys from him, and Jones rode his lawn mower into town!
While many artists have to stretch it to fill up a greatest hits album, Jones found gold for five decades, recording such classics as “Choices,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Love Bug,” “(I Don’t Need Your) Rockin’ Chair” and “The Grand Tour.”
And, of course, there was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of the greatest country songs ever. Ironically, Jones thought the song was too maudlin and he balked at recording what would become his standard.
But, in the end, George Jones, the greatest country singer since Hank Williams Sr., managed to do what Ol’ Hank never could -- he conquered his own inner demons and eased gracefully from this world and into an eternal spot on heaven’s Grand Ol’ Opry stage.
Who’s going to fill his shoes?
It may be decades before another singer comes along who can own a song the way George Jones did. If anyone ever comes along.
“The Possum” was special to me because he helped me through my first full-fledged broken heart, the one where you just know no one has ever felt the pain gnawing at your heart. When you have that first broken heart you feel like the world is ending, and like you will never know love again.
You think that you’re all alone in the world, experiencing something that no one can possibly understand.
And then you turn on your radio and hear George Jones’ pain-soaked words; “He said ‘I’ll love you till I die’, she told him, ‘You’ll forget in time’ …”
And I did forget the pain in time, and learned to love again. But I never forgot my “friend,” the man who helped me past my first heartache.
You don’t have to think about it, George -- you know I still care.
John Christian Hopkins, a member of the Narragansett Tribe, has spent more than two decades in journalism, including as a nationally syndicated columnist. He is the author of The Pirate Prince Carlomagno and Twilight of the Gods.