It’s a known fact that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the best and saddest country song of all time. But… is it?
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
Transcript of Episode
For most of modern history, most soaps have been primarily branded and marketed toward women because for most of modern history companies could safely assume most soap was purchased by women, who could safely be assumed to do most of the shopping for a household and to stay home on weekdays using soaps to clean the house, children, clothing and dishes while men worked outside the home. With the advent of commercial radio stations in the 1920s, all these safe assumptions led to daytime programming targeted at the “typical American housewife.” Since this hypothetical woman had only recently been given the right to vote, did not work outside the home and probably did not have a college degree, she was presumed to have no use for news of politics, economy, academic interests or really anything that didn’t directly affect and/or reflect her home, family and friends, presumably other “typical American housewives.” Therefore, most non-musical programming in the first two decades of daytime radio was educational, based on the premise American housewives were maybe a little bit dumb and would (or, perhaps, should) take an interest in bettering their cleaning, cooking, parenting and social skills. In these early days of radio, when every show’s sponsor was mentioned so often it may as well have been part of every program title (and often was), this advice was sometimes dished out by a brand’s fictional spokesperson, like Betty Crocker. Betty existed in print since the beginning of the 1920s but the middle of the decade found a human actor’s voice bringing her to life on the Betty Crocker School of Air, essentially an audio Home Ec class. Fast forward to the 1940s and Fortune magazine declared Betty Crocker (again, not a real person) the second-most famous woman in America, just beneath the president’s wife. Of course, by the 1940s, Betty was one of the few voices to survive the most monolithic paradigm shift that ever hit daytime radio: soap operas.
While serialized installments of a continuing narrative were nothing new, the form we recognize as soap opera first hit radio in the 1920s. Its rapid takeover of daytime began after a station manager at WGN in Chicago decided to center a drama in the home of a fictional Irish-American matriarch. His idea was to attract an audience of housewives who related to either the main character or her daughter, who navigated their social circles within plots which, wouldn’t you know it, somehow always found their way around to plugging a sponsor’s product. Pitches for the first two iterations were rejected by potential sponsors. Then Irna Phillips, a voice actor looking for more work than she had at the station, asked for a chance to write the show. Her version was accepted by a sponsor and debuted in 1930 as Painted Dreams, generally believed to be the first soap opera on daytime radio. By the end of the decade, 9 out of 10 shows on daytime radio were soaps.
And how best to differentiate a soap opera from the many other forms of scripted, serialized drama which are ultimately funded by ad sales? Well, perhaps it would be useful to point out the term “soap opera” has always been a sarcastic and implicitly sexist insult. Because who else but a bored, lonely, uncultured, easily manipulated and perhaps even mentally unwell housewife would spend five days a week listening to an extended soap commercial barely disguised as melodrama, obviously produced as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to deliver new content every weekday? To air a new episode every day from Monday thru Friday, it is impossible to hold rehearsals as you would prior to filming a movie or staging a production of a play, impossible for 99% of actors to memorize their lines, impossible for anyone at any part of the process to do much more than the bare minimum required to churn out 260 iterations of plot progression a year. And a bunch of actors standing around microphones speaking lines from a script they’ve only read twice, once or maybe not at all before going live on radio is about as far away as a performance of fiction can get from a grand ole opera with its expensive orchestra, expensive sets, virtuoso singers and tightly rehearsed stage directions. Perhaps it would be useful to point out that before “soap opera” took hold, “washboard weeper” was another term regularly used to refer to soaps in the 1930s. Neither of these terms was ever meant as a compliment. Regardless of such stigma, after Painted Dreams, soap operas became so popular there was nearly nothing else on major broadcasting networks during the day in the 1940s.
Guiding Light began as a radio show on NBC in 1937. The sponsor, Procter & Gamble, only found out how huge their audience was when they tried canceling the show a few years into its run and received 75,000 letters from angry fans. This soap was co-created by Irna Phillips, who left WGN after they refused to sell Painted Dreams to a national network and Irna failed to win ownership in a lawsuit. The heart of Painted Dreams was always the recurring question of whether the modern-minded daughter would choose to pursue a career as a model or, as her traditional-thinking mother encouraged, settle down with some good man and become a housewife. This is often viewed as a fictionalization of Irna Phillips’ own internal conflict. Soon after graduating high school, she became pregnant and the young father ran away from the responsibility, leaving Irna on her own to deliver a still-born baby. It seems most people believe she then spent the rest of her life with dreams of a good man coming along and walking her down the aisle so she could do the “happily ever after” thing as a housewife; a dream which didn’t come true, leaving Irna to mine these fantasies as source material for the stories she told other women across America. However, this tidy little tale is muddied by conflicting statements Irna gave to the press over the years. Though she never was married, after Irna died in the 1970s, details of her active love life were leaked from a never-published memoir, debunking the idea she was some kind of spinster wasting away for want of a man. But it is true that after losing her partner and baby, Irna found comfort in listening to the radio broadcasts of a local preacher, who was the inspiration for the pivotal character in The Guiding Light. The title is a reference to the lamp visible in an office window of the non-denominational minister who residents of a Chicago suburb visit for fatherly advice.
Irna’s success soon caused imitators to blanket weekday airwaves with soap operas, most all-but-indistinguishable from each other, thus establishing aspects of the form which would survive for decades, well beyond the transition from radio to TV. For example, without any visual information or pages of text for omniscient exposition and/or some character’s internal PoV, radio soaps were unable to adhere to the modern storytelling adage “show, don’t tell.” Most relied on a narrator’s voice to usher listeners from scene to scene with small expository segments or recaps of events from previous episodes and episodes usually ended with the narrator listing unresolved predicaments facing each major character, typically underscored by dramatic electric organ. If there’s one defining characteristic of soap opera, firmly in place from the beginning and surviving to this day, it is the snail’s pace at which the perpetually open-ended plots proceed. The reason this genre took a 90% share of daytime was because everyone in radio not happily relaxed with successful shows in the other 10% of programming scrambled to profit from the discovery of a consumer demographic more committed and loyal than anything they’d ever seen. If whatever new twist they came up with on the formula managed to break through the noise and gain an audience, it meant the show’s creators could stop funneling resources into finding that twist and start playing out the one they’d found for as many years (or decades) as the fans would pay attention. The internal and external conflicts between the cast of characters were aggravated, repressed, compounded and bounced off each other in endless variations but almost never actually resolved, because to solve someone’s core conflict without putting a more compelling problem in its place would be to essentially unmake the character and erase the big questions that kept listeners tuning in to hear what happens next. Since every soap opera’s prime directive has always been to perpetuate itself, any given plot device seen as especially interesting to fans will be milked for everything it’s worth and then some, which inevitably leads every successful show to absolutely inane narrative territory. (One early radio soap stretched a character’s passage through a revolving door across seventeen episodes as she experienced a series of flashbacks to her past.)
In 1942, failed pulp novelist turned pop psychiatrist Louis Berg began giving lectures and printing pamphlets on the dangers soap opera posed to women, claiming soaps were responsible for everything from high blood pressure to vertigo to night terrors to diarrhea. The media, naturally, ran with these ludicrous theories and the merit of soap opera entertainment has been subject to debate ever since. There are “studies,” polls and market research performed on soap opera dating back to the 1930s but nearly all of this was based in the previously-mentioned contemptuous assumptions about the genre’s audience. It wasn’t until the 1970s that proper research into entertainment media began overturning the stereotype of a soap opera fan addicted to events in a fictional universe she was dumb enough to confuse for some kind of documentary. By this point, soaps had taken over daytime television the way they had radio, complete with a couple decades of handwringing over the apocalyptic damage this was sure to wreak on society. At least housewives in the 1930s could listen to their trashy radio shows while cleaning and doing all the cooking, am I right? If they have to sit and look at a screen to keep up with these stupid stories, next thing you know men will be coming home from work to dirty houses, unbathed children and empty dinner tables!
All this moral panic about bringing soaps to TV meant as little to sponsors and creators as the mockery of their radio soaps. Their problem was they doubted a transition to TV could even be accomplished. Adding a visual dimension to the genre would come with an exponential increase to the shoestring production budgets that made these shows so profitable. With cameras, sets, lighting, costumes, makeup and additional staff for all these new departments, you could say goodbye to your profit margin. Some clumsy attempts to move a radio soap to TV tried to ignore these new concerns. In 1946 Procter & Gamble aired Big Sister on CBS by simply aiming one camera at the radio actors as they stood around a microphone speaking lines from a script, basically broadcasting a behind-the-scenes livestream which fans of the radio show hadn’t requested and didn’t want. But Procter & Gamble kept experimenting with production techniques, CBS kept making room in their daytime schedule for the genre and this is the partnership which eventually broke soaps on television. By the mid-1950s, CBS had begun referring to themselves in industry trades as The Network That Invented Daytime and Procter & Gamble were spending more money on TV than any other sponsor in the medium. P&G had long been hip to the power of serialized narrative as a vehicle for advertising, ever since the marketing agency handling their Ivory soap account came up with the idea of launching a comic strip in the Sunday paper about a family who exclusively used Ivory soap. The great results of this campaign are why they were prepared to invest so heavily in sponsoring soap opera on radio and again in the challenging move to television. One of P&G’s first hits on TV was Irna Phillips’ Guiding Light. Approximately 15 years into a nearly-uninterrupted run, the show was licensed to P&G buddies, CBS.
Though TV soaps did have to accept the inevitable and add budgets for things like building a set or two and costuming actors, the industry philosophy of working as fast and dirty as possible didn’t change one bit. Heavy use of electric organ still reinforced the emotional tone of a scene for viewers (and unrehearsed actors), the all-knowing narrators were still around to provide verbal exposition (especially when it could save an episode from needing additional scenes or sets) and some new tropes of the form were established as production teams discovered techniques to disguise their minimal budget, like filling the screen with lingering close-ups on the faces and upper bodies of actors to keep viewers from focusing on sparse and cheaply-built sets.
For all these reasons, TV soaps carried on the tradition of facing mockery from the intelligentsia. The second half of the 20th century provides countless examples of successful soap writers, actors, producers, networks and sponsors attempting to distance themselves from the genre, often outright claiming their biggest soaps were not actually soaps at all. Soon after the transition to TV, the term “soap opera” was essentially banned within the business. One could be fired for using it to refer to a program on set or in an interview. The euphemism most commonly used in its place is “daytime drama” and the one person most often credited with turning the soap opera into “daytime drama” is Agnes Nixon, who created All My Children and One Life to Live near the end of the 1960s. A few decades earlier, though, Agnes’ first job was apprenticing under Irna Phillips at radio, where she learned how to write soap and became familiar with all the criticisms highbrow detractors threw at her field. Since most of these focused on the soap-opera-as-vehicle-for-shameless-advertising angle, that part gained a little subtlety, such as the way a January 1963 episode of Irna Phillips’ As the World Turns opens on two women washing dishes at a kitchen sink. Neither mentions the brand of soap in use but, seeing as how this scene was immediately preceded by a commercial for the main sponsor’s soap, we don’t really need a character to come right out and say it, do we? Because soaps were so often criticized for wringing out every ounce of interest in a plot point through slow-motion story progression, Agnes Nixon discovered a way to essentially remix the genre’s trademark pacing while remaining true to the same old philosophy of self-perpetuation. Rather than episodes comprising a series of scenes shown from beginning to end, each reaching a conclusion in sequential order, Agnes scripted episodes to cycle through the scenes piecemeal, bringing all the threads to a climax and/or cliffhanger at the end. For example, a new episode may open on a Plot Development (probably a return to whatever happened at end of the previous episode), then cut to the beginning of Conversation 1 (which is probably about the Plot Development), then cut to the beginning of Conversation 2 (probably a separate set of characters talking about the Plot Development), then cut to commercial. We return from commercial by checking in on how the Plot Development has escalated, then how Conversation 1 has escalated, then Conversation 2, rinse and repeat until each strand of the episode reaches maximum lather just in time to tell viewers they need to come back tomorrow if they want to find out what happens next. Agnes Nixon took over as head writer on the TV version of Guiding Light by the beginning of the 1960s. By the end of the decade, TV soaps either structured episodes with her method or got crushed by all the shows that did. The themes she introduced to storylines were similarly influential.
As you’d expect from programming owned and/or sponsored by companies beneath the umbrellas of various conglomerates with so much to gain by upholding the status quo, soaps up to and through the 1950s largely celebrated traditional, one could even say conservative, perspectives on marriage, “family values,” gender dynamics and so on. Characters who disregarded social norms or expressed a desire to do so were unambiguously depicted as misguided, confused, downright mentally unwell or maybe just plain wicked, a roadblock in the way of good and upright characters pursuing their American dreams. In the event any of these insane deviants ever visited a psychiatrist to discuss qualms over, say, being a housewife who believes she’d rather enter the workforce, she’d likely be told the key to happiness lay in forgetting such foolishness, staying home and accepting the role expected of her gender. Men and women characters who couldn’t or wouldn’t happily perform these roles were often introduced only to depict someone failing on an unconventional path. Those who weren’t then written off the show typically stopped resisting and found a happy life by conforming to society. The genre’s most influential early voice, Irna Phillips, does seem to’ve actually subscribed to this philosophy and rejected the Women’s Liberation movement which came along around the time soaps moved from radio to TV. But then Agnes Nixon rose to prominence and she had a newer way of thinking.
Though she’s largely credited with elevating the form to “daytime drama,” Agnes preferred the euphemism “realistic drama” when discussing her soaps. She’s believed to be the first writer to sympathetically portray main characters dealing with health scares and physical illness, rather than using either as mere devices to punish progressive-minded characters or to bring minor characters in and out of a story. She routinely included characters who represented conservative perspectives but did so while allowing positive or at least tolerant portrayals of liberal stances on hot-button issues, like feminism, abortion, anti-war protest and so on. Another Irna Phillips protege, William J. Bell, spent the second half of the 1960s updating the genre’s reliance on chaste, chivalric courting and innuendo toward off-screen romance with undisguised vocal and physical expressions of feminine sexuality. The women on his shows had libido and made no secret of it. Between Agnes, William and their imitators, men and women who’d have been punished in the previous decades’ soaps for not adhering to gendered stereotypes were now allowed more complexity, introducing the so-called “scheming villainess” and “tortured hero” characters so prevalent in late ‘60s/early ‘70s daytime TV. These were crafty women who tried using their minds and/or bodies for personal gain and to destroy the lives of enemies; beastly men whose rough and rude exteriors hid some secret pain, usually only able to be reached by the love of a good (or bad) and beautiful woman.
In 1966, ABC began airing the supernatural soap Dark Shadows, introducing daytime to a male vampire and male werewolf, both of whom were openly lusted after by the show’s women characters and the show’s fans. From there, the writers of Dark Shadows did pretty much whatever they wanted to create thrilling and surprising narratives, like kill off main characters then travel through time or to an alternate universe so the starring actors could remain on the show, with no regard for what Agnes Nixon called “realistic drama,” the approach favored by most soaps through The ‘60s and into The ‘70s. But the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements so heavily represented throughout and largely responsible for this realism did not bring many significant roles for non-white or non-straight characters. Due to soap opera’s reliance on family and romance as the matrix connecting a show’s cast, it was often explained that making a non-White or non-straight person a major part of a show’s world would’ve practically demanded putting an interracial or non-hetero relationship on daytime television. While it’s true the move from radio to TV brought several changes to the back-end of the industry – most notably the number of shows owned by writers, production companies or television networks rather than a sponsor – if all the companies buying commercials in your block of programming cancel their account then you no longer have a block of programming. So the people writing checks still held most of the power to define where a line was and make sure nobody crossed it. Irna Phillips spoke of wanting to “integrate” her soaps in the 1960s but Procter & Gamble would only allow her to place Black characters in background roles, which she felt was offensive, therefore she chose to use no Black characters at all. In 1964, when Irna wanted a main character on Another World to have an illegal abortion, show owners Procter & Gamble told her “no” until she clarified the woman would get an infection during the operation and lose the ability to have more children, at which point P&G agreed to a “negative” depiction of abortion.
Aside from needing the money men to approve controversial decisions, though, head writers on TV soaps had near-universal creative control over their stories. The genre’s viewers being so forthcoming with fan mail, their wishes were perhaps taken into consideration but the only way a soap was able to churn and burn five new episodes of scripted television a week was by allowing nearly nobody other than the head writer to have an opinion. In fact, most people on the set of any given soap had rarely even met the head writer because they were deliberately kept apart to prevent personal relationships causing difficulties. If an actor’s contract came up for renegotiation right around the time they started feeling like the star of the show and, therefore, worth way too much money, them being friends with the head writer could make it pretty difficult to get that actor written entirely out of all the scripts. Because it was the head writer who, usually alone but sometimes with a partner or secretary, locked themselves away somewhere to create an outline of what would happen to all the characters on a show over, say, the next six months. This outline was then segmented into individual episodes which were assigned to various associate writers, who fleshed out the story with dialogue and stage directions faithful to what the audience knew of each character. These associate writers, too, were typically kept away from the actors even though they had no power over major plot points. At every stage of production after the head writer made the outline, everyone else – the other writers, the actors, the directors, everyone – was just unquestioningly following a plan which may as well have been set in stone.
By the 1960s, this process worked so well for daytime TV, ABC decided to try scheduling a soap opera in the evening, a.k.a. primetime, when millions of working class people were at home, creating an exponentially larger audience with higher ad rates to match. Of course, they never called it a soap opera. The executive producer insisted, even though they hired Irna Phillips as a consultant, Peyton Place was a “high-class anthology drama.” And Peyton Place was a huge hit, creating instant stars of Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow, though it only ran for five seasons because ratings dropped after Mia left to be a serious actor, to make cinema, not soap opera. Regardless of such ongoing dismissal, more soaps followed into primetime and the genre entered the 1970s more popular and profitable than ever. In the second half of the decade, home videotape technology became affordable to the working class. With the ability to set a timer on a VHS or Betamax recorder, people with day jobs could keep up with TV shows on their own schedules, no matter the time of airing. “Daytime drama” surged toward its commercial (and many would say creative) peak.
In 1978, CBS premiered the big-budget, primetime soap, Dallas, still one of the most-referenced TV shows ever, thanks to the third season ending on a cliffhanger where the main villain is shot by an unseen assassin, leaving viewers to spend eight months wondering “Who shot J.R.?” while watching the brand-new Dallas spinoff soap, Knots Landing, which also became a hit and stayed on the air for fifteen years. In 1981, ABC launched Dynasty at primetime. Dallas, Knots Landing and Dynasty all centered around families who struck it rich in the oil business, examples of the new trend in soaps to largely ignore real-world political and social issues, focusing instead on one type of fantasy or another. This trend persisted through the end of the decade. When The Bold & The Beautiful launched in 1987, it centered around a family who struck it rich in the fashion industry and lived and dressed accordingly. For most of the genre’s working class audience, such wealth was itself a fantasy and, of course, soap creators ran through endless modern reiterations of centuries-old fables based on romance between a rich character and poor character. However, this far-fetched era went way beyond tales of marrying high society, pushing deeper into non-realism with elements of action/adventure and even science fiction. At the beginning of the 1980s, a villain on General Hospital wanted to send an entire city back to the Ice Age using a weather control device.
And the suspension of reality necessary for such stories to work was perhaps assisted by another trend: the extended daydream sequence. Any given show’s “real world” plot line may have seemed a little more believable compared to what we saw when following a character into their imagination, where love or lust for another character could be acted out with comically inflated dream logic, sometimes straight up reenacting classic fairy tales or famous movie scenes. These late ‘70s/early ‘80s trends all coincided with an increased focus on kissing (in daydreams and the “real world”) to such a degree it almost seems like soaps were trying to prove two people making out could be a form of pornography. Many critics, journalists and historians have suggested the genre’s escape into make-believe, still acted out nearly exclusively by heterosexual Caucasians, wasn’t so much a backlash against a focus on various social inequalities in previous decades as it was a result of assuming those issues, having been acknowledged, were now resolved. Whatever the case, these were the tropes carried into the genre’s commercial golden age.
Unquestionably, the most-watched event in soap opera history was the 1981 wedding of General Hospital‘s so-called “supercouple,” Luke and Laura. 1981 was also the year Rick Springfield, fairly certain his fifth solo album would sell as poorly as his previous few and looking for a steady paycheck, took the role of Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital. When that album’s first single (“Jessie’ Girl”) went #1 pop, Rick Springfield simultaneously became a rock star and a soap star, continuing to play Dr. Noah Drake for another two years. In 1984, soaps brought in nearly $1.25 billion in ad sales, a figure the industry had never reached before and never would again. In 1986, her recording career in shambles, Tammy Wynette took a role on the soap opera Capitol, which aired on CBS (under the same corporate umbrella as Columbia subsidiary, Epic Records). Surprising nobody, the part she played was that of a hairstylist who decided to become a barroom singer and, one night at closing time, she invites a customer back to her place. It’s only after the sparks fly she discovers this guy is a prominent judge and congressman, whose children are quite suspicious Tammy is just some social climber looking to improve her financial circumstances. The role didn’t last very long but neither did the show, as it was canceled about a year later.
The End… Or Is It?
Soap opera’s slide into irrelevance was not sudden but consistent and observable. By the 1990s, every soap’s creators were obviously well aware of the genre’s diminishing returns. All you have to do is look at the flailing attempts to correct course. Pretty much anything you can think of, they tried. Putting hot-button political issues back in the spotlight? Check. Allowing non-White, non-straight characters to play a part in main storylines? Check. Having an evil witch bring a children’s doll to life? Check. That last one would be Passions, a late ’90s to early ’00s soap at least partially intended as a deadpan spoof of the genre… created by the writer responsible for a character on Days of Our Lives becoming possessed by Satan a full five years earlier. Within a four year period around 2010, All My Children, One Life to Live, As the World Turns and Guiding Light were all canceled. With only two brief hiatuses since starting on radio in 1937, Guiding Light’s 70+ year span makes it the longest-running serialized performance of narrative fiction in history.
Nowadays, anyone who tunes into network TV in the morning or afternoon is likely to find content somewhat similar to the programming which preceded the rise of soaps: variations on a talk show or roundtable discussion, presented as educational or at least informational, only now with more focus on the state of culture outside a viewer’s home, though perhaps with the occasional easy and delicious recipe still thrown in the mix. There are four legacy soaps that remain on the air – General Hospital, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives – and it’s probably not a coincidence all four are scheduled to run during the lunch hour, giving fans something to watch while on their break from work. Other than those holdouts, though, the genre’s extinction seems inevitable. Those paying attention have many theories to explain why. For one thing, the longest-running shows all have decades of backstory a person would need to catch up on in order to have the full context for events in new episodes. And, for nearly the first 30 years of the genre’s existence on radio and TV, shows were broadcast live, never recorded. The best a potential new viewer could hope to find is a fan wiki with recaps of major storylines. But this theory fails to account for all the new soaps launched in the 1980s and 1990s that couldn’t find an audience. More plausible is a conspiracy theory among fans: even though making soaps has always been cheap, it’s nowhere near as inexpensive as producing a talk show that uses the same set every day and requires far less staff across the board to net the same amount of viewers. So, to avoid the backlash of suddenly canceling major shows for the sake of profit margins, this theory supposes networks and production companies knowingly hired writers who either had no experience in the genre or were known to despise it, leaving them to sabotage legacy soaps with storylines that repelled long-time fans, thus justifying cancellation.
Really, the truth is soap opera hasn’t and will probably never go away. It’s just gotten better at disguising itself. Increased production values, slightly quicker pacing and maybe cutting back the release of new episodes to one a week so actors can take the time to rehearse lines has allowed several soaps to hide in plain sight. The most obvious characteristics of the genre – like lingering shots of the facial expression on each character before the scene cuts to commercial – may have been toned down a little, updated or done away with entirely but a strong soap influence was undeniably there in long-running shows like Beverly Hills 90210, ER, even Supernatural. One could say the same thing about several of the longest-running shows currently over a decade into airing at primetime.
Of course, none of the creators would ever admit it.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” is The Best Country Song of All Time and it’s The Saddest Country Song of All Time. If you ever want to find out what it’s like to have a lot of people very upset with you, simply publish a list of The Best (or Saddest) Country Songs of All Time and place “He Stopped Loving Her Today” anywhere other than the #1 position. It will not matter what song(s) you place above it or how well you state your case for doing so. There are many thousands, maybe even millions of people who believe this record was the peak of an entire musical genre, the matter was settled long ago and any alternative opinion would be tantamount to suggesting we skip the national anthem to open next year’s World Series and instead have someone take a piss on an American flag.
Now, let’s talk about why all of those people are wrong.
He Stopped Laughing Here Today
Arguing over the best country record of all time is obviously a fool’s game but anyone able to discard inherited beliefs or nostalgic attachment and listen objectively should be able to hear the strain in a singer’s voice caused by several years of attacking their nasal cavity and vocal cords with cocaine. If this is nowhere near George Jones’ best vocal performance, how can it be his best recording, let alone the peak of a genre? Billy Sherrill denied the record was anything like a masterpiece of production, saying he was much prouder of his work on Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl” and all he did on “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was use a bunch of tricks to manipulate the audience. Hell, the truth is it’s not even the best song on the album. Just allow the needle on your turntable to drag through to the following track on 1980’s I Am What I Am and take a listen to “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five.” It is true Jones spent much of the preceding year living in a car parked in a Nashville alleyway, saturating his body with poison and arguing over a hallucinated reality with the multiple personalities in his mind until a friend finally committed him to a mental institution. It is true a time-lapse video of the visible aging to his face from the years 1975 to 1980 would look like something from a horror film. But you don’t need any of that backstory to hear and believe the trauma in George Jones’ delivery of the words “I’ve seen the dark side of life.” There is no chorus to “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five.” The “dark side” line appears in the song’s bridge and its impact is never diminished through repetition, leaving us to assume we’ve just heard Jones find the strength to deliver the statement once and only once. To be clear, I’m not saying this is The Best or Saddest Country Song of All Time. What I’m saying is there are many reasons “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t deserve the title.
For one thing, mass consensus on the peak of an entire art form is never good for that art form. For another thing, whatever does deserve to be called the Saddest Country Song Ever was surely never a hit single because truly devastating music is much too dangerous to go #1 on the charts. What #1 record could possibly be sadder than a writer pouring all their pain and grief into a song that leaves everyone who hears it so emotionally wrecked they never buy the single or album because they can’t handle being traumatized every time the song plays? Then, there’s the minor fact “He Stopped Loving Her Today” wasn’t even written to be a sad song, which becomes apparent as soon as you receive this information, discard decades of popular perception and look at the lyrics. In 1980 – the year this record came out and was almost instantly labeled the Saddest Country Song of All Time – one of the writers, Curly Putman, told the Montgomery Alabama Journal, “…saying that somebody loved somebody that much and the day he died is the day he stopped loving her is positive.” As for the other writer, Bobby Braddock, he said they intended to write a comedy, not a tragedy. But Braddock was used to having his songs land differently than he’d intended because that kind of thing can happen when you try to make jokes out of things people take very seriously. The original version of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was meant to be as ironic as a Monty Python sketch until Curly Putman adjusted the melody for Tammy Wynette to break hearts all the way to #1. Conversely, Bobby thought he was being dead serious when he wrote “Her Name Is” about his longing for the day he wouldn’t need to sneak around and keep secrets to be with the married woman he was covertly dating at the time. Then, right after “Golden Ring” went #1 in 1976, Billy Sherrill had Pete Drake bring his talkbox to the studio and turn “Her Name Is” into a cutesy joke referencing all the “will they, won’t they get back together?” rumors and articles about Tammy Wynette and George Jones. The record went #3, stayed in Jones’ set lists for the rest of his career and he regularly changed the lyrics for live performance by clearly singing “her name is Tammy.” So we shouldn’t be too surprised Bobby Braddock believed he was writing a hilarious song when he started “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1977 or that he still thought it was funny even after again bringing in Curly Putman to help finish it.
The shade of comedy may be dark but it’s certainly still there, at least on paper, in the finished version. If you’re able to momentarily forget the George Jones record and imagine how this whole thing would play if delivered by an artist like Little Jimmy Dickens or Johnny Russell (who did record two unreleased versions of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” before Jones cut the song), the original intent should click. It’s written in the same bleak tone as the alcoholic who swears he’s quit drinking… except for holidays, special occasions and days that end in “y.” Its punchline is in the “oh, I get it” moment when the lyrics reveal the father has died. It is 100% Jones’ delivery and Billy Sherrill’s arrangement behind him which causes this moment and the rest of the song to play as sincere tragedy. Billy’s reversal of the emotional intent was entirely deliberate, requiring multiple rewrites to make the trick possible before they even tried recording it. The biggest problem to overcome was how soon the original lyrics got to the punchline. Following the principles of a decent “knock knock” joke, Bobby and Curly wanted to get to the comedic payoff as quickly as possible. The title and first line of the finished song remain as artifacts of this original design. Because if we know the title is “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and the first thing we hear is “he said ‘I’ll love you ’til I die’,” there’s really only one direction this thing could be headed and the original version wasted no time in getting there. But Billy Sherrill wanted drama and drama requires more suspense. For his audience to instead experience tragedy, they needed enough time to dread the inevitable. They needed enough time to realize they were dreading the inevitable. This is why the final version gives us two entire verses before a chorus fulfills the promise made by the first line. When the old man’s death is finally confirmed, a bridge recitation prolongs the cathartic moment by placing the beloved woman at his funeral. Then, one last chorus takes the whole thing home. And it took a long time, probably more than a year, for this verse-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structure to find its final form. Billy is supposed to’ve carried around a 1-inch-thick notebook full of nothing but ideas, changes and rewrites for “He Stopped Loving Her Today.
The challenge didn’t begin and end on paper. As George Jones’ physical and mental health rapidly deteriorated in the second half of The 1970s, Billy Sherrill had no choice but to find ways of working around his artist. When Jones failed to show up for a session, Billy had the musicians record their parts without a lead vocal, creating backing tracks for Jones to later overdub his part. It wasn’t ideal but it got the job done and the results were preferable to what happened when Jones did show up unable or unwilling to sing his vocal correctly, which was often in the late ‘70s. His physical ability to sing was so quickly and severely hampered by cocaine, Billy once told him if he was gonna be a drug addict, then he should at least shoot heroin like Ray Charles instead of snorting a drug that destroys the vocal cords. There were many occasions when musicians and studio techs were paid to endure take after take of the same song while Billy tried to keep track of which lyrics still needed a good delivery from Jones in order to later Dr. Frankenstein a suitable master together. Sometimes in this period, Jones showed up with no other agenda than being a pain in the ass to everyone in the studio. There is no better example than the multiple sessions it took to record “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Billy Sherrill always liked to say if he couldn’t get a song on tape in 30 minutes then he’d scrap it because he wasn’t gonna get it at all. In most cases, that may be true but he and George Jones battled over this song for a year. The final session for the record was held in February 1980 but they first tried cutting it all the way back in early 1979. Regardless of many attempts from various parties hoping to revise history, it’s a fact Jones hated this song from the first time he heard it to the last day he worked on cutting it. He didn’t like the lyrics because he thought they were too gloomy. He didn’t like the melody because he thought it was too close to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It through the Night.” He sang the lyrics to Kristofferson’s melody just to be an asshole so many times it got stuck in his head that way and even after he started sincerely trying to cut the record and get it over with he continued accidentally slipping into the wrong melody. Billy claimed the finished product was a cut-and-splice job with some pieces of tape dating all the way back to early 1979. Bobby Braddock doubts this, as he and Curly Putman wrote the bridge recitation on the day prior to Jones’ final session for the single. But that recitation was written at Billy’s request. It’s possible he always knew he’d eventually ask for a recitation when he began work on a song he always knew would be pieced together over time because it was still going through rewrites when he cut the backing tracks without Jones. It’s also possible he originally created the bridge section of the song without planning for a recitation, instead intending it as a place for Millie Kirkham’s background vocal to represent the woman sobbing at a funeral, only later deciding Jones should explain this plot development with narration. Ultimately, these technical details are trivial and have no bearing on what happened when the record came out, which is what’s been happening ever since.
This may not be the tale of the Best or Saddest Country Song of All Time but it is the tale of the biggest comeback in country music history. This is the one about the time a hit record drug George Jones back from the living dead. And everyone loves a good comeback story about as much as they love an underdog. Standing on this side of history, where “He Stopped Loving Her Today” has been called the be-all, end-all country record for 40 years and Jones is so widely considered the Greatest Country Singer Ever, it can be difficult to believe he was ever viewed as the underdog. Ah, but he was…
After winning just about every notable country music award for “She Thinks I Still Care” in the early 1960s, George Jones fell off the planet until the year 1980, at least as far as the award voting committees were concerned. Other than a few awards from Cash Box for duets with Tammy Wynette, Jones received zero recognition from the industry, no matter how many other legendary country singers called him the best, no matter how many hit records he sold. The suits had their reasons, which were just as obvious at the time as they are now. Jones’ war against sobriety posed serious threat of embarrassment to any award ceremony, sure. More consequentially, his records largely held no crossover potential and, other than “She Thinks I Still Care,” did not inspire many contemporary covers. While ambassadorial reach outside the genre and memetic spread within were not the only priorities of country establishment voters, the songs and artists they did choose to award speak for themselves. What I’m saying applies to the business across the board but the easiest example to use is the CMA, who began giving awards in 1967. In the final years of that decade, George Jones released major hits, like “Walk Through This World with Me,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” “I’ll Share My World with You” and “When the Grass Grows Over Me.” In those years, the CMA awarded Song and Single of the Year to “There Goes My Everything,” “Harper Valley PTA,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin Down,” “The Carroll County Accident” and Bobby Russell’s “Honey.” Every one of those records crossed over to the pop charts and/or inspired a wildfire-like spread of country covers and/or found itself at the center of some mainstream media narrative with a larger audience than the entire genre of country music. Even though just about everyone (including Tammy Wynette herself) said she wasn’t a great vocalist, her crossover sound and incomparable presence in pop culture gossip magazines helped her take Female Vocalist of the Year in 1968, 1969 and 1970. While it’s not like these awards have ever been important other than as a gauge of the establishment’s self-perception and the CMA’s concerns were obvious long before they began handing out awards, the longer these voting committees persisted in ignoring George Jones, the more country music audiences understood the difference between artistic priorities of fans and commercial priorities of industry. Jones’ uninterrupted exclusion from the winners’ circle between 1963 and 1980 became its own kind of anti-award, a badge of integrity worn by the people’s champion, the greatest singer who never got the credit he deserved. Here was the underdog who blew the minds of the few rock music fans who caught a screening of Les Blank’s 1974 Leon Russell documentary, A Poem Is a Naked Person, in which Jones performs “Take Me” accompanied only by himself on acoustic guitar. Here was the underdog who Gram Parsons claimed as his hero.
It is so important to understand and internalize the fact that Gram Parsons never heard “He Stopped Loving Her Today” because Gram died young in 1973, long before the song was written, long before he or anyone else had reason to believe George Jones would ever be recognized as the Greatest Country Singer by anyone other than the community of country music fans, let alone have this recognition press beyond country music to take root and become dogma in pop culture. When Gram Parsons mentioned George Jones in an interview, covered his songs live, sang his songs with Emmylou Harris and cried listening to his albums in front of Pamela des Barres, it had to’ve been almost entirely the Musicor era or earlier because Jones only began working with Billy Sherrill in the final two years of Gram’s life. In fact, it’s possible Gram Parsons was among the many fans who were nervous about Jones moving to Epic and working with Billy.
Acres of Violins
Just as their children and grandchildren in the punk and indie music scenes would later do, these country fans had come to internalize the outsider status of their favorite artist as an aspect of their own identities. Being a George Jones fan put you in the corner of the guy who was too country for the pop charts, too talented to be imitated outside near-novelty tributes and too drunk to be allowed on a microphone at the stiff, tuxedo-filled award shows. By 1971, the year Jones moved to Epic, everyone knew Billy Sherrill stood in diametric opposition to all of this. His slick productions regularly crossed over to the pop charts because they were consciously designed to do so, blatantly packaged to appeal to the much larger market of consumers who purchased genres other than country. As these were priorities Billy shared with the voting committees, he, his artists and his songwriters usually wound up on the microphone at stiff, tuxedo-filled award shows. So, maybe working with Billy would finally give George Jones the recognition he’d long deserved from the establishment. But the fearful question in the minds and hearts of fans was what he’d have to do to get it. Was George Jones about to sell out? Opinions were as varied and the debate as never-ending as any other instance of this topic coming up in any artist’s career. To some fans and critics, Billy Sherrill took Jones tragically deep into pop country territory for the next twenty years. To others, George Jones records continued to serve as definitive time capsules of an ever-evolving genre.
One standout example of the kind of thing Jones’ old-school fans were worried about is the George & Tammy cut of “The World Needs a Melody” from early 1973. Some fans would tell you there should never have been any strings on the session at all but many more would say the strings definitely shouldn’t be doing whatever they’re doing on the “Old Time Religion” section of the song. There’s a 1976 profile of Billy Sherrill in the Chicago Tribune which supports the OG Jones fans by calling into question whether Billy was really such a genius or merely lucky enough to work with talented artists. They selectively point out his failure to give Barbara Mandrell and Jody Miller any major hits and mention George Jones’ supposedly low sales figures at Epic. They wonder if Billy’s style can ever truly work for Jones or his fans. The problem with this narrative is, by this point, Billy and Jones had released over a dozen Top Ten singles, including #1s on “The Grand Tour,” “The Door” and (with Tammy Wynette) “We’re Gonna Hold On.” Even if we pretend there was some reason those records were hits despite disappointing sales figures, they were much bigger hits than any Jones had at Musicor and certainly sold more copies than he was used to selling.
As for George’s own opinion on whether he was selling out, he consistently attacked pop country whenever given a chance. In 1977, talking about country music to the Pensacola News Journal, he said, “They’re trying to bring it too far uptown to the big city… Trying to modernize it too much, especially the sound. Production-wise, it’s overdone too much. Everybody is money hungry. 90% of what you hear on the radio isn’t really country music.” He goes on to acknowledge the difficulty in defining what constitutes “good” and “bad” country music but, to give an example of what he hears in “bad” country, he references “acres of violins.” This is interesting because it’s verbatim the way detractors characterized the records he made with Billy Sherrill. In fact, the phrase “acres of violins” almost certainly entered the lexicon of Jones and music critics by way of it being one of Billy’s favorite production terms, one he often used in the studio and in interviews to describe his process. So either George Jones was oblivious to the fact he quoted his own negative press and producer to review records by other artists… or he’d figured out the audacious politician’s trick of projecting his own “crimes” onto everyone other than himself. And he certainly was not oblivious. Three years before that interview, the CMA awarded Female Vocalist of the Year to Olivia Newton-John (for all the reasons mentioned above) and Jones responded by forming the Association of Country Entertainers, a group intended to protest outside influences on the Nashville country music establishment and to give a platform to country artists who stayed “true” to the genre. This was when Jones was still married to Tammy, so they invited Jimmy C. Newman, Hank Snow, Jean Shepard, Bill Anderson, George Morgan, Barbara Mandrell, Billy Walker, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton to hang out at their house and come up with a game plan. It only took a few meetings before they all realized nobody could define “pop country” or “outside influence” in a way that wouldn’t indict every last one of them for failing to remain true to “real country,” which they also couldn’t define. ACE fell apart without ever even agreeing on changes or policies they’d like to see implemented in Nashville. But after the group disbanded, Jones’ anti-pop country rhetoric only grew stronger. Much the same way records like “White Lightning” were apparently excluded from his disdain for rock-tainted country music in previous decades, he spent the rest of his career trashing pop country as if a gun trained on his head couldn’t force him commit such an abomination, even though every second of tape he cut in Texas would be considered pop country to previous generations and his music slid into contemporary notions of pop country the moment his autopilot recording sessions moved to Nashville.
This brings us to the next piece of truth: George Jones could have remained on Musicor until his dying day and the records he released from the 1970s forward would still bear Billy Sherrill’s influence, for the same reasons and to the same degree his previous work with the Nashville A-Team owed such a profound debt to Owen Bradley. The initial step from Owen’s Nashville Sound to Billy Sherrill’s Nashville Sound was taken all the way back in 1966, when Jones first recorded “Almost Persuaded.” Bob Moore, who had played bass on the David Houston cut and, here, served as uncredited producer, provided approximations of Sherrill’s exaggerated dynamics. From there, Owen Bradley’s signature on Jones records was gradually overwritten by Sherrill-esque flourishes: the piano was given to single note runs on the bass end of the instrument, there was liable to be a key change or strange chord every now and then, drummers were allowed to get much fancier and the dynamics continued to be pushed further, then further still. This happened with most artists recording on Music Row, regardless of whether they ever even met Billy Sherrill. You can hear Billy’s influence begin creeping in to Charlie Louvin’s sessions near the end of 1967 on Charlie’s fantastic original cut of “Will You Visit Me on Sundays.” It’s in the busy-yet-subtle drums and the way the low-end piano intro riff gets moved to various positions throughout the song. Now listen to how much further Bob Moore pushed the dynamics on Jones’ cut in 1969. The drums and piano are twice as busy, the attack is more varied and dramatic – oh, and there are strings.
The last Jones LP released on Musicor while he was still with the label is the ultimate case-in-point. Even though Pappy Daily was credited as producer on the back of the album and actual producer Bob Moore finally received label credit on the biggest hit single, there’s a reason many George Jones fans still mistakenly believe 1971’s With Love was his first LP produced by Billy Sherrill. Most of the album comes off like an intentional tribute to Billy but this wasn’t some attempt by Musicor to compete with the style they knew would be on Jones’ Epic sessions because several of the most emblematic tracks were cut nearly two years earlier in 1969. The oldest recording on the album is “I Know,” written by Jones and Tammy Wynette, then given a downright startling string and piano intro riff by Bob Moore. Listen to the way Bob’s lethargic bass briefly and briskly jumps alive beneath a few hopeful lines in “Loving You Makes You Mine.” Then there’s “Try,” surely the most optimistic George Jones recording ever with a glistening string arrangement worthy of Hollywood’s take on Western Swing. Those three songs were all recorded in 1969, before Musicor could have known Jones would negotiate a premature exit from his contract to work with Billy Sherrill.
In 1970, Bob Moore produced what many country fans would call his crowning achievement, “A Good Year for the Roses.” Written by Jerry Chesnut a few years after he kickstarted Jeannie C. Riley’s career, this is one of those Opposite Day premises. At the time, everything was actually going pretty great for Jerry, except he’d planted a bunch of fancy rose bushes along the walkway to his new house only to watch the buds fall off before they ever bloomed. When he called the flower shop to ask what mistakes he made, they told him the weather was all wrong and it just wasn’t a good year for the roses. Well, Jerry got to thinking about how it really wasn’t so bad because things could’ve gone the other way: a beautiful walkway of rose bushes leading up to a house where everything inside had gone to shit. So that’s the song he wrote. It opens with a rhythm section panned to the right and, in the left channel, a mysterious low-end swell, like a heavy dirigible lifting into flight, probably provided by a pedal steel player running their signal through a Jordan Boss Tone unit and a tape delay to mimic a cello. Then Jones enters as the world’s saddest detective to survey the last things his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s lips have touched on her way out the door: the multiple cigarettes she needed to smoke while packing her things, the cup of coffee she realized didn’t need to be finished before she left, not his lips. Then the instruments and Jones soar into the chorus as he finds a lone item for the Pros column of his life: the roses outside sure look great. But sometimes the only thing worse than having nothing is watching one stupid and inconsequential thing go right while everything else goes wrong, so the song drops back into apathy. The single hit #2 in 1970 and George Jones’ arrangements were on a one-way street from there, no matter who became his producer. The strings on his Musicor sessions only grew more prominent and grandiose, right up to the end. One of the last things he cut for the label was “High on the Thought of You,” written by Charlene Montgomery and arranged by Bob Moore like he’d spent a week taking peyote while listening to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Comparing Jones’ final Musicor sessions to his first recordings for Epic, it’s absolutely fair to say Billy Sherrill dialed back the pomposity a few notches and showed everyone the value of restraint, the difference in being produced like Billy and being produced by Billy. Even if it wasn’t enough to impress the Chicago Tribune, they began making Top 5 records from the jump and within a couple years figured out how to start hitting #1 again.
If you asked how he changed George Jones’ style, Billy would probably say all he did was make Jones start working for a living: “Jones used to never record anything with over two chords in it. I think if you do something a little more complicated, it sounds like the style changes, but it’s really not. Some songs require singing and some songs don’t. You can take a song like some of his old stuff, like ‘Why Baby Why,’ and that don’t require any singing. But you take something like ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and that requires singing. You can’t just mouth through it and expect it to be good.”
No Show Jones
Here’s another quote from Billy on working with Jones: “I don’t even remember the first time I met George. I saw him sporadically with Tammy from time to time before the signing. We just met to say ‘hi’ a few times. Then, when he signed with Epic Records, we were standing there looking at each other. Both of us were kind of nervous, wondering if we could get along in a studio together. Then, later, about ten minutes into our session, after he found out I wasn’t an ogre, we had a good time. We’ve had good times ever since.” That’s a quote from the early ‘80s, so even though they no doubt had some good times together, by this point Billy had been through some pretty fucking terrible times with George Jones. He is also on record saying there were moments in the studio when they wanted to kill each other.
Their professional collaborations began right after the opening of Old Plantation Music Park, when Jones and Tammy were as close as they ever got to the infinitely happy honeymooners they pretended to be on their early Epic LPs. Occasional binges aside, Jones’ health was fairly solid for those first two years or so. He then began the downhill slide into divorce, followed by a tumble off a cliff named Cocaine. His physical, mental and financial wasting away in this period are well-documented, partly because 1974 was the year Columbia Records finally hired a dedicated PR staff for Epic’s Nashville office. When Jones and Tammy split a year later, the label was left in the awkward position of a friend who isn’t sure which side to pick in a divorce but Jones made the choice easier by mostly ignoring his career to focus on drinking.
So Epic’s new PR team got behind Tammy and pushed her to do as much press as possible. One of the new PR hires, Mary Ann McCready, said, “We were very concerned. Their duet career had been so strong and their ability to draw [crowds] had been so strong that everyone was concerned that neither one alone would have the strength of the two of them together. We started a major campaign on Tammy. We got the cover of Family Weekly and covers of other magazines. Then we arranged for her to perform at the White House. We promoted her as ‘The First Lady of Country Music performs for The First Lady of the Country.’” In the beginning, the plan seemed to work well enough. But then something they hadn’t planned on began to happen. As Tammy put more of herself out there in interviews, songs and concert banter, the harder she tried to force real life events to gel with her one-dimensional persona, the more it forwarded everyone’s attention right along to George Jones, whom she’d unintentionally written into the more interesting role of her narrative. All he needed to do in order to capitalize on this was change exactly nothing about his lifestyle. Punishing his body with poison and running away from celebrity played out in print like the tragicomic, “just don’t give a damn” antihero this audience wanted. Strangely, these events happened to coincide with the resurgence of rockabilly in the mid-to-late 1970s. When bands like Rockpile and The Stray Cats, as well as the TV show Happy Days and the movie American Graffiti made it cool to like the 1950s genre, Jones got pulled into the wave of hype and his early Starday records became collector’s items.
Also in the mid-1970s, music journalist and country fan Chet Flippo happened to be an editor in Rolling Stone magazine’s New York City office, where he wrote about country artists whenever he could. If you’ve never read it, his coverage of Waylon Jennings is legendary. In 1976, Chet and his wife entertained some guests from Nashville, including Mary Ann McCready from Epic’s new PR department. Over dinner, they talked about how country music was still regarded as a joke in New York City. That Madison Square Garden spectacular with George Jones and Buck Owens was over a decade earlier and all it really meant was there were enough people in the city who’d buy tickets if literally all of the biggest artists in the genre appeared on a bill together. The Garden show certainly hadn’t caused country music to take New York City by storm. In 1973, Hilly Kristal had opened a new music venue in Manhattan called CBGB, which stood for Country, BlueGrass and Blues, but there wasn’t enough of a crowd for those types of bands and by the time of this dinner the club had become ground zero for New York City’s hippest punk, rock and catchall counterculture crowd. So Chet could spend the rest of his life publishing articles but he wasn’t confident reading about the genre would cause many of these people to begin taking it seriously or even become interested enough to try. Shit, many of his coworkers still cracked jokes about Chet liking country and they heard him talk about it more than anyone. Then somebody at the table mentioned one good George Jones concert ought to cure just about anyone of such foolishness and the comment landed with more weight than the idle conversation they were having up to that point. Because, seriously, what might it accomplish for all of country music if The King of Broken Hearts came to New York City and played a full set, not only for ticket-buying fans but a room purposefully stocked with the nation’s media elite? This needed to happen. It was going to happen. After nearly a year of planning, it happened.
If you went back in time to Sept. 6th and 7th of 1977, to a trendy, 400-cap theater in Manhattan called The Bottom Line, you’d find journalists from The New York Times, Newsweek, Time magazine, most of Saturday Night Live’s cast, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and many other celebrities, influencers and entertainment industry power players, all gathered for intimate showcase performances from George Jones. You would not, however, find George Jones. Because he completely ghosted on both nights. He never even got on the plane to New York. All the big shots in the audience thought it was a “fuck you” from some country boy who didn’t care how important these people were supposed to be. This was perhaps informed by some of Jones’ most recent comments to the media. Two months earlier, he told a reporter the record business was motivated only by maximizing profits and they were trying to modernize country music too much: “They used to make fun of us, call us hillbillies, wouldn’t have a thing to do with us. Now some of the biggest businessmen in the world out of New York and the West Coast have taken over Nashville. It’s nothing but a syndicated rat race now. Not a thing like when I first came to Nashville.” So the crowd of New Yorkers he stood up at The Bottom Line took it as a premeditated act of hostility. But they weren’t offended. They loved him for it. They thought it made him the real deal, a bonafide living legend who only did what he wanted when he wanted. And that’s what everyone went home and wrote articles about. In truth, Jones wasn’t taking any kind of stand or making a statement. He didn’t show up because he was terrified. The pressure of going to New York City to sing for such an important audience under such circumstances would’ve been enough to send him running at any point in his career. The fact he’d started doing large amounts of cocaine about six months earlier didn’t help. But the media had their story and they ran with it. In 1977, the year Rolling Stone magazine moved their main headquarters from San Francisco to New York City, their critics’ poll named George Jones Country Artist of the Year.
The month after pulling the biggest no-show of his life so far, Jones met the pop culture media halfway by going in the studio and covering an artist they already understood. When an executive at Columbia first played the James Taylor b-side “Bartender’s Blues” for Jones, it was kind of as a joke. The song and performance, which Taylor called a tribute to George Jones, were so blatantly derivative everyone wanted to see how Jones would react if he heard the record without being forewarned. It took about 45 seconds for him to say something like “Hey, wait a minute, that guy’s trying to do me!” and everyone laughed while listening to the rest of it, pointing out each time Taylor laid into a particularly Jones-ish bit. When Billy Sherrill said they obviously had to cut the song, Jones agreed. He also evidently felt the need to prove his George Jones impersonation was better than anyone’s because, within the first fifteen seconds of the record, he lays down a vocal run nobody else on the planet at the time would’ve dreamt to take a swing at and it’s not even the most impressive part of this performance. Years later, both Billy and Jones confessed they didn’t much care for the record because Jones was just showing off. He probably wanted to make sure James Taylor could hear how it was done when they sent the tape for James to cut background vocals. The single came out in January 1978 and hit the Top 10 a couple months later, by which time Jones’ cocaine use had become completely terrifying.
He was always bad at managing money and had relied on his wives to keep the personal finances in order. Now, with nobody to answer to, he was spending thousands of dollars just to pack his face with blow while also running around town buying, trading, gifting, flushing and torching his way into massive debt. He took out loans from banks and borrowed cash from other country artists but, rather than put the money toward his debts, he kept doing all the same things, digging himself even deeper into a hole. The more debt he incurred, the less motivated he was to make any attempt toward solvency because whatever money he made from a concert, hit single or any other deal wasn’t going to come anywhere near putting a dent in everything he owed, so why bother? In the year 1978, he’s supposed to have missed over 50 concerts. In August, after Tammy Wynette married George Richey, she sued Jones over Georgette’s unpaid child support. In September, after working himself up into a particularly deranged mood over the fact Peanutt Montgomery had dedicated his life to Christ and would no longer drink or disappear into days-long binges, Jones tried to murder Peanutt with a .38 special revolver. (Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that in the next episode.) In November, a Nashville bank sued Jones for not making payments on over $50,000 of loans. In December, Jones filed for bankruptcy, claiming $1.5 million of debt. He no longer owned a house in Tennessee and all the hotels had stopped giving him rooms on credit, so anyone looking for George Jones in Nashville in the year 1979 stood a pretty decent chance of finding him living out of a car parked in Printer’s Alley, consuming more cocaine and alcohol than solid food or water, talking to a life-size cardboard standup of Hank Williams and hallucinating zombies who tried to get at him from the shadows. This was the state of his life and mind when Billy Sherrill began trying to record “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in early 1979. By the end of the year, Peanutt had Jones committed to a mental institution. According to the doctors, Jones was “suffering from an acute paranoid state with suicidal and homicidal potential to a high degree.” They also said something about “chronic and acute heavy intake of alcohol” and “the suspicion of chronic use of cocaine.”
Since newspapers and gossip magazines weren’t able or aiming to communicate the horrific realities of his situation, even these events continued playing to Jones’ image as a heartbroken party animal. His audience tracked all this behavior as nothing but a more intense version of the way they’d seen him act when in love with Melba Montgomery. Many believed (and still do) that George Jones just dove headfirst into the bottle because he never got over Tammy Wynette. This notion was originally inspired by the flirty comments and public appearances made circa their professional reunion in 1976 on “Golden Ring” and “Near You,” the 1-2 hit record combo which further reinforced the theory. Then, after Tammy’s divorce from a two month marriage nobody could understand or explain, you’ve got Jones offering up a tidy solution by unambiguously telling the media he and Tammy will never be happy with anyone but each other. And it’s possible Jones meant those things when he said them. He definitely fixated on Tammy’s absence as his motive for falling deeper into the bottle, then the baggie. But if you approached him in 1978 with the proposition of making a choice between Tammy Wynette and a sack of blow, it’s difficult to imagine he’d take her over the drug he was so dedicated to it led him to try murdering his best friend. Regardless, nearly every article on his bankruptcy, the attempted shooting of Peanutt and the trip to the asylum at least implied it could all be blamed on the split from Tammy and, now, her for-real marriage to the man who sure seemed like The One. These stories often contained quotes attributed to anonymous sources supposedly close to the situation, who knowingly stated Jones’ undying love for his ex-wife was the root of his problems.
So, after years of the media running with this narrative, when the first single Jones released after his much-publicized stay in a mental hospital was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” millions of people heard it as third-person perspective on the coming day when death would finally free him of the torturous love he still held for Tammy Wynette. After coming out in April 1980, the record went to #1 in July. Having never given him a single award, the ACM voted George Jones Male Vocalist of the Year. Having never given him a single award, the CMA voted George Jones Male Vocalist of the Year. The CMA also named “He Stopped Loving Her Today” Best Single of the Year and Best Song of the Year. The record won George Jones his first Grammy award. When the song was placed on the I Am What I Am LP, it became his first album to go platinum. In 1981, the CMA again awarded Best Song of the Year to “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and Male Vocalist of the Year to George Jones. The record had not inspired a wildfire-like spread of covers (or even a notable one) within the genre. The record had not crossed over to the pop charts. But it had found itself at the center of a media narrative larger than the entire genre of country music. Or, more accurately, it was placed there by Billy Sherrill, like a cherry on top of a five year stack of stories about the Best Country Singer Ever destroying himself over the woman who break his heart. Never mind that it wasn’t the truth. It played; judging by the results, maybe better than any producer has played this game before or since.
Writing Between the Lines
Bobby Braddock has often tried to find polite ways of saying he knows for a fact this isn’t the best of over 1,000 songs which bear his name as a writer, let alone the best country song ever written. Braddock has called it an “okay” song on paper, admitting he still hears things in it he’d change if he could go back in time. He believes most people who call it the Greatest Country Song Ever are actually talking about the record, i.e. George Jones’ performance and Billy Sherrill’s production. In an interview with Napster, Braddock called it “a perfect country record” and said his favorite part was the string section building and building in the chorus. To him, the sound of those violins represents the old man’s soul ascending to heaven. Not a very sad thought at all but, again, Braddock hadn’t written the song to be sad. And, as we’ve covered, he was used to having the intention of his songs reversed, especially when Billy Sherrill was involved.
Billy removed Braddock’s humor from this song with such surgical precision, George Jones is supposed to’ve said something like “ain’t nobody gonna buy that morbid sumbitch” right before walking out of his last vocal session for the record. If true, Jones underestimated the satisfying tragedies Billy was able to create from the right combination of semantic ambiguity, suspense and release. Relocating the punchline to the song’s second half delayed the moment of clarification long enough to set a somber mood but it also gave the audience enough time with the setup for their minds to attach personal memories to this mood and the accompanying lyrics. As obvious as most of us believe the plot of this song to be, it may come as a surprise to learn how many different interpretations there are. There are many people who’ve heard and enjoyed this song dozens of times without perceiving it to involve death in any way. All it takes is mishearing or inferring another meaning from the one line about a wreath on a door. Like, maybe this guy’s friends decided they weren’t gonna let his lovesick bullshit ruin another Christmas, so they came over with holiday decorations, made him get dressed up and dragged him to a party where he forgot all about that lady from so long ago. Alternately, there are many listeners who believe the woman in the song died first. Because who could walk away from this protagonist who was capable of such devotion? And, anyway, who in their right mind would spend twenty years obsessing over a woman who didn’t want to be with them? Nah, this wasn’t a divorce. She died while they were still together. In fact, she died holding his hand, maybe bleeding out on the side of the road after a car crash or lying in a hospital bed with some disease eating the life from her body. She told him it was alright, he’d eventually be able to love again. But, no, he couldn’t get over her. He couldn’t even accept she was gone. It broke his mind and he spent every day of the rest of his life knowing she’d walk back in the room any moment. When we hear the woman in the bridge recitation, she’s not crying at his funeral, it’s her spirit escorting his to the afterlife, etc.
We must recognize these varied interpretations are not an accidental byproduct of vague songwriting but deliberately provoked by professionals reaching into our minds with intentionally semi-specific language. Like a psychic performing a cold read, if they do their half of the job correctly, our minds complete the task. When Bobby Braddock told SongwriterUniverse.com how George Jones and Billy Sherrill turned his and Curly Putman’s “okay” song into a great record, the reporter asked what made a song great. Braddock said, “I think it’s subjective really. It can be the simplest thing in the world and if somebody thinks it’s great, then to them, it is great. It’s in the ear of the beholder. I guess the thing to do is figure out what you can do to get the greatest number of people to think something is great.” He was talking about the cold read, a semi-specific language hit songwriters use to pull their audience’s sympathetic memories into a story, invoking happiness, sadness or whatever the desired mood far more effectively than relying on empathy to bridge the gap into a set of hyper-specific circumstances from the life of another person.
Because lyrics about death and/or divorce are not inherently sad, are they? As we’ve seen many times throughout this podcast, these themes are approached just as easily and as often from a comedic perspective in country music. Lyrics about death and/or divorce are only sad to whatever degree the performance and music effectively call forth our own sad experiences with death and/or divorce. Further, when it comes to these two particular topics, a writer who is adept with semantic ambiguity may craft a song which can be interpreted as being about death, divorce or both, prompting a more potent response from a larger audience who can project their varied experiences into the finished product. This is what happens when we listen to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “The Grand Tour” and “A Good Year for the Roses.” Similar to the Moonshine Trilogy earlier in Jones’ career, we could think of these three songs as the Divorce/Death Trilogy. All three provide examples of the way our own interpretations can feel so certain and self-evident until we discover others have drawn from different lived experiences to reach a different understanding, sometimes revealing a deeper tragedy than we could ever have imagined.
We just covered a few takes on “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song it’s accurate to say is mostly centered on death with a twist of divorce. If this is the close of a Divorce/Death trilogy, then the first installment is “A Good Year for the Roses,” which nearly everyone hears as being strictly about divorce. It does, however, contain a little death and not only in the way all divorce could be called the death of a marriage. The narrator can hardly bear the sight of her lipstick on a coffee cup or her cigarette butts because these are visual reminders of the love no longer living in his home. But a closer listen reveals this isn’t all that’s died. First, Jones does not sing “when you turned and walked away” in the past tense, as most lyric websites incorrectly transcribe. He clearly sings “when you turn to walk away,” which places the main action of the song in present tense. We are not alone with the narrator as he reminisces. He’s not telling us what happened when the door closed; we’re with and his soon-to-be-ex-wife as she finishes packing and walks out the door. We’re with him “as the door behind [her] closes.” Now, take another look at the second verse. Because if this is not a song about a man sitting in silence after his wife has left with the baby, then his mention of the silence coming from the room where there used to be a crying baby has got to mean that’s why she’s leaving. The reason they aren’t talking as she packs is because, however the baby died, instead of turning to one another to cope with the tragedy, the parents turned on each other, said too many terrible things and caused their love too die as well.
Appropriately, the middle song in the Divorce/Death trilogy is the most ambiguous and, as a result, arguably the saddest. There is very little information available on the writing of “The Grand Tour.” We know George Richey got the initial idea for the title from how many country stars in Nashville were opening museums or their homes to public tours. He then brought in Carmol Taylor and Norro Wilson to help finish it. This is speculation on my part but it seems Richey must have noticed how few people ever picked up on the baby’s death in “A Good Year for the Roses” and decided he could get a hit with a song about a dead baby and a dead wife, written in a way nobody could mistake what happened, which is when Carmol and/or Norro may have said that’s not exactly how it works before showing him the way to obscure the original, singular meaning of the song. Again, speculation, but I would be shocked to discover unmitigated proof this isn’t at least close to what happened because this song barely stops short of saying the quiet part out loud.
For decades, the most popular interpretation of “The Grand Tour” has been the same as “A Good Year for the Roses,” it’s strictly about divorce. But every lyric assumed to be about divorce could just as easily be a reference to death and there are at least five additional clues pointing beyond divorce. For starters, if a stranger told you the story of their divorce would “chill you to the bone,” you would laugh in their face. It is death, not divorce, which chills bystanders to the bone. And not just any death. Only a tragic death, too horrible to name outright, would send shivers through the skeletons of strangers. After beginning his story this way, the narrator remembers happier times, like when his wife would bring the paper to him and sit on his leg to say she loved him or all the times they lay in bed in love with each other. The narrator shows us a photo of his wife but not one of the baby and we have to wonder if it’s because he doesn’t have a photo of the baby. The wife’s picture serves as a reminder she cannot touch him. Not “will not” touch him, can not touch him. It is death, not divorce or lack of desire, which removes the very possibility of physical touch. Unlike “A Good Year for the Roses,” there is no lyrical evidence his wife was anything less than perfectly content. There is no lyrical evidence the narrator of “The Grand Tour” was anything less than a perfect husband. There are no memories of unhappy times. There are also no memories of the baby, crying or otherwise. In fact, there is no lyrical evidence there was ever a baby in that nursery, only that the loving and expecting parents created a nursery in the home. And it is death, not divorce, which brings the certainty his wife is gone from his life forever, as would nearly never be the case in a divorce involving a small child who isn’t dead. The wife did not leave her ring behind. She left all of her rings behind, along with every article of clothing she owned. In fact, she took none of her possessions – only the baby and his heart – because we have to leave this world the same way we enter it: with nothing but our body. And some people happen to leave while another body is growing inside of them.
Since this is all very upsetting to think about, it’s not exactly a surprise how many fans try to cling to the divorce interpretation. But the only thing that argument has to stand on is two instances of the narrator using the word “left” – “her clothes are in the closet like she left them when she tore my world apart” and “she left me without mercy.” Of course, “she left me without mercy” does not mean her leaving him was a merciless act which she consciously undertook. It’s a straightforward description of the state in which he’s been left, which is one without mercy. And if it seems weird the narrator would talk about his world being torn apart when “she left” him in this state, think of every funeral or death scene in a movie where a character screams some variation of “don’t leave me” at a dead or dying person. Whatever blame we may project into this song isn’t actually present in this lyric or hinted at in any other. Still, some fans so badly need this song to be about anything but two tragic deaths, one popular theory casts the narrator as an abusive liar, a manipulative monster who tells his saddest sob story and leaves out every trace of the part where his wife was so afraid she took the first chance she got to leave everything and run for her life and that of her baby. Again, it’s my opinion this song’s original plot was intentionally obscured to allow as many people as possible to emotionally connect with it in as many ways as possible, so all’s fair in divorce and death. Believe whatever you want because it’s what you’re supposed to do but there isn’t a shred of evidence in the lyrics to suggest the writers knowingly created an unreliable narrator. There’s just as much lyrical evidence, which is none whatsoever, that the guy’s wife ran off because she fell in love with Bigfoot. If anything, making the narrator say “I have nothing here to sell you” at the beginning of the story seems to preclude the It’s All a Lie theories, almost as if the same knowledge of craft which enabled these writers to bury nightmarish epiphanies between the lines of country songs came with an awareness of the lengths some listeners would go to try explaining it away, making it not real, pretending they’d never glimpsed the full truth of one man’s terrible curse.
But you’ll have to tune in next time to hear more about that.
Thank you for reading Cocaine & Rhinestones. Every episode is written by me, Tyler Mahan Coe.
You will want to visit the webstore to see the new merch design, which is amazing but may not be available for very long and the reason why will be apparent as soon as you see it so I’m not going to say anything further about that. If you don’t need anymore shirts or koozies but still want to help me keep making the show, the best way to do that is through Patreon but you can find information on other methods of support on the SUPPORT page.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [with links to purchase or stream where available]:
- George Jones – “He Stopped Loving Her Today” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I’ve Aged 20 Years in 5” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Her Name Is” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Kris Kristofferson – “Help Me Make It Through the Night” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones & Tammy Wynette – “The World Needs a Melody” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Almost Persuaded” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Charlie Louvin – “Will You Visit Me on Sundays?” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Will You Visit Me on Sunday?” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “I Know” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Loving You Makes You Mine” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Try” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “A Good Year for the Roses” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “High on the Thought of You” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- James Taylor – “Bartender’s Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “Bartender’s Blues” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- George Jones – “The Grand Tour” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These videos were excerpted in the episode. For any number of reasons, YouTube (or DailyMotion) may remove them in the future but here they are for now:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
An instance of sound pollution beyond my control forced me to cut a few words in the audio of the episode that would have made this more clear but soap opera pioneer Irna Philips’ public statements on marriage ranged from declarations she would give it all up if the right man came along to openly mocking that very same notion.
The narrator at the beginning of the As the World Turns clip (above) did talk about Salvo in the context of it being a laundry detergent brand, which it briefly was at that time, until everyone realized it barely worked and stopped using it. But Salvo also was and still is a brand of dish soap.
My main sources for the intro on soap opera were the books Speaking of Soap Operas by Robert C. Allen and Her Stories by Elana Levine. As far as readability goes, both of these books are quite dense and what you would call “academic” in tone. Speaking of Soap Operas is several decades older and I think maybe the first serious book written about soap operas, so there’s a lot of exploring What’s It All Mean-type questions in the beginning and where it really came alive for me was in unpacking the mechanics of the business. Her Stories is much more recent, about twice as big and goes deeper into the actual content and characteristics of soaps throughout history. Overall, I’d say these two books are fairly good companion pieces for anyone interested in the subject.
As for the main topic, I tried to write this episode in a way that would really drive home the point I’m always putting across in these Liner Notes: you’re not necessarily hearing my personal opinions when you listen to me talk. I do sometimes have to inject opinion to tell the story I want to tell but the only reason I’m saying any of these things is purely to tell the story I want to tell. When I have a bunch of quotes from the people involved in creating a song that all say the same thing, even if it’s not what I would say or the way I would say it, that’s the thing I have to relate to you if I’m going to tell you the truth about country music and the people who made it.
I know most of you don’t care but the ones who do care about it as much as I do, so I should say there are several reasons I believe the sound in “A Good Year for the Roses” was a pedal steel run through a Boss Tone. First, there were two pedal steel players booked on that recording session but the song features none of the sounds we associate with pedal steel. Next, one of those pedal steel players was Weldon Myrick, one of the most prominent users of that Boss Tone technique. Next, if you listen closely you can hear a delay in the signal, which is not something that would have been easy to apply to only a cello during an overdub session in this era, so it’s pretty likely that sound was produced in the live room with the rest of the band during the main tracking sessio. Since you can clearly also hear a bass and Bob Moore was known to dislike the sound of bowing a standup bass, it all adds up to a pedal steel player with a Jordan Boss Tone.
For the same reasons there are people who insist “The Grand Tour” couldn’t possibly be about death, I’m 100% certain this episode is going to cause a lot of people to try arguing with me about the meaning of “A Good Year for the Roses.” I didn’t want to go super deep into analysis of two songs in the same episode so I picked the more ambiguous one and unpacked “The Grand Tour” in the main body. If you’re addicted to not changing your mind about things, feel free to fast forward a bit but everyone else strap in because here we go again:
“A Good Year for the Roses” is not a song about a man and a woman being so sad they both go deaf. If the baby was crying but the guy didn’t hear it then he wouldn’t have known he wasn’t hearing a crying baby to be able to say it in the song. There is also a reason the word “familiar” is in the single line hinting at why this isn’t a family anymore. It is extremely rare to find examples of writers like Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman who will outright state that most people don’t actually understand what their song is about. Most writers roll with whatever the popular interpretation of their songs are because they were hit songs so why mess with it? When Jerry Chesnut said the thing 1,000 people are gonna send me about the wife leaving and the baby crying, he was always telling a story about the idea that made him start writing the song, not the finished song. When he told that story about starting the song, he usually also mentioned a dying dog as part of his original idea. But Jerry was trying to write a sad song and putting a dead dog in the song would have turned it into the stereotypical country song people always joke about (but doesn’t really exist as a stereotypical country song). The reason there is no dog at all in the song is because there’s a dead baby in the song for everyone who can see it. Why else would the guy take the time to mention it was the couple’s one and only baby? The reason their only baby’s cries go unheard is because if you had an infant die the sound of it not crying would be the only thing you heard for a very long time and the bedroom is exactly where that not crying would be the loudest. Today’s the first day the wife hasn’t made the bed because she’s been trying to process her grief and keep the normal routine going. On the other hand, it takes time for a lawn to need mowing, especially if it hasn’t been raining. As Jerry Chesnut found out when he called the flower shop, young rose plants do not thrive in heavy rain, so if it’s been a good year for the roses, then it hasn’t been raining much, which means the husband hasn’t mowed that lawn for a while. He’s not just some lazy asshole; he’s irreparably damaged by tragedy and stuck in his grief, which he recognizes is why the wife no longer wants him and has to leave in order to save herself.
Oh, P.S. on “The Grand Tour,” some people choose baby names before the child is born and some people name their children Mercy.
All of my sources for Season 2 are on the Season 2 library page.
As for commentary on specific sources, the book I have to talk about today wasn’t actually used as a source for a single sentence in Season 2 because it was so bad. But it was also so bad that I have to talk about to warn anyone who thinks they may be interested in reading it. He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time by Jack Isenhour is not only the worst book I read while researching Season 2 but one of the worst books I’ve ever read about country music in any capacity. Why this author chose to write this book, cover this subject and how it got published is all a complete mystery to me, as he clearly knows almost nothing about the genre. (At one point, he confesses surprise to learn there is a death in the song “Green, Green Grass of Home,” which he only found out from interviewing the songwriter and being told in the process of writing the book. We’re talking a total lack of qualification, here.) The entire first half of the book is spent trying to present and unpack ideas rock music fans have about country music as if these ideas are all held by country fans. Even if that were true, this author would be unequipped to tackle those ideas. By the time it gets around to covering the song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the book has dismantled any expectation of it being an authoritative account and literally none of the information is new or insightful. I do feel bad for saying it but the title is aggressively misleading and those who spend money on it will find the contents irredeemable.
Alright, just like earlier in the season when the “White Lightning” episode was followed with one covering the same time period from a different perspective, when the podcast returns we will be talking about George Jones’ life between his divorce from Tammy Wynette through to his critical and commercial triumph with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It gets dark. In fact, the rest of Season 2 is full of stuff that is going to be difficult for me to say out loud and disturbing to hear. Consider this your warning.