This article appears in our upcoming May/June “country” issue. Subscribe here.
(Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman)
There’s an old cliché that says country music is mostly comprised of three chords and the truth. There’s also a generalization that says country music is, on the whole, unremittingly sad.
Needless to say, those are broad descriptions that limit the scope of a type of music that encompasses many different musical strategies and is capable of conveying the full range of the emotional spectrum. Yet there is no doubt that “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the 1980 masterpiece by George Jones, does indeed adhere to those clichés, even as it finds a way to transcend them.
After all, the song is pretty much just three chords. (Technically, there are six, but that’s only because of the key change.) The truth can be found in Jones’ stunning performance, a vocal for the ages. And the song itself, composed by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, contains the sadness, which was then amplified to majestic proportions by the production of Billy Sherrill.
All of those disparate elements and unique personalities meshed to create this one-of-a-kind recording from 1980. The accolades for the song were immediate, as it won Grammy, Academy of Country Music, and CMA awards. It continues to amass honors, including selection by the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board in 2009 and numerous occasions when it was named greatest country song of all time on various media lists. The only thing that can match its lofty status might be the unlikeliness of the circumstances behind the song’s creation and recording.
George Jones was at a low point, both personally and professionally, in 1980. Substance abuse had wrecked the trajectory of one of the finest careers in country music, and his previous few singles and albums were lacking in comparison to some of his best. Luckily, the legendary producer Billy Sherrill was out scouting material for Jones’ next album, when he came upon a song about one man’s unwavering devotion to a former love.
The song was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, a pair, who, ironically enough, had their previous biggest success as collaborators with Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” (Jones and Wynette’s tumultuous marriage resulted in many hit singles and a 1975 divorce.) Sherrill liked the song, in which the man’s love for his ex is interrupted only by death, but he thought it needed something more. That something turned out to be a spoken-word middle section in which the woman comes back to visit the man at his funeral.
Jones was on the mend in his personal life when he headed into CBS Studio B in Nashville to record the song, but it still was a battle to get the right performance from him. Sherrill had to piece together the results from several sessions for the finished product, and had to deal with Jones’ difficulty with the melody; he kept confusing it with the tune from Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” The spoken-word section also tripped up the singer, who kept slurring the words.
Sherrill got what he needed and did the rest, bathing the song in production techniques that had undeniable flair yet weren’t invasive. There’s a lonely harmonica blowing through the early verses, followed up by a subtle string bed and whining steel guitar. In the chorus, the strings come alive and soar to a crescendo as Jones delivers the refrain in the midst of it all.
When the record was finished, the performer didn’t have very high hopes. In his autobiography I Lived To Tell It All, Jones wrote, “I looked Billy square in the eye and said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch.’” Of course, the song’s success changed his tune. “To put it simply I was back on top,” he wrote. “Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.”
This, however, was no ordinary song. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is about the kind of love we all would like to find, one so powerful that not even separation can diminish it. Many break-ups are instigated by one person who, to soften the blow, will speak just like the woman in the song: “She told him, ‘You’ll forget in time.’” Most of the time, the other person eventually does.
Only this guy doesn’t forget. He says it in the very first line, sung by Jones with placid authority before the music even begins: “He said, ‘I’ll love you ‘til I die.’” And he backs up his word. Sherrill was right to want the scene of their quasi-reunion at the funeral, because, in a way, it resolves the story, even as it opens up the floodgates of sorrow. Jones’ narrator makes the final ironic statement: “This time he’s over her for good.”
The cerebral reaction to “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is that it embraces country music’s hallmarks and shows just how effective they can be. The emotional reaction? Let’s just say you should hydrate yourself well, because those tears will be flowing.