NEW YORK — George Jones, the definitive country singer of the last half-century, died Friday at a hospital in Nashville. He was 81.
He was hospitalized on April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure, Webster & Associates, his publicists, said in announcing the death.
Mr. Jones, who was nicknamed Possum for his close-set eyes and pointed nose, and later was known as No-Show Jones for the concerts he missed during drinking and drug binges, was a legendary figure in country music. His singing, which was universally respected and just as widely imitated, found vulnerability and doubt behind the cheerful drive of honky-tonk. With a baritone voice that was as elastic as the sound off a steel guitar, he brought suspense to every syllable, merging bluesy slides with the tight, quivering ornaments of Appalachian singing.
In his most memorable songs, all the pleasures of a down-home Saturday night couldn’t free him from private pain. His up-tempo songs had undercurrents of solitude, and the ballads that became his specialty were suffused with stoic desolation.
“When you’re onstage or recording, you put yourself in those stories,’’ he once said.
As Mr. Jones sang about heartbreak and hard drinking, fans heard the echoes of a life in which success and excess battled for decades.
He bought, sold, and traded dozens of houses and hundreds of cars; he made millions of dollars and lost much of it to drug use, mismanagement, and divorce settlements. Through it all, he kept touring and recording, singing mournful songs that continued to ring true.
From the 1950s into the 21st century, Mr. Jones was a presence on the country charts, and as early as the 1960s he was praised by listeners and fellow musicians as the greatest living country singer. He was never a crossover act; while country fans revered him, pop and rock radio stations ignored him. But by the 1980s, Mr. Jones had come to stand for country tradition. Country singers through the decades, from Garth Brooks and Randy Travis to Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, learned licks from Mr. Jones, who never bothered to wear a cowboy hat.
“Not everybody needs to sound like a George Jones record,’’ Alan Jackson, the country singer and songwriter, once told an interviewer. ‘‘But that’s what I’ve always done, and I’m going to keep it that way — or try to.’’
George Glenn Jones was born with a broken arm in Saratoga, Texas, an oil-field town, on Sept. 12, 1931, to George Washington and Clare Jones. His father, a truck driver and pipe fitter, bought George his first guitar when he was 9, and with help from a Sunday school teacher he taught himself to play melodies and chords. As a teenager he sang on the streets, in Pentecostal revival services, and in the honky-tonks in the Gulf Coast port of Beaumont. Bus drivers let him ride free if he sang.
Soon he was appearing on radio shows, forging a style modeled on Lefty Frizzell, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams.
Mr. Jones married Dorothy Bonvillion when he was 17, but divorced her before the birth of their daughter. He served in the Marines from 1950 to 1953, then signed to Starday Records, whose co-owner Pappy Daily became Mr. Jones’s producer and manager. His first single, ‘‘No Money in This Deal,’’ was released in 1954, the year he married his second wife, Shirley Corley. They had two sons before they divorced in 1968.
“Why Baby Why,’’ released in 1955, became Mr. Jones’s first hit. During the 1950s, he wrote or collaborated on many of his songs, including such hits as ‘‘Just One More,’’ “What Am I Worth,’’ and ‘‘Color of the Blues,’’ though he later gave up songwriting.
He had already become a drinker. ‘‘White Lightning,’’ a No. 1 country hit in 1959, required 83 takes because Mr. Jones was drinking through the session. On the road, playing one-night stands, he tore up hotel rooms and got into brawls. He also began missing shows because he was too drunk to perform.
But his career was advancing. In 1962 he recorded one of his signature songs, ‘‘She Thinks I Still Care.’’ Another of his most lasting hits, ‘‘The Race Is On,’’ appeared in 1964. He was part of the first country concert at Madison Square Garden, a 10-act package in 1964 that also included Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, and Buck Owens. At the first show of four performances Mr. Jones, who had been allotted two songs like the other acts, played five before he was carried offstage.
In 1966, Mr. Jones tried to start a country theme park in Vidor, the East Texas suburb where he lived, the first of many shaky business ventures. But there was only one performance given at the George Jones Rhythm Ranch. After singing, Mr. Jones disappeared for a month, rambling and drinking across Texas.
At one point his wife hid the keys to all his cars, so he drove his lawn mower into Beaumont to a liquor store — an incident he would later commemorate in a song and in music videos. Not long afterward, they were divorced.
Mr. Jones had his next No. 1 country single in 1967 with ‘‘Walk Through This World With Me.’’ He moved to Nashville and opened a nightclub there, Possum Holler, which lasted a few months.
He had met a rising country singer, Tammy Wynette, in 1966, and they fell in love while on tour together. She was married at the time to songwriter Don Chapel. One night in 1968, Mr. Jones recalled, Wynette and Chapel were arguing in their dining room when Mr. Jones arrived; he upended the dining room table and told Wynette he loved her. She took her three children and left with Mr. Jones.
They were married in 1969 and settled in Lakeland, Fla. There, on the land around his plantation-style mansion, Mr. Jones built another country-themed park, the Old Plantation Music Park.
The couple began recording duets produced by Billy Sherrill, whose elaborate arrangements helped reshape the sound of Nashville. Three of them — ‘‘We’re Gonna Hold On,’’ “Golden Ring,’’ and ‘‘Near You’’ — were No. 1 country hits, an accomplishment made more poignant by the singers’ widely reported marital friction.
“Mr. and Mrs. Country Music’’ was painted on their tour bus.
But the marriage was falling apart, unable to withstand bitter quarrels and Mr. Jones’s drinking and amphetamine use.
After one fight, he was put in a straitjacket and hospitalized for 10 days. The Lakeland music park was shut down.
The couple were divorced in 1975; the two albums Mr. Jones released in 1976 were called ‘‘The Battle’’ and ‘‘Alone Again.’’ But duets by Mr. Jones and Wynette continued to be released until 1980. They made a new album, ‘‘Together Again,’’ in 1980, including the hit ‘‘Two Story House.’’ Mr. Jones and Wynette would reunite to tour and record again in the mid-1990s.
After the divorce, Mr. Jones grew increasingly erratic. He drank heavily and lost weight. His singles slipped lower on the charts. His management bounced his band members’ paychecks. At times he would sing in a Donald Duck voice onstage. And he began using cocaine and brandishing a gun; after firing at a friend’s car in 1977 he was arrested, though the charges of attempted murder were dropped.
His nickname No-Show Jones gained national circulation as he missed more engagements than he kept. In 1979, he missed 54 concert dates. (Later, the licenses on his cars would read ‘‘NOSHOW1’’ to ‘‘NOSHOW7.”)
“I was country music’s national drunk and drug addict,’’ Jones wrote in his autobiography.
In 1979 Mr. Jones declared bankruptcy and signed away his royalties from past and present recordings to repay his creditors. That December, Mr. Jones was committed for 30 days to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. But he went back to cocaine and whiskey when he was released.
Yet he still had hits. ‘‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’’ a song about a man whose love ends only when his life does, was released in April 1980 and began Mr. Jones’s resurgence. It was a No. 1 country hit, and the album that included it, ‘‘I Am What I Am,’’ sold a million copies. The recording won the Grammy for best male country performance.
He became a consistent country hitmaker again, with No. 1 songs including ‘‘Still Doin’ Time’’ in 1981 and ‘‘I Always Get Lucky With You’’ in 1983.
He made an album with Johnny Paycheck, a former member of his band, in 1980 and one with Merle Haggard in 1982; he recorded a single, ‘‘We Didn’t See a Thing,’’ with Ray Charles in 1983. And in 1984 he released ‘‘Ladies’ Choice,’’ an album of duets with Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Emmylou Harris, and other female singers.
In 1983 he married Nancy Sepulveda, who straightened out his business affairs and then Mr. Jones himself. He gave up cocaine and whiskey. The couple moved to East Texas, near Mr. Jones’s birthplace, and opened the Jones Country Music Park, which they operated for six years. He worked more steadily, although without the blockbuster successes of the early 1980s.
By the late 1980s, younger, more telegenic singers had come along with vocal styles learned largely from Mr. Jones and others. Now treated as an elder statesman, Mr. Jones sang duets with some of his musical heirs, including Travis in 1990 and Alan Jackson in 1995.
In 1994, he had triple-bypass surgery.
He rejoined Wynette to record an album, ‘‘One,’’ and to tour in 1994 and 1995, and he released an album with the same name as his autobiography, ‘‘I Lived to Tell It All,’’ in 1996. He changed labels, to Asylum Records, in 1998, the year that Wynette died in her sleep at the age of 55.
Until he was critically injured in an accident on March 6, 1999, when his car hit the side of a bridge while he was changing a cassette tape, Mr. Jones was performing more than 150 nights a year. A half-empty bottle of vodka was found in the car; he was sentenced to undergo treatment.
“Choices,’’ a song he released in 1999, won him a Grammy for best male country vocal. In it, he sang, ‘‘By an early age I found I liked drinkin’/ Oh, and I never turned it down.’’
Mr. Jones maintained his career into the 21st century, touring steadily and recording. In 2012, he received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award.
In his last years, Mr. Jones found himself upholding a traditional sound that had largely disappeared from commercial radio.
“They just shut us off all together at one time,’’ he said in a 2012 conversation with the photographer Alan Mercer. ‘‘It’s not the right way to do these things. You just don’t take something as big as what we had and throw it away without regrets.
“They don’t care about you as a person. They don’t even know who I am in downtown Nashville.’’