Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #23

George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

Every time I see a photo of Johnny Cash, I think of my father. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. If I look at the right photo at the proper angle I can see a physical resemblance, but that isn’t it. No, I think of my father when I see Johnny Cash because of who Cash isn’t. It’s because he isn’t George Jones.

I grew up around country music because that’s what my parents mostly listened to. (My mother also played the shit out of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, and her album collection included such pop-folk wonders as Dan Hill’s “Longer Fuse”.) I know there was some Cash in there, because how else would I have heard it, and there was Merle Haggard and Don Williams (I think that was my mother’s pick) and the Statler Brothers and lots of others. And there must have been some Jones, because I knew “The Race is On” and “She Thinks I Still Care”, though the latter at least is a song that my dad also played.

I loved my father and I believe he loved me, in his own fashion, but I don’t think he liked me, and most of the time I didn’t much care for him either. We were just two very different people who could never find much common ground. We both loved hockey when I was younger, but that only took us so far (and still managed to be a source of conflict between us most of the time). Other than being someone I didn’t wish to emulate, I can’t say he played much of a role in who I became. (My mother is a very different story.) If he was still here, he’d probably agree with that statement, and be okay with me saying it – he likely wouldn’t want people thinking I was too much like him either.

In the early 2000s, I bought my father a Johnny Cash songbook for Christmas. He was underwhelmed, which is how I learned that George Jones was his favourite singer. (Merle Haggard was right up there, too.) Me being wrong about Cash and Jones’ places in my dad’s musical hierarchy is just another measure of the closeness of our relationship.

“He Stopped Loving Her today” (yes, this piece is still about a song, smartass – but thank you for sticking around this far into my therapy session) came out in April 1980, and I am absolutely certain that soon-to-be 16-year-old me did not have the song on his radar. By then, I had been fully emancipated from my parents’ musical tyranny, and likely had Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses” on repeat that spring and summer, along with Elvis Costello’s “Get Happy” and Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1990s that I became aware of the song. The hows and whys don’t matter – it’s the discovery that counts. Because I am completely in agreement with those who rank it the greatest country song ever.

For a song about a life-altering love, there is a surprising amount of dark humour. The opening line – “He said I’ll love you ‘til I die” – immediately alerts you in its answer to the title that this is not a love song in its traditional form. There is also the mention a bit further on of “First time I’d seen him smile in years”, that rictus grin being a gift from death itself. Gently strummed guitar is paired with chill-inducing harmonica and slide guitar, leading into the operatic chorus. Jones’ vocal is impassioned and heartfelt: it’s a song that only a mature voice can do justice to, a voice that is a tiny bit shaky but still holding most of its former abundance.

After someone is gone, you don’t get do-overs, and I’ve never wanted one when it came to my father: I think we could have lived a thousand lifetimes together and never bridged the gap between us. In this case, biology is destiny. But I do wish I had embraced country music sooner: it would have at least given us something to talk about that (probably) wouldn’t have us butting heads in mere minutes. As for what happened after he was gone, a different version of us both may have found a way to bond over a song like George Strait’s “Give It Away” when my life was falling apart and I turned to music again and again for sustenance. That was something that he understood very well, and it makes me sad that we missed out on that opportunity: I think it would have done us both a world of good.

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