In the '90s, George Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today" (written by Braddock/Putman) was voted the greatest country single of all time by a selection of fans and industry insiders. It certainly is one of the high points of his long career, but calling it the greatest country song of all time is a little hyperbolic, since most of its appeal derives in how it perfectly fits Jones. Not only does it play to Jones' musical strengths, it seems to be the final chapter in the Billy Sherrill-orchestrated musical soap opera that was the stormy love affair between George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Then again, that's what gives it its strength and magic -- it's a song that only the greatest country singer of all time could convincingly sing.
In a way, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is a fusion of Jones' two greatest loves -- heartbreaking country ballads and novelty songs. Some may dispute tagging the song as a novelty, since it certainly isn't a "Who Shot Sam?" or "King Kong," but the song is built on a very cutesy foundation. The opening line is, "He said, 'I'll love you 'til I die'" and the title is "He Stopped Loving Her Today" -- which means, of course, that the only reason he stopped loving is because he stopped living. Other lines have a similar, almost-comic effect -- the narrator observes that as the love-struck deceased lays in his coffin, it's the first time he's "seen him smile in years" -- but that certainly wasn't the intention of the songwriters, and Jones doesn't deliver any of the lines as if they were jokes. It just happens to be a subtext to this larger-than-life song. Producer Billy Sherrill didn't necessarily think of the song as an almost-parody, but he realized its operatic potential -- and he knew that the song would play into the public's perception that Jones was still carrying a torch for his ex-wife Tammy Wynette. So, he crafted a record that was operatic in scope, with the slide guitars and harmonicas providing little details in the opening verses, just before the strings and choirs come sweeping in, elevating the record to epic status. Jones' performance is as richly detailed as Sherrill's production, finding emotional details within a song that was pretty corny. And that's why it's seen by many country fans as the greatest single of all time, even though it's rarely been covered by other artists. It captures George Jones' greatest gift -- he can find depth and true emotion in every song, even a song that is nearly too melodramatic for its own good. The truest testament to his talent is that while "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is playing, the exaggerated sentiments never seem overblown -- they seem natural and affecting. Logically, you can break the song apart, find the bits that are too cutesy or corny, but as a record, it's a real emotional powerhouse. So much so that you begin to believe that George Jones is indeed singing about himself and his devotion to Tammy Wynette. But that, of course, was all part of Sherrill's marketing plan, wasn't it? Or was it?