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George Jones, country music legend, dies at 81

The only thing bigger than George Jones' profoundly lonesome baritone was his hard-living legend. Although that voice was forever silenced Friday, you best believe wild tales of "the Possum," one of the most influential and tortured country singers of all time, will live on and grow larger.

Mr. Jones, 81, died Friday at Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center after being hospitalized with high fever and irregular blood pressure. He was in the midst of a farewell tour expected to culminate in November with an all-star tribute.

Mr. Jones filled his years with a Bunyanesque ability to conjure myth and robust national pride. It started with that celestial talent: 14 No. 1 hits, including tear-in-your-beer bawlers The Grand Tour (1974) and the suddenly apt He Stopped Loving Her Today (1980). Each ballad was enriched by his Texas-smoked voice, a near-maudlin Lone Star wallow that poured slow, smooth like bitter honey.

He won two Grammys, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and was feted in Washington at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. His most recent appearances in the Tampa Bay area included a stop at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City in March 2011 and a gig in February at the Lakeland Center.

If you thought Mr. Jones, like fellow wild man Keith Richards, was one of those notorious icons just crazy enough to live forever, you're not alone. Music Row was shocked by his death, and the reaction was immediate, including from Blake Shelton, one of many modern singers who emulate Mr. Jones' slow-draw style. Shelton tweeted: "Really REALLY bad news. We've lost a country music legend. And I've lost a hero and a friend."

Mr. Jones survived periods of hyperbolic drug and alcohol abuse, a problem that earned him his other nickname, "No-Show Jones," for the amount of concerts canceled due to lifestyle. "I was country music's national drunk and drug addict," he wrote in 1996 autobiography I Lived to Tell It All. In 1979 alone, he ditched 54 gigs. If his demons didn't fell him, what could?

His life was a roller coaster, which is perhaps why he tried, on several occasions, to open theme parks, including one in Lakeland — the Old Plantation Music Park — when he and third wife, Tammy Wynette, called Florida home in the late '60s and '70s.

Mr. Jones did everything a bit differently. He was born with a broken arm in Saratoga, Texas, in 1931. He was a guitar picker at age 9, a radio star a few years later. He got married at 17, joined the Marines. A national hero, he was also the guy who needed 83 takes to record White Lightning because he was too loaded.

Mr. Jones was walking, talking heartbreak, setting all those country-music bromides before they became cliche. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, cocaine especially. And his music, as traditional as the Grand Ole Opry itself, was juiced by his incessantly turbulent personal life. Mr. Jones was married four times — and, more important to his craft, divorced thrice — including his most tumultuous nuptials with fellow country star Wynette.

To combat Mr. Jones' desire to get drunk and crawl behind the wheel, not one but two of his wives told the story of hiding his keys, only to have him hightail it for liquor on a lawn mower.

"There, gleaming in the glow, was that 10-horsepower rotary engine under a seat," Mr. Jones wrote in his autobiography. "A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was 5 miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did."

Anything Mr. Jones was involved in was sure to be rife with drama, most infamously that beyond-rocky marriage to Wynette, who was married to another man when she grabbed her three kids in 1968 and up and left with Mr. Jones. They recorded several duets (We're Gonna Hold On, Golden Ring, Near) and even had "Mr. and Mrs. Country Music" painted on their tour bus.

But Mr. Jones' vices were too severe; Wynette divorced him in 1975. The rest of the '70s became a rolling nightmare for Mr. Jones: drink, drugs, weight loss. In 1977 he was arrested for shooting a friend's car; in 1979, the same year he missed all those concerts, he filed for bankruptcy.

A small glimmer of hope? In 1980, Mr. Jones released his signature hit, He Stopped Loving Her Today, written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman. The song is about a man who only finds peace from heartache through his own miserable death. Mr. Jones, apparently, could relate. In that so-low, unforgettable voice, he sang: "I went to see him just today / Oh but I didn't see no tears / All dressed up to go away / First time I'd seen him smile in years."

Just last year, Mr. Jones, ever the old-school guy, bemoaned that 21st century Nashville has been usurped by crossover pop: "They don't even know who I am in downtown Nashville."

But the truth is that Mr. Jones has become one of the most referenced singers in modern country, a cool accessory whose name is dropped in everything from Jason Aldean's smash Dirt Road Anthem ("Yeah, I'm chilling on a dirt road / Laid back swerving like I'm George Jones") to Brad Paisley's hit treatise This Is Country Music, in which a moving, melodic honor roll of the greatest songs ever includes He Stopped Loving Her Today.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. The New York Times and Associated Press also contributed. Sean Daly can be reached at Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.