|Associated Press photo by Mark Humphrey|
Jones "was a legendary figure in country music," Pareles notes. "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 a steel-guitar string, he brought suspense to every syllable, merging bluesy slides with the tight, quivering ornaments of Appalachian singing." The Tennessean quotes country-music scholar Nick Tosches: “He is the spirit of country music, plain and simple.”
Terence McArdle of The Washington Post puts it in comparative and perhaps surprising terms: "Music writers often placed him in the same echelon as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday for his expressive and unguarded style." He also notes Jones's "marriage to Tammy Wynette was one of the most turbulent in country music." And Pareles notes, "As Mr. Jones sang about heartbreak and hard drinking, fans heard the echoes of a life in which success and excess battled for decades."
Jones was born in a log cabin at Saratoga, Tex., northeast of Houston, to an alcoholic father who would "beat the boy if he didn’t sing for his drinking buddies," McArdle writes. He broke into the big time through the "Louisiana Hayride" in Shreveport. He was known for singing with "very different duet partners," such as Melba Montgomery and early '60s teen idol Gene Pitney, but "his most popular duets were with Tammy Wynette, whom he married in 1969. Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, helped alter Mr. Jones’s image from a wild honky-tonker to a sensitive balladeer. Sherrill chose songs for both performers that mirrored their stormy on-again, off-again relationship. And their fans hung on to every word of every song." (Read more)'the