Today’s birthday boy is George Jones, one of those giants of Country that I probably encountered as a kid when my dad would watch shows like Hee Haw—with Buck Owens—and The Johnny Cash Show but I had no real recollection of him. In 1981, Elvis Costello, who I’d become a fan of by then, mentioned Jones as a big deal to him, while Costello was making his Almost Blue album. Later, Costello did a duet with Jones. Jones’ own career had sunk to nothing by 1980 when today’s song brought him back to the big time.
Not too long ago I picked up a vinyl reissue of Jones’ debut album, The Grand Ole Opry’s New Star (1957) and, sure enough, therein found the sound of Country as I dimly remembered it from childhood. It’s a little bit corny, a little bit too sincere, and a whole lotta fun, and the album boasts Jones’ unerring sense of delivery. Today’s song is all that too, but it comes from much later and is a song I didn’t hear until my brother Eric put it on a tape for my daughter. It struck me immediately as “one of those songs,” the kind that point up what a particular kind of song is all about. Indeed, the song has been voted “best Country song” of all time, on occasion. I think the palm for that has to go to one of Hank Williams’ songs, but “Stopped Loving Her” should get the vote post-Hank.
The song’s got that measured tone and pace that works so well when a person’s tale of woe is being recounted. With a title like that, you can believe it’s about how a guy got over some woman who done him wrong, and it sort of is. It begins with her goodbye, where his “I’ll love you till I die” is met by her “you’ll forget in time,” and we should infer that he’s going to be true to his word, though “she still preyed upon his mind” kinda makes you wonder what kind of “love” this is. Sounds like the makings of an A#1 stalker.
Then we get the tale of this sad sack who kept her picture on his wall, “went half crazy now and then” (OK...) and kept letters from her, dated 1962, with every “I love you” underlined in red. Well, so, she must’ve meant it at the time, right? I’m glad of those letters because otherwise I was beginning to think of this guy as the over earnest lover of a woman who barely knows he’s alive. It’s sadder, and less creepy, to think that “once upon a time . . .” all the world was before them, and all that.
Then the great verse that Jones nails so that we really feel the speaker’s knowledge of this guy, and his grasp of what the poor sonovabitch’s life was like. He tells us he saw the guy today, “all dressed up to go away” and “didn’t see no tears,” “first time I’ve seen him smile in years.” Whew, good for him, guess he’s got someone new, or maybe he’s joining the Foreign Legion or something. But, no, you knew it couldn’t be that, didn’t you . . .
Big crescendo—with the strings a bit much—and we get the telling detail: “He stopped loving her today / They put a wreath upon his door / And soon they’ll carry him away / He stopped loving her today.” OK, that really tickles ya till ya cry, don’t it? I mean, you see the funereal moment but at the same time you can’t resist smirking at the way it ropes you into how bathetic it all is. And of course it cheats logic just a bit. It’s his funeral day, not his dying day. Are we to assume he kept loving her after he was pronounced dead, and during autopsy (if there was one) and embalming and so forth, and only NOW, as they come to take him to the graveyard TODAY he stopped loving her? Aww, c’mon, you can’t be so literal about lyrics, dude.
Then comes the spoken part where Jones plays up the “he was a pal of mine” line: “She came to see him one last time / Oh, we all wondered if she would / And it kept running through my mind / This time she’s over him for good.” This verse is so well-written, and also essential, because not only do we know for a fact that the woman in the case never forgot our sorry hero, but that, though she didn’t love him, she recognized his love for her was real. In other words, she’s not a heartless bitch. It’s also important that the speaker tells us that the “he’s over her for good” line occurs to him when he sees her at the funeral, and that’s cause enough to inspire the whole “he stopped loving her today” idea. Today is when the speaker had the happy inspiration that his friend is, as we say, “goin’ out clean, cowboy.”
Then we get the “wreath on the door” verse again, which makes me think that, in some ways, it might be better if this were the first time we heard it. That would make the “she came to see him” scene reach us before we know the guy’s dead. We could imagine that it’s a cool goodbye between them, then the corker. But I think the songwriters probably couldn’t resist letting the audience live that funeral moment twice, both before and after the woman herself shows her face. Anyway, for those a little slow on the uptake the second statement of the chorus should make it all real clear.
Jones reportedly didn’t like the song much when he was recording it, thinking it a downer and not liking the melody all that much. I guess he liked it a lot better once he made some serious money off it. On the other hand, it’s kind of rough to have to keep singing a song everyone loves that you don’t much like. Alan Jackson sang it at Jones’ funeral in 2013. Maybe they should’ve changed it to: “He stopped singing it today.”