It’s been called the greatest country song of all time. Who could dare disagree?
Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” opens simply, with an a cappella George Jones delivering the lyric “He said ‘I’d love you ’til I die.’” Four verses later, we get to the biting punchline of the title – the man kept his word. Producer Bobby Sherill is credited with the timing of the cruel joke; Braddock and Putman’s original draft of the song had the chorus much earlier, but Sherill insisted on delaying the kicker as long as possible, for maximum effect. As it stands now, it’s not until the fourth verse, with its carefully crafted description of the narrator’s visit to the man’s funeral (never said outright, though, just hints of him showing “no tears” while being “all dressed up to go away”), that we begin to suspect this tale has no happy ending.
Indeed, even the chorus remains hesitant to flat-out explain the goings-on of its story. The words “death” and “funeral” never appear; instead we get the more poetic “They placed a wreath upon his door / And soon they’ll carry him away.” The verses – a mere five in all – are equally vague, a reference to love letters dated “1962” the only moment the song locks onto any specifics.
It’s only the seeds of the story. Such vagueness allows the listener to fill in the gaps on his/her own, which might be why this rather small ballad feels so epic in scope. With just the smallest details, we feel like we know about the man’s entire life. (Sherill’s production, which opens with a gradual introduction of harmonica and slide guitar and eventually builds to sweeping strings, adds to the “epic” sensibilities. It’s an intimate song that gets grand out of nowhere, slamming us with an unexpected rush of emotion.)
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” is credited with resurrecting Jones’ career (it was his first hit in six years, a number one single that earned numerous awards, including a Grammy for Best Country Male Performance) and saving his life (the tour that followed started him on the path to sobriety after a decade of serious alcohol and drug abuse). Fans love to look into those dark days of Jones’ career and dig deep, hoping to find correlations with the singer’s relationship with Tammy Wynette – was Jones the song’s ruined man, and Wynette the woman who returned for the funeral?
But the real magic of the song is that, completely separate from the gossip surrounding its creation, it’s an achingly tragic story that effortlessly leads the listener to tears. It’s heartbreak of the highest order, describing a devotion and devastation so deep, only death could break their spell. Jones gives it his all, and in five verses, two choruses, and three minutes, it weaves the greatest love story in all of country music.