A Three Minute Song

George Jones was so drunk through out 1979 and 1980 that it took him eighteen months to record He Stopped Loving Her Today. The song now is on the short list with Crazy, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Stand By Your Man and Wichita Lineman in terms of how widely known it is, but when it was first recorded no one, not George, not the songwriters, thought it was anything special. No one except producer Billy Sherrill. After he finally finished recording the song George himself said he turned to Sherrill and told him “no one will buy that morbid son-of-a-bitch.”

Curly Putman

The song was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman. These guys also gave us, together and separately, D-I-V-O-R-C-E, The Green Green Grass of Home, Golden Ring, We’re Not the Jet Set, It’s A Cheatin’ Situation and My Elusive Dreams to name a few.

Bobby Braddock told historian Dorothy Horstman that the song began as a tongue-in-cheek number, but that they could never finish it satisfactorily. In his diary Braddock wrote that it “was a fairly good song, fairly well received; nothing special.” They shopped it around for about three years until Billy Sherill heard it and asked them to unveil the surprise later in the song and add a final verse about the return of the character’s ex-wife. They did and Sherrill sent them away three more times before he was happy with it.

Bobby Braddock

The night George first tried to record the song he was so blind drunk he couldn’t sing the melody. Instead he sang the words to to the tune of Help Me Make It Through the Night. Sherrill erupted and the two got into a fight. “It’s a better melody,” George yelled. “Kristofferson would agree with you,” Sherrill yelled back.

Then came the final verse, the one Braddock and Putman had labored over so many times. It was to be a recitation:

She came to see him on last time
We all wondered if she would
And it kept running through my mind
This time he’s over her for good.

It’s a beautiful thing. That’s Millie Kirkham behind George softly, wordlessly singing. She gives the piece a ghostly feel and brings home that it’s not just one man’s story. It was the recitation that really messed things up in the studio. George could sing drunk, he’d been doing it all his life. He couldn’t talk without slurring though and that’s what took Billy Sherrill eighteen months to find – a day George wouldn’t slur.

In just over three minutes the song is over. You would be hard pressed to find another that is more maudlin, more over-the-top. Yet, for all of its excess, when I play it over the airwaves, most often because someone has called and asked for it, I sometimes turn it down low over the house speakers, especially if I’m going on the mic afterward. The damn thing still gets to me. Today marks the day George finally got that last verse right.

He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones

Billy Sherrill

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About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Honky Tonk, Music, Pop, Radio, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Three Minute Song

  1. Bruce says:

    Hats off to Billy Sherrill on this one, it’s a spectacular job of production! It starts slow, Charley McCoy (I suppose) making his harmonica sound much like a pedal steel, from there it builds, add a little drums, cue in the violins – softly at first, let the pedal steel play up an octave or two, the bass becomes a little more driving, bring in the background singers, let the violins sore to the heavens and then just as it starts to head way over the top throw on the breaks inject a single haunting voice and bring on the recitation. From that point it’s easy build it back up and finish with just a single voice and piano. Shit, with production like that you could have had my dog bark the thing out and it still would have been a #1 hit.

  2. mike says:

    Wow, I lov e this essay….even more than i originally loved the song. Thanks for this

  3. Pingback: Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On. Twice. « The Real Mr. Heartache

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