John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“He Stopped Loving Her Today”

George Jones’s classic country song benefited greatly from producer Billy Sherrill.

By - Aug 17th, 2015 03:51 pm
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Billy Sherrill

Billy Sherrill

Billy Sherrill was the one of the guys near the center of the scene the last time country music got both slick and great. There have been many more periods of slickness since, in fact it seems like it might now be permanent, but greatness is elusive. Any recent improvements in country have more to do with injecting some Bluegrass or Bakersfield, but this bit of first aid usually lasts a short time before it slips back into the dazzlingly bad product leaking out of boom boxes at construction sites.

At the risk of letting this column turn into a regular obituary for quality, I write today about Sherrill, a great and controversial producer, who pushed the fiddles and steel guitars into the background and replaced them with strings and smooth background vocals. True believers of the roots-music stripe will always cringe at his name, but I like to think of him as the Phil Spector of country. He died recently at age 78 and I learned a couple things reading his notice in the New York Times. One of them makes perfect sense.

Billy Sherrill listened to classical music at home. He had pretty wide-ranging tastes, but it was classical music on the home speakers providing inspiration, I assume, for the kind of grand statement we listen to today. In the hillbilly version of The Odd Couple, George Jones played Oscar to Sherrill’s Felix. Sherrill was fastidious, disciplined and a tenacious worker, staying with a project till he was satisfied. He would need these qualities to deal with the loose cannon George Jones, who was random acts of senseless genius personified.

Jones was born to do two things, sing and raise hell. But he liked the records his wife, Tammy Wynette, was making with Sherrill.Stand by Your Man,” was her first breakthrough hit.

One of the more perfect crescendos in the history of pop, it’s the equivalent of riding a perfect wave for two and a half minutes all the way to the shore — it’s done that rarely. “Stand By Your Man” was written, according to the Times piece, in “ten to twenty” minutes.” I bet the sessions made up for that. It is an incredibly tight arrangement, with nothing in it that isn’t needed and finale as grand and sweeping as they come.

This song and others, must have gotten Ole Possum Eyes’ attention. After a long dry spell, Jones was in the studio with Sherrill working on something that has to be in the running for greatest country song ever. I bet even Hank would agree. He Stopped Loving Her Today was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam. I can’t tell you much about Putnam, but I have had the pleasure of meeting Braddock, self-effacing sweetness personified, and had forgotten he was involved in this melodramatic masterpiece. The song is anything but humble, describing a sorrow so great only death can put an end to it. How over-the-top are these lyrics?

He said I’ll love you ’til I die
She told him you’ll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind.

He kept her picture on his wall
Went half crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she’d come back again.

He kept some letters by his bed
Dated 1962
He had underlined in red
Every single I love you.

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.

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they’ll carry him away
He stopped loving her today.

[Spoken:]
Ya’ know she came to see him one last time
Oh, we all wondered if she would
And it kept running through my mind
This time he’s over her for good.

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they’ll carry him away
He stopped loving her today…

© Bobby Braddock & Curly Putnam

A typical Sherrill song starts small and quiet and ends with a bang. That makes sense, of course, but he expands the scale from a whisper to scream, his dynamics enhanced by the subtle use of chorus and strings. Suddenly you have a space as big and wondrous as the Sistine Chapel. At the end, everyone clears out for the last line and George’s voice is again at the center. I still remember seeing him perform this on TV. The camera came in close as he twisted an agonizing bit of melisma out of those few last words. His face looked disoriented and utterly lost — this was a man, whether he was acting or not, who was 100 percent inside the song.

Recording this song may have been the defining struggle of Sherrill’s career. The fact that it not only exists, but became a smash hit, winning every imaginable award, has to do with his firm belief in it. Jones hated it when he heard it and almost had Sherrill convinced. They both insisted on rewrites and there were enough to actually fill a book. Meanwhile, George was in and out of rehab, unable to sing the melody without reverting to the one from Help Me Make It Through The Night. This nightmare lasted for a year and a half, but they finally got it. If there was a medal for valor in the pursuit of country perfection, Sherrill would have worn it proudly. Right before it’s release Jones told him, “Nobody’s gonna buy this morbid son of a bitch.” This was one case where George Jones’ unfailing ability to pick a hit was thankfully not present.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “He Stopped Loving Her Today””

  1. Lisa says:

    This column is amazing for it’s song selection and writing. I look forward to it. Most of the songs are unknown to me so it is even more appreciated!

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    A quality song with quality lyrics! We can only wish that the songs of today would be as good as those of the past – or is that what all “older”people say?

  3. Johnny Bragatti says:

    Kinda scary when I stumble upon something, I get 100% and like the same stuff!
    Thanx!

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