The country legend scored a string of classic hits throughout the ’60s and early ’70s that included “Window Up Above,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Race Is On” and “The Grand Tour.” But by the mid-1970s Jones’ alcohol and drug abuse, coupled with a troubled history of marriages and a penchant for missing shows, had badly damaged his career, and he was widely considered a has-been in country music.
That changed with the release of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in April of 1980. Its sorrowful tale of a man who keeps his vow to love a woman who left him all the way until his death, coupled with an uncanny vocal performance from Jones and a sweeping string arrangement from producer Billy Sherrill, shot the song to the top of the country charts for an astonishing 18 weeks, becoming the signature song of Jones’ long career.
Ironically, Jones did not like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” when Sherrill played it for him and actively tried to sabotage the recording by refusing to learn the melody, reportedly singing the melody to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” as he was recording the words. Sherrill also stated that Jones was in such bad shape that his performance had to be cut in sections, with the spoken word recitation recorded a year and a half after much of the rest of his performance.
Jones’ angry assessment that “Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch” is one of the most famously incorrect predictions in country music history, and while the song reignited his career and helped pave the way for a string of subsequent hits in the ’80s, he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol even as he won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” went on to win ACM Awards for Single and Song of the Year, as well as CMAs for Song of the Year in both 1980 and 1981.
Jones married his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulveda, in 1983, and with her help, he also eventually kicked drugs and alcohol and rebuilt his career and finances. In the end, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” not only rescued his career, it elevated it; the song is widely considered one of the most important country recordings of all time, and since 2008 it has been preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.