Of course, the song is maudlin and sentimental. In anyone else’s hands it might have ended up as just another corny country song for city slickers to sneer at. In George Jones’s hands, however, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things you’ll ever hear.
With Jones it’s all about the voice. Before you even have time to register what’s going on, you’re fully seduced by his warm and authoritative baritone. Any thoughts of stepping back from the narrative are thwarted by that voice. And the way he sings it, you know that this rather unlikely tale must be true.
For me, the essence of the song is captured in the way he phrases “away” in the first chorus (at 2:04). The drop in his voice in the second syllable suggests that he’s not just attempting to convey his friend’s pain, he’s actually feeling it himself. All of it.
It ends as a spoken word, giving the story both intimacy and authenticity: as if he’s relating the tale to you personally in a bar somewhere. And still, even though he’s just talking, you know you could listen to that voice forever.
* Available on The Essential George Jones (Epic/Legacy, 2006)