The Man Who Won't Let Go

by Casey N. Cep

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” might well be George Jones’s most famous song, but I don’t think it was his best. Eighteen years before that one, he released my favorite: “She Thinks I Still Care.”

The two songs are a little like bookends. “She Thinks I Still Care” is a first-person confession from a man who cannot stop loving a woman who has left him; “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is a second-person elegy for a man who only stopped loving a woman when he died. George Jones didn’t write either song, but he made you believe he had lived both, falling in love so foolishly that only death could release him from loving a woman who had long stopped loving him.

The Possum never said the two songs were related, but they’ve always seemed that way to me, especially since the man in “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is reading love letters from 1962, the same year that “She Thinks I Still Care” was released. Jones stretched a single love affair the way he did the songs themselves; he never met a syllable he didn’t like well enough to turn into two. Part of what’s so distinctive, so delightfully Jones is that his vowels seem to go on forever and ever: Sheeeee thinks I stiiiiiiiill caaaaaaaare, and that’s just the chorus.

He’s as unwilling to let go of those vowels as he is the woman who stopped loving him. The song’s charm comes from his unwillingness to concede that he’s the one who won’t let go. “Just because I ask a friend about her,” he says, she crazily thinks that he is still interested, only that’s not all he did; he also “spoke her name somewhere,” “rang her number by mistake,” “haunt[s] the same old places,” and “saw her then went all to pieces.”

There are a lot more ways today of claiming that you don’t still care but looking like you do: Caller ID makes those unintentional calls more obvious, and it was a lot safer writing letters you’d never mail than drafting emails you might send with a sloppy keystroke. Worse still are the accidental likes on your ex’s Instagram and favorites of year-old tweets. It’s much harder now to disguise your lingering feelings, though the speaker in “She Thinks I Still Care” wasn’t doing a very good job in 1962, either.

Even if he refuses to say so, he’s still clearly, deeply in love with the woman who left. The closest thing to a confession is when he claims that “if she’s happy thinking I still need her, then let that silly notion bring her cheer.” Joke’s on him, of course, because she really doesn’t seem to care, and he can’t even admit how much he does.

I kind of like that the man who still cared kept on caring for another eighteen years: asking friends about her, speaking her name, calling her number, and falling to pieces until the day he died. It’s the same kind of foolish commitment George Jones showed in his own career, refusing to give up on country music for decades, singing those sad country songs until he died in 2013.

Country Time is an occasional column about country music.