George Jones was laid to rest at an emotional service held on Thursday at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. A Who's Who of country music royalty, including Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Kenny Chesney, Travis Tritt, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Daniels, Brad Paisley, Wynonna Judd, Ronnie Milsap, Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, the Oak Ridge Boys and Kid Rock, gathered to pay tribute to the fallen country icon in song and sentiment.
"I'm so proud I got to know George," Travis said before introducing a sparse, solo-acoustic, raw-voiced rendition of "Amazing Grace." "When I heard him do this song, it literally gave me chills."
"George is probably the most imitated singer of all time," Daniels said, "and you can hear a little bit of the Possum in the vocal styles of scores of young singers who've come along in the last 50 years or so. But nobody ever came close to doing it like the man himself." Added Face the Nation moderator Bob Schieffer, "Everybody wanted to sing like George Jones."
Schieffer, First Lady Laura Bush, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee eulogized Jones at the public service, which drew a thousands-strong crowd of country music fans, many of whom commuted from out of state, lining up as early as yesterday to attend.
That should come as no surprise. A king among kings, Jones – who died Friday at 81, after he was hospitalized last month with a fever and irregular blood pressure – was a legend second only to Hank Williams in the annals of country music, and he had more hits than any other singer in the history of the genre, including "White Lightning," "She Thinks I Still Care" and "A Good Year for the Roses." Having profoundly influenced rockers such as the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Elvis Costello, Jones' impact reached well beyond the confines of country music. His inimitable, buoyant baritone is woven throughout the fabric of American culture, and his catalog is an eternal element of pop music's DNA.
"Everyone knows the absolute fact: that George was and always will be the greatest singer of all time in country music," Mandrell said before relating an anecdote of meeting Jones for the first time as a precocious 13-year-old up-and-comer on a Johnny Cash package tour, on which Jones drafted her to play steel guitar in the house band. "What a joy that memory is to me," she said.
Gill also toured with Jones, sandwiched between him and Conway Twitty on the bill. "Those were my favorite days of all, and I value that friendship more than anyone will ever know," he said, choking up. The emotion carried over into the duet Gill did with Loveless, the soaring ballad "Go Rest High on the Mountain." Throughout the performance Gill appeared to fight back tears, coming close to being overwhelmed when Garth Brooks, who was in the audience, rose to his feet and started a standing ovation before Gill delivered a moving acoustic guitar solo.
"Vince and Patty, that was unbelievably beautiful," Laura Bush said immediately following the performance, when – following up her 2008 introduction of Jones at the Kennedy Center Honors – the former First Lady told of routinely walking in on her husband working out on the treadmill, running to the beat of "White Lightning."
Other emotional high points included performances by Tritt, who soulfully belted "Why My Lord," and Judd, who also held back tears. "I never thought I'd be here doing this . . . We have lost a stylist," she said, before entrancing the crowd with the gospel number "How Great Thou Art," her voice quivering as she swelled into the opening note. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when Milsap sang an ethereal take on the woozy barroom requiem "When the Grass Grows Over Me." "This is the saddest song I've ever sung," he said from behind the piano.
Paisley encouraged younger generations who may have been tuning in to the service on the radio to seek out Jones' records and "see what all this ruckus was about," before solemnly performing the Tom T. Hall-penned chestnut "Me & Jesus." And Kid Rock, who'd recently befriended Jones, sang a newly-written song called "Best of Me," which sounded like countrified acoustic Foo Fighters.
Jackson closed the ceremony with a faithfully grand version of Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," taking off his trademark white cowboy at song's end in salute of his legendary country predecessor. A recording of Jones' "When the Curtain Falls" played over the loudspeaker, as pallbearers moved his casket from its perch in front of the Opry stage he'd performed on countless times and out of the auditorium.