Music giants from George Strait and Garth Brooks to Sam Moore and Megadeth were among a whopping 112 artists who turned out to honor the late, great George Jones last night at a concert co-host Charlie Chase called "the largest tribute event in music history."
Clocking in a few minutes shy of the four-hour mark and boasting a set list spanning nearly 50 songs, the Opry-style marathon of duets, touching tributes and all-star jams – cleverly billed as Playin’ Possum! The Final No Show – was originally announced over a year ago as Jones’ star-studded farewell concert. But that changed in April, when the country legend died at the age of 81.
Though Jones was there at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in spirit only – his rocking chair sat empty on stage, in front of his longtime backing band and last night’s house band, the Jones Boys – Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Kid Rock, Alan Jackson, Eric Church, Charlie Daniels and Jamey Johnson were among the artists on hand to sing for him.
"I think I was named after George," country icon, Jones footstep-follower and current CMA Entertainer of the Year winner George Strait joked near the night’s end, before bringing the house down with a faithful rendition of the 1974 Number One "The Grand Tour" – an obvious influence on Strait’s own butter-voiced classic "The Chair." It was just one highlight among many in a show overloaded with emotional moments.
At Jones’ similarly star-studded memorial service in May, Vince Gill broke down during a duet with Patty Loveless, nearly taking the entire crowd gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House with him. Though last night the Clapton of Country kept his composure while singing a stirring, bell-clear "Bartender’s Blues" – a song he noted was his favorite Jones number – his performance was every bit as effective in eliciting a sense of transcendence. And one that was rivaled only by Alan Jackson’s finale performance of Jones’ signature saloon-slow-dance-staple "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which the singer finished while holding Jones’ widow Nancy in an emotional embrace.
But hours earlier, almost without question, R&B legend Sam Moore turned in the show-stopper of the night when he crooned the country-soul serenade "Blues Man" – a Hank Williams Jr.-penned tuned Jones cut as a duet with Dolly Parton in 2005. Singing the down-on-both-knees-begging-for-forgiveness ballad directly to Nancy Jones, seated front row center, Moore’s quivering rasp cut through the coliseum.
As tough an act as Moore was to follow, rising superstar and obvious Jones disciple Eric Church inspired as big an ovation from the crowd when he passionately delivered a solo-acoustic rendition of Jones’ latter-career chestnut "Choices."
Then there were the duets. Like a contest to see who could pull off the best George and Tammy impression, Strait and Martina McBride locked eyes and traded lines on "Golden Ring," competing against current King and Queen of Country Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, who sang a spirited "These Days (I Barely Get By)." But Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood secured the prize early in the night, singing the 1971 Jones/Wynette hit duet "Take Me."
But for the dozens of weepers delivered by the likes of Lorrie Morgan and Travis Tritt, who turned the arena into a barroom with a sawdust-on-the-floor slow-dance vibe, there were as many moments of levity. Like duo Big & Rich taking the stage in a countrified Rob Halford style on a pair of John Deere riding mowers – a nod to Jones’ infamous arrest for drunk driving such a vehicle to a liquor store – as they opened the show with the Possum’s campy 1965 hit "Love Bug." In keeping with that jocular spirit of mobility, fast-fingered guitar-slinger Brad Paisley cranked out some hot licks on his cover of "The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song)."
"No one was more generous to me than George Jones," the reliably affable Paisley quipped. "I know he’s looking down at this and saying, 'Son, where’s all the money going for this?'"
Kid Rock was a logical choice for a fast, loose version of "White Lightning" and Styx’s Tommy Shaw ended up landing "She Thinks I Still Care" — a surprise of the evening, as he met the beer-hoisting, 16,000-strong crowd and cueing them to sing the chorus in arena-rock fashion.
As expected, attendees didn’t much know what to make of strange bedfellows Jamey Johnson and Megadeth, who brought a hint of heavy metal to a cover of Jones’ Celtic-tinged 1998 lost classic "Wild Irish Rose." Showing restraint, the band steered clear of blast beats and finger-tapped solos, and singer Dave Mustaine – confident though way out of his comfort zone – dialed back his trademark high-pitched howl, giving perhaps the most subtle vocal performance of his career, and one that was undeniably unique.
Surprisingly, that wasn’t the most awkward moment of the night. Before a brief intermission, actor Jon Voight, making little mention of Jones, took the stage and asked the crowd to stand, lock arms and "form a human chain of love" in support of singer Randy Travis, who was watching from a remote location while recovering from a stroke he suffered in July. "We love you, Randy," Voight had the crowd intone en masse.
Later on, former Arkansas Governor and Jones chum Mike Huckabee – one of a handful of emcees hosting the show – had a rather unfortunate, albeit timely, gaff when praising the performances and musing on the event’s significance.
"You're going to remember where you were November 22, 1963," he said without skipping a beat.
Jaws briefly dropped by the thousands, but everybody knew what he meant, and they all agreed.