Family, friends and fans honored Johnny Russell at his funeral Friday morning (July 6) at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. The popular singer, songwriter and comedian joined the Opry cast exactly 16 years ago, on July 6, 1985.
Before his death, Russell made known his wishes for an upbeat memorial service. He died Tuesday (July 3) at age 61 from complications of diabetes.
“I want a lot of people singing,” began a Russell quote printed in the program given to hundreds who came to pay their last respects. “And when they’ve finished singing, I want a lot of clapping. And when someone tells a joke, I want a lot of laughter. I want it to be a celebration.”
The mourners obliged with applause, laughter and a little singing, as Russell’s Opry colleagues paid tribute to him for nearly two hours with stories and songs. Playing acoustic instruments, Ricky Skaggs , Sharon White and Cheryl White opened the service with a Flatt & Scruggs gospel standard, “He Took Your Place.” Vince Gill delivered solo renditions of Russell’s “Making Plans” and his own “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Sitting on the stool Russell used in recent years on the Opry stage, Gill invited the audience to sing along with him.
Steve Wariner , also solo, performed Russell’s “Catfish John” and “When Our Time Runs Out,” an uplifting new song Wariner wrote with Marcus Hummon . Connie Smith , accompanied by pianist Neil Stretcher, received a standing ovation for her performance of the sacred classic “How Great Thou Art.”
Opry stars Jeannie Seely and Stu Phillps, Jordanaires member Ray Walker and former Opry manager Bob Whittaker celebrated Russell’s memory by recalling humorous stories and praising his talents.
“Johnny, I admired your talents even before I knew you,” Whittaker said. “I admired you more after I got to know you. I realized you were more than a great songwriter, you were more than a singer, you were more than a comedian — you were a great performer … You made audiences love you, and you loved them back. You loved the Opry, you loved the Opry family.”
A short video tribute to Russell reviewed highlights from his Opry career, including his induction and the star-studded benefit concert held in his honor last March.
Pastor Terry Clapp of Holiday Heights Baptist Church in Hendersonville presided over the service, reading from Psalms, Proverbs and other scriptures during his eulogy. The closed casket was placed on the main floor of the Opry House, between the front row and the stage, surrounded by dozens of flower arrangements.
Seely will host a salute to Russell on the Grand Ole Opry from 11:30 to midnight CT on Saturday (July 7), during the show’s final segment.