George Jones’ funeral at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville was a somber yet uplifting ceremony of music and remembrances of the Country Music Hall of Fame member who is widely considered the greatest country singer of all time.
Jones passed away Friday (April 26) at age of 81.
Numerous country stars, politicians and other celebrities were in attendance Thursday (May 2) to pay their respects to Jones and his wife Nancy. Some provided musical tributes while others offered eulogies and fond memories about the late singer’s talent and friendships.
Tanya Tucker, Randy Travis, the the Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt, Barbara Mandrell, Kid Rock, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Brad Paisley, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Chesney, Wynonna and Alan Jackson all spoke or performed a song in Jones’ memory.
Also speaking were Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, former first lady Laura Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The Rev. Mike Wilson, Jones’ pastor, offered opening prayers and the ceremony’s closing benediction.
Stars who did not take the stage but were in the audience for the event included Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley, Trace Adkins, Jamey Johnson, Rodney Crowell, Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry, Bill Anderson, Marty Stuart, Little Jimmy Dickens, Joe Diffie, Bobby Bare, producer Buddy Cannon and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.
Thousands of Jones’ fans lined up hoping to secure a seat in the Opry House, filling the theater’s upper deck and outer flanks after friends and family were allowed to take their seats closer to the stage.
Tucker opened the proceedings with a poem before giving the stage over to Gov. Haslam, who remarked about a trip he took to Tokyo, Japan, in which he found himself in the city’s only “country bar” listening to the house band play George Jones covers. Jones was truly a worldwide star, he said.
Travis spoke in a shaky voice about playing a concert with Jones in which the elder demanded to take the stage first — a common occurrence in Jones’ later years of performing — saying he “would have [paid] all those people to leave” rather than follow the star.
The Oak Ridge Boys spoke of trusting in God’s word as they performed “Farther Along,” then made way for Schieffer to take the podium. The Texas-born newsman has been a lifelong country music and George Jones fan.
“Nobody could sing like George Jones,” Schieffer said. “You couldn’t because you hadn’t been through what he had been through.”
Then Schieffer explained what it was that made Jones such a hero to his fans.
“I think it was the honesty in George’s voice that gave it such universal appeal,” Schieffer said. “He was as honest and open in his music as he was about himself. He knew what it was like to make a hard living — the kind of job that some parts of your body are going to hurt when you go home that night. He knew about heartbreak, he knew about disappointment, he knew about betrayal. He was more than a country singer. He was a country song. And it was never an easy song. … God made just one like him, but aren’t we glad He did.”
Daniels received a rousing applause after remarking that Jones refused to follow trends and fads in country music, staying true to himself and old-school country instead.
Throughout the event, speakers and performers did not shy away or lessen the truth of Jones’ troubles during the ’60s and ’70s — from his tendency to miss shows to his well-known love of drink.
Opry announcer Keith Bilbrey commented on such trials but reminded the crowd that Jones was an honest man and that “if he did it, he admitted it and he made it right.”
Tritt offered the repeated refrain that all of Jones’ friends, family and fans owed Jones’ wife Nancy a debt of gratitude, crediting her with pulling him out of alcoholism and various other personal issues that most thought would eventually kill him.
Fighting back tears, Mandrell spoke of Jones as a kind and caring man who helped out younger artists whenever possible.
Kid Rock, who became close with Jones toward the end of his life and visited the singer in the hospital before he died, delivered a poignant speech, much of it directly to Nancy.
“Quite frankly, I know how difficult it can be to be with one of us,” he said. “We give so much of our self to the people, to the fans, to the crowds and to the business that sometimes when you come home, it can be a little empty there because you don’t have so much left to give. … But no matter what we got of George Jones, [Nancy] got the best of him.”
He then performed an original tune titled “Best of Me” that echoed the sentiment.
Vince Gill and Patty Loveless brought the Opry house to tears, partially for their soaring rendition of Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” but mostly because Gill could not sing much of the song through his own crying. Loveless consoled the singer as he omitted one verse in favor of a guitar solo for lack of a voice.
“It is my belief that they don’t make those shoes anymore,” he said before the performance, referring to Jones’ song about the changing times of country music, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.”
Former first lady Laura Bush remarked that Jones’ voice had made an impression on countless Americans, herself included.
“Pain and love,” she said. “George Jones spoke of them both whenever he sang a note.”
Paisley used his time onstage to encourage young people watching on TV to discover Jones if they hadn’t already. He also spoke of the redemption Jones achieved in his life and what an inspiration it was for others.
Huckabee said that when he was younger, men were not supposed to cry. It was Jones’ songs, he said, that did the crying on their behalf.
Kenny Chesney, who was clearly shaken, said he looked up to Jones like a father, while Wynonna contended that America had lost a national treasure.
But perhaps the most powerful speech of the night was not a speech at all. To close the ceremony, Jackson strode the microphone and seemed to will himself to get through Jones’ signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Forceful with the song’s heartbreaking lyrics but with quivering lips, Jackson removed his cowboy hat as the Opry house joined him for the song’s final line.
“We love you, George,” was all that was left to say.View photos from the service.