On Thursday, May 2, recently deceased country icon George Jones was honored in a nearly three-hour memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry by performances and words of remembrance from public figures including Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, former First Lady Laura Bush, Kid Rock, Randy Travis, Gov. Bill Haslam, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Charlie Daniels, Bob Schieffer, Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Wynonna, Kenny Chesney and more. Jones died April 26 at the age of 81 and is the subject of this week's Scene cover story.
The service was open to the public, with fans — many of whom drove from out of state — lining up as early as yesterday for admission. Jones' casket, adorned with white flowers, rested on the floor of the Opry House. Public seating swiftly reached capacity, though most of the seats on the lower level of the Opry were reserved for friends and family, Garth Brooks (an honorary pallbearer, along with the not-in-attendance George W. Bush and more) and wife Trisha Yearwood among them. Eddie Stubbs and Keith Bilbrey served as announcers during the service, which began with an emotional performance of "Old Rugged Cross" by Tanya Tucker and The Imperials.
Bilbrey told a charming story of speaking with Jones before one of his many Opry appearances: Jones was drinking from a Maalox bottle, and explained to Bilbrey that he was always nervous taking the stage in the footsteps of greats like his idol Roy Acuff. Bilbrey then introduced Gov. Bill Haslam, who said that politicians like himself would "die for the ability to connect with people" the way Jones did. Haslam said the late singer "added luster to our state," and promised that "Tennessee will never stop loving George Jones."
Next was Randy Travis — "one of the boys" who was destined to fill the shoes of the country greats, Biblrey said Jones once told him — who played a solo rendition of "Amazing Grace." The Oak Ridge Boys followed with a rendition of "Farther Along," before longtime broadcaster and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer memorialized Jones with what were among the most poignant and fitting words of the day. "Nobody could sing like George Jones unless you were George Jones," said Schieffer. "He was more than a country singer — he was a country song. ... God made just one like him, but aren't we glad He did."
Charlie Daniels — from beneath the rim of an absurdly gigantic cowboy hat — praised Jones' ability to "make a five-syllable word out of 'church.'" Daniels received a big round of applause for his indictment of modern country-radio artists as "cookie-cutter" where The Possum was truly unique; Daniels went on to perform "Softly and Tenderly." Next was Travis Tritt, who told the story of hearing about the death of Jones' ex-wife Tammy Wynette while he was on a movie set with Kris Kristofferson. He thanked Jones' widow, Nancy Sepulvado, for keeping Jones alive for as long as she did, and then he played Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord."
The diminutive Barbara Mandrell came next, stepping out from behind the pulpit so she could see the audience and calling Jones "the greatest singer of all time in country music." She told a touching story of getting the opportunity to play steel for Jones when she was a young woman. Next was Kid Rock, who spoke of once writing a song about conquering alcoholism for Jones, though he never finished or played it ... there was a bit in there about being "12 steps ahead." Rock did, though, play an original called "Best of Me," asking Sepulvado and the rest of the audience to use our imaginations and picture Jones singing some of the lines. Most of us, I'd guess, aren't endowed with that enormous an imagination.
Vince Gill — who, we found out, was affectionately nicknamed "Sweet Pea" by Jones — took the stage with Patty Loveless for an emotional and tearful rendition of "Go Rest High on That Mountain," but first spoke lovingly of his friend and mentor, who, he said, "taught us all to sing with a broken heart." It was the stand-out performance of the day, with Garth Brooks himself standing in the audience mid-song — his gesture brought everyone in the building to their feet.
Next came former FLOTUS Bush, who mentioned her father-in-law's affinity for The Possum and noting that she had "many times" heard her husband listening to Jones' "White Lightning" while on the treadmill of the White House gym. "No one made music like a man from East Texas named George Jones," she said. Brad Paisley followed, telling the story of keeping one of his first big purchases as a country artist — a horse — on Jones' property. He urged those listening and watching to purchase Jones' records, delivering a performance of "Me and Jesus" and noting that he'll miss his friend "forever."
Grand Ole Opry general manager Pete Fisher then said that Jones "was country music," vowing that, if ever an extraterrestrial were to ask what country music is, you'd play 'em George Jones. "Wherever people sing country music," he said, "he'll live on." Next, former Arkansas governor, former Republican presidential hopeful, current Fox News personality and amateur bassist Mike Huckabee spoke, claiming that he felt "as out of place as a plate of bacon-wrapped shrimp at a bar mitzvah" among all these country stars. He claimed that Jones sang "for us, not to us" and noted that "if Norman Rockwell had been a singer, he would've sounded just like George Jones." We disagree, but we won't digress at the moment.
The ceremony wound down with Ronnie Milsap performing "When the Grass Grows Over Me," Kenny Chesney (seemingly somewhat nervously) counting Jones as a father figure and Wynonna singing a very, very down-tempo rendition of "How Great Thou Art." Jones' friend, Pastor Mike Wilson, concluded with a personal glimpse of the singer's later years as a husband, a father, a grandfather and a Christian — his faith was an important part of his life, Wilson noted, and that brought lots of applause. Alan Jackson — a good friend of Jones, and a torchbearer of traditional country music — closed the service with a take on what was perhaps Jones' most defining song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."