There was more humor than sadness at Jones’ funeral Thursday at the Grand Ole Opry House as thousands gathered in Nashville — some arriving hours before sunrise — to pay their respects to the man whose voice has defined country music for more than half a century.
Friend after friend related stories of Jones’ kindness, his love for his widow, Nancy, who’s credited with helping him survive his personal demons later in life, and the funny little moments that will stick with them always.
Barbara Mandrell remembered the kindnesses he gave a scared 13-year-old girl just getting her start in the business. Former first lady Laura Bush remembered dumping quarter after quarter into the jukebox to hear “The Race Is On.” Wynonna Judd remembered his perfect hair and his friendship. And Vince Gill remembered the man who gave him the nickname “Sweet Pea,” a moniker he wasn’t sure he liked at first but now treasures.
“The great thing is every time someone calls me Sweet Pea, I’ll get to think about him,” Gill said before earning a standing ovation for his rendition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” with Patty Loveless.
The nearly 3-hour memorial was attended by several major country stars and political figures. Nancy Jones sat flanked by Bush and Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam spoke, as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. CBS host Bob Schieffer recalled a 2009 interview with Jones where the singer’s true personality seemed to show through.
“I came away feeling his whole life was a surprise to him and he never quite believed any of it,” Schieffer said.
Each of the stars who performed had a personal connection to Jones. Randy Travis, who was anointed a traditional country voice by Jones, sang “Amazing Grace,” a song Jones had once put his own personal stamp upon.
“When I heard him do this song, it literally gave me chills,” Travis said.
Paisley remembered Jones allowing him to house his first horse on the Jones family farm and the visits the two would have, then sang “Me & Jesus.” Kid Rock asked Nancy Jones to imagine Jones was actually singing as he performed “Best of Me,” before checking himself to the delight of the crowd.
“I know that’s a huge (leap of) imagination,” Kid Rock said with an embarrassed smile. “Unshaven, long-haired confused country hip-hop rock ‘n’ roller trying to sing George Jones.”
But it may have been Charlie Daniels who summed up Jones best in a long, beautifully rendered tribute. He noted Jones was probably the most imitated country singer of all time.
“George Jones’ voice was a rowdy Saturday night uproar at a back-street beer joint, the heartbroken wail of the one who wakes up to find the other side of the bed empty, the far-off lonesome whistle of the midnight train, the look in the eyes of a young bride as that ring is placed on her finger, the memories of a half-asleep old man dreaming about the good old days,” Daniels said. “Lost love, lost innocence, good and bad memories, and experiences that are just too much for a human being to deal with. He sang for us all, the non-stop partiers, the guys who are alone and the girl done wrong, the puppy lovers, the extrovert, the introvert and the guy at the end of the bar who never seems to go home ... George had a song for everybody.”
The funeral was broadcast live on cable music television channels CMT and GAC and — in a nod to simpler times when Jones was at his biggest — on all local television networks.
The Beaumont, Texas, native was in the midst of a farewell tour that was to have wrapped up with an all-star salute in November in Nashville when he died. He postponed two performances two weeks ago and entered the hospital with a fever and irregular blood pressure. He’d been ill off and on over the previous year.
Jones’ pure, matchless baritone defined the sound of country music for a half century, and his death brought universal reaction from the music community and fans. Known for hits like “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “White Lightning” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which Alan Jackson used to close the memorial, Jones had No. 1s in four decades from the 1950s to the 1980s and “Possum” remained a popular figure in Music City until his death.
“Brother George taught us how to sing with a broken heart,” Gill said.
Paisley said even though Jones has passed on, his legacy is still there, ready to inspire. He urged young viewers who might be tuning in to check out Jones’ music.
“You must be thinking, ‘Boy, they’re making a ruckus,’” Paisley said. “I would encourage you if you don’t know him, go find him now. Go buy his records and see what all this ruckus is about because it’s worth it.”