On Thursday, May 2, 2013, George Jones left the Grand Ole Opry House for the final time. Family, friends and fans — literally from around the world — piled into the 4,400-seat home of the longest-running U.S. radio show to honor the 81-year-old life’s — all of it — from reputation as “No Show” Jones to when, as Brad Paisley put it, he “finally got it right.”
The legendary singer-songwriter, who passed away on Friday, April 26, was remembered by the biggest names and voices in country music, including Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Wynonna, Barbara Mandrell and Charlie Daniels.
The Possum’s influence was also seen in the presence of non-musicians who took the stage to honor his life. These included former First Lady Laura Bush, who brought sympathies from her in-laws former President George H. W. Bush and wife Barbara, and shared stories of her husband, former President George W. Bush, working out in the White House to “White Lightning.” Current Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee also spoke.
Additional famous faces could be seen in the audience, too, including Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Jamey Johnson all sitting in the first row with George’s wife Nancy. Martina McBride, Ronnie Dunn, Travis Tritt, the Oak Ridge Boys, Kid Rock and Ronnie Milsap were also in attendance.
While George Jones’ body lay in a flower-covered coffin in front of the iconic Grand Ole Opry stage, his friends were upbeat and light-hearted as they shared their favorite memories of his life. Former Opry announcer Keith Bilbrey recalled a time when the “Golden Voice” played the radio show, telling the jock that the Opry stage “makes me so nervous” because the childhood nights he spent listening to it from his parents’ bed. Wynonna was shocked as she realized she’d never get to have conversations in which he’d respond to a question of what he was doing with, “I’m in the car driving around; I needed some attention.”
The day may have focused on George, but nearly everyone who took the stage paid tribute to his wife, Nancy, crediting her with saving the tortured singer from his rough and tumble life. Kenny Chesney told the audience — in the house and on the numerous outlets carrying it on TV, radio, and the Web — that he first ‘met’ George Jones in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he heard “Who’s Gonna Chop My Baby’s Kindlin’ (When I’m Gone)”. That experience, paired with their first real meeting, compelled the superstar to call George a “father figure” before looking at his casket and saying, “Thank you, George, for being George.” He finished by looking at Nancy in the audience and saying, “If you need any help chopping kindlin’, I’ll be there.”
Vince Gill and Patty Loveless took the stage to perform “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which a morose Gill prefaced with, “Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart.” After the first verse, though, the singer-songwriter found himself singing through his own tears, prompting Garth Brooks to initiate a standing ovation from the crowd.
During his time at the podium, Brad Paisley was solemn as he urged young people to discover the Possum’s music, before performing “Me and Jesus.”
And of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Alan Jackson closed the ceremony with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Though he had a standing ovation from the first line of the tune, it was Jackson’s action of taking off his ever-present cowboy hat for the final titular line of the song that struck the strongest emotional chord, before the plain-spoken singer simply said farewell with, “We love you, George.”
-Erin Duvall, Nashville