Thousands of George Jones’ fans made their way to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville this morning to pay their respects to the country legend at his public funeral. As Garth Brooks sat with his arm around wife Trisha Yearwood on the front row, next to George’s widow, Nancy, Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs introduced Tanya Tucker and The Imperials, who opened the service with “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Governor Bill Haslam was up next, paying tribute to George and speaking to his world-wide fan base, followed by George’s pastor, Mike Wilson, who led the Opry House in prayer.
Randy Travis took the stage next to share with the audience a funny story about when he and George did a show together 12 years ago. George had talked Randy (usually the opening act) into closing the show for him. As Randy stood on the side of the stage, watching every person in the audience stand on their feet for an hour as George stole the show, he regretted agreeing to switch places with the legend. Randy’s reverence for George was apparent as he picked his guitar and sang a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The Oak Ridge Boys were up next, lending their beautiful harmony to “Farther Along.”
Bob Schieffer from CBS’ Face the Nation & CBS Sunday Morning spoke of George’s childhood and his humble roots, and how George was genuinely surprised that people including First Lady Laura Bush were fans. “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.”
Announcer Keith Bilbrey then welcomed Charlie Daniels to the stage. Charlie spoke of hearing the name “George Jones” for the first time in high school, and of George’s magical, malleable voice – his genius at turning a phrase to bring out the most emotion in any line and being able to make listeners feel like he felt their pain. “George had a song for everybody,” said Charlie, before playing the hymn, “Softly And Tenderly.”
Travis Tritt was up next, singing the Kris Kristofferson classic, “Why Me, Lord.” Before his performance, he addressed Nancy Jones, sitting on the front row. “George said it many times: ‘She’s my angel, and she saved my life.’ And so we owe you a debt of gratitude,” Travis said to Nancy.
Barbara Mandrell talked to the audience about how George was a part of some of the most important moments in her life. Barbara first met George when she was 13 and he was 30. She was booked on a Johnny Cash tour which also included George. George’s backing band didn’t have a steel guitar – Barbara’s instrument. George took Barbara aside and asked her if she would play steel guitar in his band – and 13-year-old Barbara couldn’t believe it.
“George Jones was and always will be, the greatest singer of all time in country music,” she said. “There won’t be anyone ever [to] fill his shoes. He sang for you and me. And now he’s singing in Glory for the One who created that voice. Hallelujah!”
Kid Rock recalled meeting George 10 years ago. George had asked him to write a song for him. The rocker then performed “The Best of Me,” one he wrote about the difficulties of being married to an entertainer. “No matter what we got from George Jones, you got the best of him,” Kid Rock said to Nancy.
“Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart,” said an emotional Vince Gill, who recalled that the first time he and Patty Loveless sang together, it was on George’s song “If My Heart Had Windows.” The duo then performed “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” As the duo struggled to sing through tears, Garth and Trisha led a standing ovation in support.
First Lady Laura Bush was up next. “No one made music like a man from east Texas named George Jones,” she said, revealing that George W. Bush used to work out on the treadmill listening to George Jones’ “White Lightning.”
Brad Paisley told the crowd when he got his first horse, George told him he could keep it on his farm. Brad recalled how great it was to go see his horse and get to visit with George. Then Brad performed the song “Me And Jesus.”
Vice President and General Manager of the Opry, Pete Fisher, spoke to the audience about the day George passed away and how artist after artist paid tribute to him that night. “If you were visited by an alien from another planet who asked what country music was, you’d play him a George Jones song…George Jones was as real as they come. He was true to his family and friends.”
Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee took the stage next, saying, “George Jones did not sing to us, he sang for us. That is the difference.”
“We’re all here because we love George Jones,” said Ronnie Milsap. “So much of my life was spent listening to the radio. There was a special song of George’s I always loved,” he said, before performing “When The Grass Grows Over Me.”
Kenny Chesney told the crowd, “George Jones was my friend. He was always there. He was this larger than life figure that I thought I would never meet, much less become friends with. And have, in a lot of ways, as a father figure in my life.”
Wynonna Judd was 14 when she saw her first country concert – Merle Haggard and George Jones. “We have lost a stylist,” she said, before lightening the heavy moment by pointing out that George had perfect hair. “I was proud to call him a friend,” she added, holding back tears. No doubt there were many tears among the crowd as she sang “How Great Thou Art.”
George’s pastor, Mike Wilson, shared with the audience the George he knew and quoted lines from George’s hit songs, “Choices” and “The One I Loved Back Then.” As he led the Opry House in prayer, everyone bowed their heads and held hands.
In a fitting closing, Alan Jackson performed George’s signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”