He stopped loving her today/They laid a wreath upon his door…
George Jones became an Opry member in 1956. Today (May 2), like the line from his signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a wreath indeed graced the front door of the Grand Ole Opry House, the place where Jones had performed hundreds of times. Thousands of fans and friends gathered to say farewell to the entertainer whom many call the best singer in country music. The funeral, which lasted over three hours, was a fitting tribute to a legend whose voice inspired many of the vocalists who came after him. Jones died on Friday, April 26.
The funeral began with a performance of “Old Rugged Cross” by Tanya Tucker and The Imperials. Randy Travis sang “Amazing Grace” and The Oak Ridge Boys lent their tightly-woven harmonies to a passionate rendition of “Farther Along.” So began a morning of celebration and mourning, accentuated by timeless gospel hymns and country classics. Among those in attendance were Steve Moore, Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, Marty Stuart, Jamey Johnson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
As many entertainers took the stage, including Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt, Barbara Mandrell, Kid Rock, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Brad Paisley, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Chesney, Wynonna and Alan Jackson.
Mandrell, who once played steel guitar for Jones when she was a teenager, recalled the 1981 Country Music Association awards, held in the very same room as today’s funeral, when she performed her hit “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool).” During the performance, Jones had been sitting in the audience, and had risen from his seat to join Mandrell in song, to the delight of the audience.
A highlight of the morning came when a visibly emotional Gill, joined by Loveless, performed the Gill-penned “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” a song Gill first wrote in memory of his brother and finished when Keith Whitley passed on. “George taught us how to sing with a broken heart,” said Gill before the performance. The song’s lyrics seemed perfectly suited to the memory of Jones’ redeemed life: I know your life on Earth was troubled/and only you could know the pain/you weren’t afraid to face the devil/you were no stranger to the rain.
Occasionally during the performance, Gill was overcome with emotion, allowing Loveless’ harmony vocal take the lead. Mid-song, Garth Brooks rose to his feet in the front row, leading the entire Opry house to do the same. The crowd of over 4,000 stood through the remainder of the song, in tribute to the legendary Jones.
Paisley noted that the funeral was being broadcast live and was streamed on various websites. To all of the younger country music fans tuning in, he said, “You must be thinking, ‘Man they are making a ruckus about this guy.’ I’d encourage you, if you don’t know about him, to go find him now. Go buy his records. You’ll see what all this ruckus is about and it’s worth it.” Paisley performed “Me & Jesus.” ‘I was lucky enough to have known George when he had gotten right with the Lord,” said Paisley. “What it must be like to be the maker that made him, meeting him. He is an inspirational story to all of us. If that man can live to 81 years old, all of us can fight against the things that bring us down.”
“George had a song for everyone,” said Daniels, who spoke of the lasting authenticity of Jones’ music and performed “Softly and Tenderly.” Indeed Jones did have a song for everyone—and, as many said, he sang not to everyone, but for everyone. Whether it was the humor of “The One I Loved Back Then,” the hope and heartache of “Golden Ring,” or the heartache of “A Picture Of Me (Without You).”
Chesney spoke of his memories of hearing the Jones song “Who’s Gonna Chop My Baby’s Kindlin (When I’m Gone)'” in his grandmother’s kitchen as a young boy and what a childhood hero Jones had been to him. He recalled the thrill of later calling Jones a friend. Speaking to George’s wife, Nancy, Chesney said, “I came here today to tell Nancy I love you…and I will miss him so much.” He left with the touchingly humorous promise that if Nancy ever needs someone to chop kindlin’ for her, he would be there. Other performers would express similar offers of support.
Speakers and performers gave due credit to Nancy (who wed George in 1983) throughout the funeral. Each spoke of Nancy’s love for George, and many acknowledged that George himself had said on many occasions that she saved his life. Tritt shared with the audience the moment he heard of the passing of Tammy Wynette. Tritt was with Kris Kristofferson at the time. “I looked at Kris and made the comment, ‘With all the years of hard living that George had, who would have ever thought that he would outlive Tammy?’ Kris looked at me and said, ‘Had it not been for Nancy, he would not have.'” Tritt then performed the Kristofferson classic, “Why Me Lord?”. Milsap later performed “When The Grass Grows Over Me.”
Jones’ pastor, Mike Wilson, gave a moving benediction, acknowledging Jones’ early days of wild living, and his redemption—or, as Paisley put it, “finding God and finding Nancy.” He also spoke of Jones’ love for his children and grandchildren, and his peaceful final days. “Life didn’t stop for George on Friday. It started,” said Wilson. Wilson quoted several Biblical scriptures, including John 14, and ended with a prayer. Fittingly, Wynonna performed a soulful rendition of the gospel hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
Throughout his career, Jones’ music and voice were authentic, free of pretense. His voice let each song’s message take center stage. It was only fitting that the service closed in the same manner. Saying nothing, Alan Jackson walked to the center of the Grand Ole Opry stage, and began a simple acoustic rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The capacity crowd of Jones’ fans and friends immediately stood, and as Jackson hit the first chorus, the audience applauded loudly, sensing the timeliness of the lyrics.
Soon they’ll carry him away/he stopped loving her today…
Pallbearers then took the flower-covered casket from the Opry House as the crowd stood, paying their final respects.
Perhaps Grand Ole Opry general manager Pete Fisher summed it up best. “As long as there is a Grand Ole Opry, and as long as people sing country music, George Jones’ spirit will live on.”
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About the AuthorJessica Nicholson is a staff writer with MusicRow Enterprises. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine, TasteofCountry.com and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]
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