It was a long and loud musical celebration at Bridgestone Arena Friday night, and George Jones wouldn't have had it any other way.
Before the Country Music Hall of Famer's death in April at age 81, he and his management were planning a Nov. 22 farewell concert at the Nashville venue with dozens of guest performers — friends that he couldn't stand to leave out of the occasion.
Soon, that final concert before Jones' retirement turned into a tribute to the late country legend, and the guestlist only grew.
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert andBlake Shelton were among more than 100 performers who took the stage at Bridgestone during the almost-four-hour concert to sing more than 40 songs made famous by the "King of Broken Hearts."
Six months after Jones' somber funeral at the Grand Ole Opry House, Friday's concert was celebratory, filled with funny stories and fond memories.
"During the funeral, we mourned George," said TV personality Keith Bilbrey, one of the show's many co-hosts. "Tonight, we celebrate him."
Country duo Big & Rich set the tone as they opened the show, taking the stage on riding mowers to sing "Love Bug."
When Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill took stage, he recalled his emotional performance of "Go Rest High On That Mountain" at Jones' funeral, calling it "the hardest thing I had to do." On Friday, he opted for "Bartender's Blues," wearing a T-shirt that read "Sweet Pea" for the nickname Jones had given him without explanation.
After his performance of "The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song)," Brad Paisley told the audience, "No was more generous to me than George Jones," then added, "I know he's looking down at this and saying, 'Son, where's all the money goin' for this?'"
The celebration carried on outside the arena, where a live feed of the concert played on a large video screen. As rain trickled down, fans with coats zipped up to their chins set up lawn chairs — some with jumbo beers from the outdoor bar. To fans like Marris Jones, it was an easy decision to spend the evening out in the cold.
"It's something that you're not ever going to get to do again," he said. "George Jones is an icon for country music."
Chris Owen of Little Rock, Ark. bought his tickets to the show in February, two months before Jones' death. He was looking forward to seeing him perform for the first time.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "It's amazing that they're doing this. The fact that over a hundred different artists are in there? That's awesome. There's so much respect for George and his music."
Jones' music proved to cross genre lines last night — among the more surprising performers were heavy metal group Megadeth (whose leader Dave Mustaine praised Jones as "a rebel") and Sam Moore of soul legends Sam & Dave, who brought the crowd to its feet with a stirring take on "The Blues Man," altering one of its lyrics.
"I was sure sinking, Nancy, when you came along," looking to Jones' widow, Nancy, sitting in the front row of the arena. Nancy Jones is credited with Jones' turn-around from his No-Show days.
The evening grew more reverent towards the end, as performers including Strait and Martina McBride delved into well-known tunes like "Golden Ring." And just as at Jones' funeral, Alan Jackson ended the show with "He Stopped Loving Her Today" — but this time with Nancy Jones at his side for the final choruses.
"George would have liked nothing better for all his fans here, and all the artists here tonight, to sing along," Jackson said.
Time and time again, performers recalled Jones' kind spirit, and his irreplaceable pipes, often called the greatest in country music.
"To me, George Jones was the greatest vocalist ever," said Patty Loveless. "He could go right to my heart."