Written by Peter Cooper, The Tennessean
They sang George Jones' life Thursday morning.
They sang his life to mark his death, at a memorial celebration held on the Grand Ole Opry House stage. Singer after singer offered musical tribute to Jones, the master of sad country ballads and the hero to so many musical heroes. And as music rang through the Opry House during the funeral, it became clear that Jones' own life was a joyful song, one of triumph that followed adversity, of peace that followed recklessness.
Jones, who died April 26 at age 81, rarely set pen to paper to rhyme the details of his harrowing descent into addiction and wildness, or of his hard-won redemption. No need. Others had already written his life's song.
"I once was lost, but now am found," sang Jones acolyte Randy Travis.
"Lord, help me, Jesus, I've wasted it/ So help me Jesus, I know what I am," sang Travis Tritt, voicing words from the pen of Kris Kristofferson. "Maybe, Lord, I can show someone else what I've been through myself, on my way back to you."
Brad Paisley was one of numerous performers who spoke of the friendship and kindness Jones displayed in his later years. Paisley chose to memorialize Jones by singing Tom T. Hall's "Me and Jesus."
"I know a man who once was a sinner," Paisley sang. "I know a man that once was a drunk/ I know a man who once was a loser/ He went out one day and made an altar out of a stump."
Many at the service credited Jones' widow, Nancy, with steering him through his recovery and with adding three decades to a life that seemed at risk when Jones was in his 50s.
She wept as Vince Gill struggled to rein in his own emotions, singing his own "Go Rest High On That Mountain."
"I know your life on earth was troubled," Gill sang. "And only you could know the pain/ You weren't afraid to face the devil, you were no stranger to the rain." Patty Loveless joined Gill for the exultant chorus: "Go rest high on that mountain, son, your work on earth is done/ Go to heaven a'shoutin'."
The memorial at the 4,400-seat Opry House included music from Gill, Loveless, Travis, Paisley, Tritt, the Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Kid Rock, Ronnie Milsap, Wynonna Judd, Alan Jackson and Tanya Tucker with the Imperials, as well as spoken tributes from former first lady Laura Bush, Kenny Chesney, CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, Opry General Manager Pete Fisher, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, pastor Mike Wilson and Jones' fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Barbara Mandrell.
Thousands of fans crowded the Opry Plaza for a chance to sit in the balcony during the public funeral. Some camped overnight, and hundreds were there by 6 a.m.
The Opry balcony was not large enough to accommodate the flood of people, some in sober business suits, others in cowboy hats and old Jones T-shirts. The Opry House's lower level was mostly filled with grieving friends, but the emotion in the balcony was no less real or connected.
These were people who sought a way to express their love for Jones' music, and for a man they took as the living embodiment of the songs he sang.
One woman said her brother used to clean Jones' pool, and a 22-year-old MTSU student sings and writes songs and calls Jones his biggest influence. A 76-year-old woman said she shouted gleefully when she received a ticket last Christmas for what was to be Jones' retirement concert this November in Nashville, and that she cried upon hearing of Jones' death. A man drove through the night from Tabor, Iowa, to, he said, "Pay my respects and say, 'Thank you.'"
Jones' casket was covered in white flowers, as WSM and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs offered opening remarks and brought out Tanya Tucker and The Imperials to sing the hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross." Stubbs shared announcing duties with former Opry announcer and close Jones friend Keith Bilbrey, who recalled that Jones told him that the only time he was nervous about singing was on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
"I said, 'What about the Opry makes you nervous?' He said, 'Roy Acuff,'" Bilbrey remarked. Jones grew up listening to the Opry, and if he fell asleep during the show his mother would wake him when Acuff came on.
"He said, 'I never get used to standing on that stage, and I never get used to Roy Acuff introducing me,'" Bilbrey said. "We revere and idolize George Jones, but he, too, had his idols."
Schieffer grew up in Jones' native Texas, listening to Jones on the Opry.
"Everybody wanted to sing like George Jones," Schieffer said. "But nobody could sing like George Jones unless you were George Jones. You couldn't, because you hadn't been through what he had been through. When I interviewed him back in 2009, I came away feeling like his whole life was a surprise to him, and he never quite believed any of it."
Charlie Daniels and Vince Gill each talked about the futility of attempting to sing like Jones, whose phrasing and fluidity set him apart from his predecessors and those who came up under his influence.
"With young singers that tried to emulate George Jones, it was an affectation," Daniels said, while Gill recalled the days when he himself possessed that affectation. He was a young artist in the recording studio when producer Emory Gordy Jr. halted the session:
"He said, 'We already have a George Jones,'" Gill remembered. "'You need to find a way to sing like you.'" Gill soon found a way to do so, and he's now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Another Hall of Famer, Garth Brooks, sat next to Laura Bush in the front row, but did not appear onstage. He and wife Trisha Yearwood stood repeatedly, following the emotional musical performances.
Bush relayed greetings from her husband, former U.S. President George W. Bush, and from her father-in-law, former President George H.W. Bush. She also spoke of playing Jones' songs on jukeboxes when she was a teenager.
"Pain and love: George Jones spoke of both of them whenever he sang a note," Bush said. "In American music, George was truly a legend beyond compare. As for me, I've been very lucky to walk through this world with my own George. And in that walk, we've heard few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones."
Mandrell, whose "I Was Country (When Country Wasn't Cool)" hit featured a guest vocal from Jones, spoke of Jones' unprecedented and unequaled way with a song.
"A supremely magnificent, unparalleled, one-of-a-kind voice," she said. "George was and always will be the greatest singer of all time."
Several speakers made reference to Jones' ex-wife and duet partner, Tammy Wynette. Tritt said he was on a movie set in Spain with Kris Kristofferson when Wynette died in 1998.
"I said, 'With all the years of hard-living that George had, who would have ever thought that he would outlive Tammy,'" Tritt said. "Kris looked at me and said, 'Had it not been for Nancy, he would not have.' George said it many times: 'She's my angel, and she saved my life.'"
That life was celebrated, and sung, over a remarkable two hours and 40 minutes, as Thursday morning stretched into Thursday afternoon. The service reached its climax as Alan Jackson sang Jones' signature song, the Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman-written "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
"They placed a wreath upon his door," Jackson sang, through tears. "And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today."
And then they carried him away, leaving his friends and his family and his fans to cry and smile, to listen and to remember.
"He knew about heartbreak. He knew about disappointment," Schieffer said. "He knew about betrayal. He was more than a country singer. He was a country song."
He knew about more than heartbreak, disappointment and betrayal, though. He knew redemption and steadfast love.
Yes, he was a country song.
A joyful one, at that.