Just feet from the legendary circle carved from the original stage of the Ryman Auditorium, “the Possum” lay in state at the Grand Ole Opry House, in a coffin arrayed in white flowers. His widow Nancy, the woman Jones credited with pulling him back from the brink of alcoholism and addiction, sat just a short distance away. And at times Thursday’s funeral service served as much as a tribute to her as it did a remembrance of the man many consider the greatest country singer who ever lived.
Tanya Tucker and the Imperials opened with “The Old Rugged Cross,” while Randy Travis and the Oak Ridge Boys followed with “Amazing Grace” and “Farther Along,” respectively. Charlie Daniels delivered “Softly and Tenderly. Wynonna sang “How Great Thou Art.”
Travis Tritt recalled being on a movie set with Kris Kristofferson in 1998, as they learned of the passing of Jones’ ex-wife and duet partner, Tammy Wynette.
“You know with all the years of hard living that George had, who would have ever thought that he would outlive Tammy?” he remarked. “Kris looked at me and said ‘Had it not been for Nancy, he would not have.’” Travis then segued into Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord.”
Fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Barbara Mandrell told the story of George surprising the CMA Awards audience by appearing at the back of the house to sing on her hit “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”
CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, FOX News host Mike Huckabee and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam spoke of Jones’ rise from his humble Texas beginnings to the height of country stardom. Former first lady Laura Bush remembered putting a “thousand quarters in the jukebox to listen to ‘The Race Is On’” and catching her husband exercising to “White Lightnin’” in the White House gym.
Vince Gill was so overcome as he performed “Go Rest High” with Patty Loveless that he was often unable to sing. Garth Brooks leapt to his feet to lead a standing ovation, as the service reached its emotional high point. Wife Trisha Yearwood was by his side.
Unable to attend, Dolly Parton send a flower arrangement in the shape of her signature butterfly. Kid Rock performed an original song, while Kenny Chesney spoke of Jones’ music as a constant presence in his grandmother’s kitchen.
Appropriately, Jones’ own songs took center stage in some of the celebration’s most poignant moments.
Ronnie Milsap delivered “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” while Brad Paisley crafted a slowed-down version of the George and Tammy gospel duet, “Me & Jesus.”
“I’m lucky enough that I met George when he had gotten right… and had beat the demons and had found Nancy and God,” Brad observed.
Alan Jackson stepped up to the mic and launched into Jones’ biggest hit without a word. He placed his hat on his heart as emoted the final notes of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
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