George Jones Memorial Evokes Tears, Tributes From Fans and Friends

From left: Jamey Johnson, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks during George Jones' funeral service at the Grand Ole Opry (Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GJ Memorial)

In the lyrics of George Jones' signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a wreath is placed upon the door of a heartbroken man at a funeral.

And when Jones' time came, they placed not just a wreath but a gargantuan spray of white flowers upon his copper casket at the May 2 celebration of his life at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House.

Repeatedly hailed as the greatest country singer of all time since his April 26 passing, Jones received an appropriately grand send-off that included performances and speeches by the likes of Brad Paisley, Barbara Mandrell and former First Lady Laura Bush.

The near-capacity audience included fellow performers - such as Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Bill Anderson and numerous other Opry stars - but it was  likewise populated by influential Music Row figures and by a legion of fans in the upper balcony.

There were tears, to be certain, particularly when Vince Gill - whom Jones had lovingly nicknamed "Sweet Pea" - gasped out phrases in the chorus of "Go Rest High On That Mountain" as he choked back emotion.

And more tears when Alan Jackson delivered aversion of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" that subtly paid tribute to Jones' groundbreaking style. Jackson stretched the word "underline" into  multiple syllables. And he mirrored the Possum's approach as he struggled with the pitch of the high notes in the chorus, but captured every ounce of feeling in its storyline.

From left: Former First Lady Laura Bush, Jones' widow Nancy and granddaughter Breanne Hohimer (Rick Diamond/Getty Images for GJ Memorial)

Jackson never looked at the casket or at thefront row - where Jones' widow, Nancy Jones, sat - until he finished the song, locking eyes instead with the fans in the balcony much as he would any other concert.

Kathy Mattea, a two-time winner of the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year award, marveled at Jackson's ability to pull off such a difficult song under unique circumstances, and at his ability to connect the song to every person in the house.

"He wasn't just singing to Nancy," Mattea noted. "He was singing to everybody."

That was an appropriate tribute for Jones who, it was repeatedly noted, was an icon for the common man after growing up in poverty.

"He knew about heartbreak, he knew about disappointment, he knew about betrayal," said CBS newsman Bob Schieffer.

Tormented by those demons, Jones famously went off the rails now and then, using alcohol and other substances to numb the discord in his heart.

"The drinking got so bad they took away his car keys," Schieffer noted. When he then recounted how Jones responded by driving his lawn mower to the liquor  store, the crowd erupted in cheers.

In the darkest days of his career, he earned a reputation as "No-Show Jones" for missing concerts. For most artists, that would  spell a quick end to their time in the limelight.

Tormented by those demons, Jones famously went half-crazy now and then, as the song goes, using alcohol and other substances to numb the discord in his heart.

But the fans loved him through it all, in part because they recognized he was battling his own inner voices, not dismissing his audience.

Joan Wallace, of Nashville, witnessed his generosity for those same fans in person after meeting him three years ago. She came to see him one last time at the memorial, still treasuring a photo shetook with Jones and his wife at their home, where Wallace visited for more than two hours.

"He was just a real man," she remembered. "He was so down-to-earth and so kind and didn't try to brush us off. In fact, Nancy had to pull him out the door. They were going somewhere and she said, 'We're gonna miss our flight.' And he said, 'Well, if I had time I would throw something on the grill.'"

Outside George Jones' funeral service (Jason Davis/Getty Images)

The casket was closed for the memorial service, though it remained open May 1 for a private visitation at the Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home. Friends, family and industry supporters - including Brenda Lee, Steve Wariner, Trace Adkins and Sony Music Nashville chairman & CEO Gary Overton - waited up to three hours to pay their last respects. They heard a raft of Jones recordings - such as "The Right Left Hand," the gospel tune "He Walks With Me" and a title dated 1962, "She Thinks I Still Care" - before they finally saw him "all dressed up to go away," as "He Stopped Loving Her Today" phrased it.

The Opry House provided a fitting location for Jones' service. He performed numerous times on that stage as a member of the Opry. It was there that he was announced a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. And it was the same location where "He Stopped Loving Her Today" picked up single of the year honors from the CMA in 1980.

At the time, many listeners associated its mournful storyline - "morbid," as Jones called it more than once - with his six-year marriage to Tammy Wynette, which ended in 1975. Oddly enough, his final public performance of the song came April 6 in Knoxville on the 15th anniversary of Wynette's death.

Travis Tritt recalled during the service howshocking it had been for Jones, who was on a crash course with death at theheight of his self-abuse, to outlive Wynette. The resurrection of his health and his spirit was due primarily to Nancy, Kris Kristofferson had told Tritt at the time.

Jones himself credited her belief in him as the turning point in a dramatic life, Jones' minister, Pastor Mike Wilson, told the crowd.

"How can I hurt someone like me," Jones reportedly said to the minister, "that she loves so much?"

Schieffer appropriately read the four-line recitation of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" - which ends "This time he's over her for good" - then turned to Jones' widow: "Nancy, he never got over you."

Jones' peers, his imitators and the country music diehards who waited in line to get a seat at the Opry House will have a difficult time getting over the loss of Jones. They used the memorial as a salve; saying goodbye in person is a step in easing the transition to life without a voice that changed the sound of country music.

“I hate [the circumstances],” said fan Kenneth Harris, of Lebanon, Tenn., “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was just the best.”

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