Music City Mourns Country Legend George Jones

George Jones performs with his band on stage for the film, 'From Nashville With Music,' directed by Eddie Crandall, 1969.

Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

Thousands of fans who had been waiting in line since the wee hours joined some of country's biggest stars Thursday to pay their respects to George Jones at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.

An overflow crowd began lining up at 3 a.m. to honor the late country music superstar, who died last week at 81.

Former first lady Laura Bush will speak at the public funeral along with friends and country stars Barbara Mandrell and Kenny Chesney. Jones also will be serenaded by Vince Gill, Kid Rock, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna Judd, Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis.

The funeral is being broadcast live on cable music television channels CMT and GAC and -- in a nod to simpler times when Jones was at his biggest -- on all local television networks.

He was in the midst of a farewell tour that was to have wrapped up with an all-star salute in November in Nashville. He postponed two performances two weeks ago and entered the hospital with a fever and irregular blood pressure. He'd been ill off and on over the previous year.

Jones' pure, matchless baritone defined the sound of country music for a half century and his death brought universal reaction from the music community and fans. Known for hits like "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," "White Lightning" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," widely acknowledged as the greatest country song, Jones had No. 1s in four decades from the 1950s to the 1980s and "Possum" remained a popular figure in Music City until his death.

Once married to Tammy Wynette, he was the living embodiment of the words "country music star" at the height of his career and continues to have broad influence on the genre, especially with artists who prefer traditional country to today's pop- and rock-influenced sounds.

Jones also had his troubles as he battled substance abuse and money troubles, but always seemed to slide by with his sense of humor and knowing grin intact.

He won a Grammy and two consecutive Country Music Association song of the year awards for "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. He was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center in 2008.

The Beaumont, Texas, native had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1956, which makes the setting of Thursday's ceremony all the more fitting. The Opry House holds more than 4,000 people and was expected to be filled beyond capacity.