Grand Ole Opry member and Country Music Hall of Famer George Jones, who died April 26 at the age of 81, last played the Grand Ole Opry in 2011, but he was fondly remembered by stars of the venerable institution on the night of his death.
Opry members Brad Paisley and Montgomery Gentry as well as Christian artist Jason Crabb were among those who performed Jones’ songs on the Friday night show.
Paisley, who was not slated to perform, but who made a surprise appearance, remembers Jones as a legendary singer and also as a friend. “I had several strange crossroads with George that were wonderful sort of coincidences,” Paisley said backstage. “My last show as a West Virginian before moving to Tennessee was opening for George in Parkersburg, W.Va. The next day I packed my car and went to Belmont [University].”
Once Paisley moved to Nashville, he kept in touch with Jones. “My road manager now used to work for George—he’s an old friend—and he actually made the acquaintance for us and said, ‘you should be buddies’,” Paisley recalls. “I would go out to [Jones’] farm–I actually for a while boarded my horse at his ranch. He basically let me keep the horse out there for free. Some of my fondest memories are of going out there riding or working with my horse and he would drive out on a golf cart and just shoot the breeze. I got to know what a wonderful humble, charming guy that he was. The Jekyll and Hyde personality only came out with alcohol. It was really just Jekyll—a likeable, wonderful man. I never saw the other side.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Opry member Mel Tillis, a contemporary of Jones who called him a friend, saw the Hyde side of Jones on more than one occasion.
Asked if he had any stories about Jones’ that he would share, Tillis first laughingly said he had stories, but he wouldn’t share them. He later relented and told a story, saying, “I’m not proud of it, but it happened.”
Tillis and Jones, along with a host of other stars of the day, including Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee, were performing at a package show in Colorado Springs in the late 1950s. “After it was over we were asked to come out to the Palomino Club, a dance hall,” Tillis shares. “Jimmy Newman was driving and Brenda Lee’s mama and Patsy Cline [were in the car] and George was in the back seat and I was in the front right seat.
“We left the club that night and I guess George had a little too much to drink,” Tillis continues. “I don’t know the reason why, but he got onto me about something and I turned around and here come a fist at me. I just grabbed his arm and held it. I didn’t know he had just broken his arm and I broke it again. I didn’t mean to do that. We took him to the hospital and they patched it up.”
Jones didn’t hold a grudge. “He was the first one the next morning knocking on my door saying he didn’t mean to start that and I said, ‘I didn’t mean to either. Sorry’,” Tillis recalls. “Ol’ George and I were good friends.”
Opry VP/GM Pete Fisher says Jones’ birthday bashes at the Opry were the stuff of legend. “It was one of the easiest shows to book, because all of the artists wanted to come out and celebrate the Possum,” says Fisher, noting that Jones became an Opry member in 1956.
The last such birthday show was on Sept. 13, 2011, to commemorate Jones’ 80th birthday. “It was always great to see George and [wife] Nancy sitting on the front row,” Fisher says. “Not very many people get to see their impact played out in front of them on the Opry stage. He was so fortunate to be able to see the legacy that he created.”
After Friday’s performance, duo Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry said that while a planned farewell show for Jones was supposed to take place later this year at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena is seemingly in limbo, the duo hope it becomes a tribute concert. “Ain’t no ‘was’,” Montgomery says. “That’s still going to happen.”
Partner Gentry agrees. “It should, to pay tribute to him. I can’t imagine that they would just shut that down.”