For a guy who sang so many sad songs, George Jones left behind a lot of laughs.
There was more humor than sadness at Jones’s funeral Thursday at the Grand Ole Opry House as thousands gathered in Nashville – some arriving hours before sunrise –to pay their respects to the man whose voice has defined country music for more than half a century.
Friend after friend related stories of Jones’ kindness, his love for his widow, Nancy, who’s credited with helping him survive his personal demons later in life, and the funny little moments that will stick with them always.
Barbara Mandrell remembered the kindnesses he gave a scared 13-year-old girl just getting her start in the business. Former first lady Laura Bush remembered dumping quarter after quarter into the jukebox to hear “The Race Is On.” Wynonna Judd remembered his perfect hair and his friendship. And Vince Gill remembered the man who gave him the nickname “Sweet Pea,” a moniker he wasn’t sure he liked at first but now treasures.
“The great thing is every time someone calls me Sweet Pea, I’ll get to think about him,” Gill said before earning a standing ovation for his rendition of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” with Patty Loveless.
The nearly three-hour memorial was attended by several major country stars and political figures. Nancy Jones sat flanked by Bush and Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam spoke, as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Each of the stars who performed had a personal connection to Jones. Randy Travis, who was anointed a traditional country voice by Jones, sang “Amazing Grace,” a song Jones had once put his own personal stamp upon.
“When I heard him do this song, it literally gave me chills,” Travis said.
Brad Paisley remembered Jones allowing him to house his first horse on the Jones family farm and the visits the two would have, then sang “Me & Jesus.” Kid Rock asked Nancy Jones to imagine Jones was actually singing as he performed “Best of Me,” before checking himself to the delight of the crowd.
“I know that’s a huge (leap of) imagination,” Kid Rock said with an embarrassed smile. “Unshaven, long-haired confused country hip-hop rock ‘n’ roller trying to sing George Jones.”
Jones, 81, died April 26 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure.