Fans, a former first lady and a who's who of country stars alike gathered at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville on Friday to pay their respects to George Jones at a funeral befitting one of country's most emotive and most revered singers.
"Life didn’t stop for George on Friday, it started," Pastor Mike White told the crowd at the temple to country music of the superstar who died last week at 81, the Tennessean reported.
The funeral culminated with a performance by Alan Jackson of one of Jones' most enduring hits — "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a sweeping song of a devoted man's death and funeral.
Jackson held his white cowboy hat over his heart for the song's final verse. "We love you, George," he said after he finished, as Jones' flower-laden casket was carried up the center aisle.
Also on hand to mourn the troubled man better known to many as "Possum" were thousands of fans who had waited in line since as early as 3 a.m. local time, as well as former first lady Laura Bush.
"He sang from his heart and his soul," Bush said, according to the Tennessean, recalling days in her youth when "my friends and I must have put 1,000 quarters in the juke box to listen to ‘The Race Is On.’"
Jones was also serenaded by Vince Gill, Kid Rock, Brad Paisley, Tanya Tucker, Wynonna Judd, Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis, as well as by Jackson.
The funeral was 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.
Jones 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.