Saturday, May 4, 2013

A final standing ovation; 'Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart'

I was fortunate enough to cover George Jones' funeral service for Reuters. And because it was George Jones, the greatest singer of country music ever, they let me write longer than the norm. A very few things were changed by editors, but cuts were made by necessity (I turned in close to 1,000 words). So for those who want the complete version or simply for my blog archives, here's the untouched version cranked out in the hour after the funeral.

George Jones’ final standing ovation – after a career filled with such salutes – came, fittingly, Thursday afternoon at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
And, equally as fitting, the song that drew the 4,000-plus fans and friends and media to their feet, was Jones’ signature tune, about love and death, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Jones, who died April 26, was in a casket draped by a blanket of yellow flowers, just below the lip of center stage, when the audience leaped to its collective feet to applaud Alan Jackson.
The long-time friend and admirer of the man who so influenced his singing style, Jackson channeled Jones’ country traditionalism when he sang the robust version of that song, ending it by removing his white cowboy hat and waving it toward the heavens while he looked up, tears on his cheeks and said: “We love you, George.”

But Jones would be heard one more time at the end of this service that lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes, but only on the loud-speaker system. After Jackson left the stage, a spotlight was focused on the yellow-flower-draped coffin as the pall-bearers tended to their duties and the family began its exit, “When the Last Curtain Falls,” filled the home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The song, with the lines "When the last curtain falls with a final goodbye/And the bitter cold darkness of night/floods the days of our lives..." continued to play on the public-address system as the casket was rolled out the doors of the Grand Ole Opry House and into the waiting black hears for the ride to the cemetery. 

It was Jones’ final farewell to the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable radio show in which he had been a cast member since 1956, almost from the beginning of the career that was celebrated by musicians and politicians and other guests throughout the long service.

The service with its liturgy and levity – yes, there were the occasional “Yep, that’s ol’ George” stories told by the luminaries – focused on redemption.
For while the stunningly successful early years of his career were celebrated,  the focus really was on the last 30 years, the length of his marriage to the former Nancy Ford Sepulvado, who, Jones frequently said, “saved my life.”

During his career, which saw the kid from East Texas skyrocket to the top, Jones’ drug and alcohol abuse, and the incidents that accompanied them, often gained more headlines than his status as the greatest singer in the history of country music.
But country’s King of Broken Hearts – with the help of his wife – was able to chase away those demons for the most part and live out his career as a revered elder statesman of country music.    

Country superstar Brad Paisley -- who was among the performers to take turns on the stage that was filled with floral arrangements, photographs and a rocking chair (a salute to Jones’ “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” classic) --  performed Tom T. Hall's “Me and Jesus” during the service that was focused on gospel songs.
But before he sang, he talked about this good fortune in getting to call the elder statesman his friend.

“I’m lucky enough to have met George when he had gotten right, beat the demons, found Nancy and found God,” said Paisley. “He’s an inspirational story to all of us. If that man can live to be 81, then all of us can fight against the things that bring us down.”
CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer talked about the voice and the songs and the dreams they fueled – the journalist is a part-time country musician by hobby.  “Nobody could sing like George Jones unless you were George Jones,” Schieffer said.

But he also put the spotlight on the latter years of Jones’ career.  He said while “He Stopped Loving Her Today” saved the singer’s career, “It would take a good-hearted woman to save his life.”
“We’ve had few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones,” said former first lady Laura Bush, who sat next to Nancy Jones during the service.  She added she heard that voice frequently during her White House years. “I heard ‘White Lightning’ as George W. worked out on the treadmill listening to George J.” she said, of the former president’s penchant for cranking up Jones CDs while exercising.

She too talked about the love of Jones’ live. “He was blessed to be able to walk through the last 30 years with wife, Nancy, by his side,” she said.
But of course much of the service focused on the singer, travails and all. “He was the voice of the common man,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Jones friend. “He sang the songs that cried for us.”

Tanya Tucker and The Imperials, Randy Travis, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt, Kid Rock, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Chesney and Wynonna Judd all paid tribute to Jones during the service that all four Nashville TV stations carried live. 

 “George was and always will be the greatest singer of all time in country music,” said Barbara Mandrell. “He sang for you and me and now he’s singing in glory for the one who gave him that voice. Hallelujah.”

Vince Gill, who teamed with Patty Loveless to sing his song, “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” that has become a part of every country music funeral in recent years, added  “Brother George taught us all how to sing with a broken heart.”



  1. Geeze, Tim, you didn't finish...

    And Travis Tritt sang Why Me, Lord.

    Reading about George and Nancy, I was struck by how that could be Kris and Lisa, God forbid! Or even Waylon and Jessi. It surely does take a good woman to bring these talented, hairbrains around to taking care of themselves. While Waylon only made it to 65, he could have been on that plane. Kris is heading for 77 next month and I wish him 50 more years.

    1. ...or Willie and Annie, also God forbid. We want him around forever!