The legendary George Jones became a member of the Grand Ole Opry nearly 60 years ago--and on Thursday morning, he visited the beloved country institution one last time as friends, family, fellow musicians, and hundreds of fans laid him to rest in an all-star memorial.
Country's biggest and most enduring names all took the stage to pay respects to "The Possum," who died last Friday at the age of 81 of as-yet-unknown official cause, but there were prominent friends from outside the world of music as well.
One of these was former First Lady Laura Bush, who was seated next to Jones's widow Nancy throughout the service and took the stage to give a moving speech about the icon's influence on her life.
After speaking about Jones's upbringing in the state they both have called home--Texas--Bush related how Jones's legacy of "pain and love" from his alcoholic father and devoted mother shaped his artistic vision, which made an impression on her early in life. She remembered how she and her friends "must have put 1000 quarters in the jukebox" to hear Jones's songs in her youth.
Bush offered love and condolences on behalf of her father- and mother-in-law, former President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, noting that her father-in-law never met Jones, but that "he always felt he knew the man."
She added that her husband, George W. Bush--who, like Jones, overcame alcohol abuse--did get to meet Jones and also was a huge fan. During their presidential years, she recalled passing by the White House gym: "I'd hear 'White Lightning' as George W. worked out on the treadmill to George J.," she smiled.
Bush remembered presenting Jones with the Kennedy Center Honor in 2008, an annual award given to artists recognizing their contributions to American culture. She also fondly recalled the many times she and her husband would listen to Jones's music together.
"We've heard few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones," Bush concluded. "We can only imagine how beautiful the heavens now sound."
Virtually every speaker and performer at the funeral held the same opinion, all adhering to the superlative but heartfelt theme that Jones was the greatest country singer of all time.
Charlie Daniels delivered a passionate speech in which he praised Jones for his individuality "in this age of follow-the-leader, cookie-cutter sameness." He termed Jones the "quintessential blue-collar voice."
Wynonna related "We have lost a national treasure," before performing the classic "How Great Thou Art."
Brad Paisley urged young music fans who may not be aware of Jones to discover him now. "He is an inspiration," he noted of the singer, who battled substance abuse much of his life. "If he can live to 81, we can all fight against the things that bring us down."
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that speaking at the funeral was "one of the greatest honors of my life," adding, "He did not sing to us, he sang for us…If Norman Rockwell had been a singer, he would have sounded just like George Jones."
Kenny Chesney said simply, "I love George Jones like a father."
Vince Gill brought the hall to tears when, during his duet of "Go Rest High On That Mountain" with Patty Loveless, he choked up audibly and repeatedly.
Other guests who paid tribute included Tanya Tucker, the Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Barbara Mandrell, Travis Tritt, Kid Rock, Ronnie Milsap, CBS News' Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
Controversial religious group Westboro Baptist had announced their intentions earlier in the week to protest the funeral, citing Jones as a "drunkard" and adulterer, but it is not confirmed if they actually made it to the event.
Those who were unable to attend the funeral overloaded and crashed the Opry's official site in an attempt to view the event. Alternate streams were quickly scrambled up to meet demand. The nearly 3-hour service was also aired live on cable channels CMT and GAC.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the event came at the very end, when superstar Alan Jackson took the stage. Without any commentary, he delivered a stellar version of Jones's signature hit, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
Upon finishing, Jackson removed his cowboy hat, said "I love you, George," and quietly exited the stage.