“Step right up. Come on in…” Those lyrics from “The Grand Tour” succinctly capture the spirit of the very public George Jones memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry House on May 3rd. Thousands of people, coming to pay their last respects to country music’s supreme singer, filled the venue to capacity for the two-and-a-half hour ceremony.
Tributes poured forth from the podium and songs were reverently, sometimes tearfully rendered in a ritual that Nashville has honed and polished to a rhinestone shine. In Music City’s version of a jazz funeral, the roles are established and the participants follow an unwritten, yet strict script with little deviation.
First, Jesus. There is always Jesus. For country music and the Christian faith are forever intertwined. Though the genre has long celebrated the joys of Saturday night abandon, it is the promise of Sunday morning redemption that provides the music’s essential yin-yang. This balance has rooted the music from the beginning and was prominent throughout Jones’ Opry vigil. Contemporaries remembered the “no shows,” the addictions and raucous road stories while Jones’ pastor provided evidence of a man of unwavering belief.
George’s wife Nancy, cast in the role of Mary Magdalene, was hailed as his earthly savior, responsible for reconnecting him with his heavenly one. All the best country music life stories involve three acts: the rise to fame, the fall from grace and the supplicant salvation and George’s life perfectly followed this arc. For stars who die in the middle of Act Two, like Hank Williams, there can be no such sanctification by the establishment. Without that deliverance from evil, no political figure would come within a mile of your wake, much less speak on your behalf.
Whenever a major country star’s death is reported, some of my first thoughts are of Vince Gill. Gill is the go-to Nashville musical eulogy provider, due to his emotional 1995 composition, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Written as a tribute to his friend, the late Keith Whitley, and to his brother Bob, who succumbed suddenly to a heart attack, it is an honest and beautifully written bereavement ballad. Sung in Gill’s soaring tenor voice, it never fails to tug at my emotions and trouble my tear ducts.
Because of its aching beauty, no first-tier funeral here is considered complete without having Gill present to sing it. Watching him fighting back the tears as he and Patty Loveless sang it for George, I felt immense sympathy for Gill. The song understandably conjures deep sorrow for him and the added pressure of having to perform it publicly for another lost comrade is almost too much to consider. Yet, to his credit, Vince always answers the call, however painful the task may be.
Now that the service is over, the next step is canonization. “St. George” will henceforth be remembered in hushed and reverent tones. No doubt, somewhere a statue is being carved and everywhere, memorial t-shirts are being sold depicting the Jones boy ringed in roses. It saddens me to think that this lionization will sand away the rough edges of George’s story, making it all yang and no yin.
Above all else, he was human and his ability to convey the full range of life’s experiences was his greatest gift. His voice, that unparalleled voice, delivered the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens with a believability that could not be contrived. He sang those songs because he LIVED those songs, and through him, we lived them as well. He could be as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, kick like a white lightning-fueled mule and take you through tender years better than anyone.
Though I am saddened by his passing, I will continue to rejoice in his rich recorded legacy. My comfort, my solace is in knowing that whenever I need The Possum, he is just a 45 away. Thank you for the songs, George, and put in a good word for Vince.