"Y'all keep that up," George Jones used to tell his audiences as they cheered him on, "and we might just be here 'til two or three o'clock in the morning."
With nearly 100 singers and musicians lined up at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena to pay him tribute Friday night (Nov. 22), it looked like the late country vocal stylist was finally going to deliver on his tantalizing promise.
And what a show it was!
Imagine being able to witness live performances by Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, the Oak Ridge Boys, Vince Gill, Kid Rock, Martina McBride, Eric Church, Brad Paisley, Travis Tritt, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels and dozens of other stars -- all within a four-hour span -- and you get some idea of how powerful the occasion it turned out to be.
The producers billed the event as "Playin' Possum: The Final No Show Tribute." ("Possum" and "No Show" were Jones' most common nicknames, the latter alluding to his habit of not showing up for concerts during his bygone days of heavy drinking and drugging.)
Originally scheduled as his final concert before he retired, the event coalesced into a memorial after he died April 26 at the age of 81.
Fully a third of the nearly sold-out crowd had taken their seats an hour before the show started. They looked out upon a simple stage with no curtain and no pyrotechnical gizmos. Gleaming neon at the back of the stage were two vintage jukeboxes placed side by side. A rocking chair with Jones' logo on it sat empty at stage right, bathed in a white spotlight.
This was the unchanging backdrop for all the singers.
The rocking chair, of course, was a nod to Jones' 1992 hit which fiercely declared, "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair."
The tight schedule worked to the show's advantage, distilling the event to almost pure music. For the most part, the performers walked on stage, sang their songs and walked off without saying a word to the audience.
Former members of Jones' band -- the Jones Boys -- augmented by freelance studio players provided music for all the performers.
Nancy Jones, the singer's wife who is credited with putting his once-tattered career back on track, sat regally in the front row, looking every inch the bereaved queen.
Big & Rich opened the proceedings with "Love Bug" (1965), driving onto the stage in two green garden tractors, a visual reference to the time Jones transported himself to a liquor store on just such a vehicle after his wife had taken away his car keys.
(The parenthetical dates indicate the year the song charted.)
Kid Rock favored the crowd with a cover of Jones' classic "White Lightning" (1959), after which Brooks and Yearwood took the spotlight to face each other and sing "Take Me," a song Jones released as a solo in 1965 and recorded again as a duet with Tammy Wynette in 1971.
This was followed by a group performance -- the first of several designed to wedge in all those who wanted to honor Jones -- that included Janie Fricke, Leona Williams and Grand Ole Opry stars Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely, Jeanne Pruett and Emmylou Harris.
They sang "If My Heart Had Windows" (1967), "Tender Years" (1961) and "I'm Not Ready Yet" (1980).
Lee Ann Womack delivered a particularly wistful reading of "Once You've Had the Best" (1973), while Charlie Daniels livened things up with the Tom T. Hall tune, "Me And Jesus."
Baillie & the Boys chimed in with Dailey & Vincent on "Ragged but Right," the country music evergreen Jones often performed.
Still hairy and still volatile, the Kentucky Headhunters blazed through with "High-Tech Redneck" (1993). Then Sam Moore of Sam & Dave provided a bit of soul to the festivities via Hank Williams Jr.'s "The Blues Man."
Kathy Mattea came forth with the cheeky "I'm a Long Gone Daddy." Clay Walker offered a subtle rendition of "Things Have Gone to Pieces" (1965).
Entering to a tumultuous cheer, Eric Church sang a slow, reflective, at-first-unrecognizable interpretation of "Choices," Jones' 1999 hit which the Country Music Association declined to let him sing in full on its awards show that year and which Alan Jackson defiantly sang a swatch of instead. Jones' original version went on to win a Grammy for best male country vocal.
Tommy Shaw of the rock band Styx gave one of the best performances of the evening with an intensely focused reading of "She Thinks I Still Care" (1962), accompanied by a weeping steel guitar.
Dierks Bentley sang "I Always Get Lucky With You" (1983), and the Oak Ridge Boys rang out with the reassuring "Same Ole Me," which they had accompanied Jones on in his 1982 recording.
Larry Gatlin demonstrated he still has one of the finest voices in country music when he undertook the inconsolably sad "Good Year for the Roses," which Jones recorded originally in 1970 and then again with Alan Jackson in 1994.
Up next was another group performance that included Suzy Bogguss, T.G. Sheppard, Tracy Lawrence, Jett Williams, Collin Raye, T. Graham Brown and Lisa Matassa. They did "The Love in Your Eyes," "Wine Colored Roses" (1986) and "I'll Share My World With You" (1969).
Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert riveted the crowd with the mournful "These Days I Barely Get By" (1975).
Josh Turner scored with the rollicking "I'm a One Woman Man" (1989), making great use of his subterranean bass voice.
Craig Morgan skipped in with the festive "Finally Friday." Daryle Singletary and a backup group that featured Eddy Raven, Janie Fricke, Pam Tillis, Collin Raye, Tracy Lawrence, T.G. Sheppard and T. Graham Brown wrapped up the first segment of the show with "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair."
The wizened Grand Ole Opry legend Little Jimmie Dickens came out and sat in Jones' rocking chair to listen.
The actor Jon Voight spoke at intermission about Randy Travis' friendship with Jones and then lead the crowd in cheers for Travis, who is, he said, "making great strides" in recovering from a variety of ailments.
A group that included Eddy Raven, Lee Greenwood, Mark Collie, Ken Mellons and John Michael Montgomery ran through "The Cold Hard Truth" (1999), "The Right Left Hand" (1987) and "She's My Rock" (1984).
Travis Tritt rendered an exquisitely rueful reading of "The Door" (1974), and Brad Paisley moved right in afterward to have all the fun he should have with "The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song") (1985).
Jamey Johnson and the heavy metal band Megadeth joined voices for a surprisingly restrained version of "Wild Irish Rose."
Jim Lauderdale and the Roys mixed it up with the comically importuning "Why Baby Why" (1955), Jones' first chart record.
Bill Anderson, Bobby Bare, Jimmy C. Newman, John Conlee, Larry Gatlin, Ray Stevens, Jim Ed Brown and Stonewall Jackson trooped to the stage to offer "When the Last Curtain Falls," "Still Doin' Time" (1981) and "Some Day My Day Will Come."
Jamey Johnson returned to drawl out "Tennessee Whiskey" (1983). Rodney Atkins' contemplated "When the Grass Grows Over Me" (1968).
Still a stunningly effective vocalist, Lorrie Morgan wrung the last teardrop out of "A Picture of Me Without You" (1972), a song she resurrected as a Top 10 hit for herself in 1991.
Montgomery Gentry stomped on stage to rattle the rafters with "The Race Is On." "It's a party, baby," Montgomery yelled, predictably twirling his mic stand to make the point.
Thompson Square emerged to cover the George and Tammy hits, "Two Story House" (1980) and "We're Gonna Hold On" (1973).
Then out came the final group of the evening, including Eric Lee Beddingfield, Linda Davis, Mandy Barnett, Teea Goans, Greg Bates and Chad Warrix to pose the eternal lyrical question "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" (1985).
Shooter Jennings and his mother Jessi Colter paired their voices on "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will) (1981).
"To me, George Jones was the greatest vocalist ever," Patty Loveless proclaimed when she took the stage. "But he was a great songwriter, as well. And this is one of my favorites." With that she moaned out his "Color of the Blues" (1958).
Like Morgan, Loveless still retains the emotional power she revealed when she first came of age artistically in the 1980s.
Lisa Matassa returned to sing an impassioned version of "Walk Through This World With Me" (1967).
The ever on-target Vince Gill sent chills through the room with "Bartender's Blues," Jones' 1978 hit, which was written by James Taylor and on which Taylor provided background vocals.
The crowd leaped to its feet when George Strait loped into the spotlight. Announcing his adoration for Jones' music, he joked, "I think I was named after George."
He then sang a heartbreaking rendition of "The Grand Tour" (1974), after which Martina McBride joined him in a faithful cover of the George and Tammy 1976 weeper, "Golden Ring."
The crowd was still enthusiastic and cheering for more when Alan Jackson swept in to close the show with "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
After he finished to thunderous applause, Jackson beckoned Nancy Jones to the stage, and she stood beside him as he led the crowd in singing the chorus of "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
When the lights went down at 11:15 p.m., the crowd cheered and whistled for a full minute, hoping for an encore. But the show was over and by then a footnote for history.
In a song written by the acerbic Shel Silverstein, Bobby Bare once sang the skin-stripping refrain, "Nashville is rough on the living, but she really speaks well of the dead."
On this night, Nashville could rest easy. It had always loved George Jones. He was to country lyrics what Laurence Olivier was to a Shakespearean sonnet, a man who could transmute mere words into deeply felt emotional essences.
The crowd that poured out onto Fifth Avenue after the show knew this instinctively and treasured Jones for understanding them better than they knew themselves.
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