By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Country music legend George Jones' final standing ovation, after a career filled with them, came on Thursday afternoon at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
And the song that brought about 4,000 fans and friends to their feet was Jones' signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," fittingly a tune about both love and death.
Alan Jackson, a long-time friend, sang the song, channeling Jones' country traditionalism. Jackson ended by removing his white cowboy hat and waving it toward the heavens, looking up, tears on his cheeks, saying: "We love you, George."
Jones, whose honky-tonk career spanned more than six decades, died on April 26 at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with a fever and irregular blood pressure. He was 81.
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 a service that lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes.
All four Nashville TV stations carried the event live.
After Jackson left the stage, a spotlight shone on the yellow flower-draped coffin, and family members began to exit as a recording of Jones' voice filled the Grand Ole Opry with "When the Last Curtain Falls."
It was Jones' final farewell to the Grand Ole Opry, the home of the venerable radio show in which he had been a cast member since 1956, almost from the East Texas beginnings of a career that was celebrated by musicians, politicians and other guests throughout the service.
ELDER STATESMAN OF COUNTRY MUSIC
Although the stunningly successful early years of his career were celebrated, the spotlight was on the last 30 years and his marriage to the former Nancy Ford Sepulvado, who Jones frequently said "saved my life."
During his career, Jones' drug and alcohol abuse and the incidents that accompanied them often gained more headlines than his legendary voice.
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.
Brad Paisley was among the performers to take their turns on a stage that was filled with floral arrangements, photographs and a rocking chair, a salute to Jones' classic "I Don't Need Your Rocking Chair."
"I'm lucky enough to have met George when he had gotten right, beat the demons, found Nancy and found God," Paisley said.
CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer talked about the voice, the songs and the dreams they fueled.
"Nobody could sing like George Jones unless you were George Jones," said Schieffer, a part-time country musician by hobby.
Former first lady Laura Bush, who sat next to Nancy Jones during the service, said she heard Jones' voice frequently during her White House years.
"We've had few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones," she said. "I heard ‘White Lightning' as George W. worked out on the treadmill listening to George J."
"He was blessed to be able to walk through the last 30 years with wife Nancy by his side," she said.
(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Cynthia Johnston, Gary Hill)