“He Stopped Loving Her Today” was George Jones’ signature hit, and after the epic arena concert celebrating him last night, it’s clear country music will never stop loving George Jones. Never ever. A cosmos of stars classic and new, including Brad Paisley, Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt and Jelly Roll, covered more than 30 songs Jones is known for, in front of an electric sold-out crowd at Huntsville, Alabama’s Von Braun Center. George’s widow Nancy Jones watched it all from the front row. Understandably, watching her late husband’s material, many of the lyrics about true love’s enduring power, performed again was bittersweet for Nancy, who executive produced the concert.
The concert, titled “Still Playin’ Possum,” was held 10 years after Jones died at age 81. The charismatic crooner’s essentials include songs like “The Race Is On,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and “The Grand Tour.”
“Still Playin’ Possum” nods to one of Jones’ nicknames, Possum, inspired by the singer’s distinctive facial features.
Another Jones nickname, “No Show Jones,” from a period when personal demons resulted in concert cancellations, was referenced in announcer Keith Bilbrey’s intro. “He ain’t gonna be here tonight either,” Bilbrey quipped.
“Still Playin’ Possum” was three hours of highlights. All of it. But Wynonna Judd and Jamey Johnson’s rousing version of ‘Golden Ring,” Jones’ 1976 hit with then-wife Tammy Wynette, was an apex. Judd’s big pipes and Johnson’s gravitas were great together.
Wearing a fringed black ensemble, her red locks sprinkled with glitter, Judd oozed star power the moment she strode onstage. Before they launched into “Golden Ring,” Judd said into her mic, “It’s about to get country in here!” After she, Johnson and the concert’s ace backing band finished the song, Judd said, “I want to do it again!” After a performance like that — of a song like that, by a singer like that — no one would’ve objected.
The Jones tribute concert ran about as long as a college football game. But it never dragged. Besides all the talent and great songs, the performers switched up pretty much every song. That kept things brisk and moving.
Jamey Johnson got the night rolling with “Who’s Gonna Fill Your Shoes?,” as images of Jones and other departed country greats flashed on the stage’s video screen. As he sang, the longhaired Johnson played an old acoustic guitar covered with autographs, from the likes of Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
The evening’s first set also featured: Janie Fricke, Tracy Byrd, Dillon Carmichael and Michael Ray swaggering on “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”; Jones’ former fiddler Tim Watson tearing up “One Woman Man”; vocal quartet The Isaacs’ gospel-tinged “Right Left Hand”; and post-grunge-singer-gone-country Aaron Lewis doing “Choices.”
Sara Evans, her luxe-gypsy look evoking Stevie Nicks, belted “She Things I Still Care.” (Evans swapped the pronoun with “He.”) Travis Tritt duckwalked across the stage during a spirited “The Race Is On.” Trace Adkins bellowed “Same Ole Me” while looking like Gregg Allman rebooted as an NFL tight-end. Dierks Bentley aced “Why Maybe Why” while looking like a grunge frontman. Recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Tanya Tucker filled “When The Grass Grows Over Me” with soul.
One of the night’s many emotional moments came during Justin Moore and Joe Nichols’ version of “A Few Old Country Boys.” Country legend Randy Travis, who’s endured health challenges in recent years, was led on stage. Travis flashed his star’s smile. Everyone in the arena flashed back to memories of growing up to Travis’ hits, like “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
The concert paused for an intermission roughly the length of a “Dukes of Hazzard” episode. Second set gems included: Tracy Byrd pouring everything he had into “Once You’ve Had the Best”; Evans and Tracy Lawrence’s impassioned take on “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”: and 86-year-old soul singer Sam Moore wowing the arena on “The Blues Man.”
A sequined Janie Fricke summoned ‘90s vibes with “You’ve Still Got A Place in My Heart.” Lawrence returned to romp through “The Corvette Song.” Gretchen Wilson brought grit to the ballad “I Always Get Lucky With You.”
Tucker came back for a spellbinding “The Grand Tour,” possibly the greatest sad country song ever. Jamey Johnson and Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr did an outlaw-cool version of “Yesterday’s Wine.” T. Graham Brown put on a country-singing clinic during “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Lorrie Morgan, clad in a sharp suit, held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Twice. First, on a soul-wrecking “A Picture of Me Without You” and later duetting with Jamey Johnson on “Near You.”
Face-tatted singer Jelly Roll sauntered onstage for the night’s penultimate song. Country’s hottest new star displayed why he connects, while singing “Bartender Blues.” Other featured performers at “Still Playin’ Possum” included John Berry, Anita Cochran, Heath Wright, Ty Herndon, Billy Yates, Sara Helberg, Uncle Kracker and Lisa Matassa.
Throughout the Jones tribute, several country music truths were evident. The genre’s great songs are filled with stories and emotions everyday people relate to. The genre’s great singers inhabit songs they sing like they live inside them. The genre’s great performers never forget people paid money to watch them tonight.
At “Still Playin’ Possum” a 10-piece band supported the big names. It was the best kind of backing band for a concert like this. Their music and vocals, perfect. Yet they were purposely invisible onstage, happy to cede the spotlight. Evans and Morgan made it a point to bring attention to the band, all clad in black.
While the band was acknowledged, they were announced individually. So we’re gonna do that now. Hats off to backing vocalists Cherie Oakley and Monty Allen; pianist Brent Rader; acoustic guitarist Tim Galloway; drummer Josh Hunt; bassist Mark Fain; steel guitarist Eddie Dunlap; electric guitarist James Mitchell; and fiddler Dan Hochhalter. They were the night’s unsung heroes.
If you weren’t there last night, you’ll get another shot at experiencing the Jones tribute. “Still Playin’ Possum” was filmed for a TV special. The channel and broadcast date have yet to be announced. During the show, a remotely operated camera moved back and forth in front of the stage on a dolly. It looked like some kind of “Star Wars” droid. A couple of Steadicam operators filmed closeups of the musicians onstage. A boom mounted camera orbited overhead.
Clad in purple, TV chef and author Paula Deen hosted the concert. Her sassy personality engaged the crowd before both sets.
The arena’s audience had some Nashville-imported blondes and bling in the mix. But fans there were mostly salt-of-the-earth types. This was a country concert, not a pop-country concert or country-rock concert. Most fans were clad in things like Bass Pro Shop caps, Atlanta Braves T-shirts or blouses purchased at big-box retailers. I didn’t see a single AC/DC or Def Leppard shirt. But I saw plenty of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard tees.
In the arena’s entry area, a merch table selling George Jones gear was nearly sold-out by the end. Acoustic guitars the concert’s stars had autographed were auctioned off to benefit local police officers recently killed and injured in the line of duty.
“Still Playin’ Possum” concluded the only way it could, with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” For the closer, the concert brought in a ringer. Cowboy-hatted superstar Brad Paisley strode onstage, acoustic guitar in hand.
If “The Grand Tour” isn’t country’s greatest sad song, then “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is. Spoiler alert: The lyrics describe a love that only death can halt. Paisley sang a celestial take on “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Images of night sky flashed on the video screen behind him.
Meanwhile, Nancy Jones, who was married to George Jones for more than 30 years, clasped a tissue. She smiled through her tears. Seated beside her, the widows of Charlie Daniels and guitarist Jimmy Capps, Hazel Daniels and Michelle Capps, both visions of Southern grace, clearly related too.
Maybe more than any other genre, country’s the music of families. “Still Playin’ Possum” proved country music is a family too. Within a family or otherwise, it means more to say “I love you” with actions than with words. The musicians and fans who celebrated Jones again last night did just that.