By Peter Cooper • THE TENNESSEAN
With a rainbow-colored ribbon around his neck signifying his position as a Kennedy Center Honoree, George Jones paused for a moment.
He stood on the most surreal red carpet in America — earlier that Sunday evening, that carpet had been crushed under the feet of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and the R&B musician who goes by the stage name Ne-Yo — and pondered a weekend spent amid Washington power players and fellow honorees Morgan Freeman, Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who.
“We’ve met some beautiful people, and they kind of feel like old friends,” said Jones, who at 77 is largely acknowledged as possessing the greatest singing voice in country music history. “We met Aretha Franklin, and she’s real nice. And Barbra Streisand, she’s just right down to earth. Barbra’s husband, James Brolin, he’s just about as country as you’re going to get. I mean, he loves country music. I’m very surprised that so many of them are familiar with my work.”
Jones’ wife, Nancy, then explained how she was going to have to crack the whip around their house over the holidays to keep Jones’ head from a perma-swell, given all the kind words directed his way in Washington during the nation’s most prominent annual arts celebration.
Host Caroline Kennedy praised Jones’ “tear-stained voice and raw emotion.” Laura Bush introduced the Jones tribute section of the Honors by saying that she and her husband “have heard few sounds more lovely than the voice of George Jones. It’s a beautiful gift to the world.” Lily Tomlin professed her fandom, Alan Jackson called Jones “the last great voice of real country music,” and Randy Travis said, “George has probably influenced more country artists than anyone that’s ever been in this business, or ever will be.”
Jones’ official tribute included versions of his songs from Travis, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley, and a stirring version of “Amazing Grace” from Shelby Lynne, whom Jones took under his wing when she was a teenager. That gospel song was a nod to Jones’ love of religious music and to his own life story, which involved plenty of shenanigans on the way to late-life sobriety.
Thirty years ago, Jones would have been cowed by the notion of sitting in starched clothes under chandeliers that snaked and gleamed like the rhinestone design on some giant’s Manuel suit, in between a president and a movie star. All that would have been more than enough incentive for Jones to get bombed out of his skull and miss another plane, giving yet another reason for folks to call him “No Show Jones” instead of his more respectable nickname of “Possum.”
Somehow, though, Jones seemed perfectly in place throughout the evening. As ambassadors and A-list celebrities, senators and statesmen found their seats, the sound system played Streisand’s elegant version of “Somewhere” and The Who’s nearly operatic “Love, Reign O’er Me,” and then came piano tinkles and a honky-tonk beat and a Bible Belt voice that sounded at home inside the capital beltway: “In North Carolina, way back in the hills/ Lived my old pappy and he had him a still,” began the recording of Jones’ “White Lightning.”
The official program began with Kennedy’s welcome, and with some video from a Sunday afternoon White House ceremony. At that meeting, outspoken Bush critic Streisand met the outgoing president for the first time, and their cheek-peck was surely the most uncomfortable screen kiss of her career. The apparently recession-proof Kennedy Center audience — some of the 2,300 audience members had paid as much as $4,000 for tickets — guffawed at the footage. Jones and Bush eschewed comedic possibilities and opted for a handshake.
Then the tributes started, with Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood talking about Tennessee native Freeman, who basked in blues performances from artists including 80-year-old Koko Taylor, 93-year-old Honeyboy Edwards, 95-year-old Pinetop Perkins and 83-year-old B.B. King. Daltrey and Townshend’s segment was next, and that one featured music from Dave Grohl, Bettye LaVette, Rob Thomas and Chris Cornell, as well as a riotous introduction from actor Jack Black, who praised The Who for “A collection of (expletive)-kicking songs the likes of which will never be seen again.”
Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp’s portion of the evening involved intricate, flowing movements that in no way resembled the stuff that Jones has seen a thousand times from, say, the Melvin Sloan Dancers at the Grand Ole Opry. And major stars — Beyonce, Glenn Close and Queen Latifah — participated in the Streisand section.
Friends helped celebrate
Jones’ moments came after the intermission, just prior to Streisand’s show-ending tribute. President Bush, who earlier had thumbed distractedly through a souvenir calendar while Kennedy spoke, appeared energized and enthused about Jones: He mouthed the words to “The Race Is On” while Brooks sang, and several times he patted Jones on the back good-naturedly.
Laura Bush spoke for several minutes about Jones’ legacy and “one-of-a-kind voice,” and then a video aired that documented Jones’ artistic triumphs and personal struggles.
“We’re celebrating his life,” Honors producer George Stevens, Jr. said during a rehearsal. “And so first we want to tell his story, and to do it with a certain grace.”
Paisley played and sang a version of Jones’ hit “Bartender’s Blues,” and Travis introduced his take on “One Woman Man” by saying, “The Lord only made one George Jones. … Probably thought, ‘That’s enough. Better stop right there.’ “
Jones seemed thrilled by Jackson’s restrained, respectful “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and Brooks performed what the script referred to as “The Possum Medley": “White Lightning,” “The Grand Tour” and “The Race Is On.”
Lynne’s “Amazing Grace” concluded the Possum portion, and thousand-dollar dresses rose from $4,000 seats as Jones received a standing ovation. He smiled and waved there in the Presidential box, looking at once regal and just as down to earth as . . . his new pal Barbra Streisand. George Jones was 700 miles from home and years removed from many dangers, toils and snares.