''They've took the heart and soul out of country,'' George Jones told EW in 1995. ''But sooner or later, it'll come back to the real stuff. I figure we'll still be around when it does.'' Eighteen years later, the man Merle Haggard and everyone else who knows the sound of heartbreak called ''the greatest country singer of all time'' was in the midst of his farewell Grand Tour when he died in a Nashville hospital on April 26 at the age of 81. But in his absence, the ''real stuff'' did return: Artists influenced by the raw honesty and soulful phrasing in a career that spanned more than 50 years and more than 160 charting singles paid their respects on stages across the country in the days leading up to Jones' May 2 public funeral at the Grand Ole Opry House. The songs they covered doubled as a litany of Jones classics: ''He Stopped Loving Her Today'' (Alan Jackson), ''Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes'' (Jamey Johnson), ''Bartender's Blues'' (Brad Paisley, Jimmy Buffett), ''She Thinks I Still Care'' (Toby Keith, Alabama), and ''Choices'' (Lady Antebellum, Chris Young).
As with so many great storytellers, Jones' own tale was a tall one. After busking on the streets of Beaumont, Tex., as a teen, he scored his first No. 1 hit in 1959 with ''White Lightning.'' His relationship with third wife and fellow superstar Tammy Wynette produced some of country's most beloved duets (''Golden Ring,'' ''We're Gonna Hold On'') but also some of its nastiest headlines, as the man known as the Possum battled the demons that earned him another nickname, ''No Show Jones.'' He credited his 30-year marriage to his fourth wife, Nancy, with saving him. ''George Jones' life is an example of so many wonderful things,'' Brad Paisley said in a statement following his passing. ''How someone's God-given gifts can make this a richer, better place. How one human being can overcome adversity, addiction, and life-threatening obstacles time and time again. That it is not the stumble or fall that counts, but the willingness to stand again.''
On the 1985 single ''Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes'' from his album of the same name, Jones paid tribute to greats like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson: ''You know, this old world is full of singers/But just a few are chosen/To tear your heart out when they sing/Imagine life without 'em.'' In many ways, it's Jones' own boots that left the biggest imprint of all.