It goes without saying that 2016 was a historic year for the notable and tragic deaths of so many important people from across American culture and the world stage. Country music was no exception, suffering the loss of many all-time greats and other notable contributors in one of the most tragic years the genre has ever faced. Here is a remembrance of those who left us in 2016.
Andrew Dorff – December 19th
Andrew Dorff was the kind of mainstream country music songwriter Nashville needed more of—someone who wrote the sleeper hits of surprising depth and humanity compared to most radio singles, and the solid album cuts from mainstream artists you may otherwise write off.
When Saving Country Music went to put together an Apolitical Playlist to try and get through the acrimony of the recent Presidential election, the first song that sprang to mind was Ronnie Dunn’s “Bleed Red” penned by Andrew Dorff and Tommy Lee James.
Andrew Dorff was the songwriter that could pen those songs that cut across the often polarizing lines between mainstream and independent, contemporary and classic. And he did it with words and melodies that were universal and timeless in how they touched the human ear. His father is Steve Dorff, who is also an accomplished songwriter that penned “The Man in Love with You” and “I Cross My Heart” for George Strait, and Eddie Rabbit’s “Every Which Way But Loose.” Andrew’s brother Stephen Dorff is an actor who is readying the release of a film where he plays an aspiring country star that moves from Texas to Nashville.
Al Batten – November 20th
First formed in February of 1972 with David Turnage, Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion have been a staple of bluegrass in their home of Selma, North Carolina and beyond for nearly 45 years. For the first 20 years of the band, it was mostly a local project as Al Batten and the other members focused on careers, raising families, church, and participating in their local communities. Along with a bluegrass player, Al Batten was a farmer, a former Boy Scout and FFA leader, and agriculture teacher, and performed many other civic duties throughout his life.
Later as the members of Bluegrass Reunion began to retire, they were freed up to tour more, and made regular junkets across the east coast of the United States, and even made their way to Ireland on a number of occasions to participate in the International Bluegrass and Folk Festival. As a banjo player, Al Batten was inspired by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Bill Emerson among others, and developed his own unique style of banjo playing over the years. He first picked up the instrument at the age of 17 before attending North Carolina State University.
As the bandleader of the Bluegrass Reunion, Al Batten led the outfit to being awarded numerous accolades by The Eastern NC Bluegrass Association and The Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, or Pinecone. Beyond his band accomplishments, Al Batten was considered a kind-hearted, down-to-earth friend with a quick wit.
Holly Dunn – November 15th
Active mostly in the late 80’s into the mid 90’s, Dunn accumulated 10 Top 20 hits, including two #1’s with 1989’s “Are You Ever Going to Love Me,” and 1990’s Yoakam-esque “You Really Had Me Going.” Her song “Daddy’s Hands” from her debut self-titled album is also a fan favorite, and helped put Holly Dunn on the map when she was still signed to a minor label.
But like so many country stars, after about five or six years of success, the industry decided they had gotten about all they wanted from Holly Dunn, and she slowly faded away from sight. Her last record on Warner Bros. was 1992’s Get It Dunn, but the singles failed to crack the Top 50. In 1995 she released an album via River North Records, but her mainstream career was ostensibly done. This was confirmed when she received a phone call from the Grand Ole Opry.
“I had really participated as a younger member,” Holly Dunn told the The 9513.com in February of 2010 in one of their Where Are The Now? segments. “I hosted the TV show and backstage show for two years. I was Bill Anderson’s substitute host when he couldn’t be there. And I did commercials for them and radio for them. I loved the Opry and what it stood and stands for.”
Leon Russell – November 13th
From country to rock, from the studio to the stage, from collaborations with Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, and Frank Sinatra, Leon Russell was popular music’s piano man for a generation. Born in Lawton, Oklahoma on April 2nd, 1942, Leon Russell started his music career as a piano player in the clubs and honky tonks of Tulsa when he was 14-years-old, including in his first official group The Starlighters which also included guitar player J.J. Cale. After moving to Los Angeles in 1958 to pursue music, Russell became one of the most in demand session musicians in the history of American music, becoming part of “The Wrecking Crew”—a collective of studio musicians who can be found on an incredible list of hits for a wide range of performers in the 1960.
Among Russell’s admirers was Willie Nelson, who was the hot hand in country music at the time. When Leon played Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic in 1976, it would be the start of a relationship that would last Leon Russell’s lifetime, crowned by their #1 single in country, “Heartbreak Hotel” off of their Gold record from 1979, One For The Road. Nelson and Russell would continue to collaborate throughout the years, and Russell became a regular of Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics.
Like many artists from the 60’s and 70’s, Leon Russell’s popular career began to decline throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, though he was considered a legend throughout music. In 2009, interest in Russell’s career found a resurgence after working with Elton John, and in 2011 he was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Leonard Cohen – November 7th
As if mother universe hasn’t had a dandy old time over the last few days running all of us stuck on the mortal coil through the mother of all emotional gauntlets, now we’re being asked to field the devastating news that Canadian songwriter, performer, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away this Thursday (11-10) at the age of 82. Incredibly revered by a beloved crowd of creative types ranging all across the musical and literary world, Cohen was irreplaceably influential on so many songwriters specifically in the way he could weave verse on subjects and emotions so many of us otherwise find too esoteric to communicate.
Though Leonard Cohen is rarely identified with country (he was mostly considered a folk artist), you will be hard pressed to find a country music songwriter worth their salt who wasn’t touched by Cohen’s influence in some way, if not overtly challenged by the bar he set for all in the songwriting craft in country music and beyond. But a little known fact about Cohen is that he could have been, and maybe should have been, a country music songwriter and performer.
Cohen’s very first musical experience was in a country band called The Buckskin Boys while attending high school in Quebec. It was during this time that he switched from playing regular style acoustic guitar to a more classical, Flamenco style. In 1966 when Leonard Cohen set out to become a professional composer, his plan was to move to Nashville and become a country music songwriter. But somewhere on that path he got sidetracked, and instead fell in with the folk scene in New York. If this seemingly simple decision had gone the other way, it could have significantly changed this history of country, and folk from the incredible impact Cohen could have left on the country space.
Bap Kennedy – November 1st
Not known by every country, blues, and Americana fan, but cherished deeply by the ones who did, songwriter and performer Bap Kennedy took his cross-Atlantic enthusiasm for roots music and became one of the most well-respected musicians and songwriters by his peers ranging from Nashville to Belfast during his nearly 40-year career.
A diverse and accomplished songwriter, Bap Kennedy began his career in punk and rock bands such as Sellout and 10 Past 7 in the late 70’s and early 80’s, blowing out eardrums in his hometown of Belfast before heading to London to pursue music more seriously. It was there that Kennedy helped establish the band Energy Orchard that for nearly a decade was a mainstay of the London live scene, opening up for many of the touring artists passing through London in the day.
From there Bap Kennedy became a favorite collaborator of A-list musical performers, including fellow Ireland natives Van Morrison, Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, and Scotland’s incomparable Mark Knopfler. Bap became even more internationally recognized for writing the song “Moonlight Kiss” from the 2001 movie Serendipity.
Curly Putman – October 30th
Putnam had a prolific songwriting career, including writing such songs as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “My Elusive Dreams” by Tammy Wynette, “Dumb Blonde” by Dolly Parton, T.G. Sheppard’s “Do You Want To Go To Heaven,” and a dozen other successful charting singles.
But two songs would go on to define Curly Putnam’s contributions. The first was “Green Green Grass of Home”—a hit first for Porter Wagoner, later for Tom Jones, and went on to be recorded by more than 30 times, including by the likes of Bobby Bare, Roger Miller, Charley Pride, Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Joan Baez, George Jone, Elvis, and The Grateful Dead.
Putnam also had some influence in the rock world. Paul McCartney’s band Wings recorded a song called “Junior’s Farm” that was inspired by a stay at Curly’s farm in Wilson County, Tennessee in 1974. Curly Putman was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976, and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
Chris Porter & Mitchell Vanderburg – October 19th
We love our favorite touring bands in their beat up Ford Econolines, hand-me-down Dodge Sprinters, and decommissioned rattletrap fleet vans ambling down the road. Because when they come to our town, they bring the joy of music with them, and when they leave they carry a sense of freedom that can only be delivered by the open road, and for many of us, can only be experienced vicariously though our favorite artists ticking off tour dates to interesting places we may never get to see on a winding path dictated by the dates on the back of a T-shirt, or a stylized tour poster.
That constant motion of bands rolling down the road is as poetic and eternal as the music itself. You can almost feel the energy in the air as they wheel down the road. They leave their home and comfort, flying down the interstate in the dead of night, trying to get some shut eye stretched out on a bench seat scrunched between music gear, with not much to do and their personal lives on pause, eating puffy junk food for dinner and praying for clean public toilets at the next truck stop. For you.
The journey of Chris Porter and Mitchell Vanderburg—touring under the name Porter and the Bluebonnet Rattlesnakes—ended Wednesday, October 19th at roughly 2:00 p.m. when their tour vehicle was struck from behind by a tractor trailer, pinning them underneath another truck in front of them. They were on Interstate 95 near Smithfield, North Carolina, after playing a show in Charleston, South Carolina on Tuesday night. On the Interstate is where Chris Porter and Mitchell Vanderburg’s tour, and life, ended. A third member of the band—drummer Adam Nurre—remarkably survived the crash, but was injured in the crash.
John Conquest – September 30th
In an era when music coverage has become nothing but an endless parade of plaudits by corporate-owned entities looking to drive traffic to their websites, John Conquest was a hard-nosed, honest, dogged, pugnacious, and ruthless critic that would tell it like it is, positive or negative, without holding back. Curmudgeoney and prone to run on sentences, stream of consciousness writing, and sometimes personal feuds, Conquest would fill up the pages of 3rd Coast Music with insightful and entertaining commentary, not to say anything about the independent and underground country and roots bands he regularly championed in print. John would talk about the artists without labels or publicists—the artists that everyone else ignored, but that deserved a bigger spotlight.
Originally called Music City Texas, 3rd Coast Music never acquiesced to the internet model of publishing, even in the face of the obvious change in the music coverage medium. First published in print, 3rd Coast music could be found on stands around Austin where Conquest and 3rd Coast were based. John Conquest and 3rd Coast Music were part of what made the Austin music scene so unique and interesting. Nowhere else would such a periodical be allowed to thrive. And now, like much of the musical journalism that is actually worth reading, and much of the vibrant scene that made Austin the Live Music Capital of the World, it is gone, and so is its colorful skipper.
Jean Shepard – September 24th
Born Ollie Imogene Shepard November 21st, 1933 in Oklahoma, but later migrating to the Bakersfield area of California, her first brush with music came in the form of the all female band the Melody Ranch Girls in 1948. She was discovered by Hank Thompson a few years later and signed to Capitol Records in 1952.
Like so many female country singers at the time, it was hard for Shepard to break through. Her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” did not chart, and making it doubly hard for Shepard was the fact that she continued to use a more honky tonk sound to her music, even while the industry was shifting to the Countrypolitan sound.
But with the #1 success of “A Dear John Letter,” Shepard was able to find success all of her own. In the mid 1950’s she broke through with a string of hits, and as a member of the Ozark Jubilee stage show broadcast nationwide on ABC. This led to signing with the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and success that would carry her career well into the 70’s with hits such as “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” “A Tear Dropped By,” and 1969’s “Then He Touched Me.”
Bud Isaacs – September 4th
The seminal instrument of country music would not sound the same, and many of country’s golden hits would not be as sweet if it weren’t for Bud Isaacs. A member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, a player on countless country music recordings, and once member of the Ozark Jubilee, Bud Issacs was vital to helping form the sound of country music.
Bud Isaacs wasn’t just a steel guitar player, he was the man who revolutionized the instrument by adding the foot and knee pedals that allow the steel guitar to change the pitch of singles strings as opposed to having to change to a different chord all at the same time. This made Bud Isaacs and other steel guitar players the musical wizards of the day, able to emulate the moans and yodels of country’s legendary singers with the steel’s mournful tone.
Born March 28th, 1928 in Bedford, Indiana, he began to play steel guitar on local radio stations at the age of 16, eventually heading to Nashville and performing on the Grand Ole Opry with Eddie Hill, and later in Jimmy Dickens’ Country Boys. Webb Pierce’s 1954 hit “Slowly” was the first major song to feature Bud Isaacs’ new take on the steel guitar, and it revolutionized the instrument, and country music with it.
Devarati Ghosh – A.K.A. Windmills Country – September 2nd
Unlike much of the writing on Saving Country Music, Ghosh did not just post what she believed or what she felt about a certain artist or a certain subject. Through detailed research and analysis, she would present certifiable facts behind her assertions that were not just brilliant and enlightening in how they opened up esoteric subjects to common understanding, but that were bulletproof in their conclusions. She did not take up every cause, but the ones she did, she won the argument, and always had the final word, bolstered by hard facts and detailed statistics. Though dogged and determined, she was also incredibly patient and willing to explain even the most minute detail to both major music power players, to the most common fly-by-night fans in order to create a common understanding, while also being willing to acquiesce that taste and appeal were things that numbers could not always refute or explain.
Devarati Ghosh made the hardest elements of the music industry easy to understand, was a chart wonk inhabiting her own echelon of expertise, but moreover, she was a music fan who brought her passion for research to the medium to challenge norms and dug-in perspectives in a way mere commentary could never equate to in effectiveness. What Windmills Country did was irreplaceable, because nobody had ever taken such an analytical approach to music commentary and criticism before, and nobody possesses her unique skill set, disposition, and passion to ever do it again.
Hoot Hester – August 30th
Hubert Dwane Hester was born August 13, 1951 on a small farm just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, and later attended Louisville’s Southern High School. In 1973 he moved to Nashville after competing in a fiddling contest where Chet Atkins was one of the judges, and took his first job as a fiddle player for The Whites. Over his career, Hester played in the bands of Bill Monroe, The Compton Brothers, Donna Fargo, Conway Twitty, Ricky Van Shelton, Mel Tillis Jerry Reed, and many others. But Hester was not much for touring, so in 1980 he began to focus on becoming a studio musician, and his work can be heard on scores of recordings from the era.
In 1997, Hoots helped form the Time Jumpers with Dennis Crouch, and he appears on the band’s first record. Hoots regularly played on the Grand Ole Opry throughout his career, and officially became part of the Opry’s house band in 2000. Hoot was fired from the Opry in 2014 in the one of the institution’s many controversial moves over the years, but Hoot remained active in and around Nashville.
Later in life, Hoot worked regularly with Earl Scruggs up to his death in 2012. He also was the bandleader behind Rachael Hester and The Tennessee Walkers—the band of his youngest daughter.
Bonnie Brown – July 16th
Born Bonnie Jean Brown on July 31, 1938, she was the youngest member of the country and folk trio that rose to prominence in the mid and late 50’s, principally with their Grammy-nominated song “The Three Bells” which became a #1 hit on Billboard’s country and pop charts, and eventually sold over 1 million copies.
Formed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas after brother and sister Jim Ed and Maxine Brown signed a record deal as a singing duo, The Browns got their big break on Ernest Tubb’s radio show after singing their original song “Looking Back to See.” After the 18-year-old Bonnie graduated high school, she joined the act as well and they began performing regularly on the Louisiana Hayride and the Ozark Jubilee. As the family band continued to perform and release music, their prominence only grew, eventually making appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. Some of the trio’s other hits included “Scarlet Ribbons,” “The Old Lamplighter,” and a version of “Blue Christmas.”
In 1963, The Browns became members of the Grand Ole Opry, and in March of 2015, the band was announced as inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bonnie’s brother Jim Ed died three months later, also of lung Cancer. Unlike her other two siblings, Bonnie Brown did not pursue a solo career when the band disbanded in 1967, but continued to perform upon occasion.
Dr. Ralph Stanley – June 23rd
Ralph Stanley began his career in 1946 with his older brother Carter, touring and recording as the Stanley Brothers before Carter’s death in 1966. Over the next 50 years, Ralph Stanley mentored the likes of Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, his backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys was one of the most vital and prolific proving grounds for world-class bluegrass musicians, he won three Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
Possibly his most crowning achievement was his participation in the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000 that sold over 7 million copies and opened the gift of bluegrass to a whole new generation. Stanley’s contribution to that soundtrack was the old traditional song, “O Death.” Though a simple composition, the soul with which Stanley delivered its message is one of the most haunting music experiences ever recorded.
Ralph Edmond Stanley was born in the tiny town of McClure, Virginia in Dickenson County on February 25th, 1927. Stanley continued to live in the rural portion of Southwest Virginia for his entire life. His home life was not especially musical growing up, and he didn’t start playing the banjo until his mid teens when his mother bought a banjo from his aunt. He was taught the clawhammer style of banjo from his mother, but eventually developed his own playing style. After graduating from high school in 1945, Stanley joined the army for about a year. Upon his return to Virginia he immediately began performing with his brother Carter who was playing in another bluegrass band. The two brothers formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, which went on to become one of the most influential bluegrass bands in history.
Freddy Powers – June 21st
Born October 13th, 1931 in Duncan, Oklahoma, he moved to the small town of Seminole, Texas when he was six. It was there his family band would play Dixieland jazz tunes for locals, and Powers got his start in the music business. Eventually Powers would go on to receive some of the highest songwriting recognitions in country music, including the Triple Play award from the CMA for writing three #1 songs in a year. But in between, Freddy Powers would live a life that was like something out of a Hollywood script.
The Freddy Powers / Merle Haggard friendship is the stuff of legend all to itself. The story goes that in 1981, Merle Haggard asked Freddy to move onto a houseboat beside him on Lake Shasta in northern California. Merle wanted to know more about jazz, and Freddy wanted to study more about country music. If you want to know how and where the horns and other jazz influences crept into Merle’s music later in his career, it was his friendship with Freddy. Both men had just gone through divorces, and for the good part of a decade, the Freddy / Merle days and nights were reportedly filled with wild parties and trips across Lake Shasta in a open air homemade plane the pair made together. The two even built their own houseboats.
Also during this time, a lot of music was made between Freddy Powers and Merle Haggard. Powers became a mainstay in Merle’s backing band, and he wrote half the songs on Merle’s album It’s All in the Game from 1984. Merle and Powers also co-wrote the song “I Always Get Lucky With You,” which became a mega hit for George Jones, and Freddy also wrote material for Ray Charles. All of this success led to Freddy finally being able to release his own opus as a frontman, The Country Jazz Singer. There was also an appearance on Austin City Limits, and soon Freddy Powers was a legend in Outlaw country circles and beyond.
Chips Moman – June 13th
If it was American and Southern, it’s likely Chips Moman had a hand in the sound. Though he would go on to be known for his many contributions to country music, including writing “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” and producing albums from Willie Nelson, Gary Stewart, Tammy Wynette, and The Highwaymen, it all started in Memphis when Chips was 17 and hitchhiked from Georgia where he was born. Chips died in LaGrange, Georgia, and he was born in LaGrange, Georgia on June 12th, 1937. He died a day after his 79th birthday.
In Memphis, Moman fell in with the Sun Studios crowd, and won spots as a guitar player in the touring bands of artists like Gene Vincent and Johnny Burnette. After s short stint in Los Angeles where he played in studio sessions at the famed Gold Star Recording Studios, he settled back in Memphis to start Satellite Records in 1957 with Jim Stewart, implementing what he learned at Gold Star. Satellite eventually became known as Stax, and one of the most seminal record labels and genuine American sounds was born. Even today, artists do what they can to emulate the magic that came from those early Stax records.
But it wasn’t at Stax where Chips Moman’s most lasting contributions were made. Leaving the label in 1962, he started his own recording facility called American Sound Studio, where some of the most legendary songs and albums of American music were cut. In the decades that would follow, Chips and the studio would be responsible for over 120 charting singles in multiple genres, including country and soul. Wilson Picket, Dusty Springfield, and Bobby Womack were just a few of the notable American Sound Studio artists, with “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and Elvis Presley’s “In The Ghetto” and “Kentucky Rain” all being cut at the facility.
“Mr. Bandana” Cloninger – June 6th
There was nobody else like Mr. Bandana. And now that he’s gone, there will never be anyone like him again. He was a true last of the breed, and one of the few remaining authentic Outlaws who lived his own way, spoke his mind no matter the outcome or insult taken, and you will never find a more dedicated and loyal supporter of the music he championed over his many years of service to artists and the underground country and roots scene.
Born January 31st, 1953, “Mr. Bandana” Cloninger had been a roadie for David Allan Coe during the performer’s most notorious era. Later he became a roadie and right hand man for many years for Hank Williams Jr. Most recently, Mr. Bandana was a confidant, counselor, and elder for a litany of underground country, roots, and heavy metal artists, including Hank Williams III (Hank3), Jeff Clayton and ANTISeen, Shooter Jennings, and many more.
Mr. Bandana was not hard to pick out of a concert crowd. His favorite salute was a middle finger, and he regularly wore bandanas that proudly displayed the offensive digit prominently while touting himself as a “professional asshole.” But those who knew him, those who spent time with him, and especially his friends and family understood that under his rough exterior was and extreme amount of heart and loyalty to others, and a special passion and dedication to music.
He played drums for Kitty Wells and Charlie Louvin, Jeannie Seely and Jack Greene, and Mel Tillis and Dottie West over his long career, but he will forever be known as one of the backbones of one of the most beloved bands in Nashville, the Western swing-inspired supergroup The Time Jumpers, and one of the friendliest musicians you would ever meet.
Rick Vanaugh was born on August 3rd, 1954, and was originally from Youngstown, Ohio. It is said Rick was so passionate about country music, he immediately pursued a career after finishing high school, moving to Nashville and getting his start behind Charlie Louvin. This would lead to a string of high-profile gigs behind numerous country music Hall of Famers, and multiple television appearances on TNN shows such as Church Street Station and New Country. Vanaugh joined Lorrie Morgan’s band in 1989, and played on her 1991 record Something in Red, and spent half a decade playing for the country star. He also played on Vince Gill’s 2011 record The Guitar Slinger.
Later in life though, Vanaugh’s claim to fame would become his steady hand behind The Time Jumpers. Joining in 1998 to take the place of Kenny Malone when the band landed a regular gig at The Station Inn, Rick Vanaugh became a staple of the supergroup of studio musicians and notable Nashville artists, including Vince Gill, fiddle player Kenny Sears, and steel guitar player Paul Franklin.
Guy Clark – May 17th
Like a great sage that only speaks his wisdom once every few years, when Guy Clark played a song or released an album, you stopped down, and you listened. Like the tone of Willie Nelson’s guitar or Johnny Cash’s voice, a Guy Clark song has become an irreplaceable institution of American music. Even if you’re only familiar with his songs though the performances of others, or songs by others that he influenced, Guy Clark’s handiwork is embedded in the very ethos of what we know as songwriting in American music today, even if that influence is imperceptible to the average listener.
If you need any more evidence of the influence of Guy Clark, just appreciate he’s the only one that has the legitimate ability to claim himself the honorary fifth Highwayman, and that he was a primary influence on one of his best friends, Townes Van Zandt.
Born in Monahans, Texas on Nov. 6, 1941, he went on to become one of the most revered songwriters in the history of country music and beyond. He released a total of 14 studio albums, including for major labels RCA and Warner, as well as Sugar Hill and Dualtone, and though he never saw significant commercial success in his solo career, his songs went on to become some of the most signature tunes for other performers.
Guy Clark is regularly listed at the very top of lists of country music’s greatest songwriters, and has to be considered a candidate for posthumous induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame as a songwriter in the future.
“Emilio” Navaira – May 16th, 2016
A country music star, a Tejano music star, and timelessly important to bridging the two worlds of country and Tejano together, Emilio Navaira was the cross-border “Garth Brooks of Tejano” who brought the Mexican influence into country, the country influence to Tejano, and opened up both genres to new influences.
Born in San Antonio on August 23, 1962 to Mexican-American parents, he grew listening to both the Tejano music present on the south side of San Antonio, and the country music of Texas from artists such as Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, and later George Strait. in 1983 at age of 21, Emilio began singing in Tejano bands, including for David Lee Garza y Los Musicales, which competed with Tejano superstar Selena for one of the most popular Tejano acts of the time. In 1989, he formed his own band, and by the mid 90’s began going under the mononym “Emilio,” and signed to Columbia Records.
Emilio would go on to release a total of 15 studio albums, sell over 2 million records, and win both an American and Latin Grammy. In the mid 90’s he switched over to country music, charting a Top 30 single with “It’s Not the End of the World.” Though Emilio never found widespread success in country, his efforts to bridge the gap between country and Tejano helped expose fans of both genres to the beauty of the music. In San Antonio and beyond, the appreciation for Tejano and traditional country continues as sister genres today.
Merle Haggard – April 6th
His was a birth in abject poverty to Okie parents who made a home out of a boxcar after migrating to California in search for work. He was the son of a father who died when he was still young, and was a young man who saw the troubles of adolescence lead to troubles with the law, many times just to win his daily bread. This led to criminalization and incarceration, and the potential of a life lost forever before turning into a story of rehabilitation and redemption through the call of country music. Then it was on to recognition, stardom, and even superstardom; and eventually to becoming a legend of American culture that few can stand beside and measure as equals. This was the life of Merle Haggard; not just the one he lived, but the one he captured in song, and the one we all followed along with as he wrote and sang about what he had learned and what he had lived during his iconic American story.
Are the lives of celebrities any more special than our own, and is their passing any more tragic than the common, unheralded people who pass every single day without as much as a word beyond loved ones, or a tiny blurb in a local paper? In short, no they’re not. But that’s also what made Merle Haggard special. He was the embodiment of America’s forgotten: the poor, the imprisoned, the wrongfully accused, the silent majority inhabiting middle America, the bereft and brokenhearted that have been forestalled by the rest of society. Merle Haggard could sing to them all and do it in a language they could understand, and with an integrity to the words because Merle had lived it all himself.
Like America and many of its people, Merle Haggard was not perfect. He had sinned, he had failed, he had stuck to principles that eventually proved to be wrong. But he learned, he persevered, he pulled himself up by his boots straps, and he eventually succeeded.
Merle Haggard was just a man, no different than anyone else who has ever walked the Earth. But as the bard of the common people, canonizing the lives and struggles of the forgotten faces, he made the lives of every man that more meaningful, and that more valuable. Merle Haggard was America embodied in song. And now he’s gone. But like the many lives he sang about, the legacy lives on. Forever.
Gib Guilbeau – April 13th
Though maybe not as recognizable of a name as many of the artists Gib shared lineups with, including Gene Parsons and Clarence White, his unique approach to music, influenced by his distinctly Cajun flavor and upbringing, made Guibeau seminal to the sound that would become West Coast country rock.
Gib was a singer, a fiddle and guitar player, and a songwriter whose compositions were recorded by artists as far ranging as The Byrds, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy C. Newman, Ricky Nelson, The Dillards, Bobby Womack, Ronnie Wood of Faces and The Rolling Stones, and Rod Stewart. His fiddle playing can be heard on recordings from Linda Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, B.W. Stevenson, Arlo Guthrie, Rita Coolidge, and The Spencer Davis Group. If it was 60’s country rock, there’s a good chance Gib Guilbeau either had a hand in it, or helped influence it in some capacity.
Floyd August Guilbeau was born on September 26, 1937 in Sunset, Louisiana, slightly north of Lafayette in the southern part of the state. Guilbeau’s father and brothers were fiddle players, and Gil took up learning the instrument at 14-years-old. A consummate side man and singer, as well as a well-respected songwriter, West Coast country rock would have not sounded the same if it wasn’t for the influence and efforts of Gib Guilbeau.
Steve Young – March 17th
Steve Young was known for such songs as “Seven Bridges Road” that became a big hit for The Eagles, “Lonesome On’ry and Mean” by Waylon Jennings, “Montgomery in the Rain” by Hank Williams Jr., and was one of the most well-recognized and respected songwriters of the Outlaw movement. Speaking to the respect for Steve held among his peers, his debut album Rock Salt & Nails featured appearances by Gram Parson, Chris Hillman and Gene Clark. “Seven Bridges Road” was also covered heavily in the folk scene by artists like Joan Baez. And his songs continue to be recorded and performed by country, folk, and rock artists.
Born July 12th, 1942, in Newnan, Georgia, and growing up in various parts of the South, his family moved often looking for work. Young would spend parts of his formative years in Georgia, Texas, and Alabama, soaking up not just the country music, but blues and folk of each region which would later lead to his unique approach to songwriting he simply called “Southern music” that bridged various roots genres and rock.
Though Young was considered mostly a background member of the Outlaw movement for many years, his appearance on the legendary Outlaw documentary Heartworn Highways helped awaken the world to his talent. Though he still remained mostly known through the songs he wrote that others performed, Young had a strong solo career and released a total of 14 albums.
Gogi Grant – March 10th
Gogi Grant was an Americana popular singer who was born in Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles when she was 12-years-old. Though she would record numerous hit songs during the 1950’s, including her first Top 10 hit “Suddenly There’s A Valley” in 1955, and “When The Tide Is High,” “Who Are We,” and “You’re In Love” in 1956, it was her performance of “The Wayward Wind” written by Stanley Lebowski and Herb Newman that turned the song into an iconic American song.
When “The Wayward Wind” took Billboard‘s #1 spot, it remained there for eight weeks, which was a record at the time. It went on to sell over a million copies, and Gogi was voted as the most popular female vocalist by Billboard. Grant’s version of the song also returned to the Billboard 100 in 1961. The song was also a hit in the U.K.
Born Myrtle Audrey Arinsberg on September 20, 1924, she attended Venice High School in California. She was working as an automobile salesman in the early 50’s when she began recording music, performing under the names “Audrey Brown” and “Audrey Grant” at the beginning, but then changing her name at the behest of Dave Kapp of RCA Records, who apparently enjoyed eating at a restaurant called “Gogi’s LaRue.”
Joey Feek – March 4th
Joey Martin was born on on September 7, 1975 in Alexandria, Indiana. Her first public performance was when she was 8-years-old and sang Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” at a first-grade talent show. In 1988, Joey moved to Nashville to pursue a career in country music, first working at a veterinary clinic for horses, and eventually signing to Sony Records in 2000. She recorded an album for Sony, however a business dispute resulted in the record being shelved, and Joey’s career was put on hold. Joey married songwriter and performer Rory Lee Feek in 2002, and first worked with Rory professionally to release a solo album called Strong Enough to Cry on Rory’s independently-owned Giantslayer Records. They soon began performing as a duet, and competed as part of CMT’s Can You Duet competition in 2008, placing third.
The CMT opportunity landed the couple a deal with Sugar Hill Records, who released their first album The Life of a Song in October of 2008. Their lead single, “Cheater, Cheater,” became a Top 30 hit and put the duo on the map. Another song, “When I’m Gone” from 2012, was their highest-charting single, coming in at #21. The song, along with the music of Joey + Rory has enjoyed a resurgence of interest during Joey’s very public Cancer battle.
In total, Joey + Rory released eight studio albums, won Top New Vocal Duo of the Year at the ACM Awards in 2010, and were also nominated for Top Vocal Duo three times by the ACM’s, and twice by the CMA’s.
Joey + Rory were also favorites among more traditional country fans and country fans of faith. They also had their own television show on RFD-TV, The Joey + Rory Show. Their music and story has inspired many, and Joey’s Cancer battle became a story of national interest well beyond the country music world.
Sonny James – February 22nd
Over his career, Sonny James amassed 23 #1 songs, including a legendary streak where he received 16 consecutive #1’s between April of 1967 and September of 1971. James was a pioneer in crossing over from the country realm to pop, and his career was decorated with many firsts for a country artist. James was the first ever country music artist to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. He was the first country artist to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1961. Along with Bobbi Gentry, he was the first every host of the CMA Awards in 1967. And Sonny James was also made a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1962, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Sonny James was born Hackleburg, Alabama on May 1st, 1929 where his parents operated a 300-acre farm. From an early age, Sonny learned how to sing and perform music, picking up the mandolin at 3-years-old and performing with his parents and other siblings in the family band The Loden Family, which later became known as Sonny Loden and the Southerners. Sonny showed great promise in music and began to be called “Sonny Boy” as the band toured around the South, eventually leasing their farm and spending full-time throughout the 40’s performing at radio stations and other functions.
Sonny started off his career with a bang when he recorded “Young Love” and the song shot to #1 in 1957. Though Sonny was considered a country artist, the song became a hit on the pop charts, making him one of the first country music crossover stars.
Glenn Frey – January 18th, 2016
Love them, hate them, evoke the strong opinions of the Coen Brothers’ fictional character Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski all you want, but Glen Frey and The Eagles turned millions of music fans from all around the world into country music listeners through the evocative power of simple, universal sentiments bathed in twangy tones, however filed off the edges may have been, or however commercially successful the pursuit ultimately was.
As polarizing as The Eagles have been to country fans, and music fans in general over the years—including some who saw the band as the bastardization of everything great about country music—Glenn Frey was the band’s most polarizing figure of all. His rapaciousness for dealing with the business affairs of the band, especially with past members like guitarist Don Felder, gave him the reputation of a “money first, then music” musician. But what Glenn possessed was the ability to take music that meant something to millions of people, and make sure they heard it, turning the Eagles into arguably the most successful and important band in the history of American music.
Appeal for the music of the Eagles crosses generations, and crosses genres. And without a figure like Glenn Frey, country music, and the influence of country in rock, arguably would have never risen to become the ultimate, definable sound of all American music. Great music takes dreamers, but it also takes doers. Glenn Frey was both.
Red Simpson – January 8th
A singer, a songwriter, a performer, an important piece of the Bakersfield Sound, and possibly one of the most well-known overlords of country trucking songs, Red Simpson was an important hub in country music that far surpassed his name recognition, or the official accolades he received during his lifetime. Born March 6th, 1934 in Higley, Arizona, and raised in Bakersfield, Red first got his start in music as a piano player, playing in clubs such as the Wagon Wheel and Clover Club in the greater Bakersfield area. Simpson later became the replacement player for Buck Owens at the Blackboard Club, and began writing songs with other Bakersfield performers, including the 1962 Top 10 hit “Gonna Have Love” with Buck Owens.
Recording artist Bill Woods was the first to ask Red to write a song about trucking for him, and soon it became what Simpson was most known for. Ken Nelson of Capitol Records wanted to create a country star specifically based around trucking songs. He first tried to recruit fellow Bakersfield artist Merle Haggard for the job, but Merle refused. In 1965, Red Simpson decided to fill the role, recording his own trucking songs and the trucking songs of others, and the subgenre became the bread and butter of Red’s career. The trucking song “Sam’s Place” that went on to become a #1 for Buck Owens was written by Red. Simpson made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1972. And in 1975, Red landed his own Top 5 hit with “I’m A Truck.”
Though Red never toured later in life, he regularly played in and around Bakersfield, including a Monday night residency at Trout’s in Oildale, near Bakersfield. The Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee had flown Red out a few times to perform over the last few years, and after being championed by a new generation of performers, including Bob Wayne and JP Harris, Red was beginning to experience a resurgence of interest.
Other Notable Deaths:
Icie Sloan-Hawkins – Daughter of Don Hawkins and Velvet Sloan. Don Hawkins is one of two children Jean Shepard had with her first husband, Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Gordie Tapp – “Hee-Haw” Star and host of Canadian country variety shows for a generation.
Harold Traywick – The father of Randy Travis.
Jerry Greer – Son of Craig Morgan who died in a lake accident.
Craig Strickland – Backroad Anthem singer who died while hunting on a lake.
Mark Gray – Songwriter and Columbia Records artist.
Mentor Williams – Songwriter of “Drift Away” and other notable compositions.
Kay Starr – Country, jazz, and pop singer.
Kacey Jones – Singer, songwriter, comedian.
John D. Loudermilk – Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame songwriter.
Richard Fagan – Songwriter.
Bob Goldstone – Thirty Tigers label executive who died in a bicycle accident.
Scotty Moore – Guitarist for Elvis and others.
Rick Christian – Writer of “I Don’t Need You” and other songs.
James King – “The Bluegrass Storyteller”
Kevin Anderson – WSM Producer.
Jimmie Van Zandt – Southern rocker, and cousin of Ronnie and Johnny Van Zandt.
Johnny Sea – Singer of “Day of Decision” and Louisiana Hayride member.
Ned Miller- Songwriter.
Lonnie Mack – Guitarist.
Jim Ridley – Nashville Scene Editor.
Louis Meyers- SXSW Co-Founder.
Buck Rambo – Gospel singer.
Joyce Paul – 60’s country singer.
Paul Gordon – Musician.
Kim Williams – Songwriter of “Three Wooden Crosses” and others.
Curtis Potter – Singer, label owner.
Pete Huttlinger – Guitarist.
Troy Shonell – Country and pop performer, song publisher.
Marion James – Nashville’s Queen of the Blues.
Scott Muennick – Member of Buster Jiggs.
Phil Chess – Founder of Chess Records.