The Oldest Living Links to Country Music’s Golden Past

With the passing of the 94-year-old “Little” Jimmy Dickens at the beginning of 2015, it’s a reminder for us to cherish the final living links to country music’s most legendary past who can still tell stories of how country music once was. 2013 was an especially difficult year when we lost numerous links to country music’s Golden Years. The amount of performers who were important in forming the very foundation of country music are quickly fading away. And once they’re gone, it will be up to the next generation to carry on the traditions and stories of the country music greats.

Here’s a run down of some of the most important elder statesmen of the country music community.

Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose – Age 92

don-maddox-smallAt 92-years-old, Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose very well may be the last living link to not just to the Golden Era of country music, but the time before country music was even called “country.” When Don and his family moved from Boaz, Alabama to California as Depression-era refugees and decided to start a band, they were still considered “hillbilly” musicians since the term “country” had yet to be coined. As the fiddle player and jokester of the band, Don watched as the primitive modes of American popular music split into three different disciplines of country, rock and roll, and rockabilly, and The Maddox Brothers & Rose are given credit for influencing all three. Started in 1937, The Maddox Brothers & Rose played The Grand Ole Opry, The Louisiana Hayride, and toured the country as a headline act, including playing shows where Elvis Presley and George Jones were booked as opening acts first starting out.

The group disbanded in 1956 when Don’s sister Rose Maddox moved to Nashville to become a star of her own, and after 20 years as a musician, Don Maddox retired to a ranch in Ashland, Oregon, just over the California border. Don Maddox continues to perform locally upon occasion, and has been flown out to Nashville by Marty Stuart and Muddy Roots in recent years to participate in events like Marty Stuart’s Midnite Jamboree. Don has also been honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit, though he and his family band are still not official inductees of the Hall of Fame. If you’re looking for the last living link to country music’s past after the passing of Little Jimmy, Don Maddox would be it.

Harold Bradley – Age 89

harold-bradleyA Country Music Hall of Famer, the brother of Hall of Fame producer Owen Bradley, and a guitar player as part of Nashville’s “A-Team,” Harold Bradley’s fingerprints are all over what became known as The Nashville Sound in the 60’s and 70’s, and is the last living link to the original business dealings that saw the formation of Music Row and Nashville as a music mecca.

Harold Bradley played in Ernest Tubb’s band while still in high school, and later played live with acts such as Pee Wee King and Eddie Arnold. By the 70’s he was Nashville’s go-to guitar player in studio sessions, and according to Guitar World magazine, is the most recorded guitar player in the world. If you listen to a song originating from Music Row in the 70’s, you’re likely hearing Harold Bradley play guitar. Harold also played bass, and played on rock and roll and pop records as well, including recordings by Elvis and Roy Orbison. If it was recorded in Nashville, Harold Bradley probably played on it.

Bradley was also vital to the business landscape of Nashville music as well. In 1954, Harold and his brother Owen built what would be the very first music-related building on Music Row—a recording studio called The Quonset Hut. Harold was recently in the headlines as one of the principle owners of the historic Studio ‘A’ property sold to developers who intended to bulldoze the building and turn the property into a condominium complex and restaurant. Harold argued that the building was not historic, and that restricting development of the property was not fair to him or the estates of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins—the other owners of the building. Subsequently the building was bought by preservationists an put into a trust to preserve it for the future.

As the Studio ‘A’ fight exemplified, the legacy of Harold Bradley, his brother Owen, and Chet Atkins is a mixed one. Their influence and efforts for country music are undeniable, but they also symbolize the restrictive creative environment and disregard for the roots of the music that permeated Music Row in the 70’s and beyond. They were the power brokers at odds with The Outlaws such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Tompall Glaser. But Harold Bradley’s contributions remain towering, and he’s the last link to the origination of Music Row and The Nashville Sound.

Ralph Stanley – Age 87

ralph-stanleyRalph Stanley is one of the last living legends from the original era of bluegrass and early mountain music that filled the hollers and hills of Appalachia. Ralph did not grow up in a musical household picking banjo on the back porch like many rural musicians. His parents weren’t players or performers, and he didn’t start playing banjo with his brother Carter Stanley in The Stanley Brothers until he was 15 or 16. The brother duo formed The Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946, which since has become one of the most legendary bluegrass groups in history, once housing Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, and so many other players who went on to individual greatness. Like a patient who keeps outliving his doctors, Ralph Stanley has outlived many of his Clinch Mountain understudies.

Stanley continues to play, record, and tour. Though he announced in 2013 that he would finally retire from performing, he stuck to that decision for about a month before saying he’d tour as long as God was willing. Ralph Stanley has just released a brand new record for 2015 called Ralph Stanley & Friends that finds the bluegrass legend dueting with artists like Lee Ann Womack, Elvis Costello, and Robert Plant. There’s no slowing down for Ralph Stanley, and he remains a strong link to country music’s legendary past.

Joe Pennington – Age 87

joe-pennyJoe Pennington is the last surviving original member of the Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboy band, and had an early and important influence on the formation of rockabilly when he left the Drifting Cowboys in 1948 and began to record for Federal Records. As the guitar player for Hank, “Joe Penny” as he was nicknamed is one of the very last living links to Hank, as well as to the most legendary lineup of the Grand Ole Opry. Joe also played in the bands of Lefty Frizell and Little Jimmy Dickens, and is regarded as a songwriter too, penning the tune “Don’t Fall In Love With a Married Man” among others. Pennington is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and has remained a performer later in life, playing Hank Williams songs and his own original compositions.

Jesse McReynolds – Age 85

jesse-mcreynoldsInfluential mandolin player Jesse McReynolds started playing in the bluegrass band Jim and Jesse with his brother Jim Reynolds around 1947, and ever since has been a mainstay of the bluegrass world and the Grand Ole Opry, and one of the most revered mandolin players in the entire music business. He’s shared the stage with many of the country music greats, and his advanced age hasn’t slowed him down one bit, making 37 appearances on The Grand Ole Opry and celebrating his 50th Anniversary on the show in 2014. Jesse McReynolds remains one of the Opry’s most active members. Now that “Little” Jimmy Dickens has passed away, Jesse is the oldest member of the Opry that makes regular appearances on the show.

Willie Nelson -Age 81 

willie-nelsonAside from all of the obvious things that make Willie Nelson the most recognizable living link to country music’s past—including his songwriting for artists like Patsy Cline and Faron Young—as a youngster Willie played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and later played bass for Ray Price in the Cherokee Cowboys. At the original Dripping Springs Reunion, and later at Willie’s annual 4th of July Picnics, Willie invited past greats to perform including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Buck Owens, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, and other legends of country music’s past. Willie may not be the oldest link to the past still around, but he remains the patriarch of the genre as a whole.

Other Living Links to Country Music’s Golden Past:

  • Jan Howard
  • Mel Tillis
  • Stonewall Jackson
  • Jean Shepard
  • Jim Ed Brown
  • Red Simpson
  • Billie Jean Horton
  • Buck White of The Whites
  • Bobby Osborne
  • Mac Wiseman