Every year we mark the passing of music legends in country music and beyond, but 2016 has been an especially dark year for the passing of music greats. From Prince and David Bowie in the pop and rock world, to Merle Haggard and Guy Clark in country, to the dozens of others who may have not been as well-known, but still had a great impact on American music, it’s worth taking the time to reflect back on the loss of them all.
Red Simpson – January 8th, 2016
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 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.”
Later in his career, Red would switch from Capitol to Warner Bros., but only recorded singles through Warner. Red Simpson released nine albums and compilations, and had eight charting singles, including the #4 “I’m A Truck,” which became his signature song, and his favorite saying. Red’s last charting single was “The Flyin’ Saucer Man and the Truck Driver” released in 1979. (read more)
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. (read more)
Sonny James – February 22nd, 2016
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.
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. In the coming years James struggled to match the success, recording for numerous companies including Dot and RCA, until he went back to his roots in country, joining the Opry in 1962, re-signing with Capitol Records, and becoming a dominant influence in the genre for the next decade. It was during this time when James amassed his 16 #1 hits that included songs like “Only The Lonely,” “It’s Just A Matter of Time,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” James was part of the Countrypolitan movement that broadened the appeal for country beyond the rural South and West by adding strings and choruses, and he became one of the most successful artists of the era. (read more)
Joey Feek – March 4th, 2016
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. (read more)
Gogi Grant – March 10th, 2016
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.
Gogi Grant’s impact on American music was short, but it was deep. She came from a time when one song would reverberate throughout American culture and beyond, and “The Wayward Wind” is still a favorite of classic country and pop bands and artists today. (read more)
Steve Young – March 17th, 2016
Steve Young, 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. (read more)
Merle Haggard – April 6th, 2016
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.
Merle Haggard was the poet and the champion of the ones the rest of society looked beyond or lampooned. Merle succeeded despite the incredible odds, and not through pragmatism and compromise, but through hard-nosed doggedness, and a fierce principled individualism that was unwavering throughout his life. He gave the forgotten masses hope that they too could eventually persevere. Merle Haggard went on to log 38 #1 hits in country music—and not one of them was an effort for attention or a reach for commercials success. Every song Merle Haggard wrote or sang, and every album he ever released was an extension of himself and the life he had lived manifested into song.
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. (read more)
Gib Guilbeau – April 13th, 2016
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.
Guilbeau released a solo record in 1973, and then in 1974, he joined a newer version of The Flying Burrito Brothers formed in the aftermath of Gram Parson’s passing. The new group included original members Chris Ethridge and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Guilbeau continued to work with the band as the “Burrito Brothers” in the 80’s (which also successfully waged a campaign to see Lefty Frizzell inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame), and then as the Flying Burrito Brothers again throughout the 90’s. (read more)
“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.
Guy Clark – May 17th, 2016
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.
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. (read more)
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. Over 20 musicians can claim to be a part of The Time Jumpers at one point, not to mention all of the famous guest musicians, but Rick was one of the few constants in the lineup and played on both the band’s records—their debut in 2007, and 2012’s self-titled release. (read more)
“Mr. Bandana” Cloninger – June 5th, 2016
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. (read more)
Chips Moman – June 13th, 2016
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.
In 1972, Chips left Memphis for Atlanta first, but then eventually settled in Nashville where after writing a couple of hit country songs, his efforts began to shift from soul and R&B to country. His work with Willie Nelson, Ronnie Millsap, and Gary Stewart helped set the pace in country at the time, and helped the music open up during country’s “Outlaw” era. When country superstars Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson decided to form The Highwaymen, Chips Moman was the man behind the supergroup’s sound. (read more)
Other Notable Deaths:
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
Craig Strickland – Singer for the group Backroad Anthem
Marion James – Nashville’s Queen of the Blues
Scott Muennick – Member of Buster Jiggs