Every so often, it is important to stop down, pay tribute, and appreciate all of the living legends we still have around in country and roots music. These are the contributors who you can sometimes trace back to the very formations of what we consider “country” and “bluegrass” today.
Though age is definitely part of it, so are the specific ties each of these individuals have back to important moments or the legends of their time. With the recent passing of some of these oldest and most important contributors, it feels especially important to freshen this list.
Some of the oldest living links and legends that we have lost recently include:
Bill Pittman – Age 101 – August 11, 2022
Rose Lee Maphis – Age 98 – October 26, 2021
Ray “Chubby” Howard – Age 95 – December 23, 2021
C.W. McCall – Age 93 – April 1, 2022
Jesse McReynolds – Age 93 – June 23, 2023
Bobby Osborne – Age 91 – June 27, 2023
Loretta Lynn – Age 90 – October 4, 2022
Stonewall Jackson – Age 89 – December 4, 2021
Jerry Lee Lewis – Age 87 – October 28, 2022
But there are still many around. So let’s take time to pay tribute and remember these country music icons and contributors.
Violet Hensley – Age 106
Known by numerous names including the “Whittling Fiddler” and the “Stradivarius of the Ozarks,” Grand Ole Opry performer, actress, fiddler, and designated “Living Treasure,” Violet Hensley is likely the oldest living link to country music’s past. Born on October 21, 1916 to George Washington Brumley and Nora Springer Brumley, that would make her 105 years old.
She learned how to make fiddles from her father who made his first fiddle in 1888 using hand tools. Violet Hensley was married at the age of 18 and had nine children, but always found the time to pursue her passion for fiddle making. A Violet Hensley-made fiddle is considered a treasure and a masterpiece. It wasn’t until later in life when she began to be known as a performer, releasing three album, Old Time Fiddle Tunes (1974), The Whittling Fiddler and Family (1983), and Family Treasures (2004).
Violet Hensley also appeared on The Beverly Hillbillies (1969), The Art Linkletter Show (1970), Captain Kangaroo (1977), and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee (1992). She’s been featured in National Geographic and other periodicals, and she made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the tender age of 99 on August 6th, 2016.
Merv Shiner – Age 102
Born February 20, 1921, Merv is one of the last of the Singin’ Cowboys, though unlike many of his contemporaries who found their fame in California during the silver screen days, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-native found better fortune back east. Taught to sing and perform at a young age by his mother, he moved to Los Angeles in 1942, and worked at a defense plant while trying to make it as a solo artist. When that didn’t pan out, he came back to Pennsylvania, and started appearing on the radio in Allentown, and on television in New York City. That’s when he landed a recording contract with Decca Records.
The signature song during Merv Shiner’s 35-year career was the semi children’s song “Peter Cottontail,” which became a hit in 1950. The success of the song allowed Shiner to make his Grand Ole Opry debut on April 8, 1950, which was the day before Easter, and the perfect day to perform “Peter Cottontail.” Who did Merv Shiner perform the song with? None other than Hank Williams. This makes Merv one of the last living performers who performed with Hank Williams on stage.
Merv Shiner now lives in Tampa, Florida.
Leroy Van Dyke – Age 92
In a career spanning more than 50 years and more than 500 recorded songs, Leory Van Dyke born in Mora, Missouri on October 4, 1929 made many worthy contributions to the country music canon, but he’s most recognized for interpreting the wild cadence of a liquidator in 1956’s “The Auctioneer,” which went on to sell some 2.5 million copies.
Though “The Auctioneer” would make Leroy Van Dyke an unlikely star at the time, it wouldn’t be until another five years later that he would release a new single in the form of “Walk On By.” It would be Leroy Van Dyke’s first #1, and become just as lasting of a contribution of “The Auctioneer.”
Along with being a performer, Leroy Van Dyke was also an important member and co-host of the Ozark Jubilee, which was only rivaled in stature by the Grand Ole Opry, which Leroy would eventually joined when he moved to Nashville. Leroy Van Dyke continues to perform and make public appearances, often with his son Ben playing lead guitar.
Buck White – Age 92
The patriarch of The Whites, and the oldest current member of the Grand Ole Opry, Buck White was the somewhat reluctant, but ultimately proud leader of one of country music’s most important bluegrass Gospel bands. Born December 13, 1930, Buck White was mostly a moonlighting musician for much of his life, working as a plumber by day, and playing piano and mandolin by night. Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Buck loved the music, but didn’t care too much for the places you had play late at night like dancehalls and wrestling arenas.
It’s when Buck White’s daughters Sharon White (born December 17, 1953) and Cheryl (born January 27, 1955) showed early promise in music that Buck White started to take it more seriously as a career. Buck White and The Down Home Folks formed in 1972 and did fine, and Buck recorded a solo album for Sugar Hill in 1979 called More Pretty Girls Than One. But it’s when The Whites formed officially in the early 1980’s and signed to Curb Records that things began to click. They earned multiple Top 10 hits, and were signed on as Grand Ole Opry members in 1984.
Buck White and The Whites continue to be regular performers on the Opry, including with Buck’s son-in-law Ricky Skaggs, who’s been married to daughter Sharon since 1981. The Whites also appeared on the revered O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
Bill Clifton – Age 92
Born April 5, 1931, Bill Clifton is one of the very last ties to the originators of bluegrass, and is considered by many as an originator himself. Born William August Marburg on a farm in Riderwood, Maryland, he took a liking to music at an early age, but changed his name to Bill Clifton to perform since his family forbid him from pursuing music. Originally interested mostly in country music, Bill’s repertoire expanded when he attended the University of Virginia in 1949, and was exposed to folk and bluegrass.
Along with performing, Clifton worked closely with important figures such as A.P. Carter, Woody Guthrie, and The Stanley Brothers to discover lost songs. His 1955 book called 150 Old Time Folk and Gospel Songs is given credit for revitalizing songs like “Little Maggie” and “Long Journey Home,” and making them bluegrass standards. Ralph Stanley also helped Clifton launch a recording career.
Along with his influential book that most any folk and bluegrass musician was said to carry around in their guitar cases in the late 50s, Bill Clifton was important in forming the very first bluegrass festivals, including a bluegrass gathering at Watermelon Park near Berryville, Virginia on August 14, 1960, and later at Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia on July 4th, 1961 where Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, and more played.
Willie Nelson – Age 90
Born April 29, 1933 in Abbott, Texas, it’s kind of crazy when you compose a list of the oldest living country legends, and Willie Nelson is a sizable way down it. But no name might be bigger, or more important.
Aside from all of the obvious things that make Willie Nelson the most recognizable living link to country music’s past right beside Loretta—including his songwriting for artists like Patsy Cline and Faron Young in hits from the early 60’s—as a youngster Willie played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and was performing in bars and honky tonks at the age of 13. He later played bass for Ray Price in the Cherokee Cowboys as well.
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.
Billie Jean Horton – Age 90
Though not a well-known performer herself, Billie Jean Horton born June 6, 1933 is one of the few remaining personalities in country music that didn’t just follow the music, but lived it, and helped keep it alive for future generations.
From Bossier City, Louisiana, Billie Jean was first introduced to Hank Williams by another famous country singer, Faron Young who was dating Billie Jean at the time. She was just 19-years-old, and in October of 1952, Billie Jean and Hank Williams were married in a private ceremony in Louisiana. Later they repeated their vows at two concerts on the stage of the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans for large crowds.
Three short months later, Hank Williams was dead. He passed away on News Years Day, 1953. Later in 1953, Billie Jean Williams married country music star Johnny Horton, who died in a car wreck in 1960, making Billie Jean a famous country music widow for a second time. For a short period, Billie Jean also had a relationship with Johnny Cash while he was still married to his first wife Vivian Liberto.
The famous country music wife had a recording career of her own for a period, and had a Top 40 country record with “Ocean of Tears” in 1961. Billie Jean was a vocal promoter of the legacies of her two famous husbands for years, including gathering up songs from Johnny Horton after he died and compiling them into new releases.
Alice Gerrard – Age 89
One of the true mothers of bluegrass, Alice Gerrard is perhaps best known for her recordings with fellow bluegrass great Hazel Dickens in one of the most important duos in bluegrass history. A singer, banjoist, fiddler, and guitar player, Gerrard was also a member of The Strange Creek Singers and the Back Creek Buddies. Born July 8, 1934 and originally from Seattle, Washington, Gerrard also holds importance as a Pacific Northwest artist.
Alice Gerrard first found favor with folk music when attending Antioch College in Ohio. From there she moved to Washington, DC where she became part of the city’s culturally significant bluegrass scene. Gerrard recorded for Folkways and Rounder in her career, and was also married to musicians Jeremy Foster and Mike Seeger. She was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2017 and is considered one of the most important women in bluegrass.
Bobby Bare – Age 88
There have been many true country music “Outlaws” over the years, and many more that claim to be. But there can be only one original Outlaw, and that is Bobby Bare. Without Bobby Bare, there may be no Waylon Jennings. When Bare discovered Waylon in Phoenix, AZ in 1964, Waylon was still very much a regional act. It was Bobby Bare that introduced Waylon to Chet Atkins at RCA in Nashville, and helped bring Waylon’s career to the national stage.
It was also Bobby Bare who first rebelled against Chet Atkins, RCA, and the Nashville system, which in the 60’s put all the creative power in the hands of producers, and didn’t allow artists to record with their own bands. Before Waylon, it was Bobby Bare who forbid session musicians from playing on his songs, and started picking out his own material from renegade songwriters such as Shel Silverstein, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver. It was Bobby Bare who helped inspire Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to extricate themselves from their restrictive RCA contracts, and stimulated the Outlaw movement of the early 70’s in earnest.
But that’s not what Bobby Bare is best known for. He’s known for his early country mod material, appearing in suits and singing Countrypolitan songs of the time such as “Detroit City” with its lush chorus lines. Later he would be known for the novelty songs by Shel Silverstein, and Paul Craft’s “Drop Kick Me Jesus.” Though no less an Outlaw than any of the other greats of the era, Bobby Bare didn’t have the rough persona preceding him like Waylon did. He didn’t have the crossover or acting success of Willie Nelson or Kris Kristofferson. His output was quality, and timeless, but perhaps not as defining of an era as others. Yet without Bare, the Outlaw era arguably may have never happened.
Born April, 7th 1935
Johnny Western – Age 88
Born Johnny Westerlund on October 28th, 1934, Johnny Western has long list of career accomplishments in country music, even if he never strung together a long list of hits. He was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers for a bit, and would regularly tour and perform with Johnny Cash for nearly 40 years. He co-wrote the song “The Ballad of Paladin,” which became a hit for Duane Eddy. Western was also a prominent disc jockey who is in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame.
Johnny Western was born in Minnesota where his parents took him to see the Gene Autry film Guns and Guitars when he was 12. Then and there he decided he wanted to be a singing cowboy and by 13 he was already performing while also working as a disc jockey. Western was profiled at the time in Billboard as the youngest disc jockey in America. By the time he was 16, Johnny Western had joined the Sons of the Pioneers.
Western’s recording career was scattered. After Duane Eddy’s hit with “The Ballad of Paladin,” Western was signed to Columbia Records. He recorded seven singles, and the album Have Gun – Will Travel, which became a standard of Western music, and also revolved around the popular TV show that aired starting in 1957. Johnny Western was also an actor, playing numerous roles in Western films and television programs. Though he’s been mostly a background character in country music, his contributions have been vast, varied, and important.
Kris Kristofferson – Age 87
From songs like the 1970 CMA Song of the Year “Sunday Morning Coming Down” recorded by Johnny Cash, to Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristofferson defined what a song was for generations, and still does by continuing to influence composers across the entirety of music. The Rhodes Scholar, military officer, helicopter pilot, and Army Ranger defied his family when he moved to Nashville to become a songwriter, and ended up becoming one of the greatest in history.
Born June 22, 1936 in Brownsville, TX, Kristofferson was also a member of the iconic supergroup The Highwaymen, he earned the 2019 CMA Lifetime Achievement Award, won 3 Grammy Awards, and has been inducted in every major songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame. Kris Kristofferson also acted in some 70 films throughout his career. A well-respected performer as well, Kristofferson enthralled audiences for decades.
In January of 2021, Kris Kristofferson officially announced his retirement from performing. But he is still making public appearances, including recently helping to induct Jerry Lee Lewis into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Other Important Living Links to Country Music’s Past
Bill Hayes – Age 98 – Born June 5, 1925, Bill is best known as a long time actor on the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. But he does have a country music tie-in. He’s one of numerous artists who had a big hit in 1955 during the height of the Davy Crockett phase with a version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
Bud Wendell – Age 95 – Born August 17th, 1927, he is the oldest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wendell is not a performer though, he was an executive assistant at WSM starting in 1965, and became the general manager of the Grand Ole Opry in 1968. Ten years later, Wendell graduated to the CEO of WSM, and in 1991, he was named the President of Gaylord Entertainment. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bobby Koefer – Age 94 – Born August 18th, 1928, he is one of the oldest and last living members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Koefer is a steel guitar player who also performed with Pee Wee King, and also spent some time dabbling in the rockabilly world. Born in Clay Center, Kansas, he now resides near Bend, Oregon.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Age 91 – Born August 1st, 1931, he is most certainly one of American music’s living legends. Though the Brooklyn, New York native first became fascinated with the rodeo and all things Western—and has certainly contributed songs to the Western and country canons—he is primarily renown for his work in folk, arguably the most important folk contributor still living right behind Bob Dylan.
Donna LaVerne Stoneman – Age 89 (February 7th, 1934) and Roni Stoneman – Age 85 (May 5, 1938) -The last surviving members of The Stoneman Family, which was a family band from the Blue Ridge Mountains under the leadership of their father Ernest Van “Pop” Stoneman. They are some of the last links to the true original origins of country music.
Mimi Roman – Age 89 – Born April 20, 1934, Roman is more of a cult figure in country music than a world-renown superstar, but has an interesting career that is worth checking out. Through the moniker “First of the Brooklyn Cowgirls,” she released a country album of the same name while also performing more pop-oriented material under the name Kitty Ford.
Other older artists and contributors include:
Margie Singleton – Age 87
Dickey Lee – Age 86
Bill Anderson – Age 85
Wanda Jackson – Age 85