Country Music’s Oldest Living Links and Legends

Violet Hensley / Loretta Lynn / Willie Nelson/ Jesse McReynolds

With the recent deaths of some of country music’s oldest living legends and links to its past such as Don Maddox of Maddox Brothers and Rose at the age of 98, and Sue Thompson at 96, it seems like a suitable time to ask, who are some of the oldest legends of country music that are still living? Here’s a (hopefully) mostly complete list. If you see any omissions, please understand omniscience is not possible by anyone, and feel free to fill us in via the comments section below. And P.S., the age was cut at 88 so the list didn’t go forever.

Violet Hensley – Age 105

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 100

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.

Rose Lee Maphis – Age 98

One half of the country music couple that was so revered in the business they went by “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music,” Rose Lee Maphis is a living country music treasure. Born December 29, 1922, in Baltimore, Maryland as Rose Lee Schetrompf, by the age of 15 she was performing on the radio in Hagerstown, Maryland, and was a member of the girl group the Saddle Sweethearts.

Joe Maphis was a hot shot country guitar player known for his fingerpicked melodies, and the two met on the The Old Dominion Barn Dance in Virginia after Joe served in World War II. Joe and Rose Lee would begin performing together, but wouldn’t get formally married and form a proper duo until the both moved out to California around 1951.

After performing on barn dance programs for years, the duo was shocked at the electric country sound being forged in Bakersfield, and co-wrote the now country standard, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)” inspired by what they saw in California’s honky tonks. The song has gone on to be covered by scores of country artists, and is a signature of the Bakersfield Sound.

Joe Maphis passed away on June 27, 1986, but Rose Lee Maphis is still with us.

C.W. McCall – Age 92

One of the great overlords of country trucker songs, you might not immediately think of C.W. McCall as a country music old timer, because he’s really not compared to others. He just got a late start in country. Though he’s known best for his country trucker mega song “Convoy” from 1976 that went to #1 and inspired a movie starring Kris Kristofferson, his contributions to country go a bit deeper.

C.W. McCall released six albums during his heyday, and had a total of seven Top 25 singles, including a #2 for “Roses For Mama” in 1978. It’s just that “Convoy” became so ubiquitous, it became his signature, and he got slated as a “one hit wonder.”

Born William Dale Fries Jr. on November 15, 1928, he was an advertising creative director for years, and his country trucker personality came out of a campaign for the Metz Baking Company. The commercials featured a driver named C.W. McCall, and the rest was history. An interesting footnote, after mostly retiring from country music, McCall was elected mayor of the town of Ouray, Colorado in 1986, and served for six years.

Jesse McReynolds – Age 92

There’s few folks left who can trace their roots all the way back to the early days of bluegrass, but Jesse McReynolds is one of them, and still out there performing like he’s not a day above 70. Born July 9, 1929, and revered for his signature crosspicking style of mandolin playing, the Coeburn, Virginia-native began performing with his brother Jim around 1947.

Sometimes called The McReynolds Brothers, sometimes called Jim and Jesse, sometimes called The Virginia Boys or The Virginia Trio, they were an enterprising and important part of bluegrass in the 50’s that never stopped. Jesse McReynolds became a Grand Ole Opry member in 1964 with his brother Jim who passed away in 2002 due to Cancer. Even up to the COVID-19 shutdowns, Jesse was performing 60-70 times a year, and was making regular appearances on the Opry. He’s currently the institution’s oldest member, and one of the most loyal.

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.

Loretta Lynn – Age 89

Of course you can’t talk about country music’s oldest and most cherished living contributors without mentioning the queen, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn, born on April 14, 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Unlike most of the other names on the list, Loretta Lynn got kind of a late start in the music compared to some. She became a close friend to Patsy Cline early in her career, which makes her a direct link to the Golden Era of country, but Loretta’s career didn’t start until 1960, and she didn’t have her first #1 hit until 1967. Loretta Lynn had four children, and raised the youngest one to eight-years-old before she began her country music career in earnest.

Strong womanhood and overcoming odds is what Loretta Lynn’s career has been all about, similar to many of the early women of country. It was a man’s world, but Loretta Lynn had success with songs that dealt directly with womanhood. And Loretta Lynn is still going strong, releasing her latest album Still Woman Enough on March 19th, 2021.

It’s pretty amazing that we get to live in the era of Loretta Lynn. Future generations will look back at us and marvel that Loretta was still alive when we were, just like Loretta was still alive with Patsy Cline and Hank Williams were the biggest things in country music.

Bobby Osborne – Age 89

Imagine country music, bluegrass, and life in Tennessee and beyond without the iconic song “Rocky Top.” The Osborne Brothers were the first to see the importance of this iconic composition written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and bring it to the world. And along with all of their other contributions, it made Bobby Osborne and brother Sonny bluegrass legends.

Like his brother Sonny, Bobby Osborne was born in Roark, Kentucky. Brought into the world on December 7, 1931, the mandolin player formed The Osborne Brothers with his sibling, and along with performing as a duo, they did time playing for bluegrass legends Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe. The Osborne Brothers were invited to be Grand Ole Opry members in 1964, and right behind Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne is the 2nd oldest Grand Ole Opry member.

Along with releasing “Rocky Top” on Christmas Day in 1967, the Osborne Brothers and Bobby solo have enjoyed an extensive recording career. Sonny is six years Booby’s junior, born on October 29, 1937.

Willie Nelson – Age 88

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 88

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.

Stonewall Jackson- Age 88

Yes, Stonewall Jackson is still alive. Born on November 6, 1932 in Tabor City, North Carolina, he was one of country music’s biggest stars in the 50’s and 60’s, though he’s one of those performers whose music and legacy regularly get lost in the fray.

Stonewall Jackson has the distinction of becoming one of the first Grand Ole Opry stars to be invited in as a member before he’d secured a recording contract. Once he began making regular appearances on the Opry and toured around with his mentor Ernest Tubb, he finally landed a deal with Columbia Records, and released twenty Top 20 singles over the next many years, including #1’s for “Waterloo” in 1959, and “B.J. and the D.J.” in 1964.

Stonewall also has the distinction of taking the Opry to task in 2006 when he sued the institution for $20 million for age discrimination. Jackson became a rallying cry for many artists and fans who felt the Opry was abandoning them in their old age, and it helped change the culture of the Opry to embrace aging artists as opposed to pushing them out. The lawsuit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, and made large strides for older country performers. Health has kept Stonewall mostly out of the public eye in recent years. And yes, Stonewall Jackson is his real name, not a stage name.

Other Important Living Links to Country Music’s Past

Bill Pittman – Age 101 – Born February 12, 1920, Bill Pittman is a guitarist and session musician mostly know for his work in the rock n’ roll realm, but he also contributed to country upon occasion, including playing for The Byrds, The Everly Brothers, as well as on the Roger Miller Show and Glen Campbell Show.

Bill Hayes – Age 96 – 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.”

Ray “Chubby” Howard – Age 95 – Steel guitar player born in 1926 in Gooserock, Kentucky, he started playing electric steel guitar his dad bought out of the Sears catalog for $65 at the age of 10. He played with Buck Owens’ first band, the Bar-K-Gang, Boxcar Willie, Shot Jackson, Little Jimmy Dickens, and toured behind Connie Smith for seven years.

Bobby Bare – Age 86 – Born April, 7th 1935, Bobby Bare almost feels like the baby of the group. But with the death of Billy Joe Shaver and others, aside from Willie Nelson, he’s one of the last of the original Outlaws still left, and it would feel wrong to at least not mention him here.

Kris Kristofferson – Age 85 – Born June 22, 1936 in Brownsville, TX, the Rhodes Scholar, helicopter pilot, Army Ranger and officer, and later songwriter, actor, performer, and Highwayman isn’t as old as others on the list, but he’s just as accomplished.

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