In Memoriam: 2014′s Fallen Country Music Greats


2014 in country music did not see the passing of titans of the genre like we experienced in 2013 when George Jones, Ray Price, Tompall Glaser, and many more passed away, but was more the story of the vital side players, songwriters, session musicians, and storytellers who are so important to making the country music of others sound great.

Here is a list of some of the important people we lost in country music in 2014.

Will Indian – January 8th, 2014

will-indianCountry music has lost one of the most tasteful lead guitar players to ever fill a break. Will Indian, lead guitarist for country legend James Hand, as well as the guitarist for The Nortons, The Cornell Hurd Band, and many others, has passed after contracting a fatal infection last month. Will suffered from Hepatitis C. He died Wednesday night (1-8-14) according to his family.

Will Indian was the defining element of the James Hand sound, and so many other bands and artists that were fortunate to have him lend his guitar playing to them over the years. He was not a flashy or fast guitar player, but his taste was impeccable and unparalleled, and his use and appreciation for space, tone, and subtly in his playing is what won him wide appreciation amongst his peers. Indian toured the country and world with James Hand and others, and was a staple of legendary Austin venues like The Broken Spoke, the Saxon Pub, and Austin’s hottest new venue, The White Horse. In recent years, his illness kept him from playing on the road, but he remained a fixture of Austin clubs.

Steve Fromholz – January 19th, 2014

steve-fromholz1Fromholz was killed at the Flying B Ranch near Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo while preparing to go on a wild hog hunt. While moving a gun from one vehicle to another, the firearm fell to the ground because the lower portion of its case was unzipped, and the gun discharged, injuring Fromholz who later died at an Eldorado hospital.

Born in Temple, Texas on June 8, 1945, Fromholz rose to become a towering figure of words and music in his home state of Texas, and amongst his famous music friends. He wrote the song “I’d Have To Be Crazy” made popular by Willie Nelson, and also had songs recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, and John Denver amongst others.

Fromholz was also an actor, a playwright, a producer, and a poet; most notably being named the Poet Laureate of the State of Texas in 2007 by the Texas State Legislature. He was the author of several books, and a respected man of letters, leaving behind an indelible legacy of both chronicling and canonizing the unique experience of being a Texan.

James Alan Shelton – June 3rd, 2014

james-alan-sheltonRalph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys lost their long-time lead guitarist and Ralph’s right hand man James Alan Shelton on June 3rd due to Cancer. He was 53-years-old. James Alan Shelton played lead guitar for Ralph Stanley for 20 years, first joining the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1994. But Shelton he also did so much more. For many years Ralph Stanley was known for wanting to handle his own affairs, but after gaining the trust of Stanley, James Shelton handled much of Stanley’s booking, publicity, and also acted as the band’s road manager and ambassador.

Shelton was born in Kingsport, TN, and raised on a tobacco farm just over the Virginia border near Gate City, listening to the bluegrass music of greats like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Carter Family, and of course, The Stanley Brothers. He was a cross-picking style guitar player, and was known for his melodic approach that was more oriented toward respecting the style and structure of a tune as opposed to showing off his skill. His instrument was a 1946 D-28 Martin Herringbone, and he also had a Huss & Dalton signature series guitar named after him.

Upon the news of James Shelton’s passing, Ralph Stanley said “James Shelton gave me twenty years of dedicated years service as a Clinch Mountain Boy. He was always honest, dependable, and a very good man to travel with. I will surly miss him. He was a wonderful friend.”

Jimmy C. Newman “The Alligator Man” – June 21st, 2014

jimmy-c-newmanA Big Mamou, Louisiana native, Jimmy grew up on the cowboy sounds of Gene Autry, as well as Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and the Cajun music of the surrounding countryside. He was bilingual, and after finishing six years of schooling, dropped out to work on a farm before becoming part of the war workforce as a welder’s assistant where he met a man named J.D. Miller who got him into the music business. After first making it on The Louisiana Hayride, Newmann later became a fixture of The Grand Ole Opry for over 50 years, joining originally in 1956, a couple of years after landing his first big hit, “Cry, Cry Darling”. Newman was signed to Dot Records after being championed by Fred Rose, and had five Top 10 records in a row before landing his biggest hit in 1957, “A Fallen Star”, making it all the way to #2 on the charts, and crossing over to Billboard’s Hot 100.

Though Newman would have many more hits within the commercially-popular “Nashville Sound” of the time like “You’re Makin’ A Fool Out of Me”, “Grin And Bear It”, “A Lovely Work of Art’, “D.J. For A Day” which was the first hit written by Tom T. Hall, and arguably his last big hit, 1965”²s “Artificial Rose”, starting in the early 60”²s, Jimmy C. Newman started moving towards the Cajun sound that eventually would become the signature of his career, feeling like it was a more true expression of his roots. 1962”²s “Alligator Man” wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it would become Newman’s theme song, and a standard of his Opry sets later in life.

George Riddle – July 19th, 2014

george-riddleOver his long career in country music, George Riddle wrote songs for artists such as George Jones, Ray Charles, Faron Young, Tammy Wynette, Mickey Gilley, Del Reeves, Melba Montgomery, and Margie Singleton among others, and wrote 13 songs for George Jones alone. George Riddle also sang and performed his own songs, recording at various times for United Artists, Musicor, MGM, Starday, Marathon, and Roma Records, releasing seven full albums and multiple singles throughout his career. For 40 years, George Riddle was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, backing up many of the biggest Opry stars. But he might be best known as the very first and original Jones Boy, backing George Jones up in what would later become George’s legendary band. When George Jones first started out, it was just him and George Riddle. And as they say, the rest is history.

George Riddle was born in Marion, Indiana September 1st ,1935, and graduated from Van Buren High School in 1953. He served in the United States Army from 1958 till 1960, then went to Nashville to pursue his dream of becoming a country and western singer. This is where he met George Jones and became one of country music’s marquee sidemen.

George Hamilton IV – September 17th, 2014

George-Hamilton-IVKnown as the “International Ambassador of Country Music” from his frequent travels performing the music abroad, and a 50 year member of the Grand Ole Opry, George Hamilton IV did as much for the promoting and preservation of country music as anyone. Starting off very early in his career as more of a teen idol with the million-selling hit “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” Hamilton moved into the more folk and country realm, recording songs by Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, and scoring a #1 hit on the country charts in 1963 with “Abilene.”

Later in Hamilton’s career when the commercial hits began to slow down, he broke down barriers between country music and the Communist grip on eastern Europe, playing in The Soviet Union and Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, even recording an album in Eastern Europe. He also played and performed in Africa, South America, all the time spreading the gospel of country music. Much of the appeal for traditional country music that can be found in Europe today can be traced back to George Hamilton IV.

George died of a heart attack at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville. He was 77-years-old.

Paul Craft – October 18th, 2014

paul-craftYou press most any theologian, and they will expound upon the theory that God has the most profound sense of humor ”¦ if you just know where to look for it. Whether this was in play when country music songwriter Paul Craft decided to write the song “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through The Goalposts Of Life),” whether it was more centered upon a social commentary about the state of religion in America where the most holy of days is decidedly overrun by the dominance of the National Football League, or whether the song was meant to mean different things to different people like most great songs are it tickled the funny bone and said something profound that could have never been communicated through any other medium than humor.

Any great humorist will tell you that one of the vital keys to the craft is timing. And timing is many times where you can spy the work of the divine. In the 4th quarter of of Paul Craft’s life, with the final seconds ticking down and the game on the line, the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame lined up for a field goal, split the uprights, an made Paul Craft a winner when they inducted him into the institution on October 6th, 2014. Less than two weeks later, on Saturday, 10-18, when much of America was sitting on their couches enjoying the college version of the American pastime, Paul Craft quietly passed away in Nashville after slowly failing health over the past few years. He was 76-years-old.

Paul Craft was not the household name some of his songs made of more famous performers, but both his humor and his heartfelt sentiments remain both endowed in the hearts of listeners, and as relevant (and grin-inducing) as ever.

Ronny Spears – October 20th, 2014

ronny-spearsRonny Spears was a fixture of the Texas country songwriter circuit in north Texas and beyond, sharing the stage over his career with Willie Nelson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Radney Foster, Robert Earl Keen, Chris Wall, 1100 Springs, The Dixie Chicks, Charlie Robison, Bill Kirchen, Jack Ingram, Geronimo Trevino, Donny Ray Ford, Deryl Dodd, and many more. Ronny was raised by his father after his parents divorced and Ronnie’s father took him from his mother’s custody for fear of his upbringing. Spears grew up in Frisco, TX and studied at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University), regularly finding himself at odds with his father who didn’t want him pursuing music as a career. But Ronny persevered, playing in bands such as The River’s Edge and Liberty Valance and striking out as a solo performer and frequent collaborator with other songwriters like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Brian Burns, and later in life the aforementioned Robby White.

It was during a performance with Ray Wylie Hubbard in 1989 that Ronny Spears had his career epiphany. As they were performing on stage together, Ray Wylie turned to Ronny and said, “Quit playing copy songs,” and this is the moment Ronny Spears began to take his songwriting seriously. Spears spent some time in Nashville, but found it not to his liking and headed back to Texas. His music was always balanced with day jobs and family life. Ronny made sure to take care of his familial commitments first but the quality of his music at his night and weekend gigs did not suffer.

Ronny Spears album Modern Day Outlaw is considered a cult favorite, and his frequent appearances will be missed by the north Texas music community and beyond.

Bob Montgomery – December 4th, 2014

bob-montgomeryBob Montgomery, most famous for being the teenage friend, songwriter, and duo partner of Buddy Holly, and for writing iconic country songs like “Back in Baby’s Arms” by Patsy Cline, and “Misty Blue” recorded by Eddy Arnold, Wilma Burgess, and many others, has died in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, after a struggle with Parkinson’s disease according to his son and fellow musician Kevin Montgomery. He was 77-years-old.

Montgomery was born in Lampasas, Texas on May 12th, 1937. His father was a carpenter, and the family moved to Lubbock when Bob was 12-years-old. It was there that Montgomery met Buddy Holly at the Hutchinson Junior High School in 1949. While attending high school together, they formed the duo “Buddy and Bob,” playing mostly bluegrass songs from bands like Flatt & Scruggs, with Holly playing banjo and mandolin.

In 1966, Montgomery became a staff producer for United Artists and worked with performers such as Bill Dees, Johnny Darrell, Buddy Knox, Del Reeves and Earl Richards, and later founded a publishing house in Nashville called House of Gold. “Publishing and producing have been my best areas,” Montgomery said in 2003. He produced the hit “Honey” with Bobby Goldsboro, published the song “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich, produced music from Marty Robbins later in his career, and the final album pairing up Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson called Clean Shirt in 1991.

Neil Reshen – December 6th, 2014

Neil-Waylon-Willie“There was a time when Neil fed me and Willie, and if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what we would have done. He helped us immeasurably. He got things for us that no country singer had ever gotten before. If we were going to become Outlaws, though we didn’t know that yet, we needed an Outlaw Lawyer, as Willie called him.

“Neil was perfect for the part. He was like a mad dog on a leash. When he got his teeth into something, he never let go.”

Waylon Jennings

The lawyer who was at the very center of revolutionizing country music in the mid 70”²s as part of the Outlaw movement with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Neil C. Reshen, passed away on Sunday, December 6th after a long battle with Altzeimer’s Disease. He was the man who negotiated Willie Nelson out of his RCA contract, and also helped negotiate the creative freedom for Waylon Jennings within RCA,  Neil was also the manager for musicians as far ranging as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, David Allan Coe, and The Velvet Underground throughout his legendary and influential career. He was 75-years-old.

Dawn Sears – December 11th, 2014

dawn-searsDawn Sears, originally from East Grand Forks, Minnesota, became as a major label artist for Warner Bros. in 1990 after spending her early years touring the West and Midwest as a young adult. Her debut album, 1991”²s What A Woman Wants to Hear had some minor success, but Sears decided to leave the country scene afterwards. This was when Vince Gill called up the accomplished vocalist and asked her to become a backup singer for him. Sears collaborated with Gill on his 1993 album I Still Believe In You and other Vince Gill projects, and signed with Decca Records and released Nothin’ But Good in 1994. Sears remained a fixture in Vince Gill’s touring band over the years, and also worked with Tracy Byrd, Patty Loveless, and many others.

Sears was experiencing a resurgence in her career lately, playing shows with The Time Jumpers reunited with Vince Gill, and she received an Ameripolitan Award for Western Swing Female in February of 2014. Sears performed at Dale Watson’s event with her head free of hair from the chemotherapy. “This is my very first award. Thank you,” Sears said while becoming very emotional. Dawn had also recently released a Christmas album.

Other Notable Deaths in the Greater Country World: 

  • Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.
  • Pete Seeger – Legendary folk artist and songwriter.
  • Arthur Smith – Accomplished guitar and banjo player, most famous for writing “Dueling Banjos.”
  • Jesse Winchester – Folk singer and songwriter with heavy country music influence.
  • Ian McLagan – Austin fixture, former keyboard player for The Faces, and frequent contributor to country projects.
  • Bobby Keys – Saxophone player for The Rolling Stones, early Buddy Holly collaborator, and player on records from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Joe Ely.
  • Chip Young – Legendary Nashville session guitarist who played on “Jolene” and many other hits.
  • Larry Henley – Hit songwriter.
  • Weldon Myrick – Steel guitar player.
  • Lois Johnson – Country music singer.
  • Tommy Ramone – Member of The Ramones who also performed in the old-time band Uncle Monk.
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