As bad as 2020 has been for just about everything, believe it or not, country music got it worse than just about every other segment of music, entertainment, sports, etc. when it came to both the amount, and the major names that passed away in the last 12 months. From major superstars like Kenny Rogers and Charley Pride, to songwriters like John Prine, to a massive list of musicians and side players, and members of the greater country music family, 2020 was nothing short of merciless.
Especially hit hard was the Texas music scene. Appreciate that in the span of one month, Mac Davis, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and Johnny Bush all died. Then the next month, Doug Supernaw and Hal Ketchum died. And let’s not forget James Hand, or that Kenny Rogers was born in Houston, and how Charley Pride called Dallas home.
Even more than most years, it helps to sit back and reflect on who we lost, to be thankful for their contributions, and cherish the country music greats we still have around. Major portions of an entire generation of country stars passed away in 2020, and it’s up to us to carry their legacy and music forward.
Below find a list of the country music greats who passed away in 2020 arranged by date.
A centerpiece to the country rock movement spanning from the mid 60’s into the 70’s, Chris Darrow’s list of contributions and accomplishments are vast, including being one of the founding members of California’s influential bluegrass outfit the Dry City Scat Band in 1964, playing with David Lindley, Richard Greene and others, and hanging out with Chis Hillman of The Byrds at the time. Darrow would follow Hillamn as a bluegrass musician transitioning into more rock-oriented music, doing time in The Floggs, and eventually the well-known psychedelic band Kaleidescope in the mid 60’s along with fellow Dry City Scat member David Lindley.
1967 is when Chris Darrow’s name would go more national when he joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, replacing Bruce Kunkel, recording two albums with the outfit, Rare Junk and Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, as well as appearing in the Clint Eastwood Western musical film, Paint Your Wagon with the band. (read more)
The beloved songwriter for Emmylou Harris and others, who Townes Van Zandt once praised by saying, “Any time anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are… I say Mozart, Lightnin Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney. Dave Olney is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard – and that’s true. I mean that from my heart,” died on Saturday, January 17th during mid performance at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rose Beach, Florida.
“David Olney, a beautiful man, a legend, a songwriting poet died last night,” fellow songwriter Amy Rigby shared on social media. “I was sitting next to him in the round, had been so honored and looking forward to getting to trade songs with him and Scott Miller. Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized, and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket we laughed about because it was raining like hell outside the boathouse where we were playing- I just want the picture to be as graceful and dignified as it was, because it at first looked like he was just taking a moment.” (read more)
Mark Yeary was a California native who played piano for Merle Haggard in his famous backing band The Strangers for nearly 20 years. Seeing Mark Yeary performing with Bill Woods is what got Merle Haggard’s attention, and he called the young player up for an audition/jam session with Merle’s legendary guitarist Roy Nichols at Merle’s Kern River Canyon home. Yeary played the white grand piano in Haggard’s house while Merle and Roy jammed on acoustic guitars. The next day Haggard hired him for The Strangers.
Unlike a lot of the artists from Nashville, Merle Haggard often recorded with his own band, and Mark Yeary appeared on over 20 of Merle Haggard’s #1 hits during his heyday, along with over twenty more Top 10’s. He also toured with Merle of course, playing some of the most iconic performances during Merle Haggard’s career, including shows at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall. Mark Yeary would play with Haggard all the way up to 1992 when he retired from the road. (read more)
Paul English – February 11th – Age 87
A member of Willie’s band from his start in shady bars in Fort Worth, Texas, all the way up to Willie’s most recent shows, he was the seminal member of Willie Nelson’s Family Band, and considered by many to be one of the most revered sidemen in American music. He also acted as Willie Nelson’s personal manager for many years.
Of all the rough characters in Outlaw Country’s past, only one had a glass eye, and was a former gang leader and pimp. When asked once by a 20/20 reporter during Willie Nelson’s peak popularity if he carried a gun, and if so could he see it, Paul English answered, “Which one?” because he notoriously carried two at all times. And for years wore a cape to go along with his nickname, “The Devil.”
Sometimes Willie Nelson would not get paid. This is when Willie met Paul, and Paul told Willie he could help him with that. Paul became Willie’s strong man, and eventually Willie’s drummer. Many believe that if it wasn’t for Paul, Willie would have not been nearly as successful. And Paul says, “Had it not been for Willie, I would be dead or in the penitentiary.” (read more)
Biff Adam – March 7th – Age 83
Another one of The Strangers has reunited with Merle Haggard in the big honky tonk in the sky. Joining The Strangers in 1970 as the replacement for Eddie Burris, Biff would go on to help mint the signature sound of The Strangers in the 70’s and beyond with his double shuffle beat that went on to influence many other country drummers, and gave Merle Haggard the drive and groove that led his music into multiple decades.
“A tough old boy and he’s got some legs that are incredible, and he can stay in tempo and keep the beat longer than any drummer in America,” Merle once said about his drummer of some 42 years.
Biff Adam is also credited as a co-writer on the song “Champagne” off of Merle’s 1973 album, I Love Dixie Blues, and as many Merle Haggard fans can attest, Biff received numerous shout outs from his boss on multiple recordings. (read more)
Eric Weissberg – March 22nd – Age 80
Whether you’re a fan of the banjo, or bluegrass and folk in general, or even if you’re not, nearly everyone recognizes the opening riff of the iconic instrumental “Dueling Banjos” made famous in the 1972 film Deliverance. And now guy who actually played the banjo on the song (despite the name, it features only one banjo dueling with a guitar), has passed away.
A banjo song made him famous, but it was much of Eric Weissberg’s work behind the scenes that would earn him the respect of his peers worldwide. Recordings from Doc Watson, Billy Joel, Frankie Valli, Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright III, Talking Heads, Jim Croce, Art Garfunkel, John Denver, The Clancy Brothers, and Tom Paxton who Weissberg would regularly tour with all featured the instrumentalist’s work. For all you old school hip hop fans, it was Eric Weissberg you heard being sampled on their song “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” from the legendary Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique. (read more)
Kenny Rogers – March 20th – Age 81
With passing of Kenny Rogers, there’s the passing of a little part of all us—a little part of our childhood where he loomed so large, a little part of our silly little slivers of life in this world where he reigned so iconically, a little part of ourselves where we separate certain eras in our own histories to the contributions of this bearded singer and actor whose efforts and popularity surpassed cultures and genres. Kenny Rogers was like that building that’s always been there in your hometown. A constant. The occupants or occupation might change, but it remains. Now you’ve returned to find it’s gone. It’s equal parts sad and unsettling.
It wasn’t just the music of Kenny Rogers. His contributions were vast and varied, from the psychedelic stylings of the Brit pop First Edition, to the Vietnam-era sentiments found in “Ruby,” to the feathered-hair pop crossover smashes of the 80’s like “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton—to a man of the silver screen playing The Gambler and Brewster Baker from Six Pack. We never got to be an iconic card shark or a NASCAR driver that chose love over victory. But we got to live those lives through Kenny Rogers, and we’re incredibly grateful for it.
Few people, if any need to be told who Kenny Rogers is, and why his passing is so significant. His legacy doesn’t transcend country music. It transcends country, and music. Everybody knew Kenny Rogers, both through the name, and in their hearts. And he will be remembered forever. (read more)
Jan Howard – March 28th – Age 91
A Grand Ole Opry member for nearly 50 years, news broke of her passing as the storied country music institution was broadcasting its 4,917th consecutive Saturday night episode despite the Coronavirus to an empty Opry House. Howard lived a legendarily tragedy-filled life that fueled her music. She married her first husband even before finishing high school, worked many odd jobs, and lost two of her three sons—one to suicide, and another in the Vietnam War, which became the inspiration for her 1968 hit, “My Son.”
After many years of struggle in her early life, Jan Howard’s music career began after meeting aspiring country music songwriter Harlan Howard in 1957. The couple was soon married, and after discovering Jan could sing, Harlan began using her as a studio demo singer, including performing on the first recording of the Patsy Cline hit, “I Fall To Pieces.”
After her success behind-the-scenes in the studio, Jan Howard got her own shot as a performer, scoring her first hit with “The One You Slip Around With” in 1960. Her biggest solo success came in 1966 with the songs “Evil On Your Mind” and “Bad Seed,” which cemented her place in country music, and one as a strong-willed woman willing to speak her mind in song. Into the late 60’s and early 70’s, her collaborations with Bill Anderson became legendary, recording five Top 5 hits with him, including the song “For Loving You” that went #1 in 1967. (read more)
Joe Diffie – March 29th – Age 61
Though his stint in the spotlight of commercial country was short, few burned as bright as Joe Diffie in the mid 90’s, with his music becoming synonymous with the era. Five #1 hits, and thirteen Top 5 songs were charted by Diffie in just five years, and were capped off by his 1994 Platinum-certified record Third Rock From The Sun. With his unmistakable mullet and easy attitude, he became a relatable star compared to some of the bigger arena acts of the era. An everyman of country music, his mix of novelty songs along with sincere ballads brought him a wide audience and mutual respect as a neotraditionalist of the era.
The success Joe Diffie enjoyed would be somewhat overshadowed by other superstars, but while the greater country music public was eating up Garth Books, Joe Diffie was the guy middle America couldn’t get enough of. Similar to the title of his second record Average Joe, Diffie felt like your funny next door neighbor, and right about the time you were disarmed, hit you with something more sincere. His first ever single “Home” went straight to #1 and helped define his career, but so did songs such as his last #1, “Bigger Than The Beatles” off his album Life’s So Funny that had people enjoying the more lighthearted side of his material. (read more)
John Prine – April 7th – Age 73
This world never deserved John Prine, and now the bill has come due. His fellow artists and songwriters always knew what they had within their midst. Attentive audiences don’t need to be told how the influence and observational brilliance of John Prine reshaped our world and brought understanding and light to many. But he remained humbly “ours” for 73 gracious years, while the rest of the world trod by unbeknown, or only knowing him from the performances of his song by others. It’s those others—the ones who don’t know, and may never know of Prine’s work—who have suffered a loss. For the rest of us, we remain filled with the poetic decadence his music served to us, and will for eternity.
We were lucky that we had John Prine as long as we did—on loan from the cosmos, or wherever his spirit emanated from. But life on this cold ball of rock was always too ordered and normal for John. So now he’s moved on to where light and love comprise the ground and sky, to spin his little stories that might seem silly or even inane if written on paper, but rang profound in our hearts and souls.
John Prine wrote kids songs for adults. His whimsical tales enhanced with tiny observances of life’s perfect little details were treasure troves of wit, hiding a deeper wisdom that helped breed understanding of larger meanings, sugar-coated so they went down easy, but with all the potency of the most powerful odes in the history of music or poetry.
Don’t mourn for John Prine. He would be embarrassed by all the hubbub being made about his passing. John Prine never knew that he was John Prine, remaining surprised anyone cared about his scribblings and bad singing all the way up to his death. His humility and honest surprise at the reception he received and the success he enjoyed just made us love him even more, exacerbating his embarrassment, and humility. (read more)
Gary McSpadden – April 15th – Age 77
A baritone who performed in numerous Gospel groups throughout his career, including The Statesmen, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Imperials, The Bill Gaither Trio, and The Gaither Vocal Band, Gary McSpadden was also a solo singer and songwriter, television host, and pastor throughout his nearly 60 year career.
In 1962 at the age of 18, Gary was noticed by the manager of the Southern Gospel group The Statesman, and was asked to fill in while the lead singer Jake Hess was on medical leave. After five months with The Statesman, McSpadden joined what at the time was called The Oak Ridge Quartet at the critical moment when the group signed with Warner Bros. Records and officially became known as The Oak Ridge Boys. Gary McSpadden replaced Ron Page, and appeared on three records with the Hall of Fame group before reuniting with Jake Hess and singing with The Imperials. McSpadden was part of The Imperials when they famously sang backup for Elvis Presley. (read more)
Harold Reid – April 24th – Age 80
Harold Reid had a voice you could build a band around, and that what he did with Joe McDorman, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt in the mid 50’s, later adding his brother Don Reid into the mix, first calling themselves The Four Star Quartet, and later The Kingsman until the song “Louie Louie” by another group called The Kingsman became a hit. Then the foursome decided to name themselves after a brand of Statler facial tissue they found in a hotel room—not exactly inspirational, but it stuck. When Johnny Cash recognized the talent the group contained, he scooped them up to tour behind him and open for him in 1964. They would remain in that position with The Man in Black for nearly a decade while conducting a solo career on the side.
A year after saddling up with Cash, The Statler Brothers had their first hit with the quirky “Flowers on the Wall.” When film director Quentin Tarantino needed a quintessential song for a pivotal scene in his 1994 breakout film Pulp Fiction as the character played by Bruce Willis was sitting behind the wheel, “Flowers on the Wall” was the song deemed to make the cut.
It was sort of that “right place, right time” magic that made The Statler Brothers such a big success, and an influential band in country music and beyond. With Harold Reid, they could do things other bands just couldn’t. And as the big brother, Harold Reid was the leader. (read more)
Fuzzy Owen – May 12th – Age 91
Call him the Founder, call him the Father, but whatever you call him, make sure you recognize that without Fuzzy Owen, there may have never been a “Bakersfield Sound” in country music, and country may have never taken such a foothold on the West Coast to eventually influence generations of country and rock performers. When you made one of the first recordings for Buck Owens, signed Merle Haggard to his first record deal and managed him for decades, you deserve that level of distinction.
It was while playing in Bakersfield’s The Lucky Spot in 1961 when Fuzzy Owen discovered Merle Haggard fresh out of San Quentin Prison, looking for a band to play guitar in. Owen hired him, and then signed him to Tally Records.
Soon, Merle would be the boss, and both Fuzzy Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley would gladly be the employees along for the ride. They also helped Merle sign to Capitol Records, and eventually sold their Haggard catalog on Talley Records to the label. Also an early member of Merle’s backing band The Strangers, eventually Fuzzy Owen would transition into the position of road manager, while Lewis Talley became Merle’s long-time bus driver. Fuzzy Owen continued to work for Haggard as a road manager and right hand man all the way until Merle died in 2016. (read more)
Jimmy Capps – June 2nd – Age 81
When you played on such iconic country music recordings as “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning,” and “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, you know your legacy in country music is secured. There have been many legendary guitar players in country music. But there’s been only one Jimmy Capps. Whether live or in the studio, for decades he was considered one of the greatest living country guitarists.
You don’t always recognize the side players in country music. But Jimmy Capps was an exception. Was was the go-to guitar player in country music for the last 60 years. Whether it was as part of the Grand Ole Opry house band where he was a regular since 1967, or playing the Sheriff (and guitar player) on the RFD-TV show Larry’s Country Diner and Country’s Family Reunion, whenever you saw Jimmy take the stage, you knew you were in for a treat.
Jimmy Capps was the man behind the hits and standards in America country music for decades, and one of the most friendly and familiar faces in the business. (read more)
James Hand – June 8th – Age 68
“Authenticity” is that elusive ingredient everyone is searching for in country music, but few can truly capture. Embedded in every true country music fan is this nagging idea that somewhere out there is a treasure trove of country music waiting to be discovered. Somewhere, someplace, there’s a lonely man plugging away in some honky tonk, sweat beading across his brow and a life’s worth of pain behind his songs, who couldn’t hide his authenticity if he tried; a true country legend waiting to be discovered. James Hand was that legend.
As Willie Nelson once said succinctly and completely, “James Hand is the real deal!” Growing up on the rodeo circuit with his parents, Hand started learning guitar and singing as a teenager, but never pursued music as a career. Instead he was a rodeo man and truck driver. Then in 1999 at the age of 47, he decided to release a proper debut album, Shadows Where The Magic Was. Immediately that authenticity of working and living for an entire lifetime before choosing to sing about it opened a floodgate of emotion and compelling stories.
Later in life Hand paired with Hillgrass Bluebilly Records to release Mighty Lonesome Man in 2012, offering more classics to the country music canon such as “Lesson in Depression,” or the defiant “Old Man Henry.” In 2014, he finally recorded the Gospel album he always wanted called Stormclouds in Heaven. That same year he also starred in an independent film about himself called Thank You A Lot.
Though he no longer had the backing of a major label or a big booking agent, James Hand continued to perform throughout central Texas and beyond. He was a regular of the Austin honky tonk circuit, won an Ameripolitan award, and opened the Ameripolitan Awards as a performer all seven years since its inception. (read more)
Charlie Daniels – July 6th – Age 83
A titan of American music, Charlie Daniels started his career on the outside looking into the mainstream as a long-haired fiddle player who could identify with Southern rednecks and anti-war hippies alike during the Vietnam era and the rise of the counterculture. Daniels then went on to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and firebrand of conservative values, and a worldwide ambassador of fiddle music universally recognized for his American classic, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
The Charlie Daniels Band would go on to cross cultural divides and genres from blending country with strong rock influences, and songs that spoke to many, from the war torn “Still In Saigon,” to “Long-Haired Country Boy.” Charlie Daniels became a symbol for the American 70’s and the cultural friction they caused. Though Charlie Daniels became a star on his own, he never stopped playing fiddle with others. Daniels appears on most all of the early Marshall Tucker Band albums, on Hank Williams Jr.’s Hank Williams Jr. & Friends, and countless other recording over many decades.
As Charlie Daniels grew older, he became a more active voice in American politics, and a polarizing character to many for some of his stances. Eschewing his more liberal and moderate views of the 70’s, he became a symbol of the American right. But that never got in the way of trying to use music as a universal language. His now legendary Volunteer Jam lineups drew talent from all across the musical and political spectrum, and raised millions of dollars for charity. As a fiddle player, he became an ambassador for the instrument. (read more)
Randy Barlow – July 30th – Age 77
In 1974, Barlow signed a recording contract and found his first success with “Throw Away the Pages,” which became a minor hit in country. This inspired him to move to Nashville, which resulted in numerous Top 40 country hits, including “California Lady,” “Kentucky Woman,” and the #18 hit “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This put Barlow on the national map.
From there Randy Barlow found his greatest commercial fame, stringing together four consecutive Top 10 hits with “Slow and Easy,” “No Sleep Tonight,” “Fall in Love with Me Tonight,” and “Sweet Melinda.” This earned Barlow a nomination for Best New Male Artist from the Academy of Country Music, and appearances on the popular television shows Hee-Haw and The Porter Wagoner Show. His success continued into the early 80’s with “Love Dies Hard,” and a country version of the song “Lay Back in the Arms of Someone” made famous by the English Band Smokie. Barlow also toured extensively throughout the period. (read more)
Bill Mack – July 31st – Age 88
As a broadcasting legend and award-winning songwriter, Bill Mack brought the beauty and love of country music into many homes and big rig cabs for many decades.
There are many accolades from Bill Mack’s legendary career on radio that you could highlight, but you have to start with his overnight trucking shows that kept many big rig operators awake, alert, and between the lines broadcasting from the mighty WBAP out of Fort Worth that during its heyday, could almost be heard coast to coast on its Clear Channel signal. First commenced in 1969 and called The Country Roads Show and later the Midnight Cowboy Trucking Show, it was arguably just as instrumental in tying country and the trucking industry together as any artist or song, and many performers penned and recorded country songs just to be highlighted on the show.
But Bill Mack wasn’t just a bystander to country music. As a songwriter, he penned tunes that went onto be covered by the likes of George Jones, Ray Price, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Dean Martin. He might be best known in the songwriting realm for penning “Blue,” which became the big breakout for DFW-native LeAnn Rimes. (read more)
Steve Holland – August 2nd
Steve Holland—the last surviving member of the influential Southern rock band Molly Hatchet’s most legendary lineup, passed away after a prolonged illness. The guitarist for the group helped perfect the double guitar attack that became the band’s signature, and can be heard on their most memorable hit “Flirtin’ With Disaster.”
Singer Danny Joe Brown passed away in 2005, guitarist Duane Roland died in 2006, drummer Bruce Crump passed in 2015, and guitarist Dave Hlubeck and bassist Banner Thomas died in 2017. Hlubeck officially started the band in 1971 in Jacksonville, FL, but the band didn’t rise to prominence until 1978 with the release of their self-titled record. 1979 and the album Flirtin’ With Disaster is what put them on the national map. Steve Holland joined in 1974 as the band was forming its classic six-piece lineup.
Born in Dothan, Alabama, Holland began playing guitar at the age of 8, and moved to Jacksonville, FL in the early 70’s. He met Dave Hlubeck at a local record store, and the rest of the principle members of the band were in place by 1976, eventually signing to Epic Records. (read more)
Justin Townes Earle – August 23rd – Age 38
Well-respected as a songwriter and performer, Justin Townes Earle was one of the rising stars in the Americana scene after first releasing a well-received six-song EP called Yuma in 2007, which led to him being signed to Bloodshot Records out of Chicago. This led to five critically-acclaimed records beginning with 2008’s The Good Life, leading into 2009’s Midnight at the Movies, which was named Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year.
By 2010, Justin Townes Earle was opening the doors for the country and Americana insurgency that would take root in the years to come. His album Harlem River Blues became a breakout, and the title track became the 2011 Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, and he performed the song on Letterman with an up-and-coming performer named Jason Isbell playing guitar for him. In 2011, Saving Country Music named Justin Townes Earle the Artist of the Year.
Like his father, Justin Townes Earle had his personal battles. Open about his issues with addiction, they often became interwoven into his songs, resulting in the honest and touching moments that marked his music. (read more)
Doak Snead – September 16th – Age 70
A pioneer of Austin’s progressive country scene, as well as respected songwriter and country music personality Doak Snead was a member of the duo Tom and Billy, and later the leader of the Doak Snead Band. He was a staple and regular opener at Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters for artists like Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, and so many others.
Hal Ketchum and was quoted once saying, “When I moved to Texas there were a few guys who were doing it already. They were the true Texas troubadours. Doak was one of the guys I gravitated toward. He can build you a house with words where the roof won’t leak. He’s mighty good at it.”
Along with the multiple records Doak Snead and the Doak Snead Band released over the years, he also wrote and recorded multiple children’s records under the pseudonym Mister Doak, adding another wrinkle to his diverse and accomplished career. (read more)
Jan Reid – September 19th – Age 75
If not for author Jan Reid, there would be no Austin City Limits. And without Austin City Limits, there may not have been any national awareness of what was happening in the Texas Capital back in the early and mid 70’s and beyond, as hippies and cowboys intermingled and became the catalyst for what would become a country music Outlaw revolution, and the establishment of Austin, TX as a major music hub.
Jan Reid was the sports editor of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung in the early 70’s when he saw a musical phenomenon breaking out in Austin, fostered by artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphy who already had a little national name recognition behind them when they arrived and began intermingling with rising local stars such as Willis Alan Ramsey, Kinky Friedman, Steve Fromholz, and Townes Van Zandt.
It was Jan Reid’s book in 1974 called The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock that helped to establish and legitimize Austin, TX as a music destination. Setting out to chronicle what he saw taking place in Austin through the lens of the individual artists, the book became the direct inspiration for the Austin City Limits television show, which started with a pilot episode featuring Willie Nelson in October of 1974, and has since logged 900 episodes and is the longest-running music show on television. (read more)
W.S. “Fluke” Holland – September 23rd – Age 85
W.S. Holland was Johnny Cash’s drummer for 40 years, and is considered by many as the “Father of the Drums.” When he joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1960, the famous Tennessee Two with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant officially became the Tennessee Three. He was also Cash’s road manager up until the late 90’s. But it was a fluke the drummer joined the band at all, leading to his now inseparable nickname.
W.S. Holland was the drummer for the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” session that matched up Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Later W.S. Holland would take the same drum set used in many of those famous Sun Studios sessions, and they would become the first full drum set ever used on The Grand Ole Opry. Though Bob Wills back in 1945 brought his Texas Playboys to the Ryman, including their full-time drummer, The Opry forbade Bob from playing the drum set on stage. An argument ensued, and eventually The Opry caved and allowed the drummer to play a partial set behind a curtain. But the set owned by W.S. “Fluke” Holland was the first full drum set, and the first officially approved set to ever grace The Grand Ole Opry’s hallowed stage.
A strong case can be made that W.S. Holland was the most important drummer in country music history, and one of the most important in the history of American music. (read more)
Mac Davis – September 29th – Age 78
Mac Davis is being remembered by many as a “country star,” but that tells only part of the story. In truth, the Lubbock, TX native’s musical trek spent just as much time, if not more weaving its way through the pop and rock realm, and it’s in that capacity where he may have reached his highest peaks. Not everyone will recognize the name “Mac Davis” and immediately bring to mind a country crooner whose small handful of Top 10 hits only spanned the early 80’s. But cite the songs he wrote for Elvis such as “In The Ghetto,” “Memories,” and “A Little Less Conversation,” and you will immediately get a reaction.
It was only after Mac Davis found himself reaching back to his Lubbock roots that he found his way to popularity through country music. He signed to Casablanca Records—a disco label of all things known as the home of Donna Summer. On a whim he wrote and recorded the joke song “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” which out of nowhere, became Davis’s first Top 10 country hit in 1980, and crossed over to pop, instead of vice versa as had been the case with his songs before. Mac followed that success with another Top 10 off the Hard to Be Humble album called “Let’s Keep It That Way.” The country record released on a disco label became Davis’s highest-charted album of his career in the country genre, reaching #3 on the charts.
Mac Davis lived many lives in his 78 years, passing away in Nashville, Tennessee. But he will always be remembered in country music as the boy from Lubbock who was happy to leave, but even happier to return. (read more)
Ray Pennington – October 7th – Age 86
Pennington’s ear for quality is what led him into the production side of country music where he would spend most of his career, producing albums for The Stanley Brothers, and the final record of Hawkshaw Hawkins, Lonesome 7-7203. A multi-instrumentalist as well, Pennington could play guitar, piano, and drums, which he would regularly contribute to the sessions he recorded.
In 1964, Ray Pennington moved to Nashville where he continued to work as a producer, and signed to Capitol Records in 1966 as a recording artist, releasing his version of “I’m Ramblin Man,” which was his biggest hit. However producing is where he continued to find his calling, working with Tex Williams, and Kenny Price, later moving to Monument Records, and eventually to RCA, where he produced Billy Walker and Norma Jean, and was introduced to Waylon Jennings, where Waylon caught wind of “I’m a Ramblin Man.” (read more)
Johnny Bush – October 16th – Age 85
The writer of “Whiskey River,” and a legend among legends in Texas music and beyond, Johnny Bush was a man that stood right on the edge of country music stardom for so many years, and rubbed elbows with so many of its most recognizable stars, serving in the “Cherokee Cowboys” band for Ray Price right beside Willie Nelson, then later serving in Willie Nelson’s backing band “The Record Men” when Willie was still an up-and-comer. Bush was right there forging the history of country music throughout the 60’s and well into the 80’s, often writing it himself in iconic songs.
Johnny Bush is one of the reasons Texas country came to prominence, and is considered one of its founding fathers. His death marks the end of an era in Texas Country, but one whose legacy and memory will not be lost anytime soon. (read more)
Jerry Jeff Walker – October 23rd – Age 78
From contributing one of the most important folk songs of the American songbook in history, to becoming a seminal member of the Austin, TX music scene and founding father of Texas country music, there is no comparing, and no replacing the impact of performer, songwriter, musical icon, and gonzo musician Jerry Jeff Walker.
Following the Texas credo that if you’re not born there, you get there as fast as you can, Walker would take his name recognition, prestige, and major label deal, and become one of the primary catalysts for creating the world-class music scene in Austin, TX that would later launch Willie Nelson and others to superstardom. Moving to the area in the early 70’s, the music scene very much formed around Jerry Jeff as he recruited the Lost Gonzo Band with Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston behind him (that he borrowed from Michael Martin Murphy), and made the Armadillo World Headquarters his second home.
The way Jerry Jeff Walker turned the unexpected fame and attention he received from writing “Mr. Bojangles” to benefit so many others via shout outs and song credits is what stands out as the defining mark of character and contribution Jerry Jeff Walker left. He never wanted to be famous, but he sure enjoyed bestowing fame to others. (read more)
Billy Joe Shaver – October 28th – Age 81
The heart and soul of the songs and words of the American country music Outlaw movement has passed on. Billy Joe Shaver, with only three fingers on his right hand and an 8th grade education, left an indelible mark on country music that will never be worn down. From writing all but one of the songs on the landmark, breakout album from Waylon Jennings—1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes—to beating the wrap for shooing a man in the face (in self-defense) near Waco in 2010, Billy Joe Shaver was the full embodiment of the “Outlaw” country icon and hero.
Later in life, Billy Joe Shaver continued to receive accolades and attention. He performed on the Grand Ole Opry in 1999, was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and sings the theme song for the Adult Swim animated comedy, Squidbillies. He was also the subject of an episode of the Mike Judge-produced Tales From The Tour Bus series. His name also regularly comes up as a contender for the Country Music Hall of Fame under the songwriting category.
Not nearly as famous as Willie or Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver was nonetheless the heartbeat of the country music Outlaw movement, making his plainspoken language soar with hillbilly wisdom and elegy that will live forever. (read more)
Doug Supernaw – November 13th – Age 60
Doug Supernaw’s tumultuous life was like a country song. It went from obscure beginnings, to superstardom, to a return to anonymity, and eventually a path of new redemption.
One of the most promising stars in country music in the early 90’s, Doug Supernaw’s album Red and Rio Grande calling on the border rivers of his native Texas saw his song “Reno” reach the Top 5 on the country charts, and then the heartbreaking “I Don’t Call Him Daddy” go all the way to #1. Signed to BNA Records and with a big following in his native state of Texas and beyond, Supernaw had a bright future in country music, earning a Song of the Year nomination for “I Don’t Call Him Daddy” from the ACM’s.
In 1995, Supernaw found further Top 5 success with his single “Not Enough Hours in the Night.” But soon Doug Supernaw became one of those country artists who seemed to disappear too soon, and become the subject of the question, “Where are they now?” Just as Doug Supernaw was beginning to see a second wind in his career, Cancer took it away from him. But he passed away after finding the straight and narrow, and redemption. (read more)
Hal Ketchum – November 23rd – Age 67
Tracie Ferguson, the long-time booking agent for Gruene Hall in Texas tells Saving Country Music, “Hal both began his career and ended his career with shows at Gruene Hall. As a young carpenter, he built our fence around the beer garden and even put up our basketball post. He went from playing in our front room for free, to Nashville, and sold millions of records. At the height of his popularity, he still came back almost yearly to play a Gruene Hall Reunion concert.”
Hal Ketchum had a way of putting life into perfect context. His first hit “Small Town Saturday Night” was written by Paul Alger and Hank DeVito, but was about New Braunfels, TX, where Gruene Hall is located.
“Bobby told Lucy, “The world ain’t round…
Drops off sharp at the edge of town
Lucy, you know the world must be flat
‘Cause when people leave town, they never come back”
But Hal Ketchum did. And from small town shows to the big stages of Nashville, persevering through a life of health setbacks, Hal Ketchum left a strong mark on country music. (read more)
Jimmy Snyder – December 9th
A fixture of the historic Palomino Club in North Hollywood where he led the club’s house band called The Palomino Riders throughout the 70’s, he later relocated to Nashville and became a regular club performer, playing in Printer’s Alley, and later a legendary residency at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, helping to mentor artists such as Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, Tara Thompson, and others early in their careers.
Throughout his career, Jimmy Snyder was singed to various record labels including Toppa Records, K-Ark Records, Wayside Records, and others, finding his greatest success with the song “The Chicago Story.” He collaborated at times with artists such as Willie Nelson on the song “I’m Still Not Over You,” Merle Haggard on the song “Haggard State of Mind,” played with Elvis Presley who once joked Snyder could sing “Memories” better than he could, and Leon Russell was once in Jimmy’s band as an up-and-coming piano player.
But where Jimmy Snyder’s most lasting contribution was as a fixture in local clubs, playing classic country standards and originals, and often giving up-and-comers some of their first opportunities on legendary stages in both California and Nashville. He could play most any country song shouted at him from the crowd. (read more)
Charley Pride – December 12th – Age 86
Born in Sledge, Mississippi as the forth child of 11 children to a sharecropper, Charley Pride challenged the notion that country music was a white man’s genre. Between 1967 and 1987, Pride delivered 52 Top 10 country hits, and had 29 #1’s. He won the CMA’s coveted Entertainer of the Year in 1971, along with Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972. Along with Grammy Awards and other accolades, Charley Pride was one of the most successful, accomplished, and influential country artists of all time.
Charley Pride was RCA’s best-selling artist since Elvis Presley. Pride became the first black country artists to sing at the Grand Ole Opry (harmonica player DeFord Bailey was the first performer), where he was invited to become a member in 1993. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, and just this November at the 2020 CMA Awards, received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.
But beyond the accolades, it’s songs like “Kiss An Angle Good Morning,” “Just Between You and Me,” and “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me,” that put so much of human emotion into song in a way that nobody else could. Charley Pride became the voice of a generation. (read more)
K.T. Oslin – December 21st – Age 78
Music is a young person’s game. We all know that. And it’s reinforced every time you look at the charts, or turn on the radio, or watch a big awards show. It’s even harder for women in an ageist industry with image requirements and expectations unduly burdening them to make any sort of run at stardom later in life. But K.T. Oslin bucked all of that in her career. She defied many of the odds to leave her mark of launching an admirable career, and a country music anthem for many of a generation.
Even as her own country singles released on Elecktra Records in the early 80’s failed garner much interest, others were minting hits with her songs. But in 1987, Oslin switched labels to RCA, and instead of falling victim with the inherent ageism in the industry, K.T. Oslin confronted it, and found the greatest success of her career, in country music or otherwise. The song “80’s Ladies” spoke very specifically to growing up, and growing old. And at 45-years-old, K.T. Oslin had a major hit.
Smart songwriting and confident delivery combined with timeless themes have kept K.T.’s music current, as many of today’s country listeners mine the 80’s looking for more heart than today’s “country” offerings and find it in her songs, despite the time stamp. (read more)
Tony Rice – December 25th – Age 69
From the hills and hollers of Kentucky as a strict traditionalist, to some of the most enterprising and innovative interpretations of the bluegrass form, from beside artists as far ranging as Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Garcia, to being the very compass point for a generation of composers and players who all looked up to him and count him as a primary influence, Tony Rice was American string music incarnate. He lived a dozen musical lives all inside of one that “legendary” doesn’t seem to do justice to.
“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home…” close friend Ricky Skaggs said in a statement on Saturday, December 26th. “Tony Rice was the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years. Many if not all of the Bluegrass guitar players of today would say that they cut their teeth on Tony Rice’s music.” (read more)
Ginny Kalmbach – December 30th
She was little, and so was the club she owned and operated on north Burnett Road in Austin. But the impact this little spot and little woman had on Austin’s music community is the stuff of legend. From launching the Chicken $hit Bingo legacy in earnest, to being a proving ground for dozens of artists, and a destination spot for hundreds of true country music fans, Miss Ginny took a tiny and run-down church-looking building barely big enough for a dance floor, and turned it into a country music Mecca.
Originally opened nearly 60 years ago as Dick’s Little Longhorn Saloon, Dick hired Ginny Kalmbach as a waitress a few years later. Ginny became close with both Dick and his wife, who both would ultimately die of Cancer. To Ginny’s surprise, when Dick died in 1982, he bequeathed the bar to her, and Dick’s Little Longhorn Saloon became Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
Ginny, who had grown up on classic country music, chose to make her incarnation of the bar into a live music venue, despite the extremely cramped quarters. Instead of prohibiting the congregation of country fans, the small space became a legend in its own right, and an Austin honky tonk fixture in line with The Broken Spoke and Continental Club. (read more)
Other Notable Deaths
Wade Jackson – January 14th – Age 90 – Country singer and songwriter. Brother of Stonewall Jackson.
Eddie Setser – January 17th – Age 77 – Songwriter, best know for “Seven Spanish Angels.”
Bob Shane – January 26th – Age 85 – The final member of the original Kingston Trio to pass away.
Jimmie Delozier – January 31st – Age 88 – Fiddle player for Joe Sacra, The Bluegrass Buddies, and The Sensations.
Buddy Cage – February 4th – Age 73 – Influential country rock steel guitarist for New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Joe Halterman – February 11th – Age 69 – Drummer for Bobby Pierce & The Nashville Sounds, Cal Smith, Ray Price, Buddy Emmons, Joe Carter, Tompall Glaser, Dean Dillon, and others.
Michael Lilly – February 12th – Age 69 – Banjo player for Powell Brothers, Larry Sparks, Harley Allen, and more.
Lindesy Lagestee – February 14th – Age 25 – Member of Dixie Crush was struck by a car outside of a Chicago club where the band was appearing.
Daniel Lee Martin – February 14th – Age 54 – Country performer and outdoors personality who committed suicide after being charged with child molestation. (read more)
Mac Benford – February 15th – Age 79 – Banjo player, member of the Highwoods String Band.
Jim Owen – March 7th – Age 78 – Songwriter of “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “Southern Loving,” and others.
Ramsey Kearney – March 14th – Age 86 – Songwriter for Mel Tillis, Eddy Arnold, Moe Bandy, and others.
Robb Houston – March 16th – Age 57 – Guitarist for Randy Travis.
Dave Rich – March 18th – Age 84 – Rockabilly Hall of Fame singer and performer.
Hans Kayster – March 20th – Age 80 – Bluegrass singer and multi-instrumentalist in his band the Big River Boys.
Jimmy Henley – March 22nd – Age 56 – Roy Clark’s banjo player for 25 years, including many appearances on Hee Haw.
Alex Harvey – April 4th – Songwriter for “Delta Dawn,” “Ruben James,” and others notable hits.
Jimmy Jay – April 6th – Age 84 – Country singer for Starday, and songwriter for Conway Twitty, George Strait, Neal McCoy, and others.
Carl Dobkins Jr. – April 8th – Age 79 – Rockabilly singer, and member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
John B. Kaparakis – April 12th – Age 82 – Bluegrass guitarist for Hazel Dickens, Kenny Baker, and the Lonesome River Boys.
Arthur Connor – April 13th – Age 95 – Bluegrass musician in The Connor Brothers, fiddle maker.
Knox Phillips – April 15th – Age 74 – Producer for John Prine, Jerry Lee Lewis, WIllie Nelson, and others. Some of the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
Dale Pyatt – April 15th – Age 59 – Bulegrass songwriter for Dave Adkins, Cumberland Gap Connection, Marty Raybon, Lizzy Long, Junior Sisk.
Ernie Harris – April 24th – Age 67 – Session drummer on Music Row.
Jim Lusk – April 25th – Age 80 – Songwriter and namesake of Jim Lusk and the Counterfeit Cowboys.
John Lancaster – May 1st – Age 43 – Keyboard player for Jamey Johnson, Will Hoge, Gary Allan, and others.
Cady Groves – May 3rd – Age 30 – Pop country singer and songwriter who died right as debut EP was coming out.
Sue “Suzabelle” Armstrong Thompson – May 4th – Age 79 – Famous greater at Opryland USA who also worked as a preservationist at important properties in Nashville.
Little Richard – May 9th – Age 87 – Iconic rock and roll, R&B performer. Waylon Jennings once got fired for playing his music on the radio.
Cy Scarborough – May 19th – Age 93 – Founder of The Bar D Wranglers who played at the Bar D Chuckwagon Supper attraction near Durango, Colardo since 1969, and made guest appearances on the Opry.
Tony de Boer – May 20th – Age 81 – Bluegrass festival promoter and organizer, known as the “Father of Canadian Bluegrass.”
Bonnie Pointer – June 8th – Age 69 – Member of The Pointer Sisters who wrote the country crossover hit “Fairytale.”
Glenn Ray – June 11th – Songwriter of “I Just Came Home to Count The Memories” and other songs.
Larry W. Johnson – June 12th – Age 69 – Co-writer of Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take The Girl.”
Randy Frazier – June 19th – Age 60 – Bass player for Terry McBride and the Ride, and Sammy Kershaw.
Pete Carr – June 27th – Age 70 – Muscle Shoals session guitarist who played on numerous country recordings.
Sonny Lonas – June 30th – Age 81 – Drummer for Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, others.
Craig Martin – July 3rd – Age 52 – Co-writer of Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take The Girl.”
Gary Walker – July 8th – Age 87 – Songwriter for Carl Smith, Jim Reeves, and others. Owner of the used records stor The Great Escape.
Kenny Dale – July 15th – Age 69 – 70’s country star who recorded for Capitol Records, and had a hit with “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” Retired in the 80’s, lived in Nashville, then San Antonio. Passed away due to COVID-19.
Jamie Oldaker – July 16th – Age 68 – Drummer for The Tractors, who also played with Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and others.
Dan Kelly – July 22nd – Age 54 – Fiddle player for the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys.
Felix McTeigue – July 24th – Age 48 – Songwriter with numerous co-writes with Lori McKenna, as well as Florida Georgia Line’s “Anything Goes.”
Kenny Ingram – July 26th – Age 67 – Banjo player for Rhonda Vincent, Lester Flatt, and others.
William “Bucky” Baxter – August 12th – Age 67 – Pedal steel guitarist and co-founder of Steve Earle’s backing band The Dukes.
Steve Gulley – August 18th – Age 57 – Bluegrass musician in Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Mountain Heart.
Todd Nance – August 19th – Age 57 – Drummer for Widespread Panic. (read more)
Bill Pursell – September 3rd – Age 94 – Studio piano player that appeared on scores of tracks between the 1960’s and 1980’s.
Lucille Star – September 4th – Age 82 – Canadian country music star, and first Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.
Troy Jones – September 11th – Age 64 – Grammy-nominated songwriter of Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy” and other songs.
Jim Brewer – September 12th – Age 82 – Member of bluegrass band The Kentucy Ramblers, father to Gary Brewer.
Ellen Reeves – September 15th – Age 87 – Songwriter, and widow of country artist Del Reeves.
Roy Head – September 21st – Age 79 – Rockabilly Hall of Fame performer, father of performer Sundance Head.
Bonnie Lou Moore – September 21st – Age 91 – Half of performing duo Bonnie Lou and Buster.
Bill McEuen – September 24th – Age 79 – Producer of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, including their landmark album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Was also the brother of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen.
Helen Reddy – September 29th, Age 78 – Australian American singer and songwriter in the pop realm, but also recorded Mac Davis’s “I Believe in Music.” Mac Davis also died on September 29th.
Rick Durett – October 6th – Age 75 – Keyboard player for Crystal Gayle and rock band Coven.
Eddie Van Halen – October 6th – Age 65 – Guitar God of rock band Van Halen. (read more)
Joe Meador – October 21st – Age 73 – Songwriter and manager who co-wrote many songs for Ronnie McDowell, including “All Tied Up” and “Never Too Old to Rock and Roll.”
Margie Bowes – October 22nd – Age 79 – Popular late 50’s country singer who had a hit with “Poor Old Heartsick Me.” Was married to Doyle Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers.
Miranda Lambert’s dog “Waylon” – October 22nd – Rescued from the side of the road, and lived with Miranda for 13 years.
Bryan Wayne Galentine – October 22nd – Age 53 – Songwriter for Tommy Shane Steiner’s “What If She’s an Angel” and Chris Cagle’s “Country by the Grace of God” among others.
J.T. Corenflos – October 24th – Age 56 – Renown session musician, member of Jean Shepard’s band.
Shawn Scruggs – October 25th – Age 37 – Bass player on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
Stan Kesler – October 26th – Age 92 – Sun Records studio musician.
Judy Kendall Frye – November 6th – Age 73 – Hostess at the Grand Ole Opry for 39 years.
William Wayne “Curley” Gatlin – November 9th – Age 93 – Gospel performer, and father of The Gatlin Brothers.
Lynesy McDonald – November 23rd – Age 58 – Co-founder of Nashville’s Music City Roots program.
Carl Mann – December 15th – Age 78 – Sun Records Rockabilly performer.
Wanda White – December 15th – Age 87 – Member of Carlton Scruggs and the Down Home Folks.
Hugh X. Lewis – December 25th – Age 90 – Songwriter and performer who made numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Club owner in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley.