In Memoriam: Country Music’s Fallen Greats of 2021

Stonewall Jackson/Tom T. Hall/Jason “Rowdy” Cope/Don Maddox

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it has created for so many has resulted in the rolls of those we’ve lost over the last couple of years to swell. As we look back on 2021 and before we look forward to 2022, it’s important we take the time to pay tribute to these individuals who left a mark on the country and roots music world that will never fade.

Looking through the list of those who passed on in 2021, what stands out especially is the amount of important venue owners who were champions of the music behind-the-scenes that we lost. These individuals play such an important role in making sure music in the live context is supported, and did so during an era of unprecedented strain on this critical part of music. To make sure their impact is not overlooked, they’ve been included here right beside the entertainers, players, and songwriters.

This includes titans such as James White of the Broken Spoke in Austin and JT Gray of The Station Inn in Nashville, to smaller venue owners like Dustin Boyer of Duke’s Indy in Indianapolis, and Mark Jensen of The ABGB in Austin. They’re remembered right beside the other legends of country music.

Please note: Every effort was expended to make sure most everyone was included here, and any potential omissions are purely accidental. If you happen to see someone you believe belongs here, please feel free to speak up in the comments section for the benefit of us all.

Jamie O’Hara – January 7th – Age 70

Jamie O’Hara with Emmylou Harris

From the Grammy-winning song “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days)” that became the signature song from The Judds, to Gary Allan’s first #1 hit “Man To Man,” to Ronnie McDowell’s #1 “Older Woman,” songwriter Jamie O’Hara made major contributions to the songbook of country music, often as the sole writer on a composition, while also finding success as one half of the performing duo, The O’Kanes.

He found a mentor in legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard, as well as other legends such as Curly Putnam, and then in 1980, took the plunge to be a full-time songwriter, writing songs for Conway Twitty, Ronnie McDowell, Don Williams, and Tammy Wynette. But the lack of major success cost him his first wife, and he continued to struggle to find success. Then one day in 1985, he sat down at a picnic table he used as a dinner table in his three-room house and wrote “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days),” and everything changed. (read more)

Ed Bruce – January 8 – Age 81

There are many legendary country songs, and many legendary country songwriters. But few songs are as synonymous with country music to the point where they’re so well-recognized and can be recited by those well outside the country fold like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” It’s title may be long, but it says it all. And it ended up being a signature and singular contribution to the American music canon when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson conjoined to take it to #1 in 1978.

But it was a long-time songwriter and struggling performer who wrote the song with his wife Patsy at the time, and had a minor hit with it himself a couple of years before. Ed Bruce is one of those legendary, behind-the-scenes icons in country music most everyone recognizes the name of, but not enough remember why. With his walrus mustache, thick voice, and rugged countenance, the Keiser, Arkansas-born songwriter and performer looked the part. (read more)

His wife Patsy Bruce passed away on May 16th as well.

Jason “Rowdy” Cope – January 16th – Age 42

photo: Brad Coolidge

Jason Cope made his name and became a familiar face to many country fans after touring in Jamey Johnson’s backing band for nearly 10 years. Taking up guitar at age 11, he grew up listening to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, as well as rock bands like Led Zepplin. Cope worked in the Los Angeles area for eight years before moving to Nashville in 2007 where he soon joined Jamey Johnson’s backing outfit on lead guitar. Cope also co-wrote one of Johnson’s signature songs, “Can’t Cash My Checks.”

Jason Cope started The Steel Woods with lead singer/guitar player Wes Bayliss. The two met at a one-off gig in Nashville, and after a fishing retreat together, decided to give a new band a shot, hitting it off despite a 13-year age difference. Jason Cope was the wily veteran, while Wes Bayliss was the promising up-and comer. The two comprised the primary songwriters of The Steel Woods, with bass player Johnny Stanton, and drummer Jay Tooke filling out the roster. (read more)

Randy Parton – January 21st – Age 67

The eighth of twelve kids, Randy was the Dolly Parton’s most well-known musical sibling beside her sister Stella. As a solo performer, Randy Parton charted two Top 30 hits in 1980 with “Hold Me Like You Never Had Me” and “Shot Full of Love” in 1981 off the Shot Full of Love album. Randy was also the first to record the song “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” written by Dave Loggins in 1982. Alabama would have a #1 hit with the song in 1984. Randy also sang on the soundtrack for the movie Rhinestone that co-starred Dolly and Sylvester Stallone in 1984.

Throughout his sister’s career, Randy Parton regularly played bass, and occasionally guitar for her on tour. He also sang numerous tracks with her both live and in the studio, including Dolly’s 1980 #1 duet “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You).” He also had just recorded the duet “You Are My Christmas” for Dolly Parton’s 2020 Christmas album, which Parton wrote for Randy. (read more)

James White – January 24th – Age 81

The Broken Spoke honky tonk is just about the most authentic thing you can still find within the city limits of Austin, TX. And it’s long-time owner, mascot, patron saint, and a man that has been a major booster for music in the region and the stepping stone for many major careers has passed on.

An Austin native, James White opened The Broken Spoke over 50 years ago in 1964 when he was 25-years-old and fresh out of the Army. He spotted a vacant property on South Lamar beautified with Austin’s signature oak trees, and had an idea. Short of money, he was still able to scrounge up enough to build the original front room that is now the restaurant, and named it The Broken Spoke. (read more)

Jim Weatherly – February 3rd – Age 77

He could have been a star in the NFL. Instead Jim Weatherly chose to become a songwriter. The football world’s loss was the music world’s gain, if for no other accomplishment than the Pontotoc, Mississippi native wrote the iconic Southern anthem “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which became a #1 and Grammy winner for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1973. But his contributions to the country music canon were just as grand.

Though it was a pop/R&B song that is regularly associated with his name, Weatherly contributed some 50 compositions to the catalog of Ray Price, and wrote songs for Brenda Lee, Lynn Anderson, Glen Campbell, and Kenny Rogers. His career lasted so long, he was around to also contribute songs to the likes of Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, and was active well into the later stages of life. (read more)

Richie Albright – February 9th – Age 81

Drums are not considered a featured instrument in the realm of country music, and never have been. It’s an accompaniment; an accessory. Drums weren’t even allowed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry for the first few decades, and when Bob Wills defied the edict, the set had to be placed off stage, lest the crowd see them and be shocked. This leaves the legacy of legendary drummers plying their craft to a select few.

But arguably no drummer had a greater impact on country music than Richie Albright. And no country drummer had a greater impact on music at large than Richie Albright. Not just front his smart and tasteful playing, not just from his signature bass drum heartbeat that laid heavy into the half time, and not just from the critical role he played in helping make the career of Waylon Jennings what it was as Waylon’s right-hand man. It’s from the role he played inspiring an entire generation of “Outlaws” from the past and present to take the music into their own hands, and follow their own drum. (read more)

JT Gray – March 20th – Age 75

A bluegrass musician himself who was raised in Corinth, Mississippi, JT Gray migrated to Nashville in the 1970’s. The Station Inn was opened initially in 1974 by a group of bluegrass musicians who saw the need for an acoustic room in town, and then moved it to its current location at 402 12th Ave. S. in The Gulch neighborhood in 1978 where it still sits today. JT Gray purchased the operation in 1981. By the mid 80’s, JT had the place humming, with regular performances by Bill Monroe, and sold out shows most any night of the week.

Many local venues love to tout themselves as proving grounds for musicians. The Station Inn backs that up with the names that started or rose to prominence from its stage, from Chris Stapleton and Dierks Bentley, to Sturgill Simpson who played there regularly when he first moved to town and whose played all his late-night performances from the venue during the pandemic, to Billy Strings. (read more)

Bill Owens – April 7th – Age 85

Bill Owens is the man who is responsible for the auspicious inspiration that resulted in Dolly Parton choosing to pursue country music as a profession, and helped shepherd her career early on. Of course you usually say nice things upon someone’s passing. But when Dolly Parton said, “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been there” as she eulogized Uncle Bill after his passing, you know it’s the honest truth.

Bill Owens was that cool uncle that we all had or wish we did, who turned us onto cool music, encouraged us when everyone else saw our dreams as foolish, and supported us when nobody else would. (read more)

Rusty Young – April 14th – Age 75

Put Rusty Young right up there with the greatest West Coast twangers who instilled an appreciation for country sounds in a generation of psychedelic rockers, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that country music could be cool. First showing up in one of the final lineups of Buffalo Springfield, and then becoming the principle fulcrum and full-time founding member of Poco for over 50 years, you can put Rusty Young’s name in the exclusive pool of guys like Gram Parsons and Clarence White as pioneers of country rock.

But perhaps the softish music of Poco that in later years drifted towards outright Yacht rock has little appeal to you. That’s understandable. But what distinguishes Rusty Young’s contributions even more was he did while behind the most confounding contraption known to music, and one of the foremost instruments of country: the steel guitar. Considered a virtuoso of the instrument and an innovator of it in the rock realm, it was his steel work that worked as the conduit for rock fans to find favor with country. (read more)

Dustin Boyer – April 28th

True country music lost a major champion and local legend after it was revealed that Dustin Boyer—the beloved owner of the local honky tonk Duke’s Indy in south Indianapolis, Indiana died on April 28th. A long time traditional country fan, Duke’s Indy was Dustin Boyer’s dream, and became an answered prayer for both local country fans, and the artists and bands that would build appearances at Duke’s as anchors for their regional and national tours.

Duke’s is a honky-tonk, but it catered to songwriters as well. It famously has a neon sign hanging in the rafters of the old ice house that frankly states, “Please Shut The F*ck Up,” and Dustin was known to be very protective of his songwriters, asking people to leave who talked over a good song. Another neon sign in the venue simply says, “Honest.” (read more)

Dewayne Blackwell – May 23rd – Age 84

There may not be a more recognizable song from the catalog of country music in the last 35 years than “Friends in Low Places” performed by Garth Brooks. Garth may have popularized it, but like so many of country music’s most legendary compositions, someone else wrote it. And that someone else was Dewayne Blackwell.

“Friends in Low Places” was written after Dwayne and co-writer Earl Bud Lee went to lunch in Nashville, and Lee noticed after the check came that he’d forgotten his wallet. “Don’t worry. I have friends in low places. I know the cook,” Lee said. Blackwell picked up on the line, and the rest is history.

The remarkable thing about Dewayne Blackwell and “Friends in Low Places” is it came at the tail end of what had already been an illustrious career of songwriting in the country, rock, and pop realms. You can trace the important and widely-recognizable songs penned by Dewayne Blackwell all the way back to the 50’s. (read more)

Glenn Douglas Tubb – May 22nd – Age 85

Glenn Douglas Tubb was the nephew of the legendary Ernest Tubb, the cousin of Grand Ole Opry performer Justin Tubb, and the uncle of the youngest performer of the Tubb clan, Lucky Tubb. Along with being the keeper of all things Tubb after the passing of Ernest in 1984, Glenn Douglas was a performer and songwriter whose successful career may have been overshadowed entirely by his other famous family members if not for his signature song “Skip A Rope.”

Glenn Douglas Tubb left a deep legacy of songs behind when he passed away. Johnny Cash recorded his song “Home of the Blues,” helping to give Glenn his start in the profession. Uncle Ernest recorded Glenn’s “Next Time” in 1959. Then in 1961 Webb Pierce had a Top 10 hit with “Sweet Lips.” Tubb had longevity as a songwriter too. The big hit “Two Story House” for George Jones and Tammy Wynette in 1980 was written between Wynette, Glenn Douglas, and David Lindsey.

B.J. Thomas – May 29th – Age 78

Originally from Hugo, Oklahoma, and rising to prominence while living in Houston, Texas, B.J. Thomas is known and beloved for iconic songs such as his #1 country hit “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love,” and his signature song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” featured in the movie Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. His career spanned some 50 years.

Selling over 70 million albums worldwide with a total of eight #1 all-genre hits and 26 Top 10’s, the five-time Grammy winner and Grammy Hall of Famer scored multiple hits in country from the late 60’s into the 80’s. “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” was nominated for the CMA Song of the Year in 1975. Written by Larry Butler and Chips Moman, the song also has the distinction of being the longest-titled #1 song in Billboard history. B.J.’s country album Reunions is considered by many to be his landmark country contribution to the genre. (read review)

Mark Jensen – Age 53

About all that the once mighty music scene in Austin, TX has left to cling to are the handful of holdout venues and their brave and enterprising owners that in spite of all the adversity, the sacrifice they must suffer, and the odds they must overcome, they do it anyway, because they believe in the music and the community that springs from it. And whatever that calls for and no matter how bleak things may appear, they persevere.

That embodies the heart that ABGB owner Mark Jensen exemplified during his too-short stint raging against the dying of the light, and doing his part to make sure the spirit of Austin music wasn’t doused on his watch. In a previous life he was a copywriter for an advertising agency in New York City. But he found an escape through the music and brews he’d imbibe in during his time off, and soon hatched a plan to move to Austin to start a brew pub and music venue. Many cook up such schemes in the boring moments slaving away at their mundane jobs. Mark Jensen hauled off and did it. (read more)

Chad Sullins – June 27th

“A rock band that plays country music.”

This was the way the Stillwater, Oklahoma-based Red Dirt band Chad Sullins and the Last Call Coalition were described for years. And it was only apt, because it’s also a good way to describe Red Dirt music in general. And even though the outfit never rose to the same fame as some of their contemporaries such as Cross Canadian Ragweed or Jason Boland and the Stragglers, those who knew of the Last Call Coalition were supremely loyal and thankful for their music, and followed Chad Sullins into his solo career after the band finally called it quits. (read more)

Pinto Bennett – June 29th – Age 73

Maybe you’ve heard of him, and maybe you haven’t. But his legacy and influence is intertwined with a lot of the music you most certainly have enjoyed over the years. And now a legacy that started in Idaho and stretched all across the country and world has come to a close.

In what regard does the Idaho-born, and Texas-based band Reckless Kelly hold Pinto Bennett? So much so that they recorded an entire album of his songs in the form of 2010’s Somewhere in Time, and he personally appears on the song “Thelma.” He was their Billy Joe Shaver, so to speak. Bennett was a running buddy of Braun family patriarch Muzzie Bruan, and became a big influence on all the boys who now comprise the principle members of Reckless Kelly and Micky and the Motorcars. (read more)

Byron Berline – July 10th – Age 77

It’s probably the Rolling Stones story that intrigues people the most. When the band was being inspired by Gram Parsons in the late 60’s and wanted to record a country version of their hit single “Honky Tonk Women” called “Country Honk,” they hunted down Byron Berline as the only right guy for the job. At that point, Berline was already well-known among the rock and roll scene from playing with Bob Dylan and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

But Berline had already lived another life before that opportunity in the rock world arose. First meeting Bill Monroe in 1965 at the famed Newport Folk Fest, when Byron Berline graduated from college in 1967, he joined the outfit as the official fiddler full time, only to be drafted shortly thereafter and be forced to leave the legendary band. After his discharge in 1969, Berline ended up in California, feeling his future might be more promising rubbing elbows with rockers than twangers. He played fiddle, mandolin, and sang harmony vocals for The Byrds, The Dobbie Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, and so many more, and performed on numerous movie soundtracks. He also played in his own outfits. (read more)

Dusty Hill – July 27th – Age 72

Despite some characterizations, Dusty was not just the “other guy” with a beard in ZZ Top along with guitarist Billy Gibbons. Dusty was the backbone of a band, and also was credited as a co-writer on most all of their songs. On their 1973 breakout album Tres Hombres, Dusty Hill co-wrote all but two of the songs. On their monster album Eliminator from 1983, he was credited on all of them. Dusty Hill also was the other singer of ZZ Top, spelling Billy Gibbons on a track or two each record, and often singing harmonies.

ZZ Top is given credit for a host of influences on American music, and rock & roll in general. But what’s often overlooked is how in the mid 70’s, ZZ Top was really the first band outside of country music to make the State of Texas cool. (read more)

Chris Wall – July 29th

Wall got his big break when he met Guy Clark in 1986 at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival in Idaho. The two swapped songs over dinner, and Guy eventually turned Chris Wall onto Jerry Jeff Walker, who later saw Chris perform a song called “Trashy Women” in Jackson Hole, invited Chris up to his hotel room to teach him the song, and convinced Chris to move down to Austin, which he did in 1988.

Chris Wall’s songs were a mix of cowboy poetry, sarcasm, and self-awareness. He also wrote songs for Pat Green, and co-wrote “Hello, I’m An Old Country Song” with Dale Watson. Sunny Sweeney’s 2017 record Trophy includes one of Chris Wall’s most cherished compositions, “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.” His fingerprints are all over music from Austin and Texas.

For many, Chris Wall embodied the true spirit of what it meant to be an independent country singer and songwriter. He inspired many with his words, his music, and his actions. And most importantly, was considered a good guy. (read more)

Razzy Bailey – August 4th – Age 82

Born Rasie Michael Bailey on February 14, 1939 in Five Points, Alabama and raised on a farm, Razzy Bailey spent the first few decades of his life mostly concerned with raising kids, and playing in local honky tonks only occasionally. But once the kids were grown, Razzy tried to launch a country music career. First signing to Atlantic Records as a solo artist, he failed to garner much attention. But when his novelty songs “9,999,999 Tears” and “Peanut Butter” were picked up and recorded by Dickey Lee, it gave Razzy’s career 2nd life.

Razzy Bailey recording for RCA throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s, and found surprising success that is often overlooked in country history. Five out of six singles released from 1980 to 1981 went #1 in country, including “Loving Up a Storm,” “I Keep Coming Back,” “Friends,” “Midnight Hauler,” and “She Left Love All Over Me.” Razzy scored 13 Top 10 hits overall during the early 80’s, but his success fled almost as quickly as it came, and has rendered his career unfairly overlooked in many of the annals of country music.

Nanci Griffith – August 13th – Age 68

Known for her appearances on programs such as Austin City Limits, her duets with artists such as John Prine, and the hit songs she penned for others, Nanci Griffith was a cherished member of the music community whose influences spanned from independent folk to mainstream country. Kathy Mattea had a Top 5 hit with Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” in 1986, and Suzy Bogguss scored a Top 10 hit with “Outbound Plane” penned by Griffith and Tom Russell.

Born in Seguin, Texas on July 6th, 1953, Nanci Caroline Griffith was the youngest of three children to parents she characterized as beatniks. The family moved to Austin shortly after her birth, and her parents divorced in 1960. Nanci’s father was a fan of traditional folk music, and introduced Nanci early on to Carolyn Hester. Then when she was 14, Griffith saw Townes Van Zandt play, and she knew what she wanted to do with her life. (read more)

Tom T. Hall – August 20th – Age 85

There are only a few men and women that when you regard their legacy in country music, it’s only fair to say that the music would be fundamentally different in demonstrative ways if it wasn’t for their presence. But this distinction is usually reserved for the undeniable superstars and infleuncers of the genre—people like Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson.

But if you ask most any country music performer or songwriter, they’ll be quick to tell you that without Tom T. Hall, what a country song is would be considered something significantly different. Tom T. Hall had the simple wisdom for life of Don Williams. He could find wit in the everyday world like Roger Miller. But nobody, nobody could tell a story within the medium of country music like Tom T. Hall. (read more)

Don Everly – August 21st – Age 84

The Everly Brothers were first year inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis in 1986. The duo would also be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, speaking to their cross-genre influence and appeal. Though they’re commonly more associated with the rock realm, The Everly Brothers’ ties and success in country music is just as significant, if not more.

Oldest brother Don was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky on February 1st, 1937. Both the brother’s parents worked in coal mines early in their lives, and their father Ike Everly was also a guitar player. The brothers were mostly raised in Iowa, before relocating to Tennessee during their high school years. After graduation, both brothers moved to Nashville, where they began working with Chet Atkins, but ultimately rose to fame while working with Wesley Rose of the Acuff-Rose publishing company. (read more)

Kenny Ballinger – August 25th – Age 37

Promoter, venue owner, and strong supporter of country and roots music in Wichita, Kansas, Kenny Ballinger, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. For many years, Ballinger was a strong supporter of independent country and roots musicians both in the Wichita and Kansas region, as well as to traveling musicians touring through Wichita. In April of 2019, Ballinger became the co-owner of the Wichita venue Barleycorn’s, and was considered the soul of the venue, booking and promoting shows for artists such as Jason Eady, Justin Wells, Possessed by Paul James, The Goddamn Gallows, and others, helping to make Wichita a hub for performers. (read more)

Rickie Lee Reynolds – September 5th – Age 72

One of the pillars of Black Oak Arkansas that helped define the cutting edge and craziness of the country rock scene starting in the mid 60’s, Rickie Lee Reynolds continued to play and perform in the band all the way up to his death. Sometimes nicknamed “Risky” or “Ricochet” Reynolds, he started the band in 1963 with fellow high school friends Ronny Smith, Stanley Knight, Pat Daugherty, and Wayne Evans, all of whom lived around the town of Black Oak, Arkansas.

Originally called The Nobody Else, the band’s first PA system was stolen from Monette High School. Members of the band were charged with grand larceny, which meant they had to retreat to the hills of Arkansas to evade arrest and imprisonment (the sentence was later commuted). They eventually signed to Stax Records for a stint, but ended up in Los Angeles in 1970, officially changed their named to Black Oak Arkansas, installed the wild James “Jim Dandy” Mangrum as the frontman, and released their now legendary self-titled album in 1971. (read more)

Don Maddox – September 12th – Age 98

The Maddox Brothers and Rose were quite literally there as hillbilly music, rockabilly, and rock and roll were formed, and when they ultimately split into separate genres, with the band influencing all three in very significant ways. Their colorful stage suits were the inspiration for Elvis’s stage wear. An up-and-coming singer from Texas named George Jones once opened from them. And though they never seem to receive their proper due, those who know, they know that American music would sound like something fundamentally different if it weren’t for the Maddox Brothers and Rose.

Born on December 7th, 1922, fiddler, singer, and band comedian Don Maddox moved with his family to California from Boaz, Alabama during the 1930’s and the early stages of the Depression. Tired of working as itinerant farmers, they decided to become entertainers and The Maddox Brothers were born in 1937. At the beginning, Don was too young for the band, but when he came of age he joined his brothers and sister as the fiddle player and comedian with the nickname “Don Juan.” (read more)

Courtney Granger – September 18th – Age 39

Photo: Jenny Lyons Simon

Courtney Granger was the highly-revered and Grammy-nominated fiddle player, accordion player, and singer for the Southwest Louisiana Cajun and creole outfit, the Pine Leaf Boys. He also was a strong supporter and advocate for country music within the Cajun music community and beyond. Along with his gifts with instrumentation, Courtney Granger was especially revered for the high-lonesome vocal style of Cajun singers that is considered a dying art. This also made him especially equipped to cross over into his second passion, which was classic country music.

“Some people learned to sing in the church,” Granger once said, “but I learned to sing in bars.” While his family would be setting up to entertain in local venues throughout Louisiana, young Granger would be singing along with the old country records that played on the jukebox. This is what imparted him with a love for country at an early age, resulting in what some consider to be one of the best classic country tribute records in the last decade, 2016’s Beneath Still Waters. (read more)

George Frayne (Commander Cody) – September 26th – Age 77

There were few that could tap into the cosmic side of country music better, and nobody that could sail as deep into the ozone as Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen revolutionized the space where country and rock intersected by bringing a wild, loose, and uninhibited attitude to the music. They were the cool everyone wanted to be, and every music scene wanted to claim them as their own. But the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan is where it all officially started, though the band would eventually move to Berkeley in California, and be closely associated with the hippies/cowboys scene in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters as well. (read more)

Sue Thompson – September 23rd – Age 96

Finding her first big success with songs penned by John D. Loudermilk, once married to Western Swing banjo player Hank Penny, and recording multiple duet albums with Don Gibson, Sue Thompson left her mark on both pop and country with her girlish-sounding singing voice that remained in high demand well into her 40’s.

Sue Thompson found her big break in 1960 when she signed to Hickory Records, and started releasing successful singles, most of which were written by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer John D. Loudermilk. 1961’s “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then “Norman” went #3 later that year. The combination of Loudermilk’s novelty songs and Sue Thompson’s youthful-sounding voice made for a winning combination. Thompson also had a Top 20 hit in 1962 with Loudermilk’s “James (Hold The Ladder Steady)” and 1964’s “Paper Tiger.” She released other singles during the era, but Loudermilk’s were her most successful. (read more)

Billy Robinson – October 15th – Age 90

Imagine having backed Hank Williams on his legendary Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949, or playing behind any of the other country music legends who performed on that hallowed stage during the Opry’s golden era. This was the fortune of steel guitarist Billy Robinson, who when hired to perform in the Opry house band in 1949 at the age of 18, became the youngest ever Opry staff musician. That’s how he was able to see country music come to life as a prominent American genre, and live to pass on the stories to future generations of fans and musicians for so long.

Billy Robinson was still very young when he was selected to replace the legendary Jerry Byrd in the band playing behind Red Foley. It was Billy’s big break, and once he climbed onto the Opry stage to perform with Red, they wouldn’t let him leave. Along with Hank Williams and Red Foley, Robinson also performed with other Opry legends such as Roy Acuff and Little Jimmy Dickens. When the Opry formed a special package show to tour Europe in 1949, Billy Robinson was in the band. (read more)

Sonny Osborne – October 24th – Age 84

When it comes to the banjo in bluegrass or anywhere else, aside from maybe Earl Scruggs, nobody else has been heard and enjoyed more than Sonny Osborne of The Osborne Brothers. Both prolific and influential, the Osborne Brothers rendition of the iconic Tennessee State Song “Rocky Top” written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant made many listeners bluegrass fans, with Sonny playing the spirited banjo of the song.

Born in Roark, Kentucky October 29, 1937, Sonny was the younger brother of the duo. From an early age the two brothers were performing music, but when Bobby Osborne was drafted into the Marine Corps to serve in the Korean War, Sonny went to work for the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe.

After Bobby’s return from the war, the two brothers went to work for Jimmy Martin, and later moved to Wheeling, West Virginia to become mainstays on the Wheeling Jamboree. After recording some music successfully for Gateway Records, they were later signed to MGM Records, and by the late 50’s, they were considered one of the premier acts in all of bluegrass, known for their spellbinding musicianship, and brother Bobby’s tenor. (read more)

Rose Lee Maphis – October 26th – Age 98

Along with her husband Joe Maphis, Rose Lee Maphis helped establish the Bakersfield Sound, and she was also was one of the first women to find stardom in the country genre.

Joe Maphis and Rose Lee Schetrompf would begin performing together, but wouldn’t be formally married and form a proper duo until the both moved out to California around 1951 at the suggestion of Merle Travis.

After performing on barn dance programs for years, the duo was shocked at the electric country sound being forged in Bakersfield at the time, and co-wrote the now country standard, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)” inspired by what they experienced in California’s honky tonks. The song has gone on to be covered by scores of country artists, and is a signature composition of the Bakersfield Sound. Soon the duo became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music,” and was synonymous with the West Coast country scene. (read more)

Chuck Morpurgo – November 4th – Age 58

For 27 years, if you saw country music modern Outlaw Dallas Moore perform, you very likely saw guitarist Chuck Morpurgo along with him. Even when Dallas Moore went on solo acoustic tours or played one-off shows, Chuck Morpurgo tagged along as accompaniment. And if you’ve heard any of Dallas Moore’s recorded music over the years, you heard Chuck Morpurgo too. For over a quarter century, they were inseparable road warriors out there trying to save country music.

Dallas Moore and Chuck Morpurgo were one of those duos only country music can create, like Willie Nelson and his drummer Paul English, or Waylon Jennings and his drummer Richie Albright. They were brothers in arms. That pairing came to an end when Chuck Morpurgo passed away due to Cancer. (read more)

Bert Baumbach – November 23rd – Age 76

he Dixie Flyers (Bert Baumbach, 2nd from left)

Bluegrass music is a distinct art form specifically from Kentucky and the southeastern United States. But one group took it upon themselves to import this important form of country music north of the border to Canada, and became very successful doing it. They called themselves the Dixie Flyers, not to be confused with a Nashville minor league hockey team, or a Tennessee studio group of the same name.

Led by flatpicking guitarist Bert Baumbach and mandolin player Ken Palmer, the group was formed in Toronto in 1974 with harmonica player Willie P. Bennett, bassist Brian Abbey and banjo player Dennis LePage on the banjo. Later based out of London, Ontario, Bert Baumbach and Ken Palmer were the primary singers, as well as the group’s nexus throughout the years as other players came and went. (read more)

Gary Scruggs – December 1st – Age 72

Gary Scruggs was the eldest son in the grandly talented line on Earl Scruggs offspring who accompanied their legendary father and pursued careers of their own as well. Along with performing in the Earl Scruggs Revue with his father and brothers Randy and Steve for some 15 years, Gary was also important to introducing his father to the new era of roots music performers, and specifically the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, resulting in memorable collaborations.

Gary Scruggs was also a songwriter, and even worked as a producer for Waylon Jennings. A multi-instrumentalist who played bass, guitar, harmonica, and keys, he was a prolific performer before retiring from the road in the mid 80’s. Gary continued to stay involved in the music as a songwriter and player though, and in 2001 earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for a rendition of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Neil Flanz – December 2nd – Age 83

There are few tours that are more legendary to the history of country music than the six-week tour that Gram Parsons embarked on in 1973 behind his album GP. Accompanied by Emmylou Harris and a band called The Fallen Angels, it was the rock world’s introduction to country, and it was the country world’s introduction to Emmylou Harris. Hand selected for the band by Gram’s road manager Phil Kaufman was steel guitarist Neil Flanz, who was assigned the critical task of introducing the beauty of the instrument to a mostly rock audience.

Neil Flanz recalls the tour as one of the most exciting parts of his career with “thousands of cheering young long haired fans being introduced to country for the first time … rushing up to the stage just to touch us.”

But Neil Flanz wasn’t a 70’s country rock icon, he was a staunch traditionalist originally from Montreal, Canada who had been playing behind country artists for a decade at that point. Born June 22nd, 1938, he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and enjoying the music of artists such as Canadian cowboy singer Wilf Carter, first learning guitar at the age of 13, and moving to the steel guitar by the time he was 17. Playing with whomever he could in eastern Canada, he recorded two albums of steel guitar music, Neil Flanz and His Nashville Steel in 1962, and Get on the Star Route in 1964. (read more)

Stonewall Jackson – December 4th – Age 89

Born in Tabor City, North Carolina, Stonewall Jackson had 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. It happened in 1956 after music publisher Wesley Rose heard Stonewall’s demo recording, and set him up with an audition. Once he began making regular appearances on the Opry and toured around with his mentor Ernest Tubb, Jackson finally landed a deal with Columbia Records, earning his first hit with a song called “Life to Go,” written by an up-and-coming George Jones.

Stonewall would go on to have quite a successful recording career, releasing 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, and 35 Top 40 hits between 1958 and 1971. His final hit was a cover of Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.” (read more)

Margaret Everly – December 9th – Age 102

The passing of a performer’s mother is not always especially noteworthy, but Margaret Everly wasn’t just some performer’s mother. It’s also uncommon for a mother to outlive her offspring, especially when there are multiple of them, and when they lived long and fulfilling lives themselves. But when you have your children before you’re 20, and pass away ten days after you turn 102 like Margaret Everly did, it makes you a remarkable exception. Margaret Everly also lived one remarkable life.

Margaret Everly was much more than the mom of the famous Everly Brothers, whose impact on American music installed them as one of the very first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later landed them in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well. Margaret was the pillar and soul of a professional family band where Don and Phil Everly first got their start performing, and acted as her the biggest champion of her sons as they endured for acceptance and success in American music. (read more)

Michael Nesmith – December 10th – Age 78

You can’t overlook The Monkees themselves for contributions to country rock. The band’s very first hit “Last Train to Clarksville” is very much a country rock song, with the prominent signature twangy guitar riff driving the #1 single. By the time the band recorded the popular “Daydream Believer,” Mike Nesmith was playing lead guitar on many of The Monkees recordings himself. One of The Monkees’ final hits was the twangy “Listen to the Band” that was written, performed, and sung by Nesmith.

But it was what Mike Nesmith did after the Monkees dissolved that really helped set the wheels of country rock in motion, along with bands like The Byrds and the Grateful Dead who were also transitioning to the country format. In 1969, Mike Nesmith formed the First National Band with his old friend John Kuehne, along with session drummer John Ware, and the legendary steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes. They never hit it as big as The Monkees or The Byrds, or later country rock bands like The Eagles that morphed out of Linda Rhonstadt’s Stone Poneys, but the First National Band did have a decent hit in the song “Joanne,” and had a major influence on the burgeoning country rock scene. (read more)

J.D. Crowe – December 24th – Age 84

Keith Whitley. Ricky Skaggs. Tony Rice and Larry Rice. Doyle Lawson. Jerry Douglas for crying out loud. Phil Leadbetter. These are just some of the many names that studied under bluegrass legend and banjo God J.D. Crowe, and did service time in his transformative band The New South.

Both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, J.D. Crowe is responsible for more of the movements and dialects that have graced bluegrass music than he isn’t. It was Crowe’s expansion of the “bluegrass” genre by bringing in electric instruments like steel guitar and drums that made him evolutionary in the discipline. It wasn’t Newgrass, but it was something beyond the Bill Monroe Bible that had always been adhered to before. 1973’s Bluegrass Evolution turned bluegrass on its side, and rewrote the rules for the genre.

But as much as J.D. Crowe and his outfit became rule breakers, they were also flamekeepers. When he formed The New South—which eventually included Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, it still featured the electric instrumentation on a few songs—but it also saw J.D. Crowe go back to his bluegrass roots. (read more)

Misty Morgan – January 1st – Age 75 – Half of 70’s country duo Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan.

Stan Beaver – January 2nd – Age 71 – Rockabilly Hall of Famer.

Jeff Lisenby – January 6th – Age 65 – Accordion and keyboard player.

Tony Farr – January 6th – Age 84 – Steel guitarist for Jeannie C. Riley and others, as well as a solo artist and singer with multiple solo albums.

Michael Apted – January 7th – Age 79 – Director for Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. (read more)

Robert Neal “Red” Cravens – January 11th – Age 88 – Bluegrass guitarist and singer with The Bray Brothers, Bill Monroe, and others.

Don Tucker – January 12th – Age 76 – Brother and road manager for Tanya Tucker.

Jimmie F. Rodgers – January 18th – Age 87 – Not to be confused with the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers was mostly known as a pop singer in the 50’s and 60’s, but also had a number of big country songs including 1957’s “Honeycomb,” and also worked as a country songwriter.

Tom Stevens – January 23rd – Age 64 – Bass player for alt. country band The Long Ryders.

Colleen Bain Trenworth – January 24th – Age 74 – New Zealand fiddle player in the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, and for Slim Dusty in the 70’s.

Bob Mitchell – January 26th – Age 83 – Bob Mitchell – Bluegrass writer and broadcaster.

Doug Moffet
– January 27th – Age 60 – Saxaphone and woodwind session player and member of the Muscle Shoals Horns. Played on recordings from Willie Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, and many more.

Clarence Hall – February 4th – Age 87 – Banjo player, singer, and songwriter for the Mayo River Boys and others.

Wayne Daniel – February 16th – Age 92 – Country and bluegrass journalist and scholar.

Curtis McPeake – February 20th – Age 93 – Banjoist for Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Opry staff band, and many others. Also a session player who developed the 10-string banjo.

Nisha Jackson – February 23rd – Age 62 – Black country artist who competed on TNN’s “You Can Be a Star” and recorded for Capitol Records.

Peter Ostoushko
– February 24th – Age 67 – Musical director for “Prairie Home Companion.”

Taylor Dee – March 14th – Age 33 – Texas country singer who died in fatal automobile crash.

Robert Doyle Jacobs – March 28th – Age 89 – Singer/songwriter in the 50’s who also performed on Lower Broadway in later years.

Gene Kennedy – April 1st – Age 87 – Owner of country music independent label Door Knob Records from 1976-2015.

Dennis Payne – April 8th – Age 71 – Songwriter and guitar player who co-wrote “Highway Patrol” with Red Simpson, and Vern Gosdin’s “All I Want and Need Forever.” Lead guitarist for Earl Thomas Conley, Wynn Stewart, David Frizzell, Eddie Dean, and others. Son of Charles Payne of The Light Crust Doughboys.

James Allen Collins – April 8th – Age 89 – Bluegrass musician and member of the Pinnacle Mountain Boys.

Charlie Black – April 23rd – Age 71 – Prolific country music songwriter. Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member.

Pam Belford – April 22nd – Age 70 – Songwriter of George Strait’s “If I Know Me” and “Holding My Own,” along with cuts from other artists.

John Mitchell Hickman – May 11th – Age 78 – Renown banjo player who recorded for Rounder Records, along with collaborations with Byron Berline. Member of bluegrass band California, which won IBMA Instrumental Group awards in 1992, 1993 and 1994.

Randy Lee Martin – May 12th – Age 72 – Sculptor and wood carver who designed album covers for Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, and others.

Patsy Bruce – May 16th – Age 81 – Co-wrote songs such as “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Texas (When I Die)” with husband Ed Bruce, while also managing much of his career.

Lou Robin – May 18th – Age 90 – Manager for Johnny Cash and June Carter manager from 1973 to 2003, and later managed their estate until 2018.

Tommy Edwards – May 22nd – Age 75 – Singer and guitarist for bluegrass group Bluegrass Experience from North Carolina.

Cotton Ivy – May 25th – Age 91 – Country music comedian who also had a political career.

Buster Phillips – May 26th – Age 74 – Nashville session drummer.

Jerry Smith – June 6th – Age 87 – Nashville-based piano and keyboard session player.

Jim Bessman – June 22nd – Age 68 – Music journalist for Billboard, MusicRow, Cashbox, Spin, and many more.

Sanford Clark – July 4th – Age 85 – Country and rockabilly singer known for the hit “The Fool” written by Lee Hazlewood.

Wilbur “Anthony” Joyner – July 13th – Age 54 – Bass player for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and others. Bass teacher and road manager.

Martin Kahan – July 18th – Age 74 – Video director.

Rick Raybon – July 31st – Age 63 – Bluegrass performers who was a brother of Tim Raybon, and Shenandoah’s Marty Raybon.

Paul Cotton – July 31st – Age 78 – Guitarist and singer/songwriter for Poco and others. Writer of the song “Heart of the Night.”

Tom LeGarde – July 31st – Age 90 – Lead singer and guitarist in The LeGarde Twins.

Robert Hutchinson – August 2nd – Age 72 – Bluegrass singer and banjo player for the Hutchinson Brothers.

Jim Femino – August 3rd – Age 69 – Songwriter for Craig Morgan, John Michael Montgomery, Toby Keith, Faith Hill, and others.

Craig Karp – August 15th – Age 76 – Songwriter for Tanya Tucker, T.G. Sheppard, Lynn Anderson, and others.

Bill Emerson – August 21st – Age 81 – Singer and banjo player for The Country Gentlemen. Bluegrass Hall of Famer.

Wayne “Cowboy” Spears – August 22nd – Age 70 – Foreman at Loretta Lynn’s ranch killed in August flooding (read more).

Shirley Lee Lord – August 22nd- Age 82 – Songwriter and performer. Wrote songs for Connie Smith, Jean Shepard, and others.

Kim Tribble – August 25th – Age 69 – 90’s and 00’s songwriter for Randy Travis, Randy Houser, Patty Loveless, Dough Stone, Martina McBride, and many more.

Kenny Malone – August 26th – Age 83 – Drummer and percussionist for many, including Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe, John Anderson, and many more.

Tim Akers – August 30th -Age 59 – Keyboard player, session and touring musician.

Joyce Milsap – September 6th – Age 81 – Wife of Ronnie Milsap, career consultant and advisor.

George Wein – September 13th – Age 95 – Founder of the Newport Folk Festival where much country history was made, including Johnny Cash introducing Kris Kristofferson to the world.

John Riggs – September 17th – Age 80 – Singer, songwriter, and performer who had songs recorded by Charley Pride, Red Simpson, George Jones, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and others.

Bob Moore – September 22nd – Age 88 – Prolific Nashville bass session player and member of the Musicians Hall of Fame.

Ken Seaman – September 23rd – Age 79- Bluegrass banjo player and festival promoter. Played with the Bluegrass Patriots.

Craig McDonald – September 26th – Age 90 – Yodeling black country music traditionalist and Jimmie Rodgers preservationist.

Betty Amos – September 30th – Age 87 – Country singer and banjo player for The Carlisles who toured and played with multiple other bands, and wrote songs for Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Bonnie Owens, and others.

Phil Ledbetter – October 14th – Age 59 – Bluegrass resonator guitar legend. Three-time winner of the IBMA’s Resophonic Guitar Player of the Year.

Jim Zerface – October 23rd – Age 81 – Country songwriter for Roy Clark, Tanya Tucker, Mel McDaniel, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

Sudie Callaway – November 10th – Age 87 – Backup session musician who sang harmonies for Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Mel Tillis, and Marty Robbins. Also played bass and toured. She is the aunt of Matraca Berg.

Bill Holden – November 15th – Age 71 – Banjo player for The Country Gentleman and Bill Monroe.

Jason Moore – November 21st – Age 47 – Bluegrass bass player for Mountain Heart, Sideline, and others.

Pete Corum – December 1st – Age 73 – Bass player for Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass.

Woody Woodell – December 2nd – Age 91 – Touring steel guitarist throughout the 60’s.

Vicente Fernández – December 12th – Age 81 – Ranchera music superstar who helped influence George Strait and others.

Ray “Chubby” Howard – December 23rd – Age 95 – Steel guitar player who 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.

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