With the recent loss of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, country superstar Merle Haggard, songwriting great Freddy Powers, and Bakersfield’s Red Simpson, the amount of artists who are still around that can truly say they were there at the very start of the formation of country and bluegrass is getting anemically slim. We’re not just talking about artists who happen to be old, but artists who knew and played with Hank Williams, witnessed Bill Monroe form bluegrass, or saw Bob Wills at the very start.
As we lose so many country greats in 2016, let’s honor the few amazing links to country music’s historical past we still have left.
Note: This is an update of an article originally posted in January 2015.
Curly Seckler – Age 96
(UPDATE: Passed away on December 27th, 2017)
Born on Christmas Day 1919, Curly Seckler is a bluegrass singer and multi-instrumentalist acclaimed for his work on the tenor banjo. Though mostly known as a sideman, he was the banjo and mandolin player for some of the founding artists in bluegrass. When the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, split from his brother Charlie in the Monroe Brothers, Charlie hired Curly Seckler to play in his band. Before then, Seckler had been playing in the Yodeling Rangers with his two brothers, which formed in 1935. Curly joined Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1949, and played in the Foggy Mountain Boys until 1962. He’s a member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and though he officially retired in 1994, he continued to perform regularly for many years.
Don Maddox (Maddox Brothers & Rose) – Age 94
At 92-years-old, Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose very well may be the last living link to not just to the Golden Era of country music, but the time before country music was even called “country.” When Don and his family moved from Boaz, Alabama to California as Depression-era refugees and decided to start a band, they were still considered “hillbilly” musicians since the term “country” had yet to be coined. As the fiddle player and jokester of the band, Don watched as the primitive modes of American popular music split into three different disciplines of country, rock and roll, and rockabilly, and The Maddox Brothers & Rose are given credit for influencing all three. Started in 1937, The Maddox Brothers & Rose played The Grand Ole Opry, The Louisiana Hayride, and toured the country as a headline act, including playing shows where Elvis Presley and George Jones were booked as opening acts first starting out.
The group disbanded in 1956 when Don’s sister Rose Maddox moved to Nashville to become a star of her own, and after 20 years as a musician, Don Maddox retired to a ranch in Ashland, Oregon, just over the California border. Don Maddox continues to perform locally upon occasion, and has been flown out to Nashville by Marty Stuart and Muddy Roots in recent years to participate in events like Marty Stuart’s Midnite Jamboree. Don has also been honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit, though he and his family band are still not official inductees of the Hall of Fame. If you’re looking for the last living link to country music’s past, Don Maddox would be it.
Mac Wiseman – Age 91
(UPDATE: Passed away on February 24th, 2019)
Known affectionately as “The Voice with a Heart”, the 91-year-old Wiseman was a cult bluegrass singer, songwriter, guitar and bass player, but is known best as a man behind-the-scenes as a seminal member of the CMA. Wiseman played with both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, played in Bill Monroe’s legendary backing band, The Bluegrass Boys, and is an inductee to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mac Wiseman was first made famous by recording “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. The song’s success moved Wiseman’s carrer more into the direction of country music and away from bluegrass, and he signed with Dot Records in 1957, before moving to Capitol in 1962. In 1969 he moved to Nashville and signed with RCA Victor. Later in life he once again gravitated back to bluegrass and became a big mover and shaker in the CMA organization.
Harold Bradley – Age 90
(UPDATE: Passed away January 31st, 2019)
A Country Music Hall of Famer, the brother of Hall of Fame producer Owen Bradley, and a guitar player as part of Nashville’s “A-Team,” Harold Bradley’s fingerprints are all over what became known as The Nashville Sound in the 60’s and 70’s, and is the last living link to the original business dealings that saw the formation of Music Row and Nashville as a music mecca.
Harold Bradley played in Ernest Tubb’s band while still in high school, and later played live with acts such as Pee Wee King and Eddie Arnold. By the 70’s he was Nashville’s go-to guitar player in studio sessions, and according to Guitar World magazine, is the most recorded guitar player in the world. If you listen to a song originating from Music Row in the 70’s, you’re likely hearing Harold Bradley play guitar. Harold also played bass, and played on rock and roll and pop records as well, including recordings by Elvis and Roy Orbison. If it was recorded in Nashville, Harold Bradley probably played on it.
Bradley was also vital to the business landscape of Nashville music as well. In 1954, Harold and his brother Owen built what would be the very first music-related building on Music Row—a recording studio called The Quonset Hut. Harold was also one of the principle owners of the historic Studio ‘A’ property sold to developers who intended to bulldoze the building. Subsequently the studio was bought by preservationists an put into a trust to preserve it for the future.
As the Studio ‘A’ fight exemplified, the legacy of Harold Bradley, his brother Owen, and Chet Atkins is a mixed one. Their influence and efforts for country music are undeniable, but they also symbolize the restrictive creative environment and disregard for the roots of the music that permeated Music Row in the 70’s and beyond. They were the power brokers at odds with The Outlaws such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Tompall Glaser. But Harold Bradley’s contributions remain towering, and he’s the last link to the origination of Music Row and The Nashville Sound.
Joe Pennington – Age 88
Joe “Penny” Pennington is the last surviving original member of the Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboy band, and had an early and important influence on the formation of rockabilly when he left the Drifting Cowboys in 1948 and began recording for Federal Records. As the guitar player for Hank, “Joe Penny” as he was nicknamed is one of the very last living links to Hank, as well as to the most legendary lineup of the Grand Ole Opry. Joe also played in the bands of Lefty Frizell and Little Jimmy Dickens, and is regarded as a songwriter too, penning the tune “Don’t Fall In Love With a Married Man” among others. Pennington is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and has remained a performer later in life, playing Hank Williams songs and his own original compositions.
Jan Howard – Age 87
Much more than just the widow of famous and prolific songwriter Harlan Howard, Jan was seminal in breaking down barriers for female artists in country music. Before she became a star in her own right and a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry for many years, Jan Howard was an important demo singer, performing the original recordings of songs like Kitty Wells’ “Mommy For a Day” and Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” She later transitioned into a backup singer, first for Wynn Stewart, and later singing along with Bill Anderson on multiple hits, earning the singing pair Best Vocal Duo nominations for the CMA’s in 1970 and 1971.
Jan Howard also had a prolific and successful career all her own with multiple hits, including the Top 5 song, “Evil On Your Mind.” She has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1971.
Jesse McReynolds – Age 86
Influential mandolin player Jesse McReynolds started playing in the bluegrass band Jim and Jesse with his brother Jim Reynolds around 1947, and ever since has been a mainstay of the bluegrass world and the Grand Ole Opry, and one of the most revered mandolin players in the entire music business. He’s shared the stage with many of the country music greats, and his advanced age hasn’t slowed him down one bit celebrating his 50th Anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry in 2014. Jesse McReynolds remains one of the Opry’s most active members, playing a total of 41 shows in 2015. After the passing of “Little” Jimmy Dickens, Jesse is the oldest member of the Opry that makes regular appearances on the show.
Willie Nelson -Age 83
Aside from all of the obvious things that make Willie Nelson the most recognizable living link to country music’s past—including his songwriting for artists like Patsy Cline and Faron Young—as a youngster Willie played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and later played bass for Ray Price in the Cherokee Cowboys. At the original Dripping Springs Reunion, and later at Willie’s annual 4th of July Picnics, Willie invited past greats to perform including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Buck Owens, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, and other legends of country music’s past. Willie may not be the oldest link to the past still around, but he remains the patriarch of the genre as a whole.
Billie Jean Horton – Age 83
From Bossier City, LA, Billie Jean was first introduced to Hank by another famous country singer, Faron Young who was dating Billie Jean at the time. She was just 19-years-old, and in October of 1952, Billie Jean and Hank Williams were married in a private ceremony in Louisiana. Later they repeated their vows at two concerts on the stage of the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans for large crowds.
Three short months later, Hank Williams was dead. He passed away on News Years Day, 1953. Later in 1953, Billie Jean Williams married country music star Johnny Horton, who died in a car wreck in 1960, making Billie Jean a famous country music widow for a second time. For a short period, Billie Jean also had a relationship with Johnny Cash while he was still married to his first wife Vivian Liberto. The famous country music wife had a recording career of her own for a period, and had a Top 40 country record with “Ocean of Tears” in 1961. Billie Jean was a vocal promoter of the legacies of her two famous husbands for years, including gathering up songs from Johnny Horton after he died and compiling them into new releases.
Though not a well-known performer herself, she is one of the few remaining personalities in country music that didn’t just follow the music, but lived it, and helped keep it alive for future generations.
Other Living Links to Country’s Past:
- Mel Tillis
- Roy Clark
- Loretta Lynn
- Jean Shepard
- Bobby Osborne
- Stonewall Jackson
- W.S. “Fluke” Holland