The Oldest Living Links to Country Music’s Golden Past
Here’s a run down of some of the most important elder statesmen of the country music community.
Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose – Age 92
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 after the passing of Little Jimmy, Don Maddox would be it.
Harold Bradley – Age 89
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 recently in the headlines as one of the principle owners of the historic Studio ‘A’ property sold to developers who intended to bulldoze the building and turn the property into a condominium complex and restaurant. Harold argued that the building was not historic, and that restricting development of the property was not fair to him or the estates of Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins—the other owners of the building. Subsequently the building 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.
Ralph Stanley – Age 87
Ralph Stanley is one of the last living legends from the original era of bluegrass and early mountain music that filled the hollers and hills of Appalachia. Ralph did not grow up in a musical household picking banjo on the back porch like many rural musicians. His parents weren’t players or performers, and he didn’t start playing banjo with his brother Carter Stanley in The Stanley Brothers until he was 15 or 16. The brother duo formed The Clinch Mountain Boys in 1946, which since has become one of the most legendary bluegrass groups in history, once housing Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, and so many other players who went on to individual greatness. Like a patient who keeps outliving his doctors, Ralph Stanley has outlived many of his Clinch Mountain understudies.
Stanley continues to play, record, and tour. Though he announced in 2013 that he would finally retire from performing, he stuck to that decision for about a month before saying he’d tour as long as God was willing. Ralph Stanley has just released a brand new record for 2015 called Ralph Stanley & Friends that finds the bluegrass legend dueting with artists like Lee Ann Womack, Elvis Costello, and Robert Plant. There’s no slowing down for Ralph Stanley, and he remains a strong link to country music’s legendary past.
Joe Pennington – Age 87
Joe 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 to record 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.
Jesse McReynolds – Age 85
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, making 37 appearances on The Grand Ole Opry and celebrating his 50th Anniversary on the show in 2014. Jesse McReynolds remains one of the Opry’s most active members. Now that “Little” Jimmy Dickens has passed away, Jesse is the oldest member of the Opry that makes regular appearances on the show.
Willie Nelson -Age 81
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.
Other Living Links to Country Music’s Golden Past:
- Jan Howard
- Mel Tillis
- Stonewall Jackson
- Jean Shepard
- Jim Ed Brown
- Red Simpson
- Billie Jean Horton
- Buck White of The Whites
- Bobby Osborne
- Mac Wiseman
January 20, 2015 @ 9:25 am
Stonewall Jackson’ still alive? Learn something new every day
January 20, 2015 @ 10:14 am
I know, I could’ve sworn he got shot at the Battle of Chancelorsville. (I’m sorry, I had to.)
January 20, 2015 @ 1:27 pm
Ha Ha. I’m sure he has NEVER heard that one before.
But if you want to hear a great song check out ‘I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water’. Stonewall is a really underappreciated singer.
January 20, 2015 @ 4:45 pm
And a day before his (the elder Jackson’s) birthday, no less…
January 20, 2015 @ 9:51 am
I saw Mel Tillis last year at the Opry, and then the same evening (night?) at the Midnight Jamboree. For someone in his 80’s who’d just had heart surgery, he looked and sounded bloody fantastic.
I hope I’m hale and hearty as some of these folks when I reach their ages!
January 20, 2015 @ 9:56 am
Bobby Bare turns 80 this year. He was also one of Little Jimmy’s best buds.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:08 am
Shouldn’t Mac Wiseman be on the list?
January 20, 2015 @ 10:20 am
Yes he should.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:12 am
What about Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and Kris Kristofferson? They’re advanced in years too, and were legendary. As much as Merle bemoans the state of country music, he definitely remembers how it should be.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:23 am
The point here was not to list off every older country star, because if I put forth that effort, I could list off 200 of them, and there would still be someone scouring the list looking for omissions and acting shocked that such and such artist wasn’t included. The reason “Little” Jimmy’s passing was so significant is because he was universally-recognized as the oldest living link to country music’s past. What I’m trying to do here is say who the very next links are in line so that we can appreciate these artists while they’re still around.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:36 am
Now I feel bad… Of course they should be recognized the most. When they leave, stars will burn out in the galaxy, creating black holes that will suck the souls of traditional country fans into oblivion… Besides, I’m sure they all feel really bad that they have been around forever and get almost no attention, while no-talent douchebags can pop up out of nowhere and and be worshipped as the pinnacle of awesomeness. It’s insulting.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:53 am
Sorry Brandon, didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I sort of used your comment to piggy back what I knew probably needed to be said to other readers who are looking at this and wondering where certain artists are. Merle, Billy Joe Shaver, Loretta, all of them deserve tremendous respect as well and I encourage everyone to go see these artists while they can.
January 19, 2020 @ 4:21 pm
I get it that this is 5 years later, but this has to be said for the record. Your excuse is ridiculous. You could have listed 200 of the living country artists at the time, but none of those 200 would have been a top 5 Country artist of all time. Hell, you didn’t even list him in the honorable mention.
I am not going to question your knowledge of the genre because you clearly have a deep knowledge, but I question your judgment when you put together a list of living country artists in January 2015 and didn’t include Haggard who was, at the time, the first or second greatest living country artist, depending on where one ranks Willie Nelson. But to mention Mel Tillis and Stonewall Jackson but not Haggard is laughable. Own it.
January 19, 2020 @ 4:30 pm
” I question your judgment when you put together a list of living country artists in January 2015 and didn’t include Haggard who was, at the time, the first or second greatest living country artist,”
Because this was not an article on the greatest living country artists. It was an article on the oldest links to country music’s past as the title states, and Merle Haggard didn’t qualify by some 20+ years. That’s not a slight to Haggard at all. It’s just a simple fact of mathematics. Understand the premise of the article.
If it makes you feel any better, and article like this will NEVER be posted again, because most people don’t seem to understand this extremely simple premise. This is NOT a list of the great living country artists of all time, wasn’t described as such, wasn’t written or presented as such, and the only way it can be taken that way is through wild-eyed assumption.
June 9, 2020 @ 6:35 pm
You specifically referred to this article as: “Here’s a run down of some of the most important elder statesmen of the country music community.” I know you can’t stand criticism, but hey, when you’re wrong you’re wrong. “Most important” or “greatest”, the omission of Haggard is laughable for someone as sanctimonious about Country Music as you. Of course, it must be that “most people” just don’t understand – it couldn’t possibly be that you overlooked something. Your projection of superiority in relation to Country Music is the only reason that this should be pointed out 5 years later, and frankly I am glad it got a rise out of you.
Go ahead and never write another article like this again; that means nothing to me. I only found it because it is what comes up when you search “oldest living country artists” on google.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:41 am
I find it funny Billy Joe isn’t on here. He’s gonna live forever. (or because he’s only 75 lol)
January 20, 2015 @ 11:04 am
Good article, Triggerman.
January 20, 2015 @ 11:12 am
Excellent article, Trig. Like you stated in a comment above, there are lots of people still alive from country music’s past and they deserve to be on the list, but this is great because it shines a light on some of the lesser-known country musicians many of whom are pushing 90 (if not already there) and still going.
January 20, 2015 @ 11:46 am
Very interesting article. Am I correct that Grandpa Jones’ wife Ramona is still with us ? She has to be well into her 90s, unless I missed hearing news of her passing.
January 20, 2015 @ 12:50 pm
Excellent stuff Trigger. I appreciate the reminder and the education .
January 20, 2015 @ 1:28 pm
Thanks for putting this list together Trig. After Little Jimmy passed I’d been wondering who if any 85 year old + stars were still with us, and in what capacity they still performed if any.
With time going by faster and faster it seems, maybe you could put together a list of the older greats to see while we still can. I mean people in the 60+ age range, country hall of fame caliber people who still tour regularly. Guys like Willie, Merle, Loretta, Charlie Pride, Gene Watson and Don Williams to name a few.
Glen Campbell starting his farewell tour felt like an informal starting point for a lot of these stars to start calling it quits.
Bigfoot is Real (and old as dirt)
January 20, 2015 @ 2:25 pm
I was just doing some research on Flatt and Scruggs and learned that Curly Seckler (born on Christmas day 1919) is still alive and kicking. In my opinion he, along with all the other original members of Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, were simply the best bluegrass band ever (sorry Bill). An interesting note about Curly’s mandolin playing was although he was the innovator of the “chop” style that serves as the metronome of bluegrass, he was never given a lead on mandolin on all the episodes of the Martha White Flour television shows. This was a poke at Bill Monroe who was less than gracious when Flatt and Scruggs were given membership to the Grand Old Opry. A great vocalist and an accomplished musician on several instruments he is really an underappreciated artist.
January 20, 2015 @ 2:56 pm
January 20, 2015 @ 6:34 pm
It appears that most of the people from this list are from the World War II Generation. I wonder how many of them are veterans of that war.
January 20, 2015 @ 9:39 pm
January 22, 2015 @ 10:55 am
Good call, he’s a couple of weeks older than Willie.
January 25, 2015 @ 7:01 pm
@Jim Roy Clark’s too young to have been in WWII. He would’ve been 13 when D-Day happened.
January 25, 2015 @ 11:27 pm
Sorry, never mind. I thought the Roy Clark comment was in response to the WWII comment. I’m an idiot.
January 20, 2015 @ 11:23 pm
Well done. I’ve been pondering this subject lately with the passing of Little Jimmy. This is an important reminder to appreciate the living legends who represent the last links to the old days of country music while they are still with us.
By the way, Eddie Stubbs announced on the radio last night that the five-hour long Jimmy Dickens tribute show he hosted a couple weeks ago has been posted on the WSM website if anyone’s interested in listening. It’s a great overview of his life and career:
January 21, 2015 @ 11:00 am
the tribute show is actually only four and a half hours. the first half hour is people arriving, grabbing an old, cold tater, and waiting for the show to begin.
January 24, 2015 @ 8:59 am
Great article. Fewer and fewer artists in country music are still around that link to the old days and the old ways (1950s and before). This is a great article!
November 18, 2015 @ 7:40 pm
actually Roy Rogers is the oldest and one other person I can’t remember, then Roy Acuff an the Smoky Mnt boys were next as you know that Roy is the founding father of the Grand ole opry, Bashful brother Oswald was in his band an he had been playing for years, mind you that you totally foregot about Hank Williams Sr who was also before jimmy dickens, But before ANY OF THESE PEOPLE played their was the Carter family which is renowned the oldest family in country music, they were on the radio in the 1920’s, which is why Johnny cash was so intrested in old music. Jimmy wasn’t the oldest but he did out last most people, I’m 18 years old an love the oldies, oh I’m not sure where Tennessee earnest ford comes in or patzy cline, an the real old stuff but they were somewhere along the lines of the 30’s an 40’s
Tiffany L McDole
March 16, 2019 @ 4:13 pm
Hey folks, let us not forget one of the best country female pioneers — Loretta Lynn, 86 and still performs — AFTER A STROKE a couple years ago no less…
September 22, 2019 @ 8:13 pm
I have a 14 year-old son who lives off of old country. Hank Senior, Cash, Waylon – all the greats we grew up with, he adores. He just completed his Eagle Project and is finishing up earning the rank of Eagle. I would love to reach out to some of these artists who are still alive and request a letter of Congratulations. Willie is easy to find since we’re here in Texas. Dolly is pretty easy to find as well. Any suggestions as to how to reach out to others?
Thanks from a mother of an old soul.
November 24, 2022 @ 8:43 pm
Eddie Van Halen was a guitar 🎸 god