Country music has deep roots that date back centuries. According to the Library of Congress, “fiddle tunes” came over to the United States from the British Isles in the 18th century — specifically, to Bristol, Tennessee. In the early 1900s, as recording industries began cropping up in New York City, Ralph Peer of Victor Records started scouting the local country folks in and around Tennessee, including the Carter Family.
Patrick Huber, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, told Time, “As a result of exchanges and borrowing and theft and parody, southern music pre-World War I was fundamentally multicultural.” Although this melting pot of music became known as “hillbilly” music, the disparaging label was replaced in 1949 with “country and western” — which eventually became simply “country,” the Encyclopedia Britannica explained. By 1998, Congress ultimately passed a resolution that recognized Bristol, Tennessee as the “Birthplace of Country Music.”
Since country music came to be in the 1700s, it has become prevalent all across America. Sadly, though, some country stars who helped propel the genre’s popularity in modern times are no longer with us. Here’s a look at some of those that have passed.
Legendary country music star Kenny Rogers died at 81
On March 20, 2020, country music’s Kenny Rogers peacefully passed away at home in Georgia, surrounded by his family, according to a post from the artist’s family on his Facebook page. He was 81 years old and died from natural causes under hospice care, the family revealed. Rogers lived quite a beautiful life. He performed for some 60 years, announcing his final Nashville concert in 2017, according to Rolling Stone. When he announced his final concert, he reportedly acknowledged his limited mobility in the years before he passed. Still, it didn’t stop him from singing for so long.
The “Lucille” singer sold more than 100 million records worldwide and was featured on 30 number one singles from 1977 to 1999. He’s responsible for hits like “You Can’t Make Old Friends” with Dolly Parton and “Buy Me a Rose” with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean. The Country Music Hall of Fame inductee had five CMA awards, eight ACM awards, and three Grammys under his belt. His storied career gave him a name that country music fans won’t ever forget. The Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb told Rolling Stone that Rogers was “a musical force and a character to be reckoned with.”
Country music hero John Prine passed away in April 2020
John Prine was dubbed the “hero of ‘new’ Nashville,'” according to NPR. Prine’s wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, took to Instagram in March 2020 and revealed that she’d been diagnosed with coronavirus, while her husband’s results were “indeterminate.” The country singer was admitted to the hospital later that month and, according to a Facebook statement from the star’s family on April 3, he was suffering from pneumonia and had developed peripheral problems while on a ventilator in the ICU. On April 7, 2020, the 73-year-old musician sadly passed away. Prine may no longer be with us, but his music continues to live on.
Prine was a storyteller. He often wrote songs about marginalized communities, unpacking the shame surrounding single mothers and the double standards for the men who “run like water through a mountain stream” in “Unwed Fathers.” In “Sam Stone,” he sang about a veteran struggling with PTSD . In other words, his lyrics were always deeply meaningful and gave a voice to the voiceless.
Beloved country star Earl Thomas Conley died at the age of 77
Earl Thomas Conley passed away at the age of 77 on April 11, 2019, according to Rolling Stone. He was reportedly battling a condition likened to dementia. Conley lived a storied life, touching so many lives in the country music industry and beyond. He was beloved by many, including other big-name country artists. Blake Shelton tweeted about Conley’s heartbreaking passing, writing, “My heart is absolutely destroyed today. … Earl was my all-time favorite singer, hero, and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest.”
In 1983, Conley became the first artist to ever have hit a streak of four top songs from a single studio LP, Don’t Make It Easy for Me, Rolling Stone reported. In fact, he had an almost unbroken consecutive string of 18 number one hits in the ’80s including “Angel in Disguise,” “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Right From the Start,” and “What I’d Say.”
According to Billboard, 25 of his songs made onto the publication’s top 10 Hot Country Songs chart. Such songs includes “I Have Loved You, Girl (But Not Like This Before)” and “Dreamin’s All I Do.” Conley will be remembered as a country music icon.
Up-and-coming country star Kylie Rae Harris died in a tragic car accident
Kylie Rae Harris died in a car accident in New Mexico on September 4, 2019, according to a press release by the Taos County Sheriff’s Office. The 30-year-old rising country star was suspected to be drunk driving and speeding at 102 miles per hour when she hit a vehicle. Harris continued driving at 95 miles per hour, entering oncoming traffic and striking another car, killing 16-year-old Maria Cruz of San Cristóbal. A toxicology report later revealed the singer’s blood alcohol level was over three times the legal limit, the local Taos News reported. The crash was undoubtedly devastating for both families.
Harris is survived by her daughter, Corbie, for whom she wrote a song entitled “Twenty Years From Now.” The song is featured on her self-titled EP. “It scared me thinking that it was totally possible I could be gone before my daughter reaches that point,” Harris devastatingly and hauntingly told Billboard of her song just six months before her death. “I want to meet my kid’s kids,” she admitted to the publication. Getting to the age your parents were when you were a child brings a whole lot of perspective.”
Longtime country singer Charlie Daniels died at the age of 83
Country music’s Charlie Daniels, well-known for his hit song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” suffered a stroke that sadly claimed his life at the age of 83, according to People. The musician was suffering from heart complications for over a decade. He had a stroke in 2010, according to a blog post on his website, which was written by his son. The star also had a pacemaker put in in 2013, People reported. In 2018, Daniels had cardiac catheter ablation surgery to improve his heart rhythm, the blog stated.
Sadly, on July 6, 2020, Daniels passed away. “He was prescribed a blood thinner as part of his treatment,” Daniels’ son explained. Although it helped prolong his life, the singer’s son revealed, “But unfortunately, the blood thinner is what did him in this time. Because his blood wasn’t clotting, the blood kept pouring into his brain stem.”
Daniels wrote and played music professionally since the ’50s; his first claim to fame was co-writing Elvis Presley’s 1964 song “It Hurts Me,” People reported. The song secured Daniels gigs with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and more. By 1970, he released his first self-titled solo album and, two years later, he formed the Charlie Daniels Band.
Grand Ole Opry guitarist Jimmy Capps died at 81 years of age
Grand Ole Opry guitarist Jimmy Capps left us at 81 years old on June 1, 2020, according to his obituary. On top of being a guitarist for the Grand Ole Opry’s house band for over 61 years (which, by the way, was longer than any other musician), his music can also be heard in some of the most well-known country songs like George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Capps’ obituary stated.
In 2012, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Later, Capps was also inducted into both the Music Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. In 2015, the Tennessee Senate passed a resolution that recognized Capps’ musical contributions.
The guitarist was revered by many country music fans and his fellow musicians alike. In fact, the band room at the Grand Ole Opry was named the “Jimmy Capps Music Room” in 2018 to mark his 60th year there, according to his obituary. That’s how much his peers respected him and his work.
Rising pop-country star Cady Groves died at just 30 years old
Country music lost a beautiful, young soul when Cady Groves passed away at just 30 years old in May 2020, according to NBC’s Today. The Davidson County Medical Examiner’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee, said singer had died from complications as a result of chronic ethanol abuse, TODAY reported. Her brother, Cody Groves, confirmed her death in an emotional tweet that revealed his sister had “left this world.”
Cody also later tweeted to dispel rumors surrounding self-harm and foul play. “Cady was really looking forward to the next few months and release of her new album,” he tweeted. “Our latest in-depth conversation (since most were witty banter) was her sending me songs to critique and give feedback on.”
Groves is known for her hits “This Little Girl” and “Forget You,” among many others that country fans love. Before her death, she had signed with the Thirty Tigers label and had been working on a 2020 release, reps for the musician reportedly told People.
Country Hall of Famer Harold Reid died at 80
The Statler Brothers’ bass vocalist Harold Reid died at the age of 80 in April 2020, according to the The New York Times. The country music legend died of kidney failure, according to the vocalist’s nephew, Langdon Reid.
The Statler Brothers played as the opening act for Johnny Cash from the mid ’60s to the early ’70s, The New York Times reported. The band earned three Grammys and nine Country Music Association awards for their music. A whopping 58 singles from the band landed in the country Top 40 from 1965 to 1989, 32 of which made it into the Top 10, according to the publication. To little surprise, the group was inducted into the Gospel hall of Fame in 2007 and, in 2008, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“We took gospel harmonies and put them over in country music,” Reid was quoted saying in The Encyclopedia of Gospel Music (via The New York Times). Indeed they did.
Country star Justin Townes Earle died of a "probable drug overdose"
Justin Townes Earle died from a “probable drug overdose” at just 38 years old, a spokesperson at the Metro Nashville Police Department told Rolling Stone. Police conducted a welfare check at the singer’s Nashville apartment after one of his friends expressed concern over having not heard from Earle in a few days. The authorities found the singer dead, according to the publication.
Earle had long struggled with substance abuse. He told Rolling Stone in 2012 that he was “dealing with a lot of things [he] didn’t know how to deal with” between his father leaving at a young age and her mother bringing home several drunk boyfriends. “By the time I emerged from my parents’ household at 15 years old, I was a very f***ed-up kid,” he said, adding that he “believed [he] had to destroy [himself] to make great art.”
Through his music, Earle told the tales of his addiction, the losses he’d suffered, and more. He started out as a member of a country-punk band and then became a solo performer who “eased his way through the Nashville independent country community,” the Pittsburgh Post Gazette explained. Some of his top hits included “Harlem River Blues” and “Lone Pine Hill.”
Country Music Hall of Famer Maxine Brown Russell died at 87
Country Music Hall of Fame’s Maxine Brown Russell passed away at 87 years old on January 21, 2019, according to the Tennessean. She died from “complications of heart and kidney disease” while in hospice care in Little Rock, Arkansas. Russell was the last-surviving member of The Browns, a country music trio, in which Russell performed alongside her two siblings, Jim Ed and Bonnie.
Their smash hit “The Three Bells” was produced by Chet Atkins and topped country and pop charts in 1959. Some 50 years after the song came out, it was featured in two episodes of The Sopranos, causing the oldie tune to experience “a minor resurgence,” the Tennessean explained. That wasn’t The Browns’ only hit though.
The band had quite a few chart-topping hits in the ’50s and ’60s. Their musical fame got them on television shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jerry Lewis Show, and American Bandstand. It’s no surprise that Russell and her two siblings were ultimately inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Joe Diffie died two days after sharing news of his diagnosis
Country music’s Joe Diffie died just two days after sharing the news of his COVID-19 diagnosis, according to Billboard. A post on his Instagram feed explained that the star was “under the care of medical professionals and currently receiving treatment after testing positive for coronavirus (COVID-19).” The post asked for privacy and included a reminder to his fans to “be vigilant, cautious, and careful during this pandemic.”
The Grammy and CMA-award winner was 61 years old at the time of his passing, with 17 Top 10 songs on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart in the 1990s, Billboard reported. The Grand Ole Opry member is known for his hits like “Third Rock From the Sun,” “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” and “Bigger Than the Beatles.”
Diffie stole the hearts of country music fans and other talented musicians in the industry who looked up to the talented artist. Jason Aldean, for example, shared a tribute to Diffie on Instagram after learning of his passing. “This guy was an amazing singer and an even greater person,” Aldean wrote of Diffie. “Such a sad week for the country music world. … We will miss [you] my friend. Thanks for teaching us how to ‘Diffie.'”
Country music star Mac Wiseman passed away at the age of 93
Mac Wiseman was one of Nashville’s best guitar players. He passed away at 93 years old in February 2019, according to The New York Times, leaving behind quite the legacy. He was recognized as “the Voice with a Heart,” the publication reported.
Wiseman was a founding member of the Foggy Mountain Boys and also played in Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He also later formed his own group, the Country Boys. But his most popular songs as a solo artist are what topped country charts, including “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” in 1955 and “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy” in 1959, according to The New York Times.
In his decades as a solo artist, he released more than 60 albums. But Wiseman wasn’t only a talented artist, he was also something of an entrepreneur. In 1958, he became the founding secretary of the board of the Country Music Foundation.
David Olney died from a heart attack while performing in 2020
Country music’s David Olney died from a heart attack that he suffered on stage during one of his shows in January 2020, his manager, Mary Sack, told The New York Times. Olney had surgery for a heart attack about ten years prior, but sadly he suffered a fatal cardiac event while performing onstage at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival.
According to a Facebook post by American country singer Scott Miller, Olney was “one of the finest songwriters” out there. “What a force. What a writer. And what a nice guy,” Miller wrote. He explained that Olney was playing a song when he paused, apologize, and put his chin to his chest. Efforts were made to revive him until the EMTs arrived. His passing, Miller described, was “as easy and gentle as he was.” The New York Times revealed, “David Olney, an uncommonly thoughtful singer-songwriter whose music has been recorded by the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Steve Earle.”
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