Notable 2011 deaths in country music
It's an annual tradition to look back at year's end to those who've passed on in the previous twelve months. Whether it's just filler for the year's final broadcast of Entertainment Tonight, or Americans really do feel a need to reflect with sadness on the deaths of celebrities, I do not know. What I do know is that many fans of country music bemoan its transition away from the traditional, and so it is tangibly bittersweet to remember the elder fathers and mothers of the genre who have now passed, and whose voices will only carry on these American musical traditions into the future courtesy of their legendary recordings.
Last surviving member of close-harmonied duo the Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin died January 26th in Wartrace, Tennessee at the age of 83, forty-six years after the death of his troubled brother Ira.
Not even a year after his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 85-year-old artist Ferlin Husky passed away on March 17 in Westmoreland, Tennessee, leaving behind a unique voice recorded on the hit "Wings of a Dove" as well as his duet with Jean Shepard, "A Dear John Letter."
Known for upbeat country hits like "Louisiana Saturday Night" and "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," Opry member Mel McDaniel died at the age of 68 at his Hendersonville, Tennessee home on March 31st, still recovering from a near-fatal fall into an orchestra pit in 1996, and more recently diagnosed with lung cancer.
Original bassist for Johnny Cash's Tennessee Two, Marshall Grant, who died August 7th in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the age of 83, is credited with helping to create Cash's distinctive heartbeat-rhythmic sound and later went on to work as his road manager as well as playing on hits like "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Ring of Fire," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line."
Credited with bridging the gap between old-time mountain music and bluegrass and for innovating a two-finger picking style, Sons of the Mountaineers frontman and banjoist Wade Mainer became known as the "Grandfather of Bluegrass." He left music for a short time to work for General Motors in Flint, Michigan, but began touring again with his wife as a Christian gospel musician, and continued to perform well into old age. He died September 12th in Flint, at the age of 104.
Wilma Lee Cooper
After marrying in 1939, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper formed their own bluegrass group with the Clinch Mountain Clan, and were regulars for a decade on West Virginia's Grand Ole Opry rival before joining the Opry in 1957. Her husband died in 1977, but Wilma Lee stayed on the Opry as a solo star until she suffered a stroke onstage in 1977. She passed away September 13th at her home in Sweetwater, Tennessee, at the age of 90.
Storied as one of the kindest, most down-to-earth men in country as well as a very good husband, Johnnie Wright passed away at the age of 97 on September 27 in Madison, Tennessee. A country music pioneer in his own right, both solo and as member of the duo Johnnie and Jack (Jack Anglin, his brother-in-law, died in a car crash en route to Patsy Cline's funeral in 1963), Wright is also well known for helping to encourage the career of his wife, Kitty Wells, to whom he had been married for nearly seventy-four years.
Joel "Taz" DiGregorio
Long-time keyboardist and vocalist with the Charlie Daniels Band, "Taz" DiGregorio was killed in a car accident on October 12th near Nashville, while en route to Georgia for a concert. He was 67. Still keenly feeling his loss, the band had yet not replaced his spot onstage for their winter appearances in the area.
Perhaps best known as a soul and R&B singer, with hits like "The 'In' Crowd" and "Drift Away," Dobie Gray also made a splash on the country charts, placing two singles in the mid-1980s and making several appearances at Charlie Daniels' Volunteer Jam concerts. He passed away at the age of 71 on December 6th in Nashville, Tennessee, after a long battle with cancer.
Dan "Bee" Spears
Described as kind and laid-back, Dan "Bee" Spears played bass for the likes of Waylon Jennings and Guy Clark, but is best known as an integral member of Willie Nelson's Family Band, with whom he played for over forty years and up until his death on December 8th. Spears, 62, died of exposure after a fall at his home near Nashville, Tennessee.
Billie Jo Spears
Voted most promising female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1976, the Texas native, whose song "Blanket on the Ground" hit Number One on the country charts the year before, died at her Vidor, Texas home on December 14th, at the age of 74.
Tears in our beers for thee, may you all rest in peace.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.