Notable 2012 deaths in country music
Kitty Wells passed in July
Get out your hanky so you don't spill a tear in your beer; from Susanna Clark to Kitty Wells, several legendary country singers and songwriters passed on in 2012, and their loss is felt keenly as our connection to a better time in traditional country goes slippin' away.
Born in the "10 Cent Town" of Atlanta, Texas, Susanna Clark was an art teacher and painter who began writing music as part of a groundbreaking community of singer-songwriters in Nashville in the early 1970s, which included her husband Guy Clark (whom she'd convinced to quit his job in Houston, and move to Music City to focus on songwriting), Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and others. Though music was an essential theme in her life, Clark never quit painting; her artwork was featured on the cover of albums including Willie Nelson's Stardust , Emmylou Harris' Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town , Guy Clark's Old No. 1 , and Nancy Griffith's Dust Bowl Symphony . The songs she wrote were recorded by her husband, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kathy Mattea and others; for Mattea's 1989 chart-topper "Come from the Heart," she wrote: "You've got to sing like you don't need the money, love like you'll never get hurt. You've got to dance like nobody's watching, it's gotta come from the heart if you want it to work." Clark died in Nashville after a long fight with cancer on June 27, at the age of 73.
Multi-instrumentalist Charlie Collins played music up until his final days. As a guitar player in the Smoky Mountain Boys, from 1966 to 1992 he played with Opry legend Roy Acuff. Over the years, he played fiddle, mandolin and Dobro with the likes of Brother Oswald and the Square Dance Band, Mark O'Connor, Sam Bush and Jim & Jesse. "Music and the Opry, that was his life," his friend and musical collaborator Mike Webb said. "I'm so grateful that he was able to work, right up until the end." After nearly five decades playing the Opry stage, he performed on it the night before he suffered the stroke that would take his life on January 12, at the age of 78.
Born in Salem, Missouri in 1937, Doug Dillard picked up the guitar by the age of five, but it was Earl Scruggs who inspired him to jump to banjo. When he was 16, he wrote a letter to Scruggs, and when he received a positive reply, he decided banjo would be his instrument of choice, too. In fact, he went so far as to pester his parents into driving him to Scruggs' home, over five hundred miles away, where he boldly rang the bell, introduced himself, and asked the legend to install Scruggs' signature tuners on his banjo. Scruggs' kindness no doubt played a part in Dillard's success on the instrument; it was Dillard's banjo playing that helped him cut through an expansive cross-section of country, rock, country-rock, and even television history. Over his career, he worked with Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Arlo Guthrie, Hoyt Axton, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and with his brother comprised the famed Dillards. It was as part of that bluegrass duo that he became well-known for his reoccurring appearances on "The Andy Griffith Show." Dillard died in Nashville on May 16 at the age of 75, after a lengthy illness.
Born in Mississippi, bass player Chris Ethridge moved to California at the age of 17, and after playing briefly with Joel Scott Hill (later of Canned Heat), he joined forces with Gram Parsons and the International Submarine Band, a group Parsons had formed while briefly attending Harvard University. Though the group planned to disband, record producer Suzi Jane Hokom convinced her then-boyfriend, Lee Hazlewood, to sign the act to his seminal record company. After Parsons' short-lived rendezvous with the Byrds, he and Ethridge founded The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968, and would later tour together during Parsons' short-lived solo career. After Parsons' 1973 death from an overdose, Ethridge would again perform with the Burritos as well as the Docker Hill Boys, Judy Collins, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, Leon Russell, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, and Kudzu Kings. Most notably, Ethridge toured with Willie Nelson for eight years and played on his 1978 single, "Whiskey River." He died in April after a hospitalization in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, at the age of 65.
What do Marilyn Monroe, Levon Helm, a honky cat, a rockin' crocodile, and life and death on the African savanna have in common? Okay that was a no-brainer - Elton John has sung songs about all of them. But the fact that Bernie Taupin and Elton John used to really like The Band pales in comparison to Levon Helm's other accomplishments. It was in an early rock group that Helm helped Dylan "go electric" in 1965, before they all took up residence in a big pink house in Woodstock, New York, and became known locally as "the band," a name which stuck.
Born to cotton farmers on May 26, 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas, Mark Lavon (Levon) Helm's parents dabbled in music and exposed their children to plenty of it; Levon's first show was seeing Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys at the age of six, an experience which, according to his 1993 autobiography, "really tattooed my brain." The influences both of this region and of his early exposure to country music remained imprinted on Helm's career, and thus remain imprinted on country-rock history forever. Helm died in April at the age of 71, after battling cancer for over a decade.
Country music isn't much without its songwriters. Danny Morrison was respected enough as a songwriter that he wrote a book on the subject, and was well-known and well-liked in Music City before dying in February at the age of 67, after having a heart attack. In addition to songs by Alabama, Lee Greenwood, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Johnny Paycheck, he wrote "Blaze of Glory" for Kenny Rogers, and "Is it Cold in Here" for Joe Diffie, whom he also produced and managed.
Cois "Pee Wee" Moultrie
The fact that members of Hank Williams' Drifting Cowboys backing band still continue to perform today serves as an indelible link to a time (and a man) long gone, but we lost another of them this year. Cois "Pee Wee" Moultrie was an original member of the Drifting Cowboys, performing with Williams when they were still in their teens, from 1938 to 1940. Moultrie joined the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and served a lengthy career ending in his 1971 retirement. He continued to appear in later incarnations of the Drifting Cowboys, performing his accordion and singing at music festivals and Hank Williams events in his later years, and contributing artifacts to the Hank Williams museums in Montgomery and Georgiana, Alabama, and in Nashville. He died of a heart attack in Fort Walton Beach, Florida in January, at the age of 89.
Seems fitting that the aforementioned Doug Dillard would pass on in the same year as his idol, Country Music Hall of Famer, elder statesman of country and bluegrass and banjo crossover king Earl Scruggs, who died March 28 in a Nashville hospital at the age of 88. Scruggs, who along with Lester Flatt comprised one of the most influential bluegrass outfits of all time , started his career as Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys' signature three-finger banjo picker. His style not only transformed traditional bluegrass, but also inspired generations of country and country-rock performers. His enthusiasm for adopting genre- and generation-bending styles, especially rock and folk, is said to have alienated Flatt; he pushed for the two to cover early Dylan, and as a result, Flatt & Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys was not long for the world. From there, Scruggs formed the progressive (and Flatt-less) Earl Scruggs Review.
While he was perhaps best known for his soulful rock songs ("Hush," "Down in the Boondocks," "Games People Play," "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home," "Walk a Mile in My Shoes,"), for his obscure novelty hit ("The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor"), and for his session guitar work, ("Chain of Fools," "Blonde on Blonde"), Joe South also made a lasting impression on country music, penning the Grammy-winning song "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden," which was a hit for Lynn Anderson in 1971.
In recognition of his accomplishments, South was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2003, to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. "He's one of the greatest songwriters of all time," said Butch Lowery, son of late DJ/publisher Bill Lowery and president of the Lowery Group. "His songs have touched so many lives. He's such a wonderful guy and loved by many." South passed away September 5 in Buford, Georgia, at the age of 72.
Billy Strange existed in that strange (and awesome) space where country, pop, rock and surf music all came together. Born in Long Beach, California, as a kid he began performing cowboy-themed material on the radio with his parents and at the age of 16 moved to Texas, where he performed in honky-tonks and dance halls before being hired to work with West Coast artists Spade Cooley and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Alongside the likes of Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, Strange was a session musician with the LA-based "Wrecking Crew," and can be heard on records by the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Roy Rogers, and together with Mac Davis he wrote several hits for Elvis, including "A Little Less Conversation."
Most notably, Strange started a publishing company and arranged and conducted several recordings for Nancy Sinatra, helping to cut famous tracks like "These Boots Are Made for Walking," "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and "Something Stupid." In addition to his music career, he dabbled in acting and had a bit role as Speedy West in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. Strange died in February at the age of 81.
He never had a chart-topping hit, but his guitar flat-picking and earnest, true-blue vocal take on traditional American music nonetheless influenced generations of country, blues and folk musicians and fans. Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923, a mountain community where he lived 'til his death, an eye infection took Doc Watson's vision before the age of one, but his supportive and musically-inclined rural farming family pushed him to learn how to take care of himself, and to pursue music early on - first harmonica, then banjo, and finally guitar.
In 1960, Watson met Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzler at a North Carolina music festival, and it was then that he was swept up in the folk craze of the decade, as well as the traditional music revivalism of the decade to follow, notably collaborating with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others on 1972's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Before he died in late May at the age of 89, Watson won eight Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, and founded the popular MerleFest, a showcase of traditional acoustic music held each April in North Carolina to honor Watson's son and longtime collaborator, Merle, who died in a tractor accident at his farm in 1985.
Kitty Wells might have been the sweetest and most unassuming musical artist ever banned by radio. Though her voice was simple and sweet, her aesthetic modestly conservative, though she was married to a cabinet-maker (and country great, Johnnie Wright) at the age of 18 and remained married to him for nearly 74 years, it was her earliest hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" - a response to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" - that was deemed too risqué for the Opry and for radio, and made her one of country's earliest banned stars.
When she recorded the legendary song, she had no intentions of making it big; she sang it simply to earn the $125 union session paycheck it promised her in 1952. But in the six decades since then, Kitty Wells has joined the ranks of Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana and the Carter family women to be one of the groundbreaking female artists of country, paving the way for Loretta Lynn, then Tanya Tucker, and today Miranda Lambert. Wells was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and in 1991 became the third country artist (after Roy Acuff and Hank Williams), and only the eighth woman ever to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Notably, in 1956 she became the first female country singer ever to release a full long-play album, in a time record companies were reluctant to issue albums by women; Patsy Cline's first full-length was released just a year later. She died in July at the age of 92 in Nashville, following a stroke, less than a year after her husband passed.
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