Why Daryle Singletary Was Traditional Country's Greatest Defender

Country vocalist who died this week at 46 wouldn't bend to trends and fans loved him for it

Daryle Singletary, who died February 12th at 46, was unwavering in his support of traditional country music. Credit: Janet Kotwas/ZUMA

Daryle Singletary won country fans' hearts by keeping tradition in his soul. Singletary, who died February 12th at the much-too-young age of 46, defied every country trend that came down the musical path during his more than 20-year career, including the numerous reincarnations of pop country and the later phenomenon of bro-country. He wouldn't bend, and fans loved him for it.

Not that he protested with a shake of the fist or the rattling of sabers. Singletary had too much country gentleman in him for that. He never criticized the artists or the movements that likely knocked him out of coveted chart positions. In an interview with Country Weekly for his 2015 album, the aptly-titled There's Still a Little Country Left, Singletary maintained that he bore no ill will toward any contemporary artists, whose styles owed more to rock and hip-hop than fiddles and steel. His lone critique of the music boiled down to a simple, diplomatic declaration: "I'm just saying it's not the country music I grew up with."

Singletary, born and raised in Cairo, Georgia, was first captivated by the artists who would influence his style – staunch traditionalists like George Jones, Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard. He sang gospel music with his brother and cousin until making the move to Nashville in 1990 to chase the country music dream. Singletary paid the typical Music City dues, playing open-mic nights with other aspiring singers and doing demos for writers. He performed regularly at a popular watering hole, the Broken Spoke Saloon. Eventually, his demo recording of "Old Pair of Shoes" made its way to another of his heroes, Randy Travis, who ended up recording it himself. Travis recommended Singletary to his management team, which helped him secure a record deal with Giant Records.

His 1995 debut single, "I'm Living Up to Her Low Expectations," didn't exactly blow people out of the water, peaking just inside the Billboard Top 40. But the follow-up, "I Let Her Lie," captivated listeners. The newcomer's deep, gravelly voice proved a perfect match for the song, which dealt with a man's resignation over his wife's unfaithful ways. The single reached the Number Two spot, giving Singletary his first major success. It was also the first big hit for the song's sole composer Tim Johnson. Ironically, Johnson also met a somewhat early death, passing away in 2012 at the age of 52.

Singletary's 1995 self-titled debut album remains a flawless example of neo-traditional country at its finest, spawning "I Let Her Lie" and another Top Five hit, the rambunctious "Too Much Fun." lthough the record appealed to hardcore fans, it failed to reach a mainstream audience. That hardly appeared to daunt Singletary, who released a follow-up album, "All Because of You," that was every bit as no-holds-barred country as his debut. The album produced another Number 2 hit for the singer with "Amen Kind of Love," and each subsequent album held to the same traditional ideal without sounding formulaic or repetitive.

If ever an album brought a new focus to traditional country, it was Singletary's That's Why I Sing This Way.

Of his early 2000 albums, easily the most significant is Singletary's ode to country's standard bearers, That's Why I Sing This Way, released in 2002 on the Audium label. The LP featured mostly covers of classic tunes, including Conway Twitty's "I'd Love to Lay You Down," released as a single; George Jones' 1967 chart-topper "Walk Through This World With Me"; and Johnny Paycheck's "Old Violin," which would be the final song Singletary would sing on a stage. Paycheck, Jones, Dwight Yoakam and Rhonda Vincent all provided guest vocals. 

If ever an album brought a new focus to traditional country, this was it. That's Why I Sing This Way wasn't conceived as a commercial smash, but rather a statement that Singletary apparently had to make. Singletary paid further tributes to his musical mentors on the 2007 album Straight From the Heart with his takes on classics like "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend."

In one of those often unexplainable vagaries of the music business, Singletary developed a cache of loyal, dedicated fans who packed every concert appearance, yet he was never a household name. After "Amen Kind of Love," Singletary only cracked the Top 30 one other time, with the 1997 ballad "The Note." Certainly, his unwillingness to change styles or chase trends cost him some desired radio spins.

But accolades and awards were not part of the game plan. In a recent bio, Singletary recalled that when he left Georgia for Nashville, he told his father that he aimed to make his living singing pure country music. "I didn't tell him I wanted to be played on the radio every day or be on a video channel every day," Singletary noted. "I said, 'I want to make a living playing for the people who enjoy my kind of music.' Fortunately, I have been able to do that."

Fellow artists admired his deep, rich voice and his commitment to true country. As John Anderson tweeted after Singletary's death, "Daryle was a fine singer who knew exactly what to do with a song." One of his biggest boosters was bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent, who recorded "Would These Arms Be in Your Way" with Singletary on his debut record and later sang on That's Why I Sing This Way. Last year, the two collaborated on an album of duets, the acclaimed American Grandstand. The album featured covers of "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," "Golden Ring" and "After the Fire Is Gone," along with some originals. Vincent called him, "One of the single greatest singers who ever sang a song. I loved singing with him."

In an interview for the album with Sports & Entertainment Nashville, Singletary talked about satisfying the public's thirst for straight-up country. "We appreciate traditional country, and obviously, we appreciate the duet partners who paved the way for a project like this," he noted. "I know that there is an audience for traditional country music. There are people who still want to hear it."

Singletary went on to relate that he and Vincent shared a common bond, and his words likely would convey everything you needed to know about his musical stance. "I think we both have integrity," Singletary commented. "I think if you do something outside the realm of what's in your heart, you're compromising that integrity." 

Daryle Singletary always did what was in his heart.