Just days into 2015, country music lost Little Jimmy Dickens, the face of the Grand Ole Opry and one of the genre's most charismatic performers. Even now, as the year comes to a close, his loss continues to sting. In addition to the death of Dickens and other iconic performers like Lynn Anderson, country music weathered the passing of gifted songwriters, visionary producers and essential musicians. We look back at the careers of some of the top country-music personalities who died this year.
The show went on, of course, as the Grand Ole Opry has now for 90 years. But when Little Jimmy Dickens died of cardiac arrest on January 2nd, a big hole was left in the lineup. The diminutive star was the longest-running member of the Opry, bringing his combination of rhinestones, cornball comedy and sincerity to the show. Dickens last performed on its stage just two weeks before his death (as part of his 94th birthday celebration). More than his novelty hits like "I'm Little But I'm Loud" and "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose," Dickens had a career that spanned decades, allowing him to be counted both as a Friend of Hank (Senior) and Brad (Paisley). A year has passed, but the little man known to friends as "Tater" still casts a tall shadow over country music. M.L.
"I beg your pardon." With those four little words, Lynn Anderson catapulted to fame in 1970 with a mix of down-home sass and Top 40 sophistication. She'd had hits before, but nothing like "Rose Garden" — more commonly known as "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden." Written by Joe South, the song became Anderson's signature and stormed both the country and pop charts, eventually spawning covers by everyone from k.d. lang to Carol Burnett to Martina McBride. From 1971, Anderson's album Rose Garden was the best-selling country LP by a solo female artist until Shania Twain broke that record in 1997. Saddled with personal struggles in her later years, Anderson nonetheless stretched as an artist. She reimagined her hits on 2004's Grammy-nominated The Bluegrass Sessions, and in June of this year she released a spirited gospel album, Bridges. She died of a heart attack a month later, gone far too soon at 67. J.R.
His warm, easygoing vocals made pop-country crossover a natural for Jim Ed Brown, an Arkansas native and longtime Grand Ole Opry member, who died June 11th at 81, following a lengthy battle with cancer. As one-third of the Browns, with sisters Bonnie and Maxine, he recorded the now-classic 1959 pop-country hit "The Three Bells," which perfectly spotlighted the trio's spine-tingling harmonies. When the sisters retired in 1967, Brown enjoyed a string of solo hits, including that year's "Pop a Top," and popular duets with Helen Cornelius. While undergoing treatment for lung cancer in 2014, he released In Style Again, his first solo effort in 40 years. Just one week before his death, the hospitalized singer was presented with the medallion commemorating the Browns' induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. S.B.
One of the foremost masters of the pedal-steel guitar, Buddy Emmons died in July at age 78. As the steel player for Ray Price, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller and numerous others, Emmons was pivotal in solidifying the instrument's starring role in country music as well as its stylistic evolution over the years. After contributing to early honky-tonk favorites such as Price's "Night Life" and Tubb's "Half a Mind," Emmons helped spur the emerging country-rock movement by playing on records by Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Roger McGuinn. Later in his career, Emmons remained one of the most in-demand musicians in town, touring with the Everly Brothers and recording with everyone from George Strait to Trisha Yearwood. J.B.
Billy Sherrill, one of the most influential Nashville record producers of the 20th century, died this past August at age 78. Born in Northwest Alabama, Sherrill moved to Nashville and began working for Sam Phillips before landing a staff job at Epic Records in 1963. At Epic, Sherrill would go on to become one of the principal drivers behind Nashville's Countrypolitan sound — the elegant, pop-oriented production style that favored lush, string-heavy arrangements to the raw sounds of honky-tonk. Most prominently, Sherrill produced hugely popular recordings by Tammy Wynette (with whom he wrote "Stand By Your Man"), Charlie Rich, Johnny Paycheck, and George Jones. In particular, Sherrill was at the helm for Jones' revered recordings "The Grand Tour" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Sherrill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. J.B.
As the producer of albums like Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Johnny Cash's crossover smash At Folsom Prison, Bob Johnston became one of Nashville's most important cultural ambassadors to the pop/rock world during the Sixties. Part of Johnston’s genius was merging the work of singer-songwriter visionaries like Dylan and Leonard Cohen with the first-rate Nashville session musicians of the day like Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey. Johnston, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, brought his hands-off musical sensibility to Columbia Records, where he became a staff producer. "Bob Johnston is smart enough to know when he gets an artist who believes in himself, to let him run with it," Johnny Cash once said of the beloved producer. Johnston died in Nashville in August at the age of 83. J.B.
A Sixties pop star who transitioned to Eighties country hitmaker, Billy Joe Royal had a Top Ten smash in 1965 with "Down in the Boondocks" and scored additional hits with "Cherry Hill Park" and "I Knew You When." In 1985, the soulful vocalist earned a country Top 10 with "Burned Like a Rocket." His biggest country hits came in 1989, however, with a pair of Number Twos: a remake of the Aaron Neville classic "Tell It Like It Is" and "Till I Can't Take It Anymore." The Valdosta, Georgia, native died at his home in Marietta, North Carolina, October 6th. He was 73. S.B.
An old-time fiddler who was a renowned radio and TV star for decades, Ramona Jones was perhaps best known for her marriage to longtime Hee Haw and Grand Ole Opry star Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones. During their 52-year union, which ended with his death in 1998, the couple appeared together frequently in concert, on record and throughout the 25-year run of Hee Haw. She made her solo debut on the Opry in 1947 and traveled the world performing with her husband, including shows for service members on the front lines during the Korean War. Jones died at 91 on November 17th in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. S.B.
As the fiddle-player in Bob Wills' backing band the Texas Playboys, Johnny Gimble was a key figure in creating the sound of Western swing music. Using a five-string fiddle (as opposed to the traditional four), Gimble's fleet-fingered playing was a part of the Wills sound through the Forties and Fifties, though he also led his own band at different intervals. In the Seventies, he began doing session work that included Wills (on his final LP) and Merle Haggard before releasing his first solo recordings and winning the first of multiple instrumental honors from both the CMA and ACM. He was active through the 2000s, appearing on Austin City Limits and releasing his final album Celebrating With Friends (featuring Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and others) in 2010. Gimble died May 30th at his home in Dripping Springs, Texas at 88 years old. J.F.
A Nashville songwriter and in-demand keyboard player, Bobby Emmons died February 23rd at 72 years old. The native of Corinth, Mississippi was a member of the famed Bill Black Combo and played keyboards in the original house band at Hi Records studios, before joining the American Studios crew formed by producer "Chips" Moman, where he played on such iconic hits as Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." As a songwriter, he had cuts by George Strait ("So Much Like My Dad"), Waylon Jennings ("Luckenbach, Texas") and Tanya Tucker ("Love Me Like You Used To"), among others. S.B.