As just this past week proved with the deaths of Carrie Fisher and George Michael, 2016 was a brutal year for the arts. And country music was not immune. The genre lost legendary performers, cornerstone songwriters and even young artists over the past year. We look back at the careers of some of the top country-music personalities who died in 2016.
Ralph Stanely was bluegrass music. A pioneer of the genre, along with old-timey Appalachian mountain music, the singer with the inimitable deep voice died on June 23rd at 89 after a bout with skin cancer. Stanley – who was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1975, earning him the casual "Dr. Ralph" moniker – was born on February 25th, 1927, in Stratton, Virginia. He joined his guitar-playing sibling Carter in 1946 to launch the family duo the Stanley Brothers, bringing bluegrass to the masses with their takes on "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," "Orange Blossom Special" and Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Stanley experienced a massive second act in 2000, thanks to his inclusion on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? His solo vocal on "O Death" was especially haunting, earning standing ovations on an O Brother concert tour and a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. J.H.
Having written Number One hits for Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney and Hunter Hayes, Andrew Dorff was one of contemporary Nashville's most successful songwriters. As well as one of the town's most beloved figures – Twitter tributes poured in from Shelton, Martina McBride and the Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston when Dorff passed at age 40 on December 19th. The son of songwriter-composer Steve Dorff and brother of actor Stephen Dorff, he moved from Los Angeles to Nashville in 2003 and signed with Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville. His chart-topping hits include Shelton's "My Eyes" and "Neon Light," Chesney's "Save It for a Rainy Day," and "Somebody's Heartbreak," Hayes' second Number One single and Dorff's first. Most recently, Dorff collaborated with his brother on the country-music film Wheeler. J.H.
Few singers plied hardcore honky-tonk music as their stock-in-trade longer and more effectively than Jean Shepard. A 60-year veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Shepard, who died September 25th at age 82, specialized in gutsy, vibrant performances on record and on stage, and was one of the Opry's longest-serving members before retiring in November 2015. One of 10 children, Ollie Imogene Shepard grew up an hour from Bakersfield, California, the honky-tonk hotbed that would later spawn Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Discovered at 14 by Hank Thompson, Shepard scored her first solo hit, "A Satisfied Mind," in 1955. But it was gems such as "Twice the Lovin' (In Half the Time)," "Crying Steel Guitar Waltz" and "Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)" for which she would become best known. Outspoken and trailblazing, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. S.B.
Had Claude "Curly" Putman Jr. only penned the classic George Jones weeper "He Stopped Loving Her Today," his status as a songwriting icon would be cemented in country-music history. Adding to his renown, however, are the hugely successful "Green, Green Grass of Home" (a worldwide hit for Tom Jones, among many other artists) and Tammy Wynette's unforgettable "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Putman also wrote "My Elusive Dreams," Wynette's duet with David Houston, Dolly Parton's first hit, "Dumb Blonde," and Tanya Tucker's "Blood Red and Goin' Down," as well as hits for T.G. Sheppard, T. Graham Brown and Kenny Rogers. He also earned cool pop-culture cred when a 1974 stay at his home outside Nashville inspired Paul McCartney to pen "Junior's Farm." Putman died of congestive heart failure on October 30th, just three weeks short of his 86th birthday. S.B.
Holly Dunn, who released a string of memorable country singles in the late Eighties, died November 14th in Albuquerque, New Mexico, following a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 59. Dunn first found success as a songwriter, scoring a Top 10 hit with Louise Mandrell's "I'm Not Through Loving You Yet." As an artist, she is best known for songs like the tender "Daddy's Hands," and her two Number One hits "Are You Ever Gonna Love Me" and "You Really Had Me Going." With a warm, inviting voice, she scored eight Top 10 hits as a solo artist and went on to co-host a Detroit radio show and work as an on-camera correspondent for TNN's Opry Backstage. C.P.
"Spread your arms and hold your breath, and always trust your cape," Guy Clark sang on "The Cape," his classic tale of finding vigor, hope and courage in the most ordinary of places. Until his death from cancer in May at 74, the Monahans, Texas, native brought this nuanced, visceral prose into his breed of Southern folksong and became one of country's most revered and treasured songwriters. Alongside friends like Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell, Clark chiseled a hole into the Nashville landscape for artists who gained notoriety not for hit singles, but for the depth of their language and intellect. (Hits weren't foreign to Clark, however: artists from Ricky Skaggs to Vince Gill had chart success with his songs.) Clark passed away at home in Nashville, leaving behind songs like "The Randall Knife," "L.A. Freeway" and "Stuff That Works" to tell the story of both his personal history and the far reaches of his imagination. M.M.
Although not as much of household name as the artist he helped launch into the stratosphere, Scotty Moore altered the course of American music forever. Best known as Elvis Presley's lead guitarist, Moore was instrumental in creating rock & roll. He played on Presley's first hit, "That's All Right (Mama)," as well as classics like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Jailhouse Rock." Moore is credited with inventing power chords and forming the lead-guitarist archetype in rock music, while his style influenced a generation of players, including the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. Moore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. He passed away in Nashville on June 28th at the age of 84. C.P.
Born with a heart defect, Pete Huttlinger battled health problems throughout his life, balancing hospital stays with a career spent onstage and in the recording studio. As a country flatpicker and award-winning finger-style guitarist, he logged time in a number of bands, including the touring lineups for John Denver, LeAnn Rimes and Hall & Oates. Huttlinger saved some of his best work for his solo career, though, mixing original tunes with reinterpretations of songs like Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." Equal parts sideman, frontman and journeyman, he overcame a number of strokes during his later years, relearning the guitar during each recovery. He died January 15th at 54. A.L.
Blessed with a warm, heavenly voice and compassionate spirit, Joey Martin Feek waged a valiant battle with cervical cancer, shared in unflinchingly honest detail through husband-songwriter Rory Feek's cathartic blogging and filmmaking. Married in 2002, the couple released their debut LP as Joey + Rory in 2008, and were named the ACM's Top New Vocal Duo in 2010. The singer's cancer diagnosis in June 2014 came just four months after the couple's daughter, Indiana Boone, was born with Down syndrome. Their final album together, 2016's Grammy-nominated Hymns That Are Important to Us, would be their first to top Billboard's Country Albums chart. While cancer took Joey's life March 4th at just 40 years old, the couple's love story has continued with Rory's heartbreaking yet inspirational documentary To Joey, With Love, which premiered last fall, and a memoir to be published on Valentine's Day 2017. S.B.
Merle Haggard, the "poet of the common man," was also a real-life outlaw. Born during the final years of the Great Depression, he turned an early predilection for crime into an otherworldly ability to write songs that spoke to the broke and brokenhearted, taking himself from the cells of San Quentin Prison to the top of the Billboard Country Charts – a peak he ascended 38 times throughout his career. A road warrior for more than half a century, he was playing shows up until the month he entered the hospital with an ongoing case of double pneumonia, which claimed his life on April 6th. "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre." Haggard, a Country Music Hall of Fame member, was 79. A.L.
In a tragedy that played out publicly via social media and news reports, the body of Backroad Anthem singer Craig Strickland was found January 4th in Oklahoma after more than a week of search and rescue efforts. On December 27th, 2015, Strickland and his friend Chase Morland set out on a duck-hunting trip that took them directly into the path of a fierce winter storm. Their small boat apparently capsized, and both men were killed. Morland’s body was recovered on December 28th – Strickland’s dog was found alive. Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Backroad Anthem had just released their EP Torn. The band continues on in Strickland’s honor. He was 29. C.P.
An unsung hero from the early days of Californian country-rock, songwriter Steve Young made his public debut with 1969's Rock Salt & Nails, an album that sported cameos from Gram Parsons and Gene Clark. When the Eagles formed two years later, their fame overshadowed some of the scene's pioneers, but Don Henley and company brought things full circle with their 1980 cover of Young's "Seven Bridges Road," shining some light on a cult figure who also wrote Waylon Jennings' '"Lonesome On'ry and Mean" and Willie Nelson's "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way." Young continued releasing music into his later years, most recently singing on Shooter Jennings' Countach (For Giorgio) album. He died March 17th at 73. A.L.
Chips Moman was one of Memphis' most famed producers and songwriters, collaborating with legends like Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield and Elvis Presley, for whom he produced "In the Ghetto." Born in LaGrange, Georgia, in 1937, Moman moved to Memphis as a teenager and, after a brief stint as a session guitarist in Los Angeles, returned to lend a hand in the founding of famed label Stax Records. After his tenure at Stax, he founded American Sound Studio, which was responsible for hits by everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Box Tops. Leaving Memphis for Nashville, Moman worked with some of country music's most groundbreaking artists: Nelson, Merle Haggard, Roy Orbison and Tammy Wynette, among them. He co-wrote "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" for Waylon Jennings and produced Jennings, Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the Highwaymen, earning him the nickname "the fifth Highwayman." Returning to Georgia, Moman passed away June 13th in his hometown at the age of 79 following complications from lung disease and emphysema. B.M.
Determining how Alabama-born farm boy James Hugh Loden, whose first musical instrument was made from a molasses bucket, became country-pop superstar Sonny James is easy once you hear his dreamily sophisticated vocals on such hits as 1957's crossover smash "Young Love." James, who earned the nickname "the Southern Gentleman," would take more than 20 songs to the top of the country charts and turn such R&B tunes as "It's Just a Matter of Time" and "Since I Met You Baby" into country hits, making him one of Capitol Records' top-selling country artists for more than a decade. A 2006 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, James is also the first country artist to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died February 22nd at age 87 of natural causes. S.B.
Born into the same family that produced the Louvin Brothers, John D. Loudermilk, a cousin to Ira and Charlie, kicked off his career as a rock & roller, releasing a string of solo albums for Columbia and RCA Victor. It was his work as a songwriter that left a bigger mark, though. Loudermilk penned Eddie Cochran's first Top 40 single, "Sittin' in the Balcony," as a college student, relocating to Nashville soon after. There, he wrote the blues-rock staple "Tobacco Road," as well as hundreds of country-leaning songs performed by Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bobby Gentry, Eddy Arnold and the Everly Brothers. He was still living in the outskirts of Nashville this past September, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 82. A.L.