This year saw the loss of not just some of the greatest singers in country music, but also some of the most notable songwriters and torchbearers of the genre. The Grand Ole Opry lost a couple of its regular performers; Music Row said goodbye to some talented tunesmiths; and the world is now without an "Ambassador of Country Music." We look back at the iconic careers of some of the top country musicians who passed away in 2014.
One of the most distinguished harmony vocalists in rock, pop and country, Phil Everly, as one half of the Everly Brothers with older sibling Don, scored 15 Top 10 hits between 1957 and 1962. The brothers' biggest chart records, including "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and "Cathy's Clown," were an incalculable influence on such acts as the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Their Kentucky upbringing, steeped in Appalachian mountain music and bluegrass, also inspired such country acts as Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and John Prine, all of whom recorded with one or both of the brothers on various projects. In 1986, the Everly Brothers were among the first acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Phil Everly died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease just 16 days before his 75th birthday.
Kevin Sharp, whose first three singles all reached the Top Five, passed away at 43, suffering complications from past stomach surgeries and digestive issues. A native of Redding, California, Sharp was a high-school athlete until his senior year, when pain in his left leg was revealed to be bone cancer. As the recipient of a unique gift from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Sharp soon found himself in the studio of producer David Foster, who helped him secure a record deal with Nashville's Asylum label. His cover of the Tony Rich Project's "Nobody Knows" topped the country chart for four weeks, earning Sharp a nomination for ACM Top New Male Vocalist. While continuing to advocate for children's health issues, Sharp underwent emergency surgeries in 1998 and 2008, and in 2011 underwent several surgeries for leg infections. In 2004, he penned his life story, Tragedy's Gift.
Bobby Womack spent his adolescence singing with his brothers in the Sam Cooke-mentored vocal group the Valentinos, writing pop-infused soul tracks such as "Everybody Wants to Fall in Love" and "It's All Over Now," which was eventually recorded by the Rolling Stones. Womack was one of the most influential R&B, soul and funk artists in the Sixties and Seventies, but in 1976, he took a left turn, reuniting with his brothers and his father for his oft-overlooked Bobby Womack Goes C&W album. The daring collection, which seamlessly fused Chicago soul with the Sixties' Countrypolitan Nashville sound, angered Womack's label, resulting in the loss of his record deal. "Charley Pride was the only black man singing [country and Western]," Womack said of the album. "Now there was another black man who wanted to give it a shot."
Pete Seeger was a rebel, a revolutionary, an activist, a pop singer, a song collector and an educator. He was also, primarily, the nation's most vocal advocate of traditional American music throughout the past half-century. Seeger began singing in the early 1940s, embracing folk music long before it became widely popularized in the Fifties and Sixties, and continued to perform until his death at age 94. Although Seeger will first and foremost be forever remembered as a lifelong champion of folk music, he maintained ties to many of country's biggest stars throughout the Sixties and Seventies, including Johnny Cash, June Carter, Willie Nelson and the Stanley Brothers. "I lost my heart to the banjo," Seeger said of his first exposure to rural mountain music. "It was an exciting sound, and there was a kind of honesty in country music that I didn't find in pop music."
Recognized for his smooth, folk-influenced voice, George Hamilton IV passed away in a Nashville hospital following a heart attack. He was 77. A 50-year Grand Ole Opry veteran, Hamilton was the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain and earned the title of "International Ambassador of Country Music." Born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he became a teen idol in the early days of rock & roll with the 1956 single "A Rose and a Baby Ruth." Tours with Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers followed. His best-known hit, the 1963 crossover smash "Abilene," spent four weeks atop the country chart and peaked at Number 15 on the pop chart. The host of a Canadian TV show for six years, Hamilton also played the role of narrator for Patsy Cline: The Musical, which ran from 1993 to 1998 and played London's West End in 1994.
The first Cajun singer ever to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Jimmy C. Newman died in Nashville at age 86 after a battle with cancer. Born near Big Mamou, Louisiana, Newman, whose middle name was Yves, adopted the middle initial "C" (for Cajun) and began playing music in his teens. As the host of a TV series in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Newman blended Cajun and country music and sang in both English and French. In 1954, he scored his first big hit for Dot Records with "Cry, Cry Darling." Other chart-climbers included "Daydreamin'," "Diggy Liggy Lo," "A Fallen Star" (a Number Two country and Top 25 pop hit) and his signature tune, "Alligator Man." Invited to join the Opry in 1956, he was also a member of the Cajun Hall of Fame and North American Country Music Association's International Hall of Fame.
Dawn Sears, who in addition to singing with four-time Grammy-nominated Western Swing band the Time Jumpers, was a longtime member of Vince Gill's touring band, lost her two-year battle with lung cancer at just 53 years old. A Minnesota native who won her first talent contest at 14, Sears moved to Nashville in 1987 and released her debut album, What a Woman Wants to Hear, in 1991. The first artist signed to the relaunched Decca label in Nashville, she released one album, Nothin' but Good, in 1994. In addition to the Time Jumpers projects and several of Gill's albums, Sears sang harmony on tunes by Tracy Byrd, Ronnie Milsap, Jim Lauderdale, Patty Loveless and Merle Haggard, among others. Her husband, fiddle player Kenny Sears, is also a member of the Time Jumpers.
Arthur Smith was one of the most revered country and bluegrass musicians of his time, but he found his biggest claim to fame in Hollywood. The South Carolina native wrote the unforgettable "Dueling Banjos," featured in a pivotal scene in the 1972 film Deliverance. Another instrumental, "Guitar Boogie" was a huge crossover hit in 1945 that has since been covered by everyone from Les Paul to Paul McCartney. His syndicated Arthur Smith Show featured guests ranging from Loretta Lynn to Richard Nixon, and ran for 32 years. In 1957, he opened the Southeast's first commercial recording studio in his adopted hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, renting it out to the likes of Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, the Statler Brothers and James Brown, who recorded the classic "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" there. Smith died in April at age 93.
Texas-born performer, writer, producer and music publisher Bob Montgomery lost his battle with Parkinson's disease at age 77. Montgomery was paired with future rock icon Buddy Holly in a country and rockabilly duo, writing several songs recorded by Holly and his band, the Crickets, as well as tunes for Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold, among others. One of his best-known compositions, "Misty Blue," was a pop, R&B and country hit recorded most famously by Dorothy Moore and Wilma Burgess. In 1968, Montgomery produced the hugely popular "Honey," by Bobby Goldsboro, and oversaw the country division of the United Artists label. His publishing company, House of Gold, was responsible for such massive hits as "Behind Closed Doors" by Charlie Rich and "Wind Beneath My Winds," a country hit for Gary Morris and a pop smash for Bette Midler.
Paul Craft, who wrote such country classics as "Dropkick Me Jesus," for Bobby Bare, "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life," recorded by Moe Bandy, and the Mark Chesnutt hit "Brother Jukebox," died October 18th, shortly after celebrating his induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Born in Memphis and raised in Arkansas, Craft scored his earliest hits for Skeeter Davis and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Others who have recorded his songs include Ray Stevens, Gail Davies, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and dozens of bluegrass acts such as Claire Lynch, Larry Sparks and the Osborne Brothers. In the 1970s, Craft also recorded several albums of his own. An independent spirit, he rarely co-wrote and also self-published most of his songs. Craft was 76.
Since the early Seventies, Jesse Winchester quietly maintained a career as a graceful, introspective singer-songwriter whose tunes would be recorded by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, the Everly Brothers and James Taylor. Many of his best-known compositions ("Mississippi You're on My Mind," "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz," "Biloxi") were tales of aching homesickness from the Southern-born musician who, after dodging the Vietnam War draft in 1967, was exiled to Canada for a decade until he received amnesty and was allowed to return to home. His 1978 song “A Showman's Life” has been covered over the years by George Strait, Buddy Miller, Gary Allan and, most recently, by Chris Carmack (Will Lexington) on ABC's Nashville. Winchester's stunning, posthumous studio album, recorded in the year before he died, was released in September. Winchester was 69.