Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 7, 2016, but has since been updated.
Ah yes, celebrity death hoaxes. The tried-and-true tradition of the Internet age, when jerks try to convince people somebody famous died. Politicians, musicians, actors — you name it. You’re practically nobody until somebody thinks you’re dead.
This week, fake news about Willie Nelson being on his death bed began to circulate online — again. It may seem like bogus stories like this are a product of the digital era, but death hoaxes predate the Internet by quite a bit. One of the most famous accounts involves American writing legend Mark Twain. While abroad in London in the late 1890s, a rumor of Twain’s death spread across America. When the New York Journal attempted to find Twain to verify, he responded with a letter containing the famous quote, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Throughout history, several author celebrities got the premature axe. Frank Sinatra reportedly died many times, while perhaps the most famous hoax of the 1960s, the “Paul McCartney is dead” conspiracy claimed McCartney died in 1966 and a look-alike replaced him.
So naturally, that trend extends to America’s favorite music genre. Since 2008, plenty of country stars have woken up to find themselves six feet under thanks to the Internet. Let’s take a look at some of the most prevalent death hoaxes in country music.
The famous countrypolitan singer known for his yodeling and prominent falsetto (man, if only he were around in today’s country music scene) “died” years before he actually passed away. Thanks to an egregious error at the The Tennessean newspaper, people believed Whitman died in 2008.
Ironically, January 20, 2008 was actually Whitman’s 85th birthday. So instead of publishing birthday congratulations, the newspaper published a premature obituary.
What most people don’t know is that news outlets keep runnings tabs of obituaries just in case somebody passes away. The honest mistake of publishing the obituary too soon led to the online article going viral.
Whitman hilariously responded to the misprint by saying “I can still sing; if you’re dead, you can’t sing.” He passed away in 2013 at age 90.
The Canadian folk legend reportedly “died” while on a North American tour on Feb. 18, 2010. Apparently, the rumor started on Twitter, which at the time wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today.
Nonetheless, different radio and TV outlets picked up the information and began circulating it without thinking to first vet the news source. Lightfoot was only 71 at the time.
In a response published in Billboard, Lightfoot lightheartedly quipped, “I was quite surprised to hear it myself.” He’s still alive and kicking today at age 78.
In April 2012, a mean hoax revolving around Reba McEntire — the singer, song-writer, and producer — spread. The Internet rumor claimed that McEntire fell off a mountain in Austria while filming a movie.
This particularly hoax is a bit of a revolving door, and has also “claimed the lives” of Ryan Gosling, Jackie Chan and others. But McEntire revealed that it shook up her family members pretty badly.
In fact, McEntire’s nephew took the news really hard. He called his mom (Reba’s older sister Alice) sobbing after people at a gas station told him of the news. Alice, of course, immediately called Reba and put the matter to rest. She later urged people to quit with the mean hoaxes.
On July 16, 2012, rumor quickly spread from a fake news source that Garth Brooks met his demise while jet skiing in the Turks and Caicos Islands. The story claimed Brooks tragically struck a concrete boat slip on Parrot Cay.
An impressive amount of detail notwithstanding, the hoax completely came out of nowhere. In fact, at that time, Brooks hadn’t made any announcements concerning his eventual return to the spotlight two years later.
It seems, instead, pranksters simply wanted to gain some Internet clicks by targeting a beloved country legend. Brooks never even made a statement. Why? Because at the end of the story on the bottom of the page, the site owned up to being completely 100% fake.
Who would do such a thing? Idiots. That’s who.
Before her transition to pop music, Taylor Swift still reigned supreme over the commercial country landscape; she was the queen of country albums. In Sept. 2012, a Twitter account purporting to be celebrity gossip source TMZ claimed Swift died in a car crash.
The Twitter handle, @TMZ_Nevvs obviously had no real relation to TMZ (an organization that banks on breaking death news first, with complete disregard for family members or privacy). But that didn’t stop other fake profiles from “corroborating” the news in an attempt to amplify it.
A “parody” CNN account claimed (when in doubt, check with the associated press) the multiple Grammy winner died in her home, while two fake accounts claiming to be pop singers Demi Lovato and Katy Perry tweeted their sorrow at the news. Ironically, this all happened just a few weeks after another fake account tried to spread a Taylor Swift death hoax. She went on to win more Grammy awards.
On April 18, 2013, George Jones entered the hospital. Almost at the exact same time as news of his very real hospital visit broke, very fake news of his death spread.
In an effort to deny the death reports, Jones’ publicist actually went so far to say he wasn’t even sick. But Jones really did go to the hospital with a fever and irregular blood pressure. The admittance seemed like a precaution at the time, as Jones had more performances planned up until his “final” show in Nashville in Nov. 2013.
Unfortunately, to make the death hoax that much more cruel, Jones really did pass away in the hospital eight days later. Some fans were hesitant to believe the news at first (thanks to the earlier hoax), but when news made its way all around the world, fans came to accept the truth.
On Oct. 18 2014, a “R.I.P. Loretta Lynn” Facebook page began making its rounds throughout social media. The page sent fans into a frenzy trying to disprove the news. The page didn’t make any claims as to how or why she passed away, but did say she died at 11 a.m. that morning.
Of course, Lynn did not pass away in 2014. The relentless performer in fact is still on the road to this day.
Interestingly enough, there’s another rumor about Lynn actually dying in 2006. Again, it’s simply a rumor — but the rumor claims Lynn died on the operating table in 2006 at age 71. She was undergoing surgery for a broken shoulder and doctors revived her, then successfully completed the surgery. Is it true? Probably not. But it’s kind of badass and befitting of the country queen.
The Internet has killed Willie Nelson several times. In fact, three separate occasions in 2015 claimed the life of the famous country outlaw and marijuana advocate.
On Feb. 21, 2015, a site trying to trick people into believing it’s legit published news of Nelson’s death. The site, “MSMBC.co” tried to deliberately confuse people into thinking it was actually MSNBC.com, a reputable news organization.
They then updated the death hoax rumor for April 11, 2015. And, in a pretty ballsy move, later updated it again in August 2015. The site actually referenced its own hoax from April, saying police actually confirmed it this time. Apparently some of his “Maui neighbors” found him unresponsive on the lawn and called 911.
Willie Nelson obviously did not die once in 2015, much less three times. The red-headed stranger, who has undergone his fair share of health procedures and situation over the past few years, still tours regularly. He lives in Maui and has a ranch in Austin, Texas. He’s even got a new album coming out called God’s Problem Child. On it, Nelson sings a song called “Still Not Dead,” poking fun of the hoaxes.
After the hoax, Nelson continued to rock his performances. At a recent concert in Houston, he strummed through his own music and dedicated songs to the likes of Waylon Jennings and California’s son, Merle Haggard. Nelson will be appearing on his son, Lukas Nelson’s upcoming album. And yes, he’s still good friends with Snoop Dogg, and yes, they still smoke weed.