2016 has been a cruel year to the music world, and to country music in particular. Halfway through the year, we’ve already said goodbye to way too many icons and legends. We’ve lost songwriters like Ned Miller and Steve Young; we’ve also lost budding talent, like Backroad Anthem’s Craig Strickland, who tragically died after going missing during a hunting trip.
And then there are the unsung heroes who helped our favorite artists make the music we love. Garth Brooks’ studio bassist Mike Chapman passed away from cancer after adding his musical touch to dozens of iconic records. Joey Floyd, who played guitar, banjo and fiddle for Toby Keith, also lost his battle with cancer. Paul Gordon, who played for Jennifer Nettles (along with many other groups from a litany of genres), passed away from heart disease at 52.
As we take a moment to honor the artists who have passed on in 2016, we can only hope this list stays unchanged for the rest of the year. Let’s take a look back at some of the country greats we said “vaya con dios” to since the calendar turned.
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, Sonny James had an astounding 26 No. 1 hits on the country charts. The “Southern Gentleman” was also a co-host for the very first ever CMA Awards in 1967. A soft-spoken and mild-mannered talent, James is best remembered for his tender take on love, like in his first ever No. 1, “Young Love.” He passed away in February at the age of 87.
A true Texas pioneer, Guy Clark was known as a forefather of outlaw country and one of the finest writers to ever settle in Nashville. His music has been performed by artists from Johnny Cash to Steve Wariner to Brad Paisley to Hayes Carll, among many others. He died of Lymphoma in May at the age of 74.
A founding member and driving force behind one of America’s most successful bands of all time, Glenn Frey left a lasting impact on country and rock music that will never be forgotten. Along with Don Henley, Frey founded the Eagles, one of the first country/rock crossover bands. The writing duo is responsible for some of the most iconic songs in the world, such as “Hotel California,” “Take It Easy,” “New Kid In Town” and “Desperado.” Frey died at the age of 67 after suffering complications from longtime illness and gastrointestinal surgery.
Known as the “Patriarch of Bluegrass,” Ralph Stanley was one of the finest singers country music has ever known. He was among the first generation of bluegrass musicians, and he helped pioneer the genre. When you think of “bluegrass banjo,” you probably think of Earl Scruggs — but the good Dr. Ralph Stanley is right up there with Scruggs among banjo virtuosos. After tragically losing his brother and bandmate, Carter Stanley in 1966, Ralph made the decision to carry on after thousands of fans landed their support. He would continue to dazzle for the next 40 years of his storied career.
One of Merle Haggard’s co-writers, guitarists and longtime friends, Freddy Powers was also an accomplished artist in his own right. Along with another close friend in Willie Nelson, Powers was a “behind-the-scenes” force in the outlaw country movement of the 70s. The Seminole, Texas native would eventually write songs for artists like George Jones, Ray Charles, Big & Rich and more. He passed away at age 84.
The country genre has a lot of go-to’s when it comes to themes, and if you ever wondered where the theme of the “trucker” song came from, look no further than Red Simpson. Part of the generation of artists to form the “Bakersfield Sound,” Simpson became a trucking hero after capturing the hard times of the highway and relating to the realities of the booming truck transportation industry. Despite taking a long break of releasing music, Simpson spent his life on the road, much like the audience he romanticized in his music.
Though her career with husband and singing partner Rory Feek was only eight years long, Joey + Rory touched the hearts of millions both with their music and their story of undying love and compassion. During Joey’s long struggle with terminal cancer, the duo remained strong in their faith and love. They earned a Grammy nomination and their album Hymns That Are Important To Us skyrocketed to No. 1 in February, a month before Feek passed away at the age of 40. The duo’s sweet blend of country and bluegrass will be remembered as much for its musicality as its message of unending love in the face of tragedy.
Lincoln “Chips” Moman
A prolific producer and songwriter, Chips Moman is the man behind Elvis Presley’s legendary album From Elvis in Memphis as well as the iconic song “Luckenbach, Texas.” He opened American Sound Studio in Memphis, which churned out hit after hit during its brief five-year life from 1967-72. He would later produce the country supergroup The Highwaymen. Moman passed away a day after his 79th birthday after suffering from lung disease.
A San Antonio native whose success in both Tejano and country music earned him two Grammy’s, Emilio Navaira was a presence on both the country and Latin charts throughout the 90s. He was considered by many to be the “Garth Brooks of Tejano” thanks to his classic 90s country sound and extreme popularity in Mexico. Navaira sadly passed away in May after suffering a heart attack at age 53.
Merle Haggard’s passing was something that just couldn’t be prepared for, no matter how many times we learned about his trips to the hospital or reflected on his amazing career. For many, Haggard is the greatest country artist of all time — though he’d never accept such lofty praise. As a songwriter, Haggard pulled from his own life and experiences in a way that never betrayed him. As an artist, his sincerity and humility always kept him a favorite not just among fans, but other artists and critics alike. His music has meant many things to many people, a true sign of an artist who transcends “entertainer” to the status of cultural icon.