In Memoriam: 2016


December 29, 2016

Country music continued to dominate airwaves in 2016, but the loss of multiple legendary pioneers has struck a nerve in the heart of the industry. RFD-TV would like to remember the lives of the artists who have passed and pay tribute to the milestones they set for country music.


Sonny James was often referred to as the “southern gentlemen.” His first big hit, “Young Love,” put him in the country music spotlight in 1957. From 1960 to 1979, he spent a total of 57 weeks at the top of the country charts, and hit the number one spot 23 times. According to Billboard Magazine and the County Music Hall of Fame, James was born in rural Alabama. Following a military career, he signed with Capitol Records. Sonny James died in Nashville, TN on Feb. 22. He was 87 years old.


Country music singer and beloved member of the RFD-TV family, Joey Feek, lost her battle against cancer this year. She and her husband Rory began their rise to fame in 2008 as the Country duo, Joey + Rory. Their TV show, “The Joey + Rory Show” was a popular staple for several years here on RFD-TV. Feek was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago, not long after the birth of their daughter, Indiana. Initially diagnosed “cancer free” following surgery, the cancer returned and spread to her colon. She was then moved to her family’s home in Indiana where she spent her last days. Feek was laid to rest on her farm in Maury County, TN on March 4, 2016. She was 41 years old.


Born to Oklahoma migrants, Merle Haggard began his rise to fame in the early 60’s with a string of hits, including his signature tune “Okie From Muskogee.” Haggard was known as the “working man’s poet,” and over the course of his half-century career he recorded 40 number one country hits. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994 and appeared on several RFD-TV programs. Haggard was diagnosed with pneumonia late last year and passed away on April 6 (his birthday). He was 79 years old.


Grammy award-winning bluegrass musician, Dr. Ralph Stanley also passed away this year. Stanley was a member of the Grand Ole Opry and was one of the early leaders of bluegrass music. Stanley found renewed success when his haunting version of “O, Death” appeared on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” He said once that his voice was a gift that God gave him, and he was meant to use it. Stanley passed away on June 23. He was 89 years old.


Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member Bonnie Brown was the youngest singer in The Browns. The trio scored a number of country and pop songs in the late 50’s and 60’s, but it was their tune “The Three Bells” (1959) that made them international stars. Brown passed away in Little Rock, Arkansas on July 16. She was 77 years old.


Born in rural Oklahoma, Jean Shepard sang and played bass in an all-female band as a teenager in Bakersfield, CA. Shepard was discovered by country legend Hank Thompson, who helped her get her first recording track. A string of chart-topping singles followed, including “A Dear John Letter”, “A Satisfied Mind,” and “Slippin’ Away.” She became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. Shepard passed away on Sept. 25 at the age of 82.


Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Guy Clark was an influential songwriter for more than 40 years. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and others. Following a long battle with cancer, Clark passed away on May 17 in Nashville. He was 74 years old.


A well-known artist in country music, Holly Dunn passed away this year following a long fight against ovarian cancer. She released her fist album in 1986. Two of her hits, “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” and “You Really Had Me Going” spent some time at the number one spot. Dunn passed away on Nov. 15. She was 59 years old.


Known as “The Master Of Space And Time,” Leon Russell was a legendary musician and songwriter who performed his gospel, rock, blues, and country music for more than 50 years. He was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2011. Russell passed away on Nov. 13 at the age of 74.