17. Ben Dorcy
2017 was an amazing year of country music artistry. The year saw some of country music’s biggest hits, such as “Body Like A Back Road.” Several emerging artists, including Luke Combs and Jon Pardi, broke onto the scene. But as we celebrate country lives, we must also mourn country deaths. And this year we said goodbye to inspiring performers, legendary songwriters, influential producers, and key figures that took country music to the top.
Though not a country artist, Ben Dorcy’s contribution to country music (and music in general) isn’t to be overlooked. As reported by Texas Monthly, Ben Dorcy was the first roadie– “ever.” At least, that’s according to Wille Nelson (and who’s going to argue with Wilie Nelson?). Everyone else just knew him as the “oldest living roadie.” Dorcy toured with Nelson for decades. Texas Monthly quoted Nelson’s tongue-in-cheek description of his relationship with the late Dorcy:
“I’ve learned I have the perfect person to steer me. When I’m contemplating one of life’s difficult decisions, I generally consult with Ben Dorcy. Bless his barely thumping heart, Ben is my canary in the coalmine. When faced with a difficult decision, I observe Ben and do the opposite of what he does,” Willie said of his friend and touring companion.
16. Kayton Roberts
Legendary steel guitarist Roberts died at age 83. According to Taste of Country, Roberts played for a litany of big country stars, including played for a host of country icons like Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Alison Krauss, A regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry, he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2012.
15. Earl Cranston Clark
Wide Open Country reported on the life and death of Clark, noting that the songwriter penned hits for Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, George Strait, and Tim McGraw. According to his obituary, Clark actually got his start driving tour buses for major stars, including Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Reed. His obituary also noted that he was the first Native American to achieve this level of success in country music. He was 70 years old when he died in mid-summer.
14. Norro Wilson
Wilson was an both a talented recording artist and an incredibly powerful behind-the-scenes figure. According to Billboard, Wilson was an artist in his own right, scoring ten singles that charted in the 1960s and 70s. However, he was much bigger as a producer, helping to launch the careers of stars such as Kenny Chesney, Keith Whitley, and Shania Twain.
Additionally, he also wrote huge country hits, including George Jones’ “A Picture of Me (Without You),” Tammy Wynette’s “He Loves Me All The Way,” and Charley Pride’s “Never Been So Loved (In All My Life).” One of his greatest successes was his 1974 “A Very Special Love Song,” which secured him a Grammy Award.
13. Bob Wootton
Wootton was the lead guitarist for Johnny Cash for almost three decades, until Cash retired in 1997. According to Rolling Stone, he also recorded on most of Cash’s LPs. He died in April from undisclosed causes. He was 75 years old.
12. Don Warden
Warden served as Dolly Parton’s manager for almost five decades. He was also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame thanks to his steel guitar playing. Nicknamed her “Mr. Everything,” Dolly Parton paid tribute to him on her website on the day of his death (March 11).
“I’ve known and loved Don Warden since I joined the Porter Wagner Show in 1967. He was like a father, a brother, a partner and one of my best friends. I feel like a piece of my heart is missing today. Certainly a huge piece of my life is gone. Rest in peace Don and know that I will always love you.”
11. Butch Trucks
Though lacking in the fame enjoyed by fellow band member Gregg Allman (who also passed away in 2017), Butch Trucks was a founding member and drummer of the Allman Brothers Band. After the band broke up, Trucks toured with his own band, Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band. According to the Miami Herald, Trucks died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. According to the article, his wife was in the room with him when he pulled the trigger and she made a “hysterical” 911 call.
10. Greg Trooper
Trooper passed away at age 61 from pancreatic cancer. He was a songwriter for many heavy-hitting artists, including Vince Gill, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Maura O’Connell, and Robert Earl Keen. Trooper actually had his own band, the Greg Trooper Band. It was they who released the debut LP We Won’t Dance in 1986. The single that shared the same title was then recorded on Vince Gill’s 1990 breakthrough album When I Call Your Name.
9. Kenny Beard
Songwriting great Beard died October 1. According to Taste of Country, Beard wrote a number of songs for Trace Adkins and Tracy Lawrence, among other artists — songs like “As Any Fool Can See,” “Big Time,” “If The World Has a Front Porch” and “The Rest of Mine” came from his pen. He’s also the writer behind Aaron Tippin’s signature hit, “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly.”
8. Jo Walker-Meador
Though neither singer or songwriter, country music owes a huge debt of gratitude to Jo Walker-Meador. Described by the Tennesseean as the “a chief architect of today’s country music industry” Walker-Meador died in mid-August. Beginning as just an assistant, she moved up the ranks from Country Music Association and eventually oversaw the creation of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, CMA Awards, and Fan Fair, which became CMA Fest. Thanks to her efforts, country music has the place of prominence it deserves.
7. Billy Joe Walker
According to CMT, Walker wrote hit songs for John Anderson, Trisha Yearwood, Tanya Tucker, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, and the Beach Boys.
6. Jim Nabors
Nabors played the clumsy-yet-amiable Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show, as well as the same character on the spinoff, Gomer Pyle, USMC. Not only was Nabor’s character down-home country, but Nabor’s singing talents were also showcased. Nabor also released records of gospel hymns and Christmas music. He died Nov 30th in his Hawaii home.
5. Don Williams
Williams died in September, following a short illness. The singer made his debut in the 1960s and recorded most of his hits over the next decades. Fans might remember the deep throaty voice of Williams in songs such as “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and “It Must Be Love.” All told, Williams scored 17 No. 1 hits during the course of his life.
4. Glen Campbell
Following a long bout with Alzheimer’s, Campbell passed away at age 81 on August 8th. During his career, Campbell had some massive country hits, including “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Southern Nights.” Prior to his huge solo career, he briefly took Brian Wilson’s spot on tour with the Beach Boys. His career ended with his farewell tour, on which he was accompanied by his children. He was posthumously awarded the CMA for Musical Event of the Year for his “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Willie Nelson.
3. Gregg Allman
Singer-songwriter Gregg Allman died in late May 2017. Allman was one of the early developers of Southern rock, a musical genre that is part country and part rock. He recorded and performed both as a solo artist and as part of the Allman Brothers Band. As reported by Rolling Stone, Allman lived the classic rocker life of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. They also reported him to be the inspiration behind the film “Almost Famous.” Allman had health struggles for much of his later life, including a liver transplant.
2. Mel Tillis
Legendary singer-songwriter Tillis wrote a significant number of hits for both himself and other artists, included Kenny Rogers. The Country Music Hall of Famer’s top songs included “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and “Southern Rain.” Tillis had a lifelong stutter that became part of his comedy routine, as well as his own theatre for a time in Branson, Missouri. One of his surviving children is Pam Tillis, the country star who sang “Maybe It Was Memphis.”
1. Troy Gentry
The Gentry half of the Montgomery Gentry duo, Troy Gentry was only 50 years old when he was killed in a helicopter crash. The helicopter ride was described as an “impromptu” joy ride, and certainly no one would have thought it would end his life. However, engine failure occurred, and Gentry and the pilot died while attempting to land. Troy is survived by his wife Angela and two daughters, Kaylee and Taylor.
There are numerous names to add to the list of country deaths we mourn. Musicians, producers, stage crew, and even performers who aren’t well-known enough to make it to the cover of Rolling Stone or be included in a memorialized list. But every country music fan knows that they are also the ones who make country music what it is. That it’s the dive bar performers who become the spotlight stars. And so to those we know, as well as those we don’t, we thank you and may you rest in peace.