The Elders of Country Music
Diminutive Little Jimmy Dickens, 94, passed away January 2 in Nashville
The recent passing of 94-year-old Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, along with the late 2014 death of the Cajun Cowboy, Jimmy C. Newman, gave us pause to consider the dwindling list of country music elders. Below are the oldest remaining nationally known country music performers.
Dr. Ralph Stanley -- Born in McClure, Virginia on Feb. 25, 1927, along with his guitarist older brother Carter, Stanley was part of the Clinch Mountain Boys. The band was formed in 1946 and became one of the most celebrated bluegrass outfits in the history of the genre. The brothers soon came to rival Bill Monroe, the big dog of the bluegrass world at the end of World War II. The Stanleys recorded for the eclectic King Records label originally; James Brown, another King artist, was present when the Stanley's recorded "Finger Poppin' Time" and was said to be highly impressed.
The brothers moved to Columbia Records in early 1949, which caused Monroe to leave the label and move to Decca, where he recorded his classic material. With the passing of Carter Stanley in 1967, Ralph Stanley carried on alone. Stanley won a Grammy for his 2002 a capella performance of "O Death" in the box office smash O Brother, Where Art Thou. He continues to record and perform. In 2006 he was awarded a National Medal of Arts. His next album, set to be recorded in the next few months, will be produced by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller.
Sonny James -- Born James Hugh Loden in Hackleburg, Alabama on May 1, 1929, by 1933 he was playing mandolin and singing with his family's band on Muscle Shoals radio station WMSD. After serving in the Korean conflict, James moved to Nashville and signed to Capitol Records via former roommate Chet Atkins.
In late 1956, James recorded the smash hit, "Young Love," for which he will always be remembered. The tune was the first "teenage country crossover single;" it topped both the country and pop charts in 1957. James became a member of the Opry in 1962 and has had a solid career as a performer and recording artist. His other best know song was the country ditty, "A Little Bit South of Saskatoon," which was part of the soundtrack to the Paul Newman movie, "Slap Shot."
He was named Billboard's Artist of the Year in 1969, and had a string of sixteen No. 1 hits between 1967 and 1971. He also produced the first three Marie Osmond albums. Known as The Southern Gentleman, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
Leroy Van Dyke -- Born in Pettis, Missouri on October 4, 1929, Leroy Van Dyke will go down in country music history for two massive hit songs, "The Auctioneer" (1956) and "Walk On By" (1961). Written about his cousin, "The Auctioneer" captured America's hearts and ears, selling 2.5 million copies. But Van Dyke topped that with the catchy "Walk On By," which Billboard declared the "biggest country single of all time" based on sales, plays, and weeks in the charts: No. 1 for 19 weeks, with a total of 42 weeks in the country charts, and rising to No. 5 on the pop charts.
Van Dyke still performs occasionally and works with his wife at Leroy Van Dyke Enterprises.
Osborne Brothers -- Born in Roark, Kentucky on December 7, 1931, Bobby Osborne formed half of the bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers with his younger brother, Sonny Osborne (October 29, 1937). While Bobby served in the military, Sonny played with Bill Monroe. When Bobby was discharged, the brothers joined with the legendary Jimmie Martin on radio and to record briefly for RCA Victor.
By July, 1956, the brothers had a full band and were recording for MGM. Their first MGM release, "Ruby Are You Mad," was a huge hit and secured them a regular gig on the WWVA Jamboree. October 17, 1957, at their third MGM session, the Osbornes made history when they became the first bluegrass band to use drums on a recording ( a debate that rages on today).
Making waves right and left, the brothers caused further dissension in bluegrass ranks as they began to incorporate electric instruments and other non-standard bluegrass elements in their music. They were the first bluegrass outfit to play at a college (Antioch, 1960) and they joined the Opry in 1964. In 1967 they recorded their biggest hit, "Rocky Top," and they continued to record occasional charting tunes into the 1980s.
Sonny retired in 2005, while Bobby continues to work with his own band. Bill Monroe, the King of Bluegrass, was known to be highly critical of the brothers for their non-traditional elements. Asked on a television program what he thought of the Osbornes during the height of their success, Monroe answered simply, "They're workin'."
Claude Gray -- Born in Henderson, Texas on January 26, 1932, Claude Gray is most noted as the first artist to have a hit with a song written by Willie Nelson. Both men met in Houston in 1959 when Gray was selling cars and Nelson was teaching music at Paul Buskirk's music school in Pasadena.
Gray signed with "Pappy" Daily's D Records in 1959 and had a No. 10 hit with his version of Willie's tune "Family Bible," which he, Walt Breeland, and Buskirk bought from Nelson for $100 (see the writer credits on the image of "Family Bible"). Gray also optioned and recorded Willie's tune "Nightlife," but Daily refused to release it.
Gray's biggest hit was his version of Roger Miller's tune, "My Ears Should Burn (When Fools Are Talked About)." Gray continues to live near Henderson and is still touring.
Loretta Lynn -- Born in Butcher Holler, Kentucky on April 14, 1932, Loretta Lynn clawed her way out of Nashville scene anonymity with a series of hits in the 1960s that eventually earned her the sobriquet, "First Lady of Country Music." While she is a revered icon today and has recorded with unlikely producer Jack White, many people forget that numerous Lynn songs were banned by country radio for their topical themes that rankled the conservative powers-that-be in mainstream country music. The most notable was her unblinking take on birth control and women's sexual roles, "The Pill."
But she also had a dozen hits that spoke directly to women in a way country music had never done before: "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," "You Ain't Woman Enough," "Fist City" and others. Her 1976 best-seller biography, Coal Miner's Daughter, became a blockbuster movie hit in 1980 starring Sissy Spacek.
Her 2004 album with White, Van Lear Rose, received five Grammy nominations. Lynn is in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Along with Bob Dylan, she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. She is, of course, a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Stonewall Jackson -- Born in Tabor City, North Carolina on November 6, 1932, Stonewall Jackson was the first artist ever admitted to the Grand Ole Opry before he had even recorded a song. This was arranged by his supporter Fred Rose of the influential Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. Rose wisely sent Jackson on the road with veteran Ernest Tubb in 1957. Tubb became Jackson's mentor.
Signed to Columbia Records, Jackson's first record was "Don't Be Angry," a song subsequently covered by many country stars. Jackson cracked the Country Top 40 in 1958 with his second effort, a George Jones tune called "Life To Go." But his biggest success came with the odd "Waterloo" in 1959. It was No. 1 on the country charts, reached the pop Top 40, and was a hit in the UK.
In 1963, Jackson reached No. 1 with his tune "B.J. The D.J" and No. 3 with "I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water." He also recorded the first live album ever at the Grand Ole Opry. His last major hit was the 1971 cover of Lobo's "Me And You And a Dog Named Boo."
Jackson sued the Opry for age discrimination in 2006 and was reinstated to the program after an out-of-court settlement of the issue.
Roy Clark -- Born in Meherin, Virginia on April 15, 1933, Roy Clark was one of the true guitar virtuosos of country music and for decades one of the most recognizable Nashville stars due to his many appearances on television, most notably as one of the hosts of the 25-year-running country variety program, Hee Haw.
Clark began his career touring with Opry star Grandpa Jones before graduating to Jimmy Dean's band in Washington, D.C. After difficulties with Dean, he was brought to Nashville by powerhouse manager Jim Halsey, and recorded his first charting tune, the classic "Tips of My Fingers," for Capitol in 1963. Moving to Dot Records, Clark had a string of pop country hits.
Clark was always very careful to position himself as something more than just a Nashville country act. A big likable man with much charm and humor, Clark eventually became a big enough celebrity to host the Tonight Show many times. His celebrity status also made him a perfect foil to cornpone Hee Haw co-host Buck Owens.
The first country artist to perform with a symphony orchestra, Clark was also the first country act to tour the Soviet Union. Clark was one of a group of Nashville stars and businessmen who developed Branson, Missouri into a country music theme park of sorts.
Willie Nelson -- Born in Abbott, Texas on April 29, 1933, Willie Nelson is probably the most well known artist on the list. Nelson bounced around Texas for almost a decade and eventually landed in Houston 1959-60, where he sold some of his songs to Claude Gray and also recorded for "Pappy" Daily's D Records. Nelson never found success in Houston and left for Nashville during the summer of 1960.
Once in Nashville he made a name for himself as a songwriter with Ray Price's Pamper Music publishing company and he joined Price's band. Nelson recorded a handful of albums in Nashville without finding much radio success, although he continued to be a popular club draw in Texas. Fed up with Nashville, he "retired" and moved back to Texas in 1972, but by 1973 he was back in the game with a new deal with Atlantic Records. His two Atlantic albums -- Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages -- presented a reinvented, looser, more natural Nelson.
Released from Atlantic (along with another Grammy nominated label-mate Tracy Nelson), Willie moved to Columbia, where he had full artistic control of his recordings for the first time. The success was staggering. The ultra-cheap, almost-lo-fi Red Headed Stranger was like nothing else on country radio; it went double-platinum and there was no looking back. Nelson, along with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, released a compilation of previous recordings titled Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. It became the first million-seller country album and defined The Outlaw Movement.
Nelson has gone on to rack up numerous No. 1 albums, played thousands of gigs, and acted in half a dozen movies. He is probably the most recognizable Texan on the planet.