It’s never easy to lose someone and it’s especially hard when those people have made an impact on our lives. 2016 saw the passing of 10 country artists who have touched our lives with their music, including legendary artists Merle Haggard and Ralph Stanley and those we lost way too soon like Joey Feek and Craig Strickland.
Let’s take a look back and remember with fondness the country artists we lost in 2016.
CRAIG STRICKLAND: 1986-2016
Died: Jan. 4
Backroad Anthem’s lead singer, Craig Strickland, was found dead Monday morning (Jan. 4). According to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Craig’s body was recovered along the shoreline of Kaw Lake in an area known as Bear Creek Cove, near where his boat was found capsized one week earlier.
Craig, 29, and friend Chase Morland, 22, went missing on Sunday (Dec. 27, 2015) when the pair set off for a duck hunt, despite questionable conditions due to winter storm Goliath. Chase’s body was discovered Monday (Dec. 28) along with Craig’s hunting dog Sam, which was found alive.
SONNY JAMES: 1928-2016
Died: Feb. 22
Sonny James, the country singer behind hits like “Young Love” and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Feb. 22 at age 87. The cause of death was not given. Sonny scored the first of his 23 No. 1 singles in 1957 with “Young Love,” which hit the top on both the country and pop charts. Sonny reached No. 1 on the country charts in 1965 with “You’re the Only World I Know,” kicking off his most successful period. During one point in his career, from 1967 to late 1971, he had a string of 16 consecutive No. 1 country singles, including “I’ll Never Find Another You,” “Heaven Says Hello” and “Here Comes Honey Again.”
Sonny was welcomed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1965. Other accolades included induction to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2006, Sonny received the highest honor of his career, election to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sonny leaves behind his wife, Doris, whom he married in 1957.
JOEY FEEK: 1975-2016
Died: March 4
Joey Feek, part of the country duo Joey + Rory, died March 4 of cancer at age 40. Joey passed away in hospice care in her hometown of Alexandria, Ind., after a two-year battle with cancer. She grew up performing with her family’s band before moving to Nashville in 1998 and signed with Sony Records, where she recorded an album that was shelved after leadership changes at the label. She also recorded a solo album for Rory’s Giantslayer Records before the official formation of Joey+Rory in 2008. Their debut album, The Life of a Song, came out in 2008 and featured the sassy “Cheater, Cheater.” Their albums drew great critical acclaim and the couple was named Top New Duo at the 2010 ACM Awards.
The couple welcomed a baby girl, Indiana, in Feb. 2014. In December 2015, Joey + Rory earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Duo/Group Performance, and in February 2016, their new album, Hymns That Are Important to Us, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart.
MERLE HAGGARD: 1937-2016
Died: April 6
Merle Haggard, one of the legendary figures of country music, died April 6 on his birthday, at age 79 from complications of pneumonia. Merle scored 38 Billboard No. 1 hits, won the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year honor in 1970 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Merle released his debut single, “Sing a Sad Song,” in 1963. He later signed with Capitol Records, where he saw the bulk of his early success. Merle’s 1969 anthem “Okie From Muskogee” effectively captured the feelings of the middle class and their attitudes toward the anti-war protesters of the era. “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “I Wonder if They Ever Think of Me” and other tunes made statements for the so-called Silent Majority without being condescending. He earned the title “Poet of the Common Man” with slice-of-life songs like “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December” and others. His 38 Billboard No.1s place him third on the all-time chart-toppers list behind George Strait and Conway Twitty. Merle was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Died: May 16
Emilio Navaira, a Tejano singer who crossed over in country music, died on May 16 in New Braunfels, Texas. He was 53. Known by the moniker Emilio, the singer released his first country single, “It’s Not the End of the World,” which hit the Top 30 on the Billboard country chart, in 1995. His first country album, Life Is Good, saw some success reaching No. 13 on the Billboard chart. In 1997 he followed that up with his second country album, It’s On The House, which did not see near the success of the first. Emilio slowly faded from the country music scene gravitating more toward Tejano music. In 2002 Emilio’s album, Acuérdate won the Grammy award for Best Tejano Album.
GUY CLARK: 1941-2016
Died: May 17
Texas troubadour Guy Clark passed away in Nashville May 17 after a long illness. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer was 74 years old. Guy became a prolific songwriter, penning such tunes as “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “L.A. Freeway,” “That Old Time Feeling,” “She Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Let Him Roll,” “Rita Ballou,” and “Texas 1947.” His songs were recorded by a who’s who of country legends, including Johnny Cash, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Alan Jackson, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and more. Ricky Skagg’s scored a No. 1 song with Guy’s “Heartbroke” in 1982.
Guy recorded more than 20 albums over his career, including his 2013 Grammy-winning Best Folk Album, My Favorite Picture of You. Guy was preceded in death by his wife, Susanna, in 2012. He is survived by son Travis and daughter-in-law Krista McMurtry Clark and two grandchildren.
RALPH STANLEY: 1927-2016
Died: June 23
Ralph Stanley, one of the stalwarts of bluegrass music and an important figure on the scene since starting the Clinch Mountain Boys band in 1946, died June 23, from complications with skin cancer. He was 89. Ralph gained his earliest fame in the Stanley Brothers duo, which he formed with his brother Carter. Ralph forged his own popularity when he went solo in 1966, following Carter’s death from complications of cirrhosis. He re-formed the Clinch Mountain Boys, which at one time included Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley.
Ralph gained an entirely new audience with the release of the 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? He sang a chilling a cappella version of the Appalachian dirge “O Death” in the movie. Dr. Ralph, who has received two honorary doctorates in music from Lincoln Memorial University and Yale, continued to perform with the Clinch Mountain Boys until his death. He is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and has been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
BONNIE BROWN: 1938-2016
Died: July 16
Bonnie Brown Ring, one-third of the Hall of Fame group The Browns, passed away July 16 following complications from lung cancer. The Arkansas native was 77 years old. Her older siblings, Maxine and Jim Ed, performed together in the early ’50s, and after Bonnie graduated from high school, she joined the group, expanding it to a trio. The Browns performed on The Louisiana Hayride and found chart success with “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.” In 1959, the trio recorded one of the biggest hits of the era with “The Three Bells,” which topped Billboard‘s Country charts and led to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Browns were invited to become Grand Ole Opry members in 1963. In 1967, Bonnie and Maxine decided to leave the trio to spend more time with their families, and Jim Ed embarked on a very successful solo career. In March 2015, The Browns were announced as new inductees in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bonnie is survived by daughters Kelly Bulleit and Robin Shaver and sister Maxine.
JEAN SHEPARD: 1933-2016
Died: Sept. 25
Jean Shepard passed away Sept. 25 at age 82 after entering hospice care earlier in the week. At age 14 Jean was spotted by country star Hank Thompson singing and playing bass in the all-girl band she’d formed called the Melody Ranch Girls. A stint on the Springfield, Missouri Ozark Jubilee was followed by Grand Ole Opry membership in 1955. Her hit duet “A Dear John Letter” with Ferlin Husky was the first post-World War II country record featuring a female vocalist to sell a million copies.
Jean became a member of the Opry on November 21, 1955 and last appeared on November 21, 2015 when she became the only female to reach 60 years of Opry membership. In 2011, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jean is survived by husband Benny Birchfield and sons Don Robin Hawkins, Harold Franklin Hawkins II and Corey Birchfield.
HOLLY DUNN: 1957-2016
Died: Nov. 15
Holly Dunn passed away Nov. 15 at the age of 59. The singer was battling a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Born Aug 22, 1957, Holly was best known in the 1980’s for her Top 10 hit, “Daddy’s Hands” and No. 1 hit “You Really Had Me Going.” She released ten albums, including Cornerstone, The Blue Rose of Texas, Life and Love and All the Stages, and charted 19 songs.
As Holly’s career started to slow down, she retired from music in 2003 to pursue another passion—painting. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2016, Holly passed away at a hospice facility in New Mexico, surrounded by family and friends.