Notable 2012 deaths in country music
While he was perhaps best known for his soulful rock songs ("Hush," "Down in the Boondocks," "Games People Play," "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home," "Walk a Mile in My Shoes,"), for his obscure novelty hit ("The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor"), and for his session guitar work, ("Chain of Fools," "Blonde on Blonde"), Joe South also made a lasting impression on country music, penning the Grammy-winning song "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden," which was a hit for Lynn Anderson in 1971.
In recognition of his accomplishments, South was inducted to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2003, to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. "He's one of the greatest songwriters of all time," said Butch Lowery, son of late DJ/publisher Bill Lowery and president of the Lowery Group. "His songs have touched so many lives. He's such a wonderful guy and loved by many." South passed away September 5 in Buford, Georgia, at the age of 72.
Billy Strange existed in that strange (and awesome) space where country, pop, rock and surf music all came together. Born in Long Beach, California, as a kid he began performing cowboy-themed material on the radio with his parents and at the age of 16 moved to Texas, where he performed in honky-tonks and dance halls before being hired to work with West Coast artists Spade Cooley and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Alongside the likes of Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, Strange was a session musician with the LA-based "Wrecking Crew," and can be heard on records by the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Roy Rogers, and together with Mac Davis he wrote several hits for Elvis, including "A Little Less Conversation."
Most notably, Strange started a publishing company and arranged and conducted several recordings for Nancy Sinatra, helping to cut famous tracks like "These Boots Are Made for Walking," "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and "Something Stupid." In addition to his music career, he dabbled in acting and had a bit role as Speedy West in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. Strange died in February at the age of 81.
He never had a chart-topping hit, but his guitar flat-picking and earnest, true-blue vocal take on traditional American music nonetheless influenced generations of country, blues and folk musicians and fans. Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923, a mountain community where he lived 'til his death, an eye infection took Doc Watson's vision before the age of one, but his supportive and musically-inclined rural farming family pushed him to learn how to take care of himself, and to pursue music early on - first harmonica, then banjo, and finally guitar.
In 1960, Watson met Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzler at a North Carolina music festival, and it was then that he was swept up in the folk craze of the decade, as well as the traditional music revivalism of the decade to follow, notably collaborating with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others on 1972's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Before he died in late May at the age of 89, Watson won eight Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, and founded the popular MerleFest, a showcase of traditional acoustic music held each April in North Carolina to honor Watson's son and longtime collaborator, Merle, who died in a tractor accident at his farm in 1985.
Kitty Wells might have been the sweetest and most unassuming musical artist ever banned by radio. Though her voice was simple and sweet, her aesthetic modestly conservative, though she was married to a cabinet-maker (and country great, Johnnie Wright) at the age of 18 and remained married to him for nearly 74 years, it was her earliest hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" - a response to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life" - that was deemed too risqué for the Opry and for radio, and made her one of country's earliest banned stars.
When she recorded the legendary song, she had no intentions of making it big; she sang it simply to earn the $125 union session paycheck it promised her in 1952. But in the six decades since then, Kitty Wells has joined the ranks of Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana and the Carter family women to be one of the groundbreaking female artists of country, paving the way for Loretta Lynn, then Tanya Tucker, and today Miranda Lambert. Wells was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and in 1991 became the third country artist (after Roy Acuff and Hank Williams), and only the eighth woman ever to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Notably, in 1956 she became the first female country singer ever to release a full long-play album, in a time record companies were reluctant to issue albums by women; Patsy Cline's first full-length was released just a year later. She died in July at the age of 92 in Nashville, following a stroke, less than a year after her husband passed.