Country music, perhaps more than any other genre out there, is synonymous with heartache. But it’s not just in its songs where loss prevails. The country world has often found itself at the center of a real-life tragedy. Think of the devastating moment when seven members of Reba McEntire’s band perished in a horrific plane crash. Or the shocking mass shooting that occurred at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.
The history of country music is also littered with the names of those who passed away long before their time. Some cases have been entirely unavoidable: illness, natural causes, the list goes on. Many have been self-inflicted. And several were the result of a disaster or accident whose shock waves still reverberate today. But each and every instance robbed country music of a talent who undoubtedly still had so much more to give. From emerging stars to bona fide icons, here’s a look at 12 stars whose premature deaths left Nashville reeling.
With a mustache and mullet combo to rival that of Joe Exotic, honky-tonk attitude, and tales of good old-fashioned country living, Joe Diffie was one of the quintessential Nashville stars of the 1990s. The Tulsa native reached Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs Top 10 on more than 20 occasions, was awarded a Grammy for his collaborative effort “Same Old Train,” and enjoyed a quarter of a century in the Grand Ole Opry.
Unlike many of the country world’s hirsute party starters, Diffie spent much of his career with his tongue placed firmly in cheek — his fifth number-one single was called “Bigger Than the Beatles,” after all. However, the likes of 1999’s A Night to Remember and Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album proved he could play it straight, too.
Diffie enjoyed something of a revival in the 2010s after being namechecked in Jason Aldean’s “1994.” Sadly, just seven years later, Aldean was paying tribute to the Oklahoma native after he became one of several country music stars to fatally succumb to the novel coronavirus. The 61-year-old was survived by his wife Tara and five children.
“Heading to Medford, New Jersey to play tomorrow! Ya looking forward to the show? WE ARE!” Tragically, just hours after Montgomery Gentry posted this excitable tweet in 2017, the younger half of the country duo had perished in a plane crash.
Troy Gentry had made his name alongside Eddie Montgomery in the early ’00s with Southern rock-tinged anthems such as “She Couldn’t Change Me” and “My Town,” picking up best newcomer gongs at both the CMA and ACM ceremonies. The pair had just completed their ninth studio effort, Here’s to You, when tragedy struck in September 2017.
According to NJ.com, both Gentry and pilot James Evan Robinson lost their lives when the small aircraft they were traveling in crashed near the Flying W Airport & Resort’s runway in Medford, New Jersey. Gentry’s longtime musical partner was waiting at the airport for his arrival at the time of the incident, which according to an official report (via Courthouse News), was caused by pilot error. He went on to extend the 50-year-old’s legacy by continuing to record and tour as Montgomery Gentry.
One of those old-fashioned troubadours you’d expect to find crooning on a porch swing, Daryle Singletary prided himself on putting the traditional back into neo-traditional country. The Georgia native first caught attention in the mid-1990s with a debut album co-produced by one of the movement’s pioneers, Randy Travis. And he was always proud to declare how keen he was to keep the sound alive, with Rolling Stone even writing, “He wouldn’t bend, and fans loved him for it.”
After three albums in as many years, Singletary slowed things down, releasing just five solo studio efforts since the turn of the century. But he remained a fixture on the live circuit and in 2017 achieved his biggest latter-day success when he collaborated with bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent on American Grandstand.
Sadly, in February 2018, just two days after performing at the Cowboys Night Club in Scott, Louisiana, the 46-year-old passed away at his Tennessee home. Survived by his wife Holly and four children, Singletary was reported to have died after suffering a fatal blood clot.
Proving that you sometimes can mix business with pleasure, Joey Feek was one half of chart-topping husband and wife duo Joey + Rory. The pair married in 2002 and six years later found fame on CMT’s answer to American Idol, Can You Duet? But their heartwarming story took a tragic turn in 2014 just a few months after they became parents for the first time when Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The singer looked to have beaten the disease when she was given the all-clear, but just a year later, surgeons discovered that the cancer had not only returned, it had metastasized to her colon, too. Sadly, despite intensive surgery and chemotherapy treatment, Joey’s condition was diagnosed as terminal in late 2015.
Bravely, Joey was keen to document her final months on social media and she also somehow found the strength to record what would become her last album with Rory. The 40-year-old passed away just a month after Hymns That Are Important To Us gave the duo their first number one on the Billboard chart.
You might not expect the pioneering Nashville crooner Jim Reeves and ’90s hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur to have anything in common. But they both achieved more success on the singles charts in death than they ever did while alive.
Yes, six of Gentleman Jim’s 11 number one hits – including the curiously-titled “I Won’t Come In While He’s There” – arrived in the three years after his untimely passing in 1964. And even more remarkably, he remained a fixture on the charts for another two decades after that.
Of course, thanks to his soothing baritone and lush orchestral sound, Reeves was already very much a country icon when the private plane he was piloting fatally crashed during a violent thunderstorm just a few weeks before his 41st birthday. His manager Dean Manuel also lost his life in the accident, which occurred in a wooded area just outside Nashville. Both their bodies took two days to be recovered.
Mindy McCready’s passing may have been desperately sad, but it wasn’t particularly surprising. Although the 37-year-old had scored several big hits early on in her career, including number one “Guys Do It All the Time,” she’d become far more renowned for her troubled private life than her contemporary country sound.
According to the Daily Mail, the Florida native had reportedly attempted suicide several times previously, the first just a month after she was allegedly choked unconscious by her then-boyfriend Billy McKnight and the second while she was carrying his child. If that’s not all, she also got into trouble with the law over a fake prescription, identity theft, probation violation, and assaulting her mother, along with partaking in the controversial TV series, Celebrity Rehab.
Sadly, the suicide of David Wilson, her boyfriend and father of her second child Zander, in 2013 proved just too much for McCready to bear. Just a month later, the singer fatally shot herself at the home they shared in Arkansas.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Country music has a long-running, and some would say troubling, connection with alcohol. There’s the copious amount of barroom anthems glamorizing the art of getting wasted (It’s always five o’clock somewhere, right?), while it appears as though almost every CMT staple has launched their own brand of tequila or opened up their own drinking establishment.
Sadly, the demon drink has also claimed the lives of several country stars, perhaps most notably Keith Whitley, who passed away from alcohol poisoning in 1989 aged only 33. The Kentucky native was fast becoming one of Nashville’s most popular singer-songwriters, having just reached the Top 10 with his sophomore Don’t Close Your Eyes.
In fact, he was due to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry just under a month away after his brother-in-law found his lifeless body at the star’s home. Posthumously released later that year, Whitley’s third LP, I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, peaked at No.2 and further highlighted how much more he still had to give.
Patsy Cline only recorded three albums during her career, but she undoubtedly still helped to revolutionize the country music world with her distinctive croon. Alongside the likes of Brenda Lee, Skeeter Davis, and Kitty Wells, the Virginia native proved that anything that Nashville’s men could do, its women could do arguably even better.
From “Blue” and “Crazy” to “I Fall to Pieces” and “She’s Got You,” Cline recorded some of the most enduring country songs of the early 1960s and would no doubt have continued to build on her legacy had she not met her premature Final Destination-esque end at the age of just 30 in 1963.
Yes, Cline had already experienced a major brush with death a year prior, following a car collision that killed two passengers and left the singer in hospital for a month. However, Cline and all four others on board were killed instantly when their four-seater plane crashed during a storm in a Tennessee forest the following year.
Kansas-born singer-songwriter Cady Groves initially pursued a career as a chef, attending Arizona’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. But the lure of the recording studio proved to be too strong, and in 2009 she released her first EP, A Month of Sundays.
Groves went on to tour with outfits such as Good Charlotte and All Time Low and guest on tracks by Andrew de Torres and Secondhand Serenade, but her own sound leaned much more towards contemporary country than punk-pop. Sadly, she never got the chance to see the album she’d spent three years working on hit the shelves.
In 2020 the 30-year-old passed away unexpectedly in her Tennessee hometown, with her brother confirming in a tweet that natural causes had been responsible. Remarkably, two of her siblings had also met an untimely end, with brothers Kelly and Casey both passing away at the age of 28, the latter a murder victim (per Arena).
Kylie Rae Harris
While many pop/rock musicians have become unwilling members of the infamous 27 Club, the country genre appears to have its own slightly older alternative. Alongside Patsy Cline and Cady Groves, Kylie Rae Harris also lost her life at the tender age of 30 following a horrific car crash.
Harris first entered the spotlight in 2011 when she appeared on Troubadour TX, a nationally syndicated behind-the-scenes documentary showcasing several emerging Texan musical talent. The youngster had already released her first album by this point, All the Right Reasons, and later followed it up with the EP, Taking It Back.
However, her career was cut short in 2019 when she died in a vehicle collision in New Mexico. The singer-songwriter was discovered to have been three times over the blood alcohol limit and speeding at 95 mph at the time of the incident. Maria Elena Cruz, the 16-year-old high school student driving the other car, was also killed.
Hank Williams had scored countless chart-toppers, inspired a generation of singer-songwriters, and earned a title as the King of Country Music all by the age of 29. But he was robbed of the chance to further extend his legacy when he died of alleged heart failure en route to a New Year’s Day gig in 1953.
It’s fair to say that Williams was very much on a self-destructive streak at the time. He’d developed an alcohol addiction as he rose to superstardom, often turning up for shows entirely inebriated. And after a fall on his Tennessee farm, he’d also started to abuse morphine and painkillers (via All Music). In fact, he’d reportedly been injected with the former just before he set off for Ohio on that fateful day.
Williams, whose final lifetime single was ironically titled “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” never got to see his second child Jett, who was born five days after his death. Tragically, his namesake son suffered an unspeakable loss of his own when his 27-year-old daughter Katherine died in a car crash in 2020.
Formerly a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, Gram Parsons became a critical favorite with a melting pot of sounds known as Cosmic American Music. But he was very much a cult concern, with debut album GP a critical flop.
However, the mysterious events surrounding his death at the age of 27 has become the stuff of cinematic folklore. Per Rolling Stone, shortly after completing his sophomore Grievous Angel, Parsons celebrated like any other hedonistic 1970s musician – with copious amounts of drugs and booze. Sadly, his intake of tequila and morphine proved to be too much for his body at that moment.
Perhaps sensing that he was never destined to grow old, Parsons had previously requested to be cremated in the Joshua Tree. But with his family insisting on a New Orleans burial, the singer-songwriter’s road manager and an accomplice decided to steal the body and drive it all the way from Los Angeles International Airport to the national park. The opportunistic duo managed to cremate Parsons’ body with gasoline just before they were apprehended by police.
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