The year 2020 is filled with painful losses, and the world of country music was no exception. The genre has endured heartbreak after heartbreak as it claimed the lives of our beloved country icons – including Joe Diffie, John Prine, Charley Pride, and Bill Mack, who all died of COVID-19 complications.
Nashville also lost some of the biggest behind-the-scenes players in 2020. This includes renowned songwriters and famous sidemen of our favorite artists – like Jimmy Capps, who played the guitar for some of the most notable country hits and served as the lead guitarist at the Grand Ole Opry for more than five decades.
Of course, there’s also Kenny Rogers’ passing – one of the biggest deaths in the music industry.
Keep on scrolling below as we pay our respects to many of the gifted and talented country music stars who passed away in 2020. They will be dearly missed and in our hearts forever.
1. Kenny Rogers (21 August 1938 – 20 March 2020)
Country Music Hall of Fame singer Kenny Rogers died “peacefully at home from natural causes” at the age of 81.
Over Rogers’ memorable five decades-long career, the singer sold over 100 million records and took home three Grammys Awards. He was honored with Country Music Hall of Fame, and won a lot more accolades both from American Music Country Music Association and Country Music Association awards. His greatest hits include “Lucille,” “Lady,” and of course, his signature song “The Gambler.”
However, Rogers announced his retirement in 2015.
“I’ve done this long enough. I wrote in my book that sometimes there’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish. And I think I crossed that line when I was younger,” the singer said. “I really want to be there with my kids and my wife. They’re very important to me, and I don’t see enough of them.” In that interview, he also mentioned his ailing health, saying he will surely miss touring.
In 2017, Rogers was honored with a star-studded concert, featuring performances by Lionel Richie, his longtime duet partner Dolly Parton, among others.
2. Jan Howard (13 March 1929 – 28 March 2020)
Jan Howard, who was the oldest living Grand Ole Opry member, “passed away peacefully” in Gallatin, Tennessee. The country singer-songwriter had been a member of the respected institution for about five decades.
Howard’s career in country music skyrocketed in 1960, when she released her first solo single, “The One You Slip Around With,” and it became a hit. This paved the way to more than twenty Top 40 country hits, including her beloved duet with Bill Anderson’s “For Loving You,” which snagged the top spot on the country charts.
Howard also enjoyed success as a songwriter for other artists, such as “It’s All Over But the Crying” by Kitty Wells, “I Never Once Stopped Loving You” by Connie Smith, and “Love Is a Sometimes Thing” by Bill Anderson.
She has also earned two nominations from Grammy Awards. One is for her song “My Son,” which started as a letter to her son Jimmy. Unfortunately, the young man was tragically killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. Howard then continued working with the armed forces and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
3. Joe Diffie (28 December 1958 – 29 March 2020)
The Oklahoma native died from complications of COVID-19. Two days prior to his death, Joe Diffie announced that he tested positive for the virus.
“I am under the care of medical professionals and currently receiving treatment after testing positive for coronavirus,” Diffie released in a statement. “We want to remind the public and all my fans to be vigilant, cautious, and careful during this pandemic.”
Diffie is one of the most well-known and cherished country artists in the 1990s, with a string of popular ballads and honky-tonk hits.
The Grammy-winning artist got into the country mainstream in 1986 – by taking a job with Gibson guitars, singing on various demos, and writing music for different artists. His first success as an artist came when his debut single, “Home,” became the first to simultaneously get to the top of charts in all three music trades.
4. John Prine (10 October 1946 – 7 April 2020)
The country-folk singer and songwriter behind timeless songs like “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Hello in There,” and “Illegal Smile” has also died from complications of COVID-19 at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
Early on, the musician was hospitalized with a “sudden onset” of coronavirus symptoms and was intubated two days later.
“This is hard news for us to share,” Prine’s family wrote in a statement. “But so many of you have loved and supported John over the years. We wanted to let you know and give you the chance to send on more of that love and support now.”
Prine has always been a fighter, surviving cancer twice. He had undergone surgery and had rounds of radiation in 1998 to remove a squamous cell cancer found on his neck. However, the cell cancer damaged his vocal cords, so Prine spent a year in speech therapy.
“I think it improved my voice if anything,” he said. “I always had a hard time listening to my singing before my surgery.”
In 2013, Prince survived lung cancer. He quickly picked up his guitar to sing a song, which helped him regain his strength. He released The Tree of Forgiveness in 2018 – Prine’s eighteenth and final studio album.
5. Little Richard (5 December 1932 – 9 May 2020)
Richard Penniman, who is more recognized as Little Richard, died of bone cancer. He was buried at Oakwood University, where he attended to study theology in the late 1950s. It is actually a historically black university in Huntsville, Alabama.
Richard was known for his stunning stage presence and spirited piano skills. He became famous in the 1950s and grew into a notable figure in the rock and roll scene with major hits including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
His music career thrived until the 1970s, when he took an ultimate break because of some health problems and his wish to return to Evangelism.
6. Jimmy Capps (25 May 1939 – 1 June 2020)
Nashville’s beloved guitarist behind some of the most influential recordings in country music, Jimmy Capps, died at the age of 81 due to health complications.
Known to his friends as the “master of smoothness” for his apparently graceful technique, Capps’ big break as a session musician came in 1971 when he was enlisted to play the guitar for the recording session of Freddie Hart’s “Easy Loving” – which became a No. 1 country hit!
“That is how my studio career happened,” Capps said. “Other musicians and producers were kind enough to recommend me to others.” Some of his most notable hits were “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, and “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” by Barbara Mandrell.
According to Capps’ official website, the musician has performed on over 500 recording sessions every year during the peak of his career. Most of them were under the direction of legendary Nashville producers like Billy Sherrill and Owen Bradley.
In addition to his rich legacy as a studio guitarist, Capps was part of the Grand Ole Opry house band for more than fifty years – wherein he played on a regular schedule as the lead guitarist in the show every weekend.
7. Charlie Daniels (28 October 1936 – 6 July 2020)
According to a statement posted on Charlie Daniels’ website, “The Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member died at Summit Medical Center in Hermitage, Tennessee. Doctors determined the cause of death was a hemorrhagic stroke.”
In 2013, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” singer underwent pacemaker implant surgery after being diagnosed with a mild pneumonia case. After rounds of tests, it was determined that the country legend needed a pacemaker to regulate his heart rate.
Daniels’ career kicked off in the 1950s by writing and playing music professionally. Eventually, he found success being the co-writer of Elvis Presley’s hit “It Hurts Me” in 1964. Eight years later, Daniels formed the Charlie Daniels Band, which has won several awards from the Gospel Music Association, Country Music Association, and Academy of Country Music.
In 2016, Daniels was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
8. Bill Mack (4 June 1932 – 31 July 2020)
Longtime country music disc jockey Bill Mack died of COVID-19 complications and “underlying health issues.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of Mack as a host for the overnight “Country Roads Show” on WBAP, an AM radio station based in Fort Worth, Texas.
He started hosting “Road Show” — which eventually came to be recognized as “Midnight Cowboy Trucking Show” — in 1969. His long broadcasting career also comprised time on XM Satellite Radio and a host of the syndicated program “Country Crossroads.” Mack would often blast the radio with country songs by the most celebrated artists, including Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, and Roy Clark.
“Nobody in broadcasting has a more recognizable voice than Bill Mack,” Texas Heritage Songwriters Association wrote. “Broadcasting during the wee hours of the morning and keeping the world company with his music and chit-chat that has allowed him to be featured in more publications and to win more awards than any other country music DJ in the world.”
As a songwriter, Mack wrote “Blue,” which country singer LeAnn Rimes popularized as a chart-topping hit in 1996. The recording helped Mack earn a Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
9. Justin Townes Earle (4 January 1982 – 20 August 2020)
Justin Townes Earle, the son of alt-country musician Steve Earle, was found dead in his Nashville apartment after the police conducted a welfare check following his friend’s request, saying they hadn’t heard from Earle for days.
Metro Nashville Police Department said that the 38-year-old songwriter’s death is “likely related to a drug overdose” and he was believed to “had been deceased for at least 24 hours.”
Earle had been very open about his struggle with substance abuse. He once revealed that his battle with drugs and alcohol goes way back many years ago when he was only twelve years old. After his parents’ separation, his unstable home environment is said to have contributed to some of his early troubles.
He had also been through the worst of his addiction during the very early years of his career. “When I started making records, I was sober,” the singer said. “I got all my craziness out of the way as a coffeehouse musician and a roadie.”
To remember his son, Earle’s father has shared a sweet photo of himself laughing while the younger Earle was lying on his lap. He wrote in the caption, “Justin Townes Earle 1982-2020.”
10. Mac Davis (21 January 1942 – 29 September 2020)
Mac Davis’ manager Jim Morey announced in a press release that the legendary singer-songwriter died in Nashville surrounded by family and friends after experiencing severe complications following a major heart surgery.
Davis had a long and wide-ranging career in music for many years as a songwriter, singer, actor, and host on his own TV variety show. In 1974, the Academy of Country Music named Davis as Entertainer of the Year, and he also earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.
Davis’ career started from working in sales and publishing for independent record companies for a decade. His first success came in the late 1960s as a songwriter, bringing Elvis Presley Top 10 pop hits such as “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.” He is actually behind some of the most iconic songs like Glen Campbell’s “Everything a Man Could Ever Need” and Kenny Rogers’ “Something’s Burning.”
He made a name for himself when he signed with Columbia Records and started releasing his own music, which achieved crossover success. This includes “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” and “Stop and Smell the Roses.”
11. Charley Pride (18 March 1934 – 12 December 2020)
Country Music’s first black superstar died in Dallas, Texas, from complications related to COVID-19 – his publicist said.
From picking cotton, playing baseball in the Negro leagues, and working in a smelting plant in Montana, Pride broke into country music in the midst of the racial unrest of the 1960s. He became among the most successful African-American stars to work in a genre that is long dominated by white executives and artists, putting over fifty records in the country Top 10 from 1966 to 1987.
His signature songs such as “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” are among his twenty-nine recordings to reach No. 1 on the country chart.
Pride was also the first Black singer to perform at the Grand Ole Opry stage since the 1920s. “People thought it was going to be hard, but it wasn’t,” Pride said about what it was like as a Black man to gain traction in country music in the 1960s. “I never got any flak or anything. And that’s what’s been astonishing to most reporters, especially since I came along at the height of the sit-ins and bus boycotts.”
In 2000, Pride earned a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
12. K.T. Oslin (15 May 1942 – 21 December 2020)
K.T. Oslin, known for her 1987 hit “80’s Ladies,” died after battling Parkinson’s disease. She was also diagnosed with COVID-19, her longtime friend said, journalist Robert K. Oermann, who likewise confirmed her death.
Did you know Oslin was already forty-five years old when she debuted in country music with the release of her chart-topping album 80’s Ladies in 1987? It’s an incredible accomplishment then for a woman in country music and an almost impossibility these days.
The lead track of Oslin’s debut album – which she solely wrote – helped the singer win the CMA Award for Song of the Year in 1988; Oslin made history being the first woman to take home that award. During that ceremony, she was also named as the Female Vocalist of the Year.
Not only that, but Oslin also won a Grammy Award for her performance of “80’s Ladies.” She would go on winning two more Grammys for her another country No. 1 hit, “Hold Me.”
13. Tony Rice (8 June 1951 – 25 December 2020)
The legendary singer and guitarist died at his home in North Carolina on Christmas Day.
“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home. It’s still quite a shock to the whole family,” former collaborator and longtime friend Ricky Skaggs wrote in a statement.
The musician left his mark as a host of prominent musicians, like Alison Krauss and Kenny Chesney.
Rice’s career started in 1970 when he played with the Bluegrass Alliance, and shortly afterward with The New South, which was one of the most progressive bluegrass groups at that time.
In 2013, Rice was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame. It was said to be the last time he ever played his guitar in public after suffering lateral epicondylitis, which has affected his talent to play in his last years.