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Country Music Icons and Stars Who Died in 2020

by Josh Lanier
(Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

2020 is a year marked by heartache and loss. The coronavirus pandemic upended modern life. Political turmoil, civil unrest, and tragedies scar our memories of the past 12 months. And country music hasn’t escaped the pain this year.

The genre was rocked by the deaths of some of its icons and biggest talents. From Charley Pride to Charlie Daniels, the genre hasn’t gone more than a few weeks without suffering another loss. As the rest of us escape the year that seemed to never end, let’s reflect and pay respects to some of those legends we lost in 2020.

Biggest Country Music Stars and Icons Who Died This Year

Charley Pride

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Charley Pride is considered country music’s first black superstar. He racked up more than 50 Top 10 country music singles and an astonishing 29 No. 1 hits. Those included Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’, Where Do I Put Her Memory, (I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again and I’m Just Me.

The CMA’s honored him with their Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award last month. That was shortly before he died on Dec. 12 of complications from COVID-19. He was 86. Garth Brooks, who recently recorded a song with Pride, said all of country music was mourning the loss of one of its titans. But he took solace in knowing Pride would live on forever in his music.

Billy Joe Shaver

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Willie Nelson called Billy Joe Shaver the “greatest living songwriter” in 2010. He was a pioneer of outlaw country, and he helped create some of the genre’s most defining songs. Those include Honky Tonk Heroes, Georgia on a Fast Train, and Old Five and Dimers Like Me. Moreover, he wrote songs for some of country music’s greatest artists including Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.

And Shaver was an outlaw himself, leading a mythic life in his beloved Texas. He died in Waco on Oct. 28 after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

John Prine

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John Prine could switch from heartbreaking truth to hilarious revelation within seconds of a song. His soft-spoken, concise, and devastating lyrics were unlike anything in country music. With songs such as Hello in There, Sam Stone, and Angels from Montgomery, Prine captured the human condition in a way that made it all feel so tangible.

“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”

The Vietnam veteran died in April from COVID-19. He was 73.

K.T. Oslin

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K.T. Oslin was a triple Grammy winner and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer. Something that is all the more impressive when you learn she didn’t get her big break in Nashville until she was in her 40s. She packed a great deal of success into her later years. She was the first woman to win the CMA Song of the Year Award with her hit 80s Woman in 1987.

Oslin retired from music in 2015. But her soulful sound has seen a spike since her death on Dec. 21. Her cause of death hasn’t been released, but she was diagnosed with COVID-19 a week before she died. She was 78.

Doug Supernaw

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Doug Supernaw was a mainstay of country-music airwaves in the 1990s with songs such as I Don’t Call Him Daddy. He had been battling an aggressive form of lung battling since 2019. But doctors moved him to hospice care in October after it spread to his spine and brain.

Supernaw, who Toby Keith called “one of a kind,” died peacefully at home in Texas with his family surrounding him. He was 60.

Jerry Jeff Walker

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Jerry Jeff Walker wrote one of the most iconic songs of the past 50 years. Mr. Bojangles is a beloved classic that has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr. and scores of others. But what was a career high came from a personal low point. He said he found inspiration for the tune while in prison in New Orleans. He had been arrested with a street performer for public intoxication.

Walker would release 36 albums and become a pioneer of outlaw country. He was peers with legends like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. But even a president mourned his death from throat cancer on Oct. 24. Bill Clinton eulogized the Texas icon on Twitter after his death at 78.

Joe Diffie

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Joe Diffie helped define the 1990s country sound with the likes of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. Diffie scored big hits with songs like Pickup Man, Third Rock from the Sun, and Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die). He was best known for his playful lyrics and rye sense of humor. But he also had an impressive voice that drew comparisons to George Strait.

“There are plenty of singers in this town, but not many with a range like (Joe Diffie),” Vince Gill told People in 1993.

Diffie died at the age of 61 in March after contracting COVID-19. He was one of the first well-known musicians to die from complications of the coronavirus.

Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle, the son of songwriting legend Steve Earl, worked hard to separate himself from his father’s long legacy. He wanted to prove himself in the industry as a writer and touring musician, something he absolutely did. Unfortunately, he did carry on his father’s struggles with drugs and alcohol.

The 38-year-old died of an accidental drug overdose in August. He left a 3-year-old daughter behind. Steve Earl is finishing an album of Justin’s music with all the proceeds going to Justin’s daughter.

The album J.T. will be released on Jan. 4. They released the song Harlem River Blues in early December.

Charlie Daniels

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The song The Devil Went Down to Georgia will likely outlive the state of Georgia. It’s one of the most beloved and iconic country music songs of the past 50 years that can compete with any country hit. It was a smash that founds fans across genres and generations. And that success can be traced back to Charlie Daniels, leader of the Charlie Daniels Band.

While he started out singing about hippies and the counter culture of the 1960s, Daniels would later become a firebrand for right-wing politics. But he was always an advocate for the underdog. Daniels could captivate an audience with his playful nature and stories on stage, or enrapture them with his lyricism and musicianship. He was the total country package that leaves behind a legacy that few can rival.

Daniels died of a hemorrhagic stroke in July at the age of 83.

Hal Ketchum

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Hal Ketchum was most famous for is song Small Town Saturday Night, but he had a long and illustrious career. In fact, he was producing music for nearly four decades before he retired in 2019. His other hits include Pass the Point of Rescue, and Hearts Are Gonna Roll. Over the course of his career, at least 17 of Ketchum’s songs made the Billboard country charts.

The Grand Ole Opry member died from complications of dementia and Alzheimer Disease in November. He was 67.

Kenny Rogers

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Kenny Rogers is likely the most familiar name on this list. He was a pop culture icon who created some of the most memorable country hits of the past decade. In fact, he had a whopping 30 No. 1 hits across a handful of genres during his career. His most famous, The Gambler, was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Rogers retired from touring in 2017 after 60 years on the road. He cited poor health as the reason tour’s cancellation. He died at 81 of natural causes at his home in Georgia surrounded by his family.

“You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone,” Dolly Parton wrote after Rogers’ death. “I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success, I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend.”