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In Memoriam 2011

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Music

HARLEY ALLEN
1956-2011
Singer, songwriter

By Jon Weisberger

When Harley Allen would bring his bluegrass band into The Station Inn, folks would wonder how many songs he'd likely get around to actually singing in a 45-minute set. He had plenty of choices, starting with the many hits he'd written and co-written for and with the stars of country music, and passing through to the standards he learned from his father, bluegrass Hall of Famer Red Allen. Usually, the number would come out somewhere well shy of the typical dozen or so — and that was OK, because Harley's rambling musings between songs could be some of the most outrageous, funniest stuff you'd ever hear.

Then, just when you were trying to figure out the exact mixture of hilarity and bad taste you'd been hit with, he would launch into some heartbreaking ballad, or one of those driving old bluegrass standbys. If it was one of the latter, once it was done, he'd say, "Boy, that's a whole lot more work than writing a song."

Nashville's a songwriting town, and Harley Allen was a world-class songwriter. But before — and while — he was writing the hits, Harley was a singer, one of nearly unparalleled beauty and sadness. He had a reedy, mournful tenor voice that seemed to always curl a phrase just a moment before you thought it might, or rise just a bit higher than you thought it could. And whichever of a dozen different ways he'd surprise you as a singer, it always turned out to be exactly the right one to make you feel the same longing, the same emptiness, the same self-mocking yet utterly serious sense of despair that seemed to be haunting him.

Harley Allen could be brutally dismissive and, it seemed, compulsively irascible. Yet he was also a profoundly humorous man, and — often covertly — a warm one, too, devoted to people and things he appeared not to care about. Cancer took him too soon, and while there are many reasons to miss him, in the end, those are the ones that count the most.

WILMA LEE COOPER
1921-2011
Country singer, Grand Ole Opry member

By Randy Fox

Wilma Lee Cooper spent much of her 90 years making the kind of music she grew up with in the mountains of West Virginia. Born Wilma Leigh Leary, Cooper began her career with her family's group, The Leary Family Singers. A young, dapper fiddle player, Stoney Cooper, joined the group in 1938, but it would take a few years for him to sweep the young Wilma off her feet, to the altar and then into their own family act. The Coopers spent several years working in radio markets around the country before settling down to a 10-year stint on WWVA's Wheeling Jamboree starting in 1947.

They signed with Columbia Records in 1949, right at the time when the traditional mountain sound they specialized in was being pushed aside by the new, postwar honky-tonk style, or being transformed into the new style known as bluegrass. Despite their popularity in West Virginia, their records failed to catch. After a move to the newly formed Hickory Records in 1955, and relocating to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, they achieved a string of seven hits that featured Wilma Lee's hot-as-a- mountain-fire vocals on songs like "Big Midnight Special" and "There's a Big Wheel."

After the hits stopped, Wilma Lee continued as the torchbearer for old-time mountain music on the Opry — even after Stoney's death in 1977. As country music moved further from its roots, Wilma Lee remained a living link to its origins with her performing career drawing to a close only after she suffered a stroke in 2001 while performing on the Opry stage.

Her health may have stopped her singing, but it couldn't stop her support for the Opry. She returned on special occasions to greet fans and even joined the Opry cast one last time for the grand reopening of the Opry House in September 2010. To the end, the girl who gave her all to mountain music received love back from her audience with every performance.

FRANK DILEO
1947-2011
Music industry veteran

By Jack Silverman

Famous for his larger-than-life persona and almost-as-big cigars — not to mention a signature sandwich on the vaunted roster at Savarino's Cucina in Hillsboro Village — Frank Dileo worked as Michael Jackson's manager through much of the pop superstar's '80s heyday, and again during the last months of Jackson's life.

Dileo worked his way up from the bottom of the music industry, and rose quickly: By age 21, he was RCA's national singles director, and by 35 he was one of the most powerful men in the business. An ever-present stogie, gold watch and Music Row-casual attire made him look like he had just stepped out of Central Casting's Music Biz Dealmaker file. During his tenure at Epic Records, Dileo was instrumental in signing or developing the careers of Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, The Clash and, of course, the King of Pop.

Dileo's charisma earned him a couple of movie roles, most famously as Tuddy Cicero in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Not only did he play the brother to Mafia boss Paulie Cicero, but he was responsible for one of the most legendary mob hits in cinema history, putting a bullet in the back of Joe Pesci's head in the film's climactic scene.

Dileo lived in Nashville briefly in the '70s and then moved back in January 2007 to start a management business, though he spent much of the last three years in Los Angeles after returning as Jackson's manager, and then handling issues with the late pop singer's estate.

In August, Dileo died at his home in eastern Ohio at age 63, after a long illness.

MARSHALL GRANT
1928-2011
Bass guitarist, manager

By Randy Fox

If you were a gambling man in 1954, betting that the odd trio known as Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two would never make a nickel off their music would have seemed like a sure thing. But it would have been a sucker bet. Cash's sonorous baritone style of singing, almost reciting, had its perfect counter point in Luther Perkins' painfully crude but sonically arresting guitar solos, built on the steady and simple beat of Marshall Grant's bass playing.

A North Carolina native, Grant settled in 1947 in Memphis, where he worked as an auto mechanic and picked up the hobby of playing guitar from his co-worker Luther Perkins. After hooking up with Cash and deciding to form a band, Grant switched to the upright bass, an instrument he barely knew how to play. During the early days he reportedly had to place tape on the fret board to know where the notes were.

Whatever his lack of ability, it proved to be musical magic as Grant supplied the "boom" in the "boom-chicka-boom" that was Cash's trademark sound. But a steady beat wasn't the only place where Grant stood rock solid. Over the 26 years he spent working with Cash, he gradually moved into the role of tour manager, with the ability to handle promoters, logistics and other business matters with style and finesse. Not to mention often having to serve as a handler and fixer when his boss's bad habits threatened to topple the House of Cash.

Despite an acrimonious split in 1980 that led to bitter legal battles, the two friends would later reconcile, with Grant returning to his position at bass for special occasions. The experience Grant gained in the business side of music led him to managing The Statler Brothers and other acts — earning Grant a reputation as a respected and honest man in a sometimes very dirty business.

When Grant passed away in August, it seemed appropriate that he did so while attending a festival to raise money for the restoration of Cash's childhood home. Till the very end, Marshall Grant was getting the job done and standing by an old friend — two trademarks of his life.

DOBIE GRAY
1940-2011
Singer, songwriter

By Ron Wynn

Dobie Gray would not have been comfortable being labeled a pioneer or trailblazer, but he most definitely qualified as one. Especially in Music City. The prolific singer-songwriter, who died Dec. 6 after a long fight with cancer, stood tall in demanding his concerts in South Africa be integrated well before the fall of apartheid. He later became one of the few high-profile black artists who called Nashville home throughout the latter part of his career. But Gray didn't make a big deal out of either situation. He insisted there was no better place anywhere in the nation for someone who loved the art of merging literate stories and poignant perspectives with inspired music and production.

Gray had a rangy, instantly identifiable sound, a soothing yet soulful tenor well-served on several signature tunes. The first was "The In Crowd," a pop/soul salute to hipness and charisma that earned him his first national acclaim in 1965. Oddly, the tune became so identified with Gray that rumors continually suggested he really hated it — something he debunked whenever anyone asked.

Another was the exceptional "Drift Away," a number that thrilled audiences and rose atop the charts in two different decades. It was first a hit in 1973, then again in 2003 in collaboration with Uncle Kracker. The second time around, it rose to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary charts and remained there for 28 weeks. Its message about being immersed and transformed through music was something Gray fervently believed happened whenever audiences heard a great song.

The son of Texas sharecroppers whose first musical love was gospel, Gray's fondness for rich narratives and meaningful themes was constantly reaffirmed in everything he did professionally. That included exploring reggae via a nifty commercial ("Momma's Got the Magic of Clorox 2") or penning works covered by a glittering array of performers across the musical spectrum. Ray Charles, George Jones, Etta James, Nina Simone, Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette were just a few of the top stars who performed Gray compositions.

Because he didn't believe in blowing his own horn, few people outside the industry knew he did one of the earliest and finest versions of "Loving Arms," or that he enjoyed a notable career in musical theater, including a two-and-a-half-year stint in the LA version of Hair. He even had his share of memorable soundtrack contributions to films such as Uptown Saturday Night and Out of Sight.

Still, Gray was happiest around songs and songwriters, which made the move from LA to Nashville a natural one. He cut some memorable songs and albums on Music Row, especially those for Capitol/EMI America. The 1986 single "From Where I Stand" later became the centerpiece tune for the marvelous boxed set From Where I Stand — The Black Experience in Country Music.  He became a cheerleader for Nashville, steadfastly insisting that race should not be a barrier to becoming successful. 

"If you have the right song, it doesn't matter who or where you are," Gray told me back in the late '80s. "People everywhere respond to honesty and truth."

FERLIN HUSKY
1927-2011
Country singer, actor, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee

By Randy Fox

It's appropriate that the two things Ferlin Husky may be most remembered for are his 1957 hit "Gone" — a record that is credited with being the start of the "Nashville Sound" — and his hillbilly-as-all-get-out alter ego Simon Crum. It's a dichotomy that sums up the career of one of country music's most unique performers.

Hailing from rural Missouri, Husky ended up after World War II in Bakersfield, Calif., where he first recorded under the name "Terry Preston" — an alias Husky adopted since he felt his real name sounded "too made-up." But after several singles failed to catch, Husky returned to his real name, just in time for the 1953 megahit "A Dear John Letter" with Jean Shepard.

As his recording career took off, Husky made the move to Nashville and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. There, he introduced his not-very-secret identity Crum, who performed brilliant satires on current hillbilly records and stars in a voice like Webb Pierce with a snootful of helium. In particular, Crum both spoofed and nailed the rockabilly sound with smokin' hot records like 1956's "Bop Cat Bop."

But in 1957 Husky re-recorded "Gone," a song from his Terry Preston days, but this time with strings and prominent backing vocal choruses. It was an addition that paid off, with the song becoming a No. 1 country hit and crossing over into the pop Top 10.

Although the success of "Gone" may have unleashed the stampede toward strings and vocal choruses in Nashville, Husky continued to record hits that demonstrated his unique mix of city-slicker polish and hillbilly pedigree, like the solid-gold standard "Wings of a Dove." Husky also hit the big screen in drive-in classics like the Nashville-produced Ron Ormond cornball cavalcade Forty Acre Feud, which featured starring roles for both Husky and Crum.

The hits slowed in the 1970s, and heart problems cut into his touring schedule. But Husky continued to perform, becoming a popular attraction in Branson, Mo. Despite the success of "Gone" and what it spawned, his talent lay more in the way he reconciled the differences between uptown and downhome with class and goofy hillbilly charm.

CHRIS KENT
1967-2011
Bass player extraordinaire

By Jack Silverman

In the "About" section of his Facebook page, Nashville bass player Chris Kent offered one simple idea — "The money is between the first and fifth fret." Besides being a good maxim for aspiring bassists to heed, those words say a lot about Chris Kent the man: He was known for being a strong foundation, someone far more concerned with supporting others than getting recognition himself — qualities he exemplified as both a performer and a human being.

Kent died on Oct. 19 after a 13-year a battle with cancer. He was 44 years old. A seasoned veteran of the stage and studio, Kent performed or recorded with a variety of country, rock, jazz and Christian music acts, including Lorrie Morgan, Toni Braxton, Larry Carlton, Billy Preston, Steve Winwood and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few. He was known for his enormous smile, fat and funky bass grooves and upbeat personality.

I had a chance to play a little jazz gig with him once, at Pizza Perfect on 21st Avenue. I think we were playing for free slices, if I remember correctly. I felt a little out of my league musically, but he was warm and encouraging, and he put me at ease.

His bottomless love for life and deep religious conviction sustained him through the long up-and-down struggle with cancer, and news of his passing triggered a tremendous outpouring from Nashville's music community, and from fellow Christians who'd been touched by his unshakable faith and shining example. One Facebook post, commenting on the memorial service, summed up the sentiments well:

"Oh Chris, I know you felt the love in the room. There was laughter, tears, memories and MUSIC! Dude, you hang with some SUURRRIOUS players! Heaven is gonna be sweet when we all get there. We love you, sweet friend!"

When not rocking the clubs and studios, Kent was an avid cook. His friend Bobbi Faye Miller published a cookbook featuring some of the bass player's favorite recipes: I Want To Be a Chef ... But I'm Not! You can find it at blurb.com. All proceeds benefit the Kent family, which includes his wife Lisa, daughter Kamarie and son Jensen.

PAUL KIRBY
1963-2011
Co-founder, Walk the West, The Cactus Brothers

By Ray Waddell

When noted Nashville musician Paul Kirby, who fronted popular cowpunk and country rock outfits Walk the West and the Cactus Brothers, left this world at the age of 48 on Sept. 25, he took a piece of Nashville's rock 'n' roll soul with him.

Kirby and his Hendersonville schoolmates John and Will Goleman and Richard Ice launched Walk the West in 1984, releasing the band's sole album for Capitol in 1986. But for years prior, Kirby and company rocked Sumner County keg parties and taverns like Patsy Lou's (where as underage rockers they honed their chops as Rebel Bite), building a boisterous, loyal following. They became a critical component of a sizzling Nashville rock scene that included Jason and the Scorchers and Royal Court of China.

Fearless and unruly, WTW was an incendiary live act born not only of the classic country DNA that coursed through their veins (Kirby and the Golemons were the sons of successful country songwriters Dave Kirby and Guy Golemon, respectively), but also the gutsier elements of the then-waning Southern rock scene and the punch and energy of punk. Walk the West represented Nashville's musical past and, as time has shown, future. Whether they know it or not, Nashville-based rock bands from Kings of Leon to Paramore owe a debt to WTW and other bands of the era that led to Music City's being taken seriously for something beyond Music Row.

Paul and his bandmates shared a musical vision that could have, with label support, taken the band to heights they never realized. Though he battled demons in the real world, Paul's musical instincts were solid; As both fan and friend, I distinctly remember him describing pushback from Capitol regarding the addition of a fiddler to WTW in the form of multi-instrumentalist Tramp (later of Bonepony). But Paul stuck to his guns, and WTW became a better, even more adventurous band.

WTW was dropped from Capitol amid label shakeups of the late '80s. But Kirby and company played on, packing clubs like the Cannery and 12th & Porter for what had been a side project. The Cactus Brothers were a fiery country/roots rock band featuring dulcimer wizard David Schnaufer, steel guitarist Sam Poland and drummer Dave Kennedy, along with Kirby, Tramp and the Golemons. Armed with explosive covers of such standards as "16 Tons" and "Fisher's Hornpipe" and captivating originals, the Cacti were signed by famed producer/label head Jimmy Bowen to Capitol Nashville, releasing two critically acclaimed albums and touring internationally before again being dropped from Capitol.

Possessing a huge heart and a disarming humor, Kirby remained a popular Nashville music figure. Though he stayed largely under the radar, fans, particularly those original Hendersonville hell-raisers, never forgot. A one-off set at the Exit In in 1986 sold out, marking the first time the original quartet had played as Walk the West in 16 years. Making for great rock 'n' roll theater, the fog machine not only obscured the band but flowed out the door and across the Rock Block in a legendary night.

An Oct. 9 memorial service at the Basement turned into a reunion for Paul's extended musical family and friends. It included moving performances by Mike Farris, singer-songwriter Matraca Berg (Kirby's step-sister), songwriter Wade Kirby (his brother), and rocker Bobby Bare Jr. (formerly a roadie for WTW and the Brothers). Earlier that night, the Golemons and Darby performed instrumental versions of popular WTW songs "Precious Times," "Livin' At Night" and "Backside" with an empty microphone stand where Kirby historically stood — signifying the end of an era, and the lasting impact of those precious times.

CHARLIE LOUVIN
1927-2011
Country singer, songwriter, Country Music Hall of Fame inductee

By Randy Fox

Charlie Louvin was a stubborn and patient man. Growing up with his brother Ira in rural Alabama in the 1930s, life was hard, but early on they discovered they had a love and a talent for music. And that music was a way to escape from the cotton fields, even if there were hardships of a different kind.

When the Louvin Brothers signed with Capitol Records in 1952, they found themselves stereotyped as a gospel act. But the brothers wanted to record secular music. They loved gospel and hillbilly music and knew they could be successful at both. Finally, they convinced their producer Ken Nelson to let them record the song "When I Stop Dreaming." It became a Top 10 hit, and they never looked back.

Ira Louvin had problems. Charlie could see what the drinking was doing to his brother, but also knew there was no way to save him from himself. As the years went by, Ira would reform for short periods only to fall once again. When the split finally came, Charlie knew he would keep his career going even if it meant changing his style and building a band by himself. Music had given him a dream beyond any he could have imagined, and he'd be damned if that dream was going to end.

Charlie knew the music he recorded with Ira was special. The Louvin Brothers' records might be out of print, they might have been forgotten by a music industry that seemed to only value youth, but he knew it was up to him to preserve the legacy. And then, when a revival began — even if it was sparked by young punks who yukked it up over the cover to the Louvins' Satan is Real album — Charlie wasn't shocked or surprised. If it got them to listen to Louvin Brothers records, that's what mattered.

When Charlie found out he had cancer, he saw no reason to stop making music. Fighting to make his music heard was what he'd done his entire life. And that's what he did, right up until the very end.

BARBARA ORBISON
1950-2011
Founder, Still Working Music

By Edd Hurt

By the time Barbara Jakobs met Roy Orbison at an English club in 1968, the singer's career was in decline. In the age of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, Orbison's high-gloss psychodramas seemed part of another world entirely. It would take an unlikely series of events — aided, of course, by the convolutions of hip taste that no one can accurately predict — to put Orbison back on top, and Barbara Jakobs did much to make Roy Orbison into a modern artist. Before the Texas rock 'n' roll legend died in 1988, he was regarded as a maestro of mysterious longings and a great singer — and with his wife's help, he made what is arguably the comeback of all comebacks.

Born in Bielefeld, Germany, Jakobs married Roy Orbison in 1969. After a fallow period in the 1970s, Orbison began to attract a new generation of fans by the end of the decade. Linda Ronstadt covered "Blue Bayou" in 1977 — Orbison had co-written the song and released it in 1963. The over-the-top style Orbison had perfected remained in the popular mind, with heavy-metal band Nazareth doing an effective version of "Love Hurts," another song Orbison had recorded in his glory days.

Barbara Orbison managed her husband's career during the '80s, a decade that saw Orbison's moody music become perfectly in tune with the mood of the moment. Most famously, director David Lynch recontextulized Orbison's "In Dreams" in the 1986 film Blue Velvet. The following year, Barbara served as executive producer for In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, which brought together Orbison with contemporary production styles. She also was at the helm of 1988's acclaimed concert film Roy Orbison and Friends, a Black and White Night.

Until his death, Orbison was established as one of rock 'n' roll's biggest and most mysterious attractions, with solo records, sold-out concerts and his work with supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. Barbara oversaw the fine 2008 box set Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll, which sums up the singer's work quite thoroughly. The Nashville publishing company she founded and ran, Still Working Music, sports such titles as Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," along with such past and present writers as Liz Rose, Jedd Hughes and Tommy Lee James.

Savvy in business, Barbara Orbison helped preserve and extend Roy Orbison's legacy at a crucial time. She died on Dec. 6 at Los Angeles County Medical Center after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

STEVE POPOVICH
1942-2011
Music executive

By Jack Silverman

Steve Popovich was both an industry insider and outsider, working at major labels — at one time or another he was a VP at Columbia, Epic and Polygram Nashville — but also founding Cleveland International Records, where he achieved his greatest fame for putting out Meat Loaf's seminal album Bat Out of Hell.

And while Popovich was a key player in the careers of familiar names ranging from Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent to The Jackson 5 and Boston (to name a few), he was also a tireless music lover who frequently championed lesser-known artists who didn't fit any molds. David Allen Coe, Chas and Dave, the Singing Nuns and a number of luminaries from the polka world — Frankie Yankovic, Eddie Blazonczyk and Brave Combo — all received his attention. In 1997, Popovich was inducted into the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of fame, and from the little I know about Steve Popovich, it was probably one of his proudest moments.

About a year ago, I was at a grocery store when I saw a 60-something guy pushing a cart. He was wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, and had that unmistakable Cleveland-working-class vibe, that Rust Belt demeanor. It's hard to articulate, but if you grew up there like I did, you know it when you see it.

Curious, I asked him if he was from Cleveland, and sure enough he was. We talked about Cleveland sports a little, and after about 10 minutes of reminiscing, we introduced ourselves. "You're Steve Popovich?" I blurted out incredulously. I'd known about him for years, and I would have never guessed this unpretentious, self-effacing fellow was the man behind the legend. I was hoping I'd have the chance to interview him one day, and I'm genuinely sad I'll never get the chance.

Popovich died in his Murfreesboro apartment in June. He was 68.

TOM ROADY
1949-2011
Veteran percussionist

By Jack Silverman

I had a chance to play with percussionist Tom Roady once or twice, so long ago that I don't even remember what band we were playing with. But I definitely remember Tom — all he brought to the gig was this funky little electronic percussion pad, and you would have thought we had Tito Puente's entire rhythm section with us. He was exceptionally talented, warm and funny — and most memorably, as enthusiastic about music as anyone I'd met.

Tom lived and breathed music — so much that he decided to forgo painful cancer treatments that would only put off the inevitable, so he could tour with Ricky Skaggs' Christmas Tour one last time. He died on the tour bus on Nov. 27, at the age of 62, as a result of heart failure.

Even by Music City standards, Tom's musical résumé was nothing short of jaw-dropping, including recording or stage work with Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Etta James, Mavis Staples, Michael McDonald, Pure Prairie League, Tom Jones, Donovan, Art Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Dr. Hook, Tony Orlando, Lynyrd Skynyrd, New Grass Revival, Larry Cordle, Ronnie Bowman, Sam Bush, Rhonda Vincent, Maura O'Connell, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood ... the list goes on, and on, and on.

On Nov. 15, Tom made a comment on the Facebook page of Chris Kent, who died in October (see above). Responding to a post imploring people to learn from the late bass player's example by having faith in God and living each moment to the fullest, Tom wrote, "How well I know this!!"

In retrospect, Tom's comment — which he made a month after he'd received a grim cancer diagnosis, and just two weeks before his death — seems all the more poignant. And as demonstrated by the manner of his departure from this earth — on a tour bus with Ricky Skaggs & Co., doing what he loved — he took the business of living each moment to the fullest very seriously.

Tom is survived by his wife, Melanie.

MARK WEHNER
1956-2011
Musician, songwriter

By Billy Block

Our dear friend Mark Wehner peacefully joined The Angel Band this year. For several years, Mark hosted Americana Tonight at Douglas Corner every Wednesday night, featuring many of the top artists in Americana, country, bluegrass and rock music. An accomplished musician and songwriter with several albums to his credit, Wehner always put the promotion of others before himself. This endeared Mark to all.

The joy on Mark Wehner's face at the first benefit concert held in his honor back at his old stompin' grounds is indelibly imprinted on my heart. Meeting his hero Rodney Crowell was a dream come true for Mark. Crowell was his typically gracious self and generously played a full band set for over an hour, to the delight of Wehner and the hundreds in attendance. Mark and his beautiful bride Mary Leland's last dance was like watching poetry in motion fueled by the pure power of love.

That first benefit was magical for Wehner and everyone who joined in the celebration of his life. He didn't live to attend the second show we'd planned the following week. But we all celebrated Mark's life well lived, and two of his favorite Americana stars, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, sang to send him home.

My fondest memory of Mark was when he took me to a Nashville Sounds game while he was conceptualizing Americana Tonight, and kindly asked for my help and support. He loved the Sounds, and it was a wonderful evening shared in conversation about the music and artists we both loved and cherished. God bless him and this wonderful music community.

RANDY WOOD
1917-2011
Record store owner, producer, label head

By Randy Fox

Randy Wood was one of those figures in American music whose true significance has been obscured by his success. It's an ironic truth, but in many ways his founding of the Dot record label, his discovery and promotion of artists as disparate as Pat Boone, Mac Wiseman, Ken Nordine, Nervous Norvus and others, and his role in "white-ifying" rock 'n' roll are almost footnotes (albeit very profitable ones) to his greatest achievement.

A native of Morrison, Tenn., Wood settled in Gallatin after his service in the Air Corps during World War II. He opened an electrical appliance shop, initially carrying a few records to demonstrate the phonographs he sold, but he started getting requests for more records, in particular hillbilly and rhythm & blues.

Meanwhile, down the road in Nashville, a DJ named Gene Nobles had started playing R&B records on his nighttime show, booming them out across the entire Eastern U.S. on WLAC's 50,000-watt clear channel signal. When more and more people starting walking into Randy Wood's shop asking for records they had heard on WLAC, Wood saw an opportunity and signed on as a sponsor for Noble's show.

Within a few months, the electric appliances were gone and the store had been rechristened Randy's Record Shop, with a mail-order business that was shipping records to more than half the U.S. By 1954, with rock 'n' roll poised to break loose, Randy's Record Shop was selling 60,000 records a month, more than half of them by black artists, in addition to being one the primary sponsors of the all-night, every-night marathons of R&B on WLAC.

The records that WLAC played and that Wood sold were a keystone of African-American culture in the 1950s — a meeting point that would influence music, fashion and even politics. The evolution of R&B into both rock 'n' roll and soul music, and the changes in our culture that they brought may have been inevitable, but one can't help but wonder if their form might have been very different without WLAC introducing the soundtrack and Randy's Record Shop supplying the goods to the doorsteps of Americans of all races.

JOHNNIE WRIGHT
1914-2011
Country singer, songwriter, country music patriarch

By Randy Fox

Johnny Wright spent more than half his life acting as the prince consort for his wife, the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells — a role he performed with class and distinction — always willing to share the spotlight with Kitty or any of their musical family. But none of this should obscure the truly classic, genre-bending country recordings he made in the 1950s as one-half of one of country music's all-time great duos.

Born in Mt. Juliet, Wright grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry from its earliest days. By the late 1930s Wright had his own radio show on WSIX with his sister Louise and his young bride, Murial Deason, still years away from her rechristening and coronation. When a young singer named Jack Anglin married Wright's sister, he also joined the family group. In a short while, the brother-in-law duo of Johnnie & Jack were making the rounds on the hillbilly music circuit, taking up short residences at radio stations in various states.

In 1949 they signed with RCA Records. Their first hit, "Poison Love," mixed traditional close harmony singing with a rhumba beat. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but it paid off in a Top 10 hit and a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. Johnnie & Jack continued mining Latin rhythms and soon picked up on the mutual ground that country close harmony shared with R&B vocal groups for a string of hits that picked up on the beat and excitement of rhythm & blues while still sounding hillbilly to the core.

Their partnership ended in 1963 with the death of Jack Anglin in a car accident. Wright continued recording as a solo artist through the 1960s, but his main role would be as patriarch over "The Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show," which included his and Wells' three children and various grandchildren over the years, right up until his and Kitty's retirement from performing in 2000.

REMEMBERED

LIZ ANDERSON
1930-2011

Country singer and songwriter, and a Grammy nominee for her 1967 Top 5 hit "Mama Spank," she wrote many other hits including "I'm the Lonesome Fugitive" and "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" for Merle Haggard, and was the mother of country singer Lynn Anderson.

KENNY BAKER
1926-2011

Bluegrass fiddler, longtime member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, and an inductee of the IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Fame.

JACK BARLOW
1924-2011

Country singer, DJ and voiceover artist who had several hits in the 1960s such as "I Love Country Music" and "Catch the Wind."

JOEL "TAZ" DIGREGORIO
1944-2011

Keyboard player and longtime member of The Charlie Daniels Band.

BILLY GRAMMER
1925-2011

Country singer, guitarist and Grand Ole Opry member best known for his 1959 hit "Gotta Travel On."

AASHID HIMONS
1942-2011

Iconic dreadlocked singer and bandleader who had been a child prodigy in the 1940s, a doo-wop vocalist in the '50s, a soul singer in the '60s and a bluesman in the '70s before founding his '80s Rock Block reggae dynamo Afrikan Dreamland.

VINCE LIVERI
1953-2011

Frontman of Nashville hard-rock acts Arch Angel, Boneyard and Forefathers of Doom.

MEL MCDANIEL
1942-2011

Country singer and Grand Ole Opry member who had several hits in the '70s and '80s such as "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," "Big Ole Brew" and "Louisiana Saturday Night."

JOHNNY "COUNTRY" MATHIS
1933-2011

Country singer and prolific songwriter who began his career as half of the hit-making duo of Jimmy & Johnny, and whose songs were recorded by George Jones, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Price and Charley Pride.

JAMES O'GWYNN
1928-2011

Country singer of the late 1950s and early 1960s, best known for his hit "My Name Is Mud."

BILLY JO SPEARS
1937-2011

Country music singer who championed an earthy and more traditional vocal style during the "countrypolitan" era of the 1970s, best remembered for her 1975 hit "Blanket on the Ground."

DAN "BEE" SPEARS
1949-2011

Bass guitar player, a member of Willie Nelson's band for over 40 years, and also part of the local Nashville combo Travelin' Light.

DON WAYNE
1933-2011

Country songwriter and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, best known for his songs, "Saginaw, Michigan" and "Country Bumpkin."

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