The Year in Country 2017: “Go Rest High” — Country deals with more than its share of grief

Average JoesIn 2017, the Grim Reaper often seemed like he was purposely singling out the country music world.

In September, news had barely broken that Country Music Hall-of-Famer Don Williams had died, before we learned that Troy Gentry had been killed in a helicopter crash the same day in New Jersey.

Known for hits like “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” and “I Believe in You,” Don Williams passed away at the age of 78 after a short illness. The man known as “the Gentle Giant” was memorialized at a service later in the month at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Brothers Osborne paid tribute to him on the 51st Annual CMA Awards by singing “Tulsa Time.”

Perhaps no loss hit today’s country stars quite as hard as the sudden death of Troy Gentry. In a moving funeral at the Grand Ole Opry House, Vince Gill urged Gentry’s singing partner Eddie Montgomery not to disappear, shortly before the service closed with a haunting new recording of Troy singing what would be the pair’s new single, “Better Man.”

By CMA Awards time in November, Eddie proved he’d heeded Vince’s warning, teaming up with Rascal Flatts and Dierks Bentley to perform Montgomery Gentry’s hit, “My Town.” In 2018, Eddie will head out on tour, shortly after the release of what’s likely to be the pair’s final album, Here’s to You, on February 2.

The loss of “Rhinestone Cowboy” Glen Campbell in August after a long, brave battle with Alzheimer’s Disease resonated beyond country music, thanks to the noted guitarist’s contributions to the world of television, his many crossover hits, and his early studio work for the likes of the Beach Boys.  In tribute, Little Big Town teamed with his longtime collaborator Jimmy Webb for a stunning version of “Wichita Lineman” at the CMA Awards.  

One week after the passing of 81-year-old Campbell, fellow Hall-of-Famer Jo Walker-Meador followed. Though the 93-year-old’s work was largely in the background, there’s no underestimating her impact:  the pioneering businesswoman rose from a secretarial job to the head of the Country Music Association, helping build it into the formidable organization it is today.

On October 1, 58 innocent people were murdered in the deadliest shooting in modern American history, as a gunman opened fire during Jason Aldean’s set at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.  On October 2, the world learned of the unexpected death of Tom Petty.  Rock star Petty was a huge influence on many of today’s country stars, and Aldean addressed both tragedies by performing “I Won’t Back Down” to open Saturday Night Live the same week.

In November, the Country Music Hall of Fame lost one more member, as 85-year-old Mel Tillis died after a long battle with intestinal issues that began in 2016. 

Tillis started his career as a songwriter, penning hits like “Detroit City” for  Bobby Bare and “Strange” and “So Wrong” for Patsy Cline.  He went on to craft his own hits, like “Coca-Cola Cowboy” and “Southern Rains,” while also turning a stuttering problem into a comedy trademark and developing a movie career. He’s survived by his equally famous daughter, 1994 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Pam Tillis.

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