Country Musicians Whose Lives Had the Makings of a Tragic Country Ballad

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Country crossover artist Gram Parsons, known as the “Father of country-rock,” died today back in 1973 from an overdose of morphine and booze. He was only 26 years old. “With the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the songwriter pioneered the concept of a rock band playing country music, and as a solo artist he moved even further into the country realm, blending the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other,” writes CMT of his legacy.

“While he was alive, Parsons was a cult figure that never sold many records but influenced countless fellow musicians, from the Rolling Stones to the Byrds. In the years since his death, his stature has only grown, as numerous rock and country artists build on his small, but enormously influential, body of work.”

The bizarre events following Parsons’ death — involving an incident where his road manager stole his corpse and burned the body in an attempt to carry out Parsons’ wishes that he be cremated and his ashes spread in Joshua Tree — also contribute to his posthumous fame. Parsons’ life and death could be written as a tragic country ballad, just like these other country artists.

Patsy Cline

Influential country artist Patsy Cline, who made a crossover to the pop music world, struggled through her first marriage, rejecting the role of homemaker to pursue her dreams of stardom. But her career came to an end in 1963 when her plane crashed after leaving a gig playing three benefit shows in Kansas. Cline was battling a cold and tried to get home to her children in Tennessee, but the weather was halting her travels. The plane’s pilot, Randy Hughes, was Cline’s manager. He wasn’t trained in instrument flying. Cline’s wristwatch (which stopped at 6:20PM), Confederate flag cigarette lighter, studded belt, and three pairs of gold lamé slippers were recovered from the accident and donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Johnny Paycheck

“I’m a man who believes that right is right and wrong is wrong. Treat me right, and I will give you my all. Treat me wrong, and I will give you nothing. They don’t like me for that, but that’s the way I am,” said the Grand Ole Opry member famous for his recording of “Take This Job and Shove It.” With deranged song titles like “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” “The Cocaine Train,” and “It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You),” the “Outlaw Movement” star seemed destined for the wild life. Drug and alcohol problems almost brought his career to an end in the 1980s, but it was a barroom shootout (seriously, does it get more country than that?) and almost 10-year prison sentence that got him thrown behind bars. “He blowed my hat off,” the victim said of the incident.

Ira Louvin

The New Yorker on the fascinating life of mandolin-playing country star Ira Louvin:

The gospel and country duo Charlie and Ira Louvin grew up in the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, on a cotton farm at the southernmost bump of the Appalachian Mountains, where they developed their striking harmony style in the deep Sacred Harp tradition of the Baptist church. “Satan is Real,” a new memoir by Charlie written with Benjamin Whitmer, gets its title from a famous Louvin recording, in which, between verses, Ira preaches that to believe in God’s grace is also to accept the Devil’s pull. (The song was released in 1959 on the album of the same name, with cover art that featured a sixteen-foot-high plywood Satan that the brothers had painted themselves. The fire in the photograph was real, too.) The mix of light and darkness that filled their music was mirrored in their lives, with Charlie keeping on a mostly straight path while his brother Ira gave himself over to the country-music clichés of guns, drink, and divorce—occasionally pursued at the same time, as on a night in 1963 when his third wife shot him six times with a .22 pistol after he had tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. Later, she told the police, “If that sonofabitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.” Ira survived, but was killed two years later in a car crash, when he was hit by a drunk driver.

Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings, best known by mainstream audiences as the singer and composer behind the Dukes of Hazard theme song, embodied the “outlaw,” often clad in black and leather, sporting a wild beard and long hair. To complement his badass image was a serious drug habit that cost him over $1,000 a day. Jennings was fueled by cocaine and amphetamines, which he discovered while living with Johnny Cash during the 1960s. “Pills were the artificial energy on which Nashville ran around the clock and then some,” he said. In true country fashion, he later wrote a song about his lifestyle called “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Outta Hand?” This was after he was arrested by federal agents for conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The charges were later dropped since Jennings disposed of the drugs (while agents waited for a search warrant!) and found no evidence.

Spade Cooley

From Western swing band leader and variety TV star to murderer, Spade Cooley was a fixture at the Venice Pier Ballroom and in Western cinema. He made his way to television, hosting the Hoffman Hayride, which featured special guests like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. Cooley murdered his second wife Ella Mae Cooley after a tumultuous relationship — both cheated (she with “King of the Cowboys” Roy Roger). One month after filing for divorce, Cooley beat and stomped Ella Mae to death in front of their teenage daughter. He was convicted for the murder, served nine years of a life sentence, and was released in ’69 on a furlough to play a benefit concert. He died of a heart attack backstage during the standing ovation.

Dottie West

Most mainstream audiences know the names Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, but Tennessee-born Dottie West also ranks as one of the most influential female country artists. She won a Grammy for the 1964 single “Here Comes My Baby,” wrote a popular Coca-Cola jingle (“Country Sunshine”), and became known for her duet recordings with Kenny Rogers. In the 1980s and ‘90s, West was popular as ever, but totally broke due to bad investments and bad spending. She lost everything she owned. In 1991, while broken down on the side of a road on her way to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, West’s neighbor George Thackston picked her up to rush her to her appearance. She urged Thackston to speed, which caused the 81-year-old driver to lose control of the car. West died on the operating table due to internal injuries. She had insisted doctors treat Thackston first, not realizing how severe her injuries were as she appeared unharmed.

Tammy Wynette

Legendary artist Tammy Wynette, known as the “First Lady of country music” created one of the best-selling singles by a female country artist with “Stand by Your Man.” Wynette often sang about life’s troubles, something she knew a lot about. Multiple divorces and serious health problems were part of her struggles, but things continued to spiral out of control following her death in 1998. Her body was exhumed to settle the cause of death and to conduct an autopsy ordered by family in a wrongful death suit against her husband and manager, George Richey. The name of her tombstone was changed twice, thanks again to family bickering. So much for “rest in peace.”

Hank Williams

CMT on the influential Williams and his last ride:

Though his professional career was soaring, Hank’s personal life was beginning to spin out of control. He had suffered a mild drinking problem before becoming a star, but it had been more or less controlled during his first few years of fame. However, as he began to earn large amounts of money and spend long times away from home, he began to drink frequently. Furthermore, Hank’s marriage to Audrey was deteriorating. Not only were they fighting, resulting in occasional separations, but Audrey was trying to create her own recording career without any success. In the fall of 1951, Hank was on a hunting trip on his Tennessee farm when he tripped and fell, re-activating a dormant back injury. Williams began taking morphine and other painkillers for his back and quickly became addicted. In January of 1952, Hank and Audrey separated for a final time and he headed back to Montgomery to live with his mother. The move had little effect on his music career, however, with “Honky Tonk Blues” peaking at number two during the spring. In fact, he released five additional singles in 1952 — “Half as Much,” “Jambalaya,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” “You Win Again,” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” — all of which charted in the Top Ten. In spite of such success, Hank turned completely reckless in 1952, spending nearly all of his waking hours drunk and taking drugs. He also frequently destroyed property and played with guns. Williams left his mother in early spring, moving in with Ray Price in Nashville. In May, Audrey and Hank were officially divorced. She was awarded the house and their child, as well as half of his future royalties. Williams continued to play a large number of concerts, but he was always drunk during the show, and he sometimes missed the gig altogether. In August, the Grand Ole Opry fired Williams for that very reason, explaining that he could return once he was sober. Instead of heeding the Opry’s warning, the singer just sank deeper into his self-destructive behavior. Soon, his friends were leaving him, as the Drifting Cowboys began working with Price and Fred Rose no longer supported him. Williams was still playing The Louisiana Hayride, but he was performing with local pickup bands and began earning reduced wages. That fall, he met Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, the 19-year-old daughter of a Louisiana policeman. By October, they were married. Hank also signed an agreement to support the baby — who had yet to be delivered — of one of his other girlfriends, Bobbie Jett, in October. By the end of the year, Williams was having heart problems and Toby Marshall, a con man doctor, was giving him various prescription drugs to help soothe the pain. Hank was scheduled to play a concert in Canton, OH, on January 1, 1953. He was scheduled to fly out of Knoxville, TN, on New Year’s Eve, but the weather was so bad that he had to hire a chauffeur to drive him to Ohio in his new Cadillac. Before they left for Ohio, Williams was injected with two shots of vitamin B-12 and morphine by a doctor. Williams got into the backseat of the Cadillac (allegedly with a bottle of whiskey), and the teenage chauffeur headed out for Canton. When the driver was stopped for speeding, the policeman noticed that Hank looked like a dead man. Williams was taken to a West Virginia hospital and he was officially declared dead at 7:00 a.m. on January 1, 1953. He had died in the back of the Cadillac, on his way to a concert. Ironically, the last single released in his lifetime was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”

George Jones

When your alcoholism and amphetamine addiction is so bad your drive your lawnmower to the liquor store, because your wife took your car keys away.

Eddie Rabbitt

Imagine one of the nicer guys in country music — someone who wrote hits for Elvis, opened for Dolly Parton, loved animals, lost a child due to some awful rare disease, and advocated for organizations like the Special Olympics and Easter Seals. Now imagine him dying from lung cancer to the surprise of everyone around him, because he didn’t tell people he was sick and remained extremely positive despite his personal pain.