A veteran music promoter with a passion for people, Tom Starr knew how to make real connections. Over the course of his 30-year career, he helped elevate artists from a range of formats to the top of the radio charts. He honed his skills at major labels including Interscope, EMI/Capitol, Jive, MCA and Elektra Records before starting his own marketing and consulting group in 2009.
In 2014, he planted his feet firmly in the country music industry by taking a position with Warner Music Nashville, eventually becoming the company’s regional manager of radio and streaming. Starr wasn’t just one of the familiar faces at the label’s industry No. 1 parties — he forged personal relationships with Dan + Shay, Ashley McBryde, Chris Janson and Ashley Monroe, helping them build connections with the powerful players at country radio.
Starr was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2019 but quickly returned to work after undergoing successful treatment. Sadly, the cancer returned in July 2020, and after a brave battle with the disease, Tom Starr died on Jan. 11 of this year. He was 56 years old. —Lorie Liebig
Gospel diva, broadcaster
Connie Dennell’s love for and knowledge of gospel music made her the epitome of broadcasting excellence for more than three decades. Nicknamed “The Gospel Diva,” Dennell — who died Aug. 25 at 65 — was the dominant voice on Sunday mornings for numerous listeners. Her show on radio station 92Q served as a showcase for both established greats and emerging stars, and was also a forum that she utilized in reaffirmation of her extensive faith.
Dennell’s tireless advocacy for the idiom earned her national recognition and admiration, as well as both a Stellar Award and an NAACP Image Award. Her show aired for 37 years until her retirement. She had fans and admirers from across the media spectrum, and the statement issued by 92Q and Cumulus Nashville Urban Formats program director Kenny Smoov best describes Dennell’s impact. “It was amazing the power that she wielded, and it was just her faith,” said Smoov. “It was really through her faith; it wasn’t really Connie as much as she was following her orders to be a servant, and that’s what she was hands down.” —Ron Wynn
Under the self-coined genre of “folkabilly,” Texas-born singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith created some of the most poignant and expertly written story-songs in modern folk music. She grew up in Austin, Texas, and came up through the city’s music scene, performing at open-mic nights from an early age. When she was a teen, her father took her to a Townes Van Zandt gig, an event that made a deep and lasting creative impact on her.
Griffith released 17 studio albums across her impressive career, and recorded duets with icons like Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. Griffith’s iconic 1993 Grammy Award-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms was a treasure trove of reinterpreted tracks from artists like John Prine and Bob Dylan, who also appeared on the record. Her songs took on new life in the hands of other artists, too. Her trademark song “Love at the Five and Dime” was a hit for Kathy Mattea in the ’80s, while “Outbound Plane” became a Top 10 hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1991. Bette Midler’s version of “From a Distance” topped the Adult Contemporary chart in 1990.
Griffith died of natural causes in her Nashville home on Aug. 13 at age 68. —Lorie Liebig
Drummer, songwriter and producer
Richie Albright, one of country music’s most influential drummers and a famed Nashville Cat, died at age 81 on Feb. 9. Albright is best known as Waylon Jennings’ drummer, having joined Jennings’ band the Waylors in 1964.
Albright was raised in Bagdad, Ariz., before moving to Nashville to join Jennings. Many credit his playing as integral to the creation of the outlaw-country sound, as his approach to drums tended more toward rock ’n’ roll than did that of his peers. Albright also co-wrote the 1983 Hank Williams Jr. duet “The Conversation” and performed on many of Jennings’ studio recordings. He worked as both drummer and producer with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter, among other major country artists. Albright is survived by his wife Linda and three children. —Brittney McKenna
Music Row leader, country industry trailblazer
Fans around the world have long been on a first-name basis with country music’s biggest stars — Dolly, Loretta, Patsy, Reba. But in the 1970s, as Music Row transitioned from the home of hillbilly honky-tonk into its vibrant contemporary era, it was one-name-wonder women Frances, Jo, Dianne, Donna and Connie who ran the show.
In the good-ol’-boy-dominated enclave of the country music industry, Connie Bradley led ASCAP Nashville for more than three decades before retiring in 2010. She was an integral member of the female force field heading performing rights organizations (BMI, SESAC, ASCAP), trade groups (CMA) and publishing powerhouses (Tree Publishing). Bradley died March 24 in Florida, where she had a home with husband Jerry.
Born in Fayetteville, Tenn., and raised in Shelbyville, Bradley was country through and through — her deep Southern accent, impeccably coiffed blond hair, pageant-queen wardrobe, dazzling smile, easy laugh, verve and warm style connected her immediately to the small-town roots of the big-time songwriters she represented. But her professional performance was direct and to the point. She did not mince words or take no for an answer. Among the artists and songwriters signed during Bradley’s tenure were Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Amy Grant, George Strait, Garth Brooks, LeAnn Rimes, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney. Her influence extended to the board of directors of the CMA, where she served as both president and chair.
Joe Galante, a brash New Yorker who came to Nashville in the 1970s and remains Row Ruler Emeritus, last spoke to Bradley the Friday before she died. “She was the same Connie,” he says. “She was always the same Connie. There was no difference in her from when she was an assistant at RCA to when she was the head of ASCAP, except for the power she had. She used it well.” —Kay West
Keyboardist, arranger, bandleader and lover of R&B
Beloved keyboardist Tim Akers was only 59 years old when he passed away on Aug. 30. A native of Hendersonville, Tenn., Akers was an in-demand session player and arranger, as well as a songwriter and bandleader. He got his start as a studio musician in the mid-’80s working on Christian recordings, but by the mid-’90s, he was getting calls to record with big pop stars like Michael McDonald, Peter Cetera and Barry Manilow, and top country artists like Faith Hill, Wynonna Judd and Rascal Flatts. From 1997 to 1999, he served as music director for TNN’s Prime Time Country.
“Tim was just a great keyboard player,” says guitarist Tom Hemby, who worked often with Akers. “He could play many different styles of music, but the jazz-R&B thing, pop-R&B, he just really shined at that.”
Akers’ love of horn-driven R&B led him to form the 16-piece R&B band, Tim Akers and the Smoking Section, in 2009. The band, which includes Hemby and other top session musicians, was working on its first album at the time of his death. According to Hemby, the album will be completed and the group will continue to perform to preserve Akers’ musical legacy. —Daryl Sanders
Jim Weatherly, best known for writing the classic song “Midnight Train to Georgia,” died on Feb. 3 at age 77. The acclaimed songwriter was born in 1943 in Pontotoc, Miss., and considered a career in football — he quarterbacked for the University of Mississippi, where he won back-to-back SEC championships and a national championship — before ultimately choosing to pursue songwriting.
Over the course of Weatherly’s half-century career, his songs were recorded by artists including Garth Brooks, Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond and Ray Price. Weatherly also released a string of solo albums during his life and found success with the 1974 songs “I’ll Still Love You” and “The Need to Be.” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” famously performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, won a Grammy in 1974, and the song itself was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Following Weatherly’s death, Knight tweeted: “I’m missing Jim Weatherly already. He was about life and love.” Weatherly is survived by his wife Cynthia and two children. —Brittney McKenna
Inventive drummer and session-playing icon
If you like a country or country-adjacent song recorded in the past half-century that somehow sounds “different,” there’s a decent chance Kenny Malone is one of the people you have to thank for it. The masterful Colorado-born drummer, who as a youngster fell in love with the jazz drumming of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, joined the Navy as a teenager. In 1970, he moved his family to Nashville to try his hand at studio work.
As quoted in The New York Times following his death in August at age 83, Malone once told Modern Drummer that it was a bit of a rocky start: “I was back there playing away, and the producer said, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ I didn’t know you could overdub, so I was playing all of it at once — tambourines, you name it. I literally had to come down to one hand and one foot. I had to unlearn everything as far as technical stuff. There was a whole different feel in recording.” But he adjusted quickly. You hear Malone, doing much more than just keeping time, on such diverse hits as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” He recorded with songwriters’ songwriters like John Prine, Guy Clark and John Hartford and singers’ singers like Alison Krauss, Ray Charles and Charley Pride, among many, many more.
Kenny Malone was mindful of the need to keep his approach fresh. He limited the number of sessions he’d play in a day, briefly quit altogether to play in a jazz combo and even invented some of his own techniques and instruments. The world of country music is all the richer for it. —Stephen Trageser
The man with the red Gretsch
Guitarist, producer and publisher Ron Cornelius — who passed away on Aug. 18 two months after suffering a stroke — once told author Sylvie Simmons his job with Leonard Cohen “was not to bruise the music.” A native of Richmond, Calif., who first came to Nashville in the late ’60s and moved to the city in 1975, Cornelius was an instrumental figure in the early part of Cohen’s career. He recorded and toured with the celebrated singer-songwriter while serving as his music director in the early- to mid-’70s. Simmons, who got to know Cornelius while working on her definitive biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, says, “Ron was sensitive to Leonard having a very different style.”
“He had a good feel for whatever artist he was working with,” says Michael Gray of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which featured Cornelius in its 2015 exhibit, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.
His musical sensitivity appealed to producer Bob Johnston, who tapped Cornelius to play his red custom Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar on recordings by an array of artists in the ’70s including Loudon Wainwright III, Tracy Nelson, Hoyt Axton and Billie Joe Shaver. But Cornelius did his most lasting work with two other artists Johnston produced, Cohen and Bob Dylan. He appeared on Cohen’s Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate and Live Songs and on Dylan’s Self Portrait, New Morning and Dylan. —Daryl Sanders
Singer, songwriter and actor
The archivists at the Chicago record label Numero Group served history in 2009 by reissuing two albums by singer, songwriter and actor Caroline Peyton, who died in Nashville on Aug. 11 at age 69. Peyton was born in Brookhaven, Miss., on Oct. 8, 1951, and by the time she had decamped to Bloomington, Ind., in 1970, she was a trained vocalist who could sing virtually anything that was put in front of her. A stunning beauty who performed with supreme confidence, she joined songwriter-producer Mark Bingham in Bloomington, where they became the stars of a vigorous music community.
Her 1972 debut album Mock Up showed off the chops of a singer who turned Bingham’s compositions into displays of pained virtuosity. Listening today, you can hear how effortlessly Peyton navigated knotty songs like “Between-Two” and “Hook,” and how strongly a sense of loss transpires in these tales of countercultural dislocation. Peyton’s second album, 1977’s Intuition, was a flawless jazz-pop collection. Its best track, the lucent “Call of the Wild,” deserves to live on, even if it never hit the charts.
I knew Caroline for 15 years, and she always surprised me. The range of her accomplishments — she voiced characters in several Disney animated films, appeared on Broadway and held down a demanding singing job at Nashville’s St. George’s Episcopal Church for many years — was as impressive as her personality, which was huge. I used to think I knew something about music, but Caroline taught me how limited my scope really was. When I caught her ear — she and I loved to listen to the 1974 bossa nova album Elis & Tom — I knew I had done something good. She analyzed music as a professional who had seen it all, and I’m incredibly grateful for the time I spent with her. —Edd Hurt
The Little Entertainer
Clarence Dobbins, who passed on July 31, was a dynamic entertainer and bandleader who was a favorite of Nashville’s R&B and soul community throughout his career. He started singing as a child and soon gained the nickname “The Little Entertainer.” He got his professional start as lead vocalist for The Kadillacs in 1977, then started his own band two years later. The Clarence Dobbins Revue could perform R&B, soul or funk with equal verve, and Dobbins’ charismatic personality and vocal flair made them a popular regional attraction. The Revue opened for a number of top artists, among them Rufus Thomas and Freddy Waters.
Dobbins’ fame grew to the point he became a featured attraction as a solo artist, working alongside such stars as B.B. King, Al Green and Keb’ Mo’, as well as country artists like T. Graham Brown and Wynonna Judd. Dobbins’ first EP, 2001’s Goes Something Like This, garnered solid reviews and enough attention that he later remade it in expanded fashion, retitling it Soul of the Man. He also issued The Uprising in 2008 for CDS Records. His distinctive style and sound will be remembered and celebrated for many years to come. —Ron Wynn
Station Inn owner, champion of the bluegrass scene
Born in Corinth, Miss., Earl “J.T.” Gray spent five decades of his life in Music City — and for four of those, he owned legendary bluegrass club the Station Inn. During the ’70s, Gray had gigs playing with the Misty Mountain Boys, Vassar Clements, the Sullivan Family, Tom T. Hall and Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. But it was as the Station Inn’s owner and proprietor that he made his most lasting mark. A few years after the club’s founding, Gray turned the unlikely little building in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood into ground zero of the bluegrass scene, a must-play venue for performers the world over and a home away from home for many pickers.
“Even before I moved to Tennessee I knew I had a place to stay,” says rising bluegrass star Molly Tuttle. “The Station Inn made bluegrass musicians like me feel at home no matter where we hailed from. Our music has been so greatly enriched by the life’s work of J.T. Gray that I wonder if we’ll ever be the same without him. Thank you J.T. for giving bluegrass a home in Nashville.”
Just a few months before his death at age 75 in March of this year, Gray was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame. “Bluegrass is like one big family, and we’ve all stuck together through the years,” Gray told the Scene in 2020. “If someone gets sick or down on their luck, their family is ready to come to their aid. It makes you appreciate your family.” —D. Patrick Rodgers
Tom T. Hall
Songwriters’ songwriter, storyteller
Few songwriters have influenced country music like Tom T. Hall, who passed away at his home in Franklin on Aug. 20 at age 85. Hall’s hits include the landmark 1968 country crossover “Harper Valley PTA,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for Jeannie C. Riley and remains a critical entry in the country music canon.
Hall was born in Olive Hill, Ky., in 1936 and first began playing music as a teenager. After serving in the Army, Hall attended Roanoke College and became active in radio, work that laid his eventual path to Nashville and his first publishing deal. Over several decades, Hall penned songs for iconic artists including Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and many others, earning himself the nickname “The Storyteller” for his uncanny knack for writing vivid, narrative lyrics.
Hall was a Grammy winner, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a 2008 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame and a 2019 inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Hall married his second wife Dixie in 1968, and the pair remained married until her death in 2015. —Brittney McKenna
Drummer, exceptional sideman
Duffy Jackson didn’t start his exemplary career in Nashville, but he made such an impression and had so much impact that it seemed he was always part of Music City. The superb drummer and vocalist, who died March 3, excelled in numerous settings. Before completing high school, he’d already played with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich. He would go on to work with Monty Alexander, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Lena Horne, Milt Jackson and Barney Kessel. He had two years in the band for Sammy Davis Jr.’s syndicated TV show before a return stint with Count Basie, plus engagements with Lionel Hampton, Al Jarreau, Illinois Jacquet, Artie Shaw, Harry Allen, Billy Ross and The Manhattan Transfer.
But once Jackson became part of Nashville’s jazz community, he preferred looking forward rather than celebrating the past. He was very involved with both the Nashville Jazz Workshop and Rudy’s Jazz Room, helping out in multiple roles while frequently demonstrating in concert that he was still a masterful drummer and engaging singer. Though Nashville was his final stop, he made it every bit as memorable and exciting as every other one in his exceptional lifetime. —Ron Wynn
Ed and Patsy Bruce
Legendary songwriting duo
As writer Michael Streissguth tells the story in his 2013 book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, it was RCA Records head Jerry Bradley who met with Waylon Jennings in late 1977, when Jennings was looking for some material. Bradley had already mocked up the cover of an album titled Waylon and Willie, and Jennings had cut a few songs for the record. What Waylon, Willie and Bradley needed was a surefire hit, and they found it with a song written by Ed Bruce and his wife Patsy Bruce: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which Ed Bruce had taken into the charts in 1975. As Streissguth writes, “Bradley knew from the minute he heard Waylon play the song that it was as good as Elvis rising from the dead.” Indeed, Waylon and Willie’s duet hit No. 1 on the Billboard country chart in early 1978.
Patsy Bruce started out as Patsy Ann Smithson, and she was a West Tennessean, born on March 8, 1940, in Brownsville. Meanwhile, William Edwin Bruce Jr. — who was born in Keiser, Ark., on Dec. 29, 1939 — spent his early years in Memphis. Patsy and Ed married in 1964, moving to Nashville in 1966. Patsy also collaborated with him on hit songs like “Texas (When I Die)” and “After All.” Ed scored a No. 1 country hit in 1981 with “You’re the Best Break This Old Heart Ever Had,” did voice-over work and appeared in television shows and films. Patsy served as president of the Nashville Songwriters Association in the early ’80s. She also distinguished herself as a casting director and worked as a member of the Tennessee State Board of Probation and Parole for a decade in the Aughts. The couple divorced in 1987. Ed Bruce died in Clarksville, Tenn., on Jan. 8; Patsy Bruce died on May 16. —Edd Hurt
Musician and app developer
Nik Panagopolous, better known as “Mr. Nik Sharp,” dreamed big. Following years hustling in the underground with rock bands like Suburban Tragedy, the Florida-born singer and some friends spent their COVID lockdown time developing an app that they envisioned as ’90s-era MTV for contemporary audiences.
Called Audidio, the app offers a network of streaming music video channels introduced by a host. Though still in its early stages, the app has been gaining some traction; it’s available on Android and iOS platforms as well as devices like Roku and Amazon Firestick. According to a post on Audidio’s official Instagram, Panagopolous was in Florida to meet with investors when he died unexpectedly on Dec. 15. He was 42 years old. —Stephen Trageser
Rock ’n’ roll innovator
It’s safe to say that all serious students of rock history recognize the importance of The Everly Brothers, whose hits in the late 1950s stand as classic examples of a version of rock that drew from country music. Certainly, the close-harmony vocals of brothers Don and Phil Everly are similar to those of, say, The Louvin Brothers, and the themes of the Everlys’ hits — “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” — parallel those of straight-ahead rock, which often addressed the idea of teenage angst.
Still, what happened to the Everlys in the 1960s was an example of how innovators and hitmakers can weather challenges in the face of changing fashion. For Isaac Donald Everly — who was born in Brownie, Ky., on Feb. 1, 1937 — being a musician meant striving to make innovative music, and he and Phil did some of their richest work in the decade of The Beatles and The Byrds. A great rhythm guitarist, Don released one of his finest tracks, “Omaha,” on his first solo album, 1970’s Don Everly. It’s an ominous, haunted performance of great feeling and originality, and it’s worthy of John Lennon or Roger McGuinn. With Phil, who died in 2014, Don cut the essential rock albums Two Yanks in England, released in 1966, and Roots, a 1968 collection that summed up their career and thus the trajectory of rock ’n’ roll itself. Don Everly died in Nashville on Aug. 21 at age 84. —Edd Hurt
Rapper, concert promoter, the world’s best friend
On Aug. 8, the world lost a precious and rare soul who touched the lives of so many people through his music, film work and activism, as well as his beautiful sense of comradery as a fellow human. I always think back on the times when we would laugh to the point of tears about some crazy scheme that we would come up with. We walked together through different seasons of life and celebrated each other’s growth.
Ross possessed a radical sense of empathy and community that pierced the superficial boundaries of society. When Nashville was devastated by a tornado in 2020 that carved paths of destruction through the city, Ross got off work and hit the ground with other first responders to restore the communities that were affected the most. Ross has left us with an incredible catalog of music, film work and memories. His friendship brought me joy, inspiration and hope. Ross was the best friend that a person could have. —Nathan Conrad
Believer in Music City rock
It’s easy to forget just how transgressive playing punk, New Wave and electronic pop seemed in the Nashville of the 1970s and ’80s. I remember sitting morosely at The Gold Rush in 1986, listening intently to Lou Reed’s New Sensations and drinking Irish coffee after wolfing down a bean roll. It was the era of long-gone venue Cantrell’s, where you could catch bands like The dB’s and Pylon. Here in town, the producer, studio owner and musician Robb Earls was busy creating synth-heavy, angst-driven and bracingly modern music.
The Nashville native was born Robert W. Earls Jr. on Dec. 27, 1951. Earls was a versatile musician who sang, played synth, wrote songs and — most importantly — made things happen. At his studio, Sound Vortex, he produced and engineered records by the likes of David Olney and Lambchop. As a bandleader, he made memorable post-punk and electro-pop with Factual, whose 1984 track “For the Song” holds up well today. Factual made great records, but the band was also known as a superb live act, touring around the South and in New York. With vocalist Marilyn Blair, Earls formed another group, Warm Dark Pocket, which was followed by yet another band, This Midnight Stream. Earls was a tireless champion of the new sounds coming out of cities that, at the time, seemed so much more progressive than Nashville, and his work helped change Music City forever. Earls died in Nashville on March 11. —Edd Hurt
Legendary producer and engineer
When record producer and engineer Elliot Mazer died of a heart attack at his home in San Francisco on Feb. 7, at the age of 79, he left behind a rich musical legacy. That includes important contributions in the ’60s and ’70s to Nashville’s evolution as a recording center. Most notably, Mazer helped develop the genre-busting session supergroup Area Code 615, launched Linda Ronstadt’s hitmaking career, produced Neil Young’s most commercially successful album (1972’s Harvest) and helped establish Quadrafonic Sound Studio as ground zero for the growing number of rock and folk sessions in the city in the 1970s.
“I was enthralled with Nashville,” Mazer told me in a 2015 interview. “It was completely thrilling — great musicians and great studios, and you come out with tapes that are wonderful. As a producer, what else could you ask for? Every artist I worked with came out of Nashville with a unique, different-sounding record with wonderful stuff on it.”
The musicians he worked with appreciated Mazer as well. “Elliot understood that the musicians here had good instincts, and if you close your mind to it, you’re probably missing a lot,” said master session musician Charlie McCoy following Mazer’s death. McCoy, a member of Area Code 615, worked on multiple records with Mazer.
“A master in the studio, Elliot was a really good guy,” Neil Young wrote on his website after receiving word of Mazer’s passing. “He had a great way about him and I wish we had gotten to do more together. I am happy and thankful though that we got what we did get. Harvest is one of my most recognized recordings, and it all happened because of Elliot Mazer.” —Daryl Sanders
Grand Ole Opry legend
Over the course of his long career, which included a 60-year run as a member of The Grand Ole Opry, country singer Stonewall Jackson embodied the crowd-pleasing, unpretentious side of a genre that was designed to appeal to as many record-buyers as possible. He was born in Tabor City, N.C., on Nov. 6, 1932, and he moved with his family to Georgia when he was 2 years old. In Georgia, he worked on his uncle’s farm. After a stint in the Navy, he headed to Nashville in 1956.
It didn’t take long for the country boy to become a star: He first hit with George Jones’ song “Life to Go” in 1958. Jackson recorded his signature song, “Waterloo,” in April 1959 at Nashville’s Bradley Film and Recording Co. with a band that included pianist Floyd Cramer, bassist Junior Huskey and drummer Buddy Harmon. Written by John D. Loudermilk and Marijohn Wilkin, “Waterloo” is one of the most pop of country hits, because the song casts history as a joke. “Little general Napoleon of France / Tried to conquer the world / But lost his pants,” Jackson sings.
Jackson knew a good song when he heard it. His 1971 version of pop singer Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” is a classic. It was the singer’s final Top 10 hit. Jackson memorably took on the Nashville establishment when he sued the Opry’s management in 2006, claiming age discrimination. He won, and continued his run at the venerable institution until he retired in 2012. Jackson died in Nashville on Dec. 4 at age 89. —Edd Hurt
Kenneth Wayne “Scat” Springs
When you hear that someone “grew up in a musical family,” that can mean a great variety of things. Kenneth Wayne Springs was absolutely steeped in music. He was known far and wide as “Scat,” a nickname reflecting the legacy of his father, Kenneth Springs Sr., who was the lead singer of a popular R&B band from Kingsport, Tenn., called The Scat Cats. The younger Springs displayed his talents in both arts and sports while he was a student at Dobyns-Bennett High School. He participated in local theater productions around Kingsport while performing at a phenomenally high level on the track team, with whom he won the state championship in 1979.
Springs went to Appalachian State University on a track scholarship, but his love of music ultimately led him to move to Nashville and pursue a career as a singer. He sang jingles and did other commercial session work. He sang mostly background vocals on records for stars like Faith Hill and Vince Gill, as well as onstage with Garth Brooks and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few. Beginning in the early 1990s, he led his own popular soul, funk and R&B tribute, The Scat Springs Band. Among other gigs, they frequently appeared at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers Alley, where — adorned with his customary fedora — Springs conjured singers from Louis Armstrong to James Brown to Stevie Wonder to Sly Stone with passion and finesse.
He sang at church and he sang at home too, inspiring and cultivating another generation of Springs musicians. One of his three daughters is widely loved R&B and jazz pianist and singer-songwriter Kandace Springs, who in interviews is quick to credit her father’s encouragement as her reputation has grown internationally. She’s among the many, many family members, fans and friends who will miss Scat, who died Dec. 9 at age 61. —Stephen Trageser
Musician, educator and friend
Jeff Lisenby was widely known as a consummate musician. And yet for many, he will best be remembered as a devoted friend, colleague and educator. Originally from Kansas City, Mo., Lisenby grew up in a musical family and learned to play accordion and piano at a young age. He met his future wife, Pam Kelsay, at a youth accordion orchestra rehearsal in sixth grade. (Family legend has it that he saw young Pam climb off the back of her father’s motorcycle with an accordion on her back, and knew she was the one.) Lisenby studied accordion performance and music composition at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and would go on to earn his master’s degree in music there. He was a two-time national accordion champion and a bronze medalist in the Coupe Mondiale international classical accordion competitions — a hugely prestigious honor that most of his friends in Nashville knew little about.
Lisenby married Pam in 1977 and moved his young family to Nashville in 1986, hoping to explore new musical opportunities. He soon found a job playing keyboards for The Way Out West Show at the Opryland theme park. It proved to be a good decision, and Opryland introduced Lisenby to many of the musicians and singers he would work with throughout the rest of his life. Over the next 35 years, Lisenby earned a sterling reputation as a composer, arranger, performer and music director. He performed with a wide range of artists, including The Mills Brothers, Mel Tormé, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Drifters, The Coasters, Luciano Pavarotti, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Donna Summer, among others. He also served as music director and arranger and played keyboards in the 2006 Broadway production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, and later toured with that show. He also performed with touring productions of Wicked and Jersey Boys, and was regularly called upon to play with touring Broadway shows that stopped at TPAC.
Lisenby played on numerous Nashville recordings — including the Grammy-winning Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers (which was recorded with his dear friend, producer Dennis Scott), along with his own albums Walkin’ the Winter Wonderland and A Spy in Tortuga. He was featured on several albums for Nashville’s Green Hill Records, and played as a sideman for Benson, Alfred, Universal and other labels. Lisenby also served on the faculty of Lipscomb and Belmont universities and was the choral accompanist at Father Ryan High School — where students affectionately referred to him as “Uncle Liz.”
“ ‘Gentle’ is the word that keeps cropping up in discussions about Jeff,” Lisenby’s daughter, singer-songwriter Jaclyn Brown, tells the Scene. “In a field dominated by egos, he was truly all about the music. He was equally committed to playing well for Dolly Parton as for the Father Ryan sophomore prepping for the school musical. Talent aside, his true gift was that every person he came in contact with felt valued in his presence.”
Lisenby died on Jan. 6 of COVID-19 complications. He was 65. —Amy Stumpfl
New York Dolls co-founder, influential guitarist, guiding light
Sylvain Sylvain Mizrahi left an indelible mark on the face of music and all who knew him. He was the guitarist and linchpin of the New York Dolls, who influenced generations of musicians. His clothing company Truth & Soul still serves as a primary source of rock ’n’ roll fashion inspiration as its singular look has been carried through from Sylvain to Izzy Stradlin to DeeOhGee’s Matthew Paige. There is no doubt rock ’n’ roll has seen its share of bright, sparkling personas, but Sylvain was a true North Star and to be in his orbit was pure pleasure.
I have many fond musical memories of my time with Sylvain, whom I played with when the New York Dolls re-formed. Touring South America with the Dolls, playing a soccer stadium in Peru with The B-52s, playing a double bill all-acoustic show with Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols and the great Kenny Aaronson on bass. My most treasured memories, though, are the moments where it was just me and Syl at the hotel after the show, or driving through the night in a station wagon across the Arizona desert. Sylvain was always teaching me in those moments: songs and bands I needed to know, the history of New York City, the secrets to living life as a musician outside the mainstream.
Recently, I spoke to Kenny Aaronson about the time he and I spent together playing in one of Sylvain’s many solo projects. Kenny, an original member of the band Dust, saw the Dolls at one of their first gigs ever. (Kenny went on to play bass for Bob Dylan and The Yardbirds, among others.) During our chat, Kenny summed up Syl perfectly: “He’s the type of guy who will always live on in the hearts of those that knew him.” Those words truly encapsulate the man who was so much more than just a guitar player in a famously influential band. He had that spark within him that compelled him to share his gifts and inspire others.
In popular music, much ado is made of what sells, what dominates charts and lists, racks up award nominations or goes viral. But any musician who truly loves music will tell you: True greatness comes from inspiring the music community with your work — using the gifts you have to make things better and cooler for future generations. Sylvain Sylvain did just that. He left this world in January at age 69 as a legendary guitarist, an innovative songwriter and a golden-hearted maker of rock ’n’ roll mischief. His most important accomplishment was being true enough to himself that he lit an enduring path for others. —Aaron Lee Tasjan
Iconic session bassist
Bassist Bob Moore, one of the most important musicians in Nashville history, died on Sept. 22 at age 88. Born and raised in Nashville, Moore was playing professionally by 15 and became a member of the original A-team of first-call session musicians who fueled the city’s rise as a recording center. He is one of the most recorded bassists in the history of popular music, playing on more than 17,000 sessions during a career spanning more than half a century. His session credits include influential recordings with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee. In addition to countless hits by country legends such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Dottie West, he also recorded with an array of pop, rock, R&B and jazz greats, including Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ruth Brown.
“Bob Moore was the bassist Nashville needed,” said bassist-producer Norbert Putnam after Moore’s death. “He wasn’t just a country guy — he could cover it all, you know. He could play light jazz, country, pop, rock. The early stuff he played on with Elvis was just excellent. But I thought the work he did with Brenda Lee and Owen Bradley was his greatest playing.”
Moore, whose son is renowned home recordist R. Stevie Moore, was an investor when Monument Records first moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Nashville. Although he later sold his interest, Moore will always be identified with the company. His work as an arranger and session leader on recordings by Orbison, the label’s biggest star, helped forever broaden the scope of rock ’n’ roll.
“Bob Moore played a huge role in Nashville’s evolution into Music City,” says bassist Dave Pomeroy, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 257. “His big sound, propulsive rhythms and melodic playing defined the role of the acoustic bass in thousands of recordings over his long and epic career. Records like Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’ and Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ would never have been the same without his iconic bass parts, and those two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.” —Daryl Sanders
Country-rock innovator, “The Quiet Monkee”
Robert Michael “Nez” Nesmith was an incredibly bright, vibrant, multifaceted human being — a “bona fide pop-culture polymath,” in the words of a recent profile in Vanity Fair — so it’s been gratifying to see the recent outpouring of writing that includes so many little-known particulars of his life beyond The Monkees. For the past few years I have been Nesmith’s pedal-steel-playing sidekick. It was hard not to be taken in by the obvious passion he showed for so many topics, even during his wildest, most fanciful flights of conversation. And there were many of those!
One of Nez’s longest-lasting passions was the pedal-steel guitar, and without a doubt the most significant musical figure in Nesmith’s long post-Monkees career was pedal-steel guitarist Orville “Red” Rhodes, who died in 1995. Red’s pedal steel was the dominant musical voice throughout Nesmith’s prolific country-tinged period, which included studio sessions in Nashville like the one that led to the formation of Area Code 615.
Nesmith’s symbiotic relationship with Red through the years and his love of the pedal steel were part of the context for every show we played together. It was never about mimicry; rather it was about encouraging the freedom to create and take chances. That musical trust and mutual respect was a living, breathing part of Nez and Red’s legacy for me until the end, even on the more structured Monkees shows. I’ve never really known that level of enthusiasm and support before.
Nesmith could still be a delight to be around of course, but there was no mistaking that age, his heart issues and the multiple stresses of the pandemic had taken a substantial toll on him. But during the long Monkees tour we finished just a few weeks ago, he seemed to get soul sustenance from performing with Micky Dolenz again, from his interactions with the band and crew, and especially from the energy and obvious love of the crowds. By the end of the tour we were all delighted that he seemed so much more focused, healthy and happy than when we started. The trademark twinkle in his eye and infectious smile had returned. —Pete Finney