Much has been said and written about the inherent ageism in country music that has persisted throughout the years. And though the genre is no different than rock, pop, and hip-hop in the respect that it has always predominantly been a young person’s game, with one of country music’s charges being honoring and preserving the past, it’s especially troubling when you see country legends still with much to say and contribute shepherded out to pasture prematurely, sometimes to be forgotten nearly entirely, at least by the country music industry and its institutions.
The examples of this generational turnover are present throughout the genre’s history, whether it was the oldtimers like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb giving way to the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones, who later were displaced when Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson showed up, who ultimately would be edged out themselves when Bro-Country acts like Florida Georgia Line appeared.
But perhaps no story of country music’s ageism is more tragic than that of Faron Young, who was the man who made Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls” a country standard, minted five total #1 songs starting with his hit “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” in 1955, and ultimately amassed a pretty astonishing 36 Top 10 singles throughout the heart of his popular career that spanned well into the mid 70’s.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana and raised on a dairy farm outside of the city, Faron Young first wanted to be a classic pop singer when growing up. Hearing Hank Williams on the Louisiana Hayride changed all of that, and country is what Faron chose as his lifelong pursuit.
After later performing on the Louisiana Hayride himself and signing to Capitol Records, Faron Young was drafted by the Army. As Faron was working his way through basic training in 1952, his song “Goin’ Steady” was at #2 in the charts. After the Army, Faron Young relocated to Nashville full time, where along with making it big in country music, Faron had his idol Hank Williams steal his girlfriend Billie Jean Jones from him (Hank and Billie Jean later married).
Faron Young was a handsome devil, and his nickname soon became “The Hillbilly Heartthrob,” as well as “The Young Sheriff” for a role he played in a singing cowboy movie. Throughout the late 50’s and 60’s, he was one of country music’s biggest stars. He was also known for being a bit ornery, for liking to drink, and for being one of country music’s staunchest gatekeepers.
One of the most famous stories from the peak of Faron Young’s career comes from steel guitar player Lloyd Green, who remembers when Charley Pride first showed up in Nashville.
“We were in the studio once when Faron Young burst in, and just stood there glaring up at Charley with his hands on his hips,” Lloyd Green recalls. “No one would say a word, so… he grabbed Charley and kissed him on the lips, saying,‘I love you, Charley Pride.’ It was anepiphanous moment because oncehe did that, Nashville accepted Charley. Faron Young could cause a lot of problems back then, and sometimes did, so once he accepted Charley everyone else kind of had to, too.”
But as Faron Young’s career reached the 70’s, his behavior started eating into his own reputation in town. An incident in 1972 when he was accused of spanking a girl in the audience of a Clarksburg, West Virginia concert caused a public stir. Young claims the woman spat on him first. He ultimately paid a $24 fine and moved on. Signed with Mercury Records since the early 60’s, when his albums and singles started to struggle, the label let him go in 1978. He then signed with MCA Records in 1979 in a deal that only lasted two years and two albums before he was let go again. After that, Faron Young’s career was mostly over.
As Faron’s career started to decline, so did his personal life, resulting in an incident in 1984 when he fired a pistol into the ceiling of his kitchen, scaring his wife. He might have been called “The Hillbilly Heartthrob,” but his attitude towards women at times was less than gentlemanly. The two would divorce after 32 years of marriage two years later.
Faron did try one last crack at revitalizing his career by signing to Step One Records in 1988 and releasing a handful of records, including a Christmas album, and a duet album with another aging country legend, Ray Price. But nobody was paying attention. The “Class of ’89”—Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt—were setting the country music world on fire, and permanently burying the careers of guys like Faron Young.
Despondent over the way his legendary career was being overlooked, and the rabid commercialization on the genre he once worked to keep honest and true, Faron Young withdrew from the public eye completely. Even the few engagements for country legends that did occur in town, Faron would forgo. Slowly but surely, he became all but forgotten, and began suffering health problems as well, trying to take care of himself since he lived alone. He was battling emphysema, and had undergone prostate surgery for Cancer.
Then on December 9th, 1996, with his career forgotten and his health failing, Faron Young decided to end his own life. He penned a suicide note specifically enumerating his health and the decline in his career, and how he felt abandoned and forgotten by country music as one of the causes, and shot himself.
Faron Young biographer Diane Diekman says, “My research for Faron’s biography, ‘Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story,’ convinced me he suffered from life-long depression, which was responsible for his suicide. He had retired several years earlier. His health and the music business were possible contributing factors, as was his alienation from his family.”
One of the worst details of the Faron Young suicide is that he initially survived. Shortly after the shot, one of Young’s long time friends and band members, Ray Emmett, came to check on him, and found him lying in his bed, still alive. Faron Young didn’t die until the next day, December 10th, at 1:07 p.m. at Nashville’s Summit Medical Center. He was 64. Young was cremated, and his ashes were spread by Faron’s family over Old Hickory Lake at the house of Johnny and June Cash.
Faron’s friend and booking agent Jim Case said at the time, “It made me sad to see him quit (the business) but, legends like him just don’t get any attention. He just got tired of the music business as it was. He just stayed home and didn’t do much of anything.”
Faron Young was not considered a model citizen. But he was also known to help out struggling songwriters and even perfect strangers throughout his career. About the time he took his own life, a new movement was starting in country music. Revivalist bands full of young and enthusiastic musicians like BR549 were beginning to perform the older songs again, and trying to bring back country music’s old sounds to a new audience. But for Faron Young, it was too late.
There are many stories of country entertainers being unceremoniously brushed aside in country. But none are as tragic as the one about Faron Young.
– – – – –
This story has been updated.
He died of a gunshot wound that apparently was self-inflicted, the police said; he was found wounded on Monday at his Nashville home, along with a note that detailed plans to kill himself. His lawyer, Grant Smith, said Mr. Young had emphysema and had recently undergone prostate surgery.
Young was a successful businessman and occasional movie actor. He founded the country music fan magazine Music City News, which he later sold. His nickname, "the Singing Sheriff," came from a role he played in "Hidden Guns."