Grand Ole Opry member Billy Grammer, best known for his 1959 pop crossover hit, “Gotta Travel On,” died Wednesday (Aug. 10) at a hospital in Benton, Ill., following a lengthy illness.
The 85-year-old Illinois native moved to the Washington, D.C., area after serving in the U.S. Army. He met local disc jockey and concert promoter Connie B. Gay and soon found work as a guitarist with Hawkshaw Hawkins and Grandpa Jones and as a band member on Jimmy Dean‘s local television show.
After launching his solo career as a singer, his Monument Records recording of “Gotta Travel On” reached No. 5 on Billboard‘s country chart and No. 4 on the pop chart. As an artist on the Decca, Epic and Mercury labels, he charted several other singles, including 1963’s “I Wanna Go Home” (a Mel Tillis-Danny Dill song that became a hit later that year by Bobby Bare as “Detroit City”). His last chart appearance came in 1969 with “Jesus Is a Soul Man,” a cover of a Lawrence Reynolds pop hit.
As a studio musician, he played on sessions with Charley Pride, Louis Armstrong and others. Perhaps one of the most underrated and overlooked instrumentalists of the era, Grammer’s album releases included Country Guitar and Gospel Guitar.
In 1964, he teamed with businessman Clyde Reid and guitar builder J.W. Gower to design and manufacture the Grammer Guitar, an acoustic instrument line that included Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard signature models. Following Cash’s death in 2003, one of the Grammer instruments he owned sold for $131,000 at a Sotheby’s auction.
Grammer became an Opry member in 1959 but stopped performing more than 20 years ago because of health issues. He and Ruth, his wife of 64 years, celebrated his 50th anniversary as an Opry member in Nashville in February 2009.