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Billy Grammer, a Benton native and legendary country guitarist, died early Wednesday morning. He was 85.

Grammer died at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday in Benton Hospital.

According to his widow, Ruth, Grammer suffered from a number of medical issues as a result of a heart attack April 1. She said he died peacefully while in a coma.

"That's the way he wanted to go," she said.

Although he had several hit singles, Grammer's most famous song, "Gotta Travel On," sold more than 1 million copies and was also recorded by Bob Dylan, Webb Pierce and was performed by Buddy Holly on his last tour.

In the studio, Grammer played on albums by Louis Armstrong, Patti Page and Charley Pride, including on Pride's hit "Kiss an Angel Good Morning." He also toured with such artists as Jimmy Dean and Grandpa Jones.

"I never became a superstar, but I sold a lot more records than a lot of people," Grammer told The Southern Illinoisan in 2009.

Born in 1925 in Benton, Grammer grew up in Southern Illinois. After spending time in the military, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ruth Burzynski, to whom he was wed for 66 years.

While the two were living in Washington, Grammer was hired as a singer at WARL in Arlington, Va., by Connie B. Gay, a popular country DJ.

When the lead guitarist was fired, Grammer took on double duty and began honing his skills on the fretboard, which would make him famous.

While performing as a sideman on Jimmy Dean's television show, Grammer met a young Roy Clark, who was primarily a banjo player at the time, and taught him a thing or two about playing guitar.

In the 1960s, Grammer developed his own line of guitars. One that was owned by Johnny Cash was sold at auction for $131,000.

Although he stopped actively performing more than 20 years ago for health reasons, Grammer occasionally returned to the Grand Old Opry, of which he was a member for 52 years. The Opry celebrated his 50th anniversary with a special ceremony and performance in 2009.

Grammer never lost his love of music.

"If Roy Clark was to call me right now and say, ‘Billy, I'm going on a 60-day tour,' you know what I'll do? I'll say, ‘Ruth, pack my bags.'"

At the time of the celebration at the Opry, Grammer was working on a few new songs and toying with the idea of recording.

"Wouldn't it be a kick in the hind-end if an 83-year-old guy had a hit?" he said.

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On Twitter: @BrentStewartSI

 

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