Elk NetworkAn Amen Kind of Love for Traditional Country & Elk Country

General | May 10, 2018

Daryle Singletary
March 10, 1971 – February 12, 2018

The first time Daryle Singletary made the pilgrimage from his home in Cairo, Georgia, to Nashville he went straight to Opryland Drive and cut a record.

“It was the biggest deal for me to go to Opryland and the Barbara Mandrell record-your-own-voice studio there,” he told The Tennessean in 1998. “I recorded ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ I think I was 12.”

Seven years later, he was back in Music City for good. He moved to Nashville in the fall of 1990 and started hitting nightclub talent contests, picking up $100 here and there. He put together a band and got a steady gig at a honkytonk incubator for up-and-coming singers and songwriters called The Broken Spoke. Singletary recorded a pair of singles for the independent label Evergreen Records in 1992, but neither met with success. All this time, he kept peppering his idol, Randy Travis—a man originally rejected by every major label in Nashville for being “too country”—with letters. After members of Travis’s band heard him at The Broken Spoke, they urged the star to come have a listen.

With Travis as his co-producer, Singletary issued his eponymous debut album on Giant Records in 1995. It included the career-launching singles, “I’m Living Up to Her Low Expectations,” “I Let Her Lie,” “Too Much Fun” and “Workin’ It Out.” Traditional honkytonk fans shouted, Hallelujah! His consequent projects included the hits “Amen Kind Of Love,” “The Used To Bes” and “The Note.”

Singletary’s devotion to the traditional sound forged a kinship with fellow artists, as evidenced by his 2002 album, That’s Why I Sing This Way. It featured duet performances on 11 country classics with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs and Johnny Paycheck, among others.

“When I moved to Nashville in 1990, I left Georgia telling my daddy, ‘I want to make my living in country music,’” Singletary said in a 2015 interview. “I didn’t tell him I wanted to be played on the radio every day or be on a video channel every day. I said, ‘I want to make a living playing for the people who enjoy my kind of music.’ Thankfully, I have been able to do that since 1995.”

Early on the morning of February 12, Singletary died unexpectedly at his home in Lebanon, Tennessee. He was 46.

The first Daryle Singletary song Steve Decker ever heard was “Too Much Fun.”

“I remember rattling through the woods of Lincoln County, Montana, in a little Toyota pickup going to and from hunting and after-school shenanigans and out on the weekends. That song was like fuel on the fire,” says Decker, RMEF’s vice president of marketing.

Listening to Singletary’s self-titled debut album—a refreshing blast of traditional honkytonk country music—Decker imagined seeing him in concert someday.

“When he came on the scene, you knew he had something special,” Decker says. “His voice for real country music was truly heaven-sent.”

It never dawned on him that they would meet, much less that they’d become close friends and one day the two of them would be driving from Nashville to Louisville, singing those songs together. 

Charged with booking fresh talent for the evening events at RMEF’s 2011 Elk Camp, Decker thought, why not? and gave Singletary a call. Now and then you meet someone and know immediately that you’ve found a kindred spirit, someone you just connect with. That’s how it was for Singletary and Decker from the moment the two sat down over beers.

“It felt like I’d known him my whole life,” says Decker. “Maybe that goes back to riding around in the hills outside Libby in the ‘90s, listening to that voice. Maybe, through his music, I had.”

The Elk Camp crowd ate up Singletary’s show and over the next seven years he became a fixture at Elk Camp—from solo acoustic sets to plugged-in,
full-band blasts to the national anthem. He played many other RMEF events along the way as well.

Daryle is survived by his wife Holly; twin sons Mercer (left) and Jonah, 7; and daughters Nora Caroline, 4, and Charlotte Rose, 2.

“Did the partnership help him? You bet. But I think it helped RMEF more,” Decker says. “He was doing what he loved to do knowing that it benefited the other things that he loved to do. He loved the members of RMEF and we loved him. That’s a win-win. Daryle got to live his dream. He truly loved what he did, whether he was playing to 200 people or 20,000.” 

When it came to traditional country music, Singletary played it straight, but offstage he was the eternal prankster, willing to go to any length to pull off a joke. Take the time his fiddle player Andy Varner went on vacation in Florida, bringing his two faithful little dogs. Singletary sleuthed out what hotel Andy was staying in, and he happened to know the local sheriff. Andy was enjoying lunch in a local restaurant when the sheriff appeared tableside and asked him to step outside.

“There’s a problem. You’re dogs are not supposed to be in that hotel.”

“No, sir, I absolutely cleared that ahead of time with the manger.”

“That’s not what the manager said. And he should know. One of your dogs just bit an animal control officer. Here, I’ll give him a call.”

The whole episode was captured on body camera and the manager was, of course, Singletary. He can be heard in the background shouting, “Arrest him. Take him to jail now. Arrest him!”

“Well, just a minute now, he seems pretty contrite,” the sheriff said, before handing the phone to Andy. “Maybe the two of you can come to some kind of understanding.”

On the flip side, Singletary was equally happy to laugh at himself. Back in 2004, he had volunteered for the fundraiser, Country Goes Huntin’, which pairs turkey hunting pro-staffers with country singers. Everyone goes at their own expense and no one is paid for their efforts. The pros guide the singers on a multi-day hunt and at the end of the last day, the country stars perform a benefit concert with the general public invited. All proceeds from concert ticket sales, online auctions and other items sold go into a huge pot and are divided evenly among all the participating charities, which range from local (Wiregrass Children’s Home, Georgia Sheriff’s Association) to national (Wheelin’ Sportsmen and the American Cancer Society).

Singletary was paired with his longtime turkey hunting buddy, Realtree pro staffer Sam Klement. Unfortunately, Singletary blew not one but two golden opportunities, caught in full infamy on film. That’s when Klement dubbed him “Double-Barrel Daryle,” a nickname that stuck. After missing yet another bird during the first part of the 2005 event, Singletary’s streak looked doomed to persist.

“I was really down in the dumps after missing another bird during the 2005 hunt,” Singletary said. “But luckily, I shot one the day of the concert. I decided not to tell anyone until that night. When I got up to perform, I called all of the country singers and hunters up on stage. Then I played the clip from last year of me missing both of the birds. People were yelling, ‘Daryle, you suck!’ Then we aired the footage of me finally shooting a bird. Everyone went crazy!”

This spring would have been the 24th season of chasing turkeys together for Klement and Singletary.

“My heart is broken right now for his family,” Klement says. “Daryle was a true sportsman who loved the outdoors and being in camp with his family and friends. We
had already talked about getting his sons out for their first hunt. I can’t imagine going to the turkey woods this spring without him. Every time I hear a turkey gobble, rest assured, I will be thinking about Double-Barrel Daryle.”

Phillip Culpepper, Realtree’s video producer, added, “Daryle was laid back most of the time, but whenever a turkey came close, you would have thought he was a little kid on his first hunt. That’s one of the things I loved about him. His passion for the outdoors was unmatched, and he was never afraid to let people know he was a hunter and proud of it.”

Despite repeated overtures, Singletary never went on an elk hunt.

“Daryle came from the backwoods of southern Georgia, but he wasn’t what I would call a backcountry hunter,” Decker says. “He was a turkey hunter from the South. That was his comfort zone, and nobody loved it more.”

He criss-crossed the country in a tour bus custom-wrapped in Realtree camo, with a turkey-hunting scene splashed across the side, playing hundreds of gigs across the West. But he never hunted there.

“The whole idea of hunting elk in the West was like saying, ‘We’re going to take you to Mars and you’re going to hunt a Martian,’” Decker says. “He built it up to be way more in his mind. If he would have just actually done it, he would’ve eaten it up. But somehow it was mythical to him.”

So why did a guy who never chased elk care about RMEF?

“Daryle saw how we worked to represent the future of hunting and I think that’s where his initial passion for what we did came from,” Decker says. “He also really appreciated what we did to bring elk back to Kentucky and North Carolina and his adopted home state of Tennessee. But over and above all of that, he believed that conservation was important. He believed that this is God’s creation and he believed that we were doing good work to protect it.” 

Even those who only met Singletary once at Elk Camp or at a Habitat Council meeting felt a powerful connection with him. He genuinely loved being with people and regardless of where he was going or what he was doing, he always made time to engage with them. No matter how late he was, the world around him moved at his pace.

“He was one of the easiest people to get mad at and one of the hardest to stay mad at,” says Bo Gardner, vice president of Las Vegas Events. “He always had a smile and a wink and a genuine charm about him. And when he started to sing, everything was okay.”

Singletary likely could have enjoyed far greater fame and made a whole lot more money, but as the country music industry veered headlong into the slicker, formulaic, commercial sound that has come to dominate mainstream country radio, he never wavered from the traditional path.

“My fans are not fans of the bro-country movement, which doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said in 2015. “They’re people who like it real, and that’s what I give them. I’ve been so fortunate. I’m by no means a millionaire, but I make a living singing what I love—honest country music.”

That year, Singletary released There’s Still a Little Country Left. On its opening track, he proclaimed, “If you want to do it right, do it like old George Jones… If you came to Twang Town just for the money, then pack it up, son, get out of my country.”

At his funeral, Daryle’s father said one of the things he took the most pride in about his son was that from the time he was a kid to his early success to his harder times and his recent resurgence, he never  thought he was better than anyone. The words used most often to describe him were integrity, honor and conviction—conviction for his faith, his family and traditional country music.

He lived in a bus from the time he was a teenager, running up and down the road. Then in 2003 he met a surgical nurse named Holly Mercer. She listened to pop music and couldn’t name a single one of his songs.

“Believe it or not, Daryle and I went grocery shopping on our first date! We were going over to our mutual friends’ log cabin to hang out for the day and needed provisions,” Mercer said. “So we were going up and down the aisle of the store trying to get to know each other—and not very successfully either!”

They found common ground in their faith and belief in family.

“Daryle changed when he met Holly. She brought him down to earth and grounded him. And he changed even more when those kids came into his life,” Decker says. “There wasn’t a single time we visited when he didn’t talk about those kids. He loved them more than life itself. When he was home he turned his phone off at dinner time and left it off until his boys went to school the next morning. That was his time to recharge and just be with his family.” 

Apart from his many performances at RMEF events, perhaps the thing RMEF members know him best for is his rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Paired with the videography of longtime Elk Foundation partner James Grandy and Big Time Entertainment, who produce Team Elk and have been responsible for the lion’s share of the videos RMEF has created over the past decade, it premiered in 2013. 

As Decker recalls, the entire conversation that led to the video went like this:

“Would you be willing to record ‘America the Beautiful’ for us?”

“Oh hell yeah. That would be a great one. I’ll handle all the stuff on my end.”

Then commenced the great wait. Singletary was famously particular about his craft and insisted on assembling the cream of Nashville’s musicians for the project. Mike Johnson is widely respected as one of the best steel guitar players in America. Guys like that don’t have a lot of daylight in their schedules. So the project shuffled along at an opossum’s gait, and Decker grew more and more impatient. Every effort to light a fire under Singletary met with the same response. “Hey buddy, it’ll be worth it. Just trust me.”    

For his part, Singletary delivered the vocals, lead guitar and a spoken word interlude quoting Theodore Roosevelt.

“When he finally sent it to me, he was like a little kid,” Decker says. “He kept saying, ‘This is the real deal, buddy. This is the real deal.’”

It was.

“When we debuted it at Elk Camp, he was sitting next to me and by the end of it we both had tears in our eyes,” says Decker. They were not alone.  

“Of all the collaborations we did with him, this was the best. Everyone truly came together and just shined,” Decker says. “I believe it makes people think about our country. It makes them think about the connection to wildlife and the land that is such a huge part of what America is.”

The day before Singletary died, he texted Decker saying he was going to rewrap his tour bus in a new Realtree pattern. He wanted to replace the turkey scene with elk.

“He was just always there with some new idea or just checking in, saying, ‘Hey buddy, how’s it going?’” Decker says. “That’s the hard part. Now he won’t be.”

After a pause, he adds, “In my heart, he will be.”