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Billy Grammer, guitar ace, regular on Opry had ’58 hit

Associated Press / August 12, 2011

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NASHVILLE - Billy Grammer, whose 1958 hit “Gotta Travel On’’’ hit the top of the charts and led to a long career on the Grand Ole Opry, has died. He was 85.

Mr. Grammer died Wednesday morning in his home state of Illinois of natural causes, according to a statement from Grand Ole Opry spokeswoman Jessie Schmidt. He had suffered a heart attack in late March while visiting Plano, Texas.

A singer and guitarist who was also a Nashville recording session musician, Mr. Grammer performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry beginning in 1959.

“Gotta Travel On,’’ adapted from a British folk tune, was a million-seller and the first hit for Nashville’s Monument Records and its famed founder, Fred Foster. It was a hit on the pop, country, and rhythm & blues charts.

Mr. Grammer also designed guitars, and a brand of flat-top came from a company he started in the 1960s. He donated his first model to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1969.

His other hits included “Bonaparte’s Retreat’’ and he had his own syndicated television series in 1965. A much sought-after session man, he played guitar in recording sessions for Patti Page, Louis Armstrong, Eddy Arnold, and many others.

Mr. Grammer delivered the invocation for the opening of a new Grand Ole Opry House in 1974 with President Nixon in attendance.

The eldest of 13 children in a coal-mining family in Benton, Ill., Mr. Grammer spent his childhood on a farm, fishing the Wabash River and dreaming of becoming a mechanical engineer.

After high school he served in the Army and took on an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. He made his way to Washington, D.C., where he was hired in the bands of Hawkshaw Hawkins and Grandpa Jones. He also appeared as a guitarist on Jimmy Dean’s television show. He then formed his own band and began performing as a solo artist.