Mark Yeary, the pianist who spent almost two decades in Merle Haggard's backing band the Strangers, died on Friday (Jan. 17) after suffering a heart attack at his Arizona home, according to Bakersfield. His death was unexpected, according to his longtime girlfriend Leticia Mollers, who added that he'd played music just one night beforehand. He was 67 years old.

Yeary grew up in California's Orange County, but moved to Bakersfield as a teenager in the late 1960s. Just a few years later, he left home to hit the road as part of Haggard's touring outfit. Bakersfield reports that Haggard hired the young performer after inviting him for a quick interview/jam session with his longtime guitarist, Roy Nichols. It was a fateful move for Yeary, who would go on to spend the next 19 years as the Strangers' pianist and occasional producer.

Yeary left the band in 1992, though making a move away from Haggard and the Strangers proved challenging, both professionally and personally. His marriage ended, and he suffered a stroke that affected mobility in his right hand.

Despite those challenges, Yeary never fully stepped away from his musical career. He even honed his skills as a drummer, and has claimed to be a stronger drummer than pianist, according to his sister, Terri Ryan. Even after his days in the Strangers came to an end, he continued to make musical trips to Bakersfield, and he was a respected pianist who also performed with the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Ryan adds that in Yeary's later years, he was still working on new songs, and was even in the process of writing a book. A Go Fund Me page has been set up by Mollers in order to help cover the cost of his funeral expenses, as well as helping the family complete some of  Yeary's last projects. On the page, Mollers explains that she and Yeary had been working on a collection of his original songs and cover performances, adding that she plans to finish this project and share it with his fans.

"He never stopped his love for playing music, its one of the few things he was able to do since his stroke," Mollers says. "He could remember music, but not where the tv remote was, even if he was holding it."

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