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100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time

From architects of the genre like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to game-changers Garth Brooks and Shania Twain

When putting together this ranking of country music’s all-time greats, we looked to movie criticism for inspiration. For decades Citizen Kane topped nearly every list as the greatest film ever made, but with time, some started to realize that, hey, just maybe The Godfather is the better picture. Likewise, we reevaluated exactly where Hank Williams fits into country music, the true influence of Merle Haggard, and if an artist as clearly in the pop realm as Taylor Swift deserves inclusion. (Spoiler alert: She does.)

Of course, while 100 artists is a lengthy list, there isn’t room for everyone. We didn’t include those who were primarily songwriters, like Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. We respectfully skipped past Chet Atkins, who, though an architect of the Nashville Sound and a solo artist, was chiefly a sideman and producer. And we omitted both Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, whose admittedly important contributions to country music took a backseat to their work in rock & roll and soul.

For those who made the cut, we considered their lasting impact on the genre, their recorded output and even their legacy as an entertainer. Some of the contemporary artists we included – all of them already trailblazers – also benefited from our speculation that their best work may in fact be ahead of them.

But in the end, the common denominator for both legends and today’s stars was that they are all one-of-a-kind.

“Here’s the thing about history,” Vince Gill told Rolling Stone in 2014, “the greatest artists that had the greatest longevity were all original.”

Emmylou Harris 1977 at the Music File Photos 1970's in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)

Emmylou Harris

Chris Walter/WireImage

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Emmylou Harris

Country’s quintessential harmony singer and finder of songs, Harris’ profound emotional stamp has distinguished hundreds of records (hers and others’) for decades. “The way people pronounce words and syllables is so important to me – even more important than the parts. It’s a matter of that feel,” Harris told Rolling Stone in 1978 of her vocal contributions. Mentored by and first paired with Gram Parsons, who died in 1973, Harris began a two-decade run with Warner Bros., taking interpretations of hits from Buck Owens (“Together Again”) and Patsy Cline (“Sweet Dreams”) to Number One and making superstars of her Hot Band members, including Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs. She joined Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton for the long-gestated Trio LP in 1986 and teamed with producer Daniel Lanois for 1995’s intense, needle-moving Wrecking Ball, a prelude to her growing reliance on her own insightful songwriting. S.B.

Key Tracks: “Boulder to Birmingham,” “Deeper Well”

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Johnny HORTON; Portrait with a guitar (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Johnny Horton

GAB Archive/Redferns

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Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton was the early master of the story-song, a medium later popularized by country artists like Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall. With a penchant for historical tunes, the Texas-raised troubadour told tales of the War of 1812 (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and a World War II navy mission (“Sink the Bismarck”) and sang three songs about the Alaska gold rush during his brief career – he died in a 1960 car accident. More a rockabilly singer than a country artist, Horton nonetheless had an impact on Nashville, especially with his 1958 debut single “Honky Tonk Man,” which Dwight Yoakam covered as his debut single in 1986. But it was “The Battle of New Orleans” with which he is most associated. It’s a marvel of a song, driven by a plinking banjo, a marching beat and Horton’s exhortation to “fire our cannons until the barrel melted down.” J.H.

Key Tracks: “The Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska” 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of John ANDERSON (C&W) (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

John Anderson

Beth Gwinn/Redferns

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John Anderson

In the wake of the early Eighties country-crossover moment embodied by Urban Cowboy, someone had to drag the music back to its barroom roots, and the Florida-born, Haggard-loving Anderson stepped up. Boosted by Anderson’s voice, which recalled George Jones’ pained baritone, early hits like “Swingin’,” “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories,” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” made fiddles and steel guitars cool again in country, and not a moment too soon. Later hits like 1992’s potent “Seminole Wind” – and even parts of his most recent album, 2015’s Goldmine – show Anderson remains a proudly stubborn, beefy-voiced traditionalist. D.B.

Key Tracks: “Wild and Blue,” “Seminole Wind”

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) STUDIO Photo of Don GIBSON, - (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Don Gibson

GAB Archive/Redferns

55

Don Gibson

Regarded for his swooping, moaning vocals and an impressive catalog of skillfully penned tales of heartache and regret, singer-songwriter and so-called “sad poet” Don Gibson notched his first hit in 1956 with “Sweet Dreams,” which seven years later would be the first posthumous hit for Patsy Cline. But it was Gibson’s doubled-sided smash in 1957 that identified him as an ace vocalist and writer: “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Both were written on the same day, and with “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Gibson and producer Chet Atkins created a Countrypolitan classic, a song that would be covered by Ray Charles, Kitty Wells, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young and Duke Ellington, among others. After several RCA hits, Gibson moved to Hickory Records and scored with the romantic “Woman (Sensuous Woman).” In 1973, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, with Country Music Hall of Fame induction following in 2001. Gibson died in 2003 at 75 years old, but “I Can’t Stop Loving You” lives on as a part of the American songbook. S.B.

Key Tracks: “Oh Lonesome Me,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “I’ll Be a Legend in My Time”