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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.”

NETHERLANDS - MARCH 21: Photo of Steve EARLE; Steve Earle in Amsterdam, Holland 21 March 1987 (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

Steve Earle

David Corio/Redferns

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Steve Earle

One of the best songwriters of his generation, Steve Earle is an iconoclast to the core – and, at various times throughout his life, his own worst enemy. His hero and later best friend was Townes Van Zandt, and Van Zandt’s tortured run to an early grave was in many ways the template for the demons that often crept into Earle’s life. In 1986, he scored his breakthrough with Guitar Town, a roots record that was as much rock & roll as it was country. Earle soon spiraled into substance abuse, but he did one thing his hero couldn’t do: bouncing back with some of his finest work. He’d also branch into playwriting and novels, as his son, Justin Townes Earle, rose up as a gifted songwriter in his own right. Not that he’s one to fuss over himself: “It’s really just some songs that gotten written accidentally,” he told Rolling Stone last year. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Copperhead Road,” “Goodbye’s All We Got Left,” “Fort Worth Blues”

Townes Van Zandt during Townes Van Zandt in Concert at the The Last Resort - February 6, 1973 at The Last Resort in Athens, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Townes Van Zandt

Tom Hill/WireImage

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Townes Van Zandt

Decades before terms like “Americana” were being tossed about, Van Zandt defined that nebulous term, blending country with folk and singing in a bony, prairie-flat voice more at home in coffee houses than in arenas. Like Kristofferson, he was part of a new generation of poetic-soul songwriter that emerged in the Sixties, and he too became best known for inspiring covers – in his case, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Emmylou Harris and Don Williams’ hit duet on “If I Needed You.” Given his self-destructive streak, it wasn’t surprising when Van Zandt died of a heart attack in 1997 at 52, but his poignant ruminations endure in covers by Steve Earle and Norah Jones, among others. David Browne

Key Tracks: “Waiting Around to Die,” “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” 

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Lynn ANDERSON (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns)

Lynn Anderson

Ron Howard/Redferns

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Lynn Anderson

The North Dakota-born Lynn Anderson has her mother to thank for launching her country career: mom Liz Anderson wrote Merle Haggard’s breakthrough hit “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which helped introduce her to the head of her first record label. Anderson also made regular appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show during her teenage years, which helped propel songs like the wistful yet upbeat “If I Kiss You (Will You Go Away)” to the country Top 10. She moved to Nashville in 1970 and a year later she’d managed to top both the country and pop charts with “Rose Garden,” a no-nonsense ode to living in the moment that showcased her brassy delivery. Her string of country hits, which included her cover of the Carpenters’ bubbly “Top of the World” and the saucy “What a Man My Man Is,” continued through the mid Seventies. In the Eighties she returned to the country Top 10 with “You’re Welcome to Tonight,” a duet with smooth vocalist Gary Morris. Her final album Bridges, which features a gospel-tinged version of the dreamy Dobie Gray smash “Drift Away,” came out a month before her death in 2015. M.J.

Key Tracks: “Rose Garden,” “If I Kiss You,” “What a Man My Man Is”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Statler Brothers Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Statler Brothers

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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Statler Brothers

Not a family act ­– they got together while singing at church in their shared hometown of Staunton, Virginia – this quartet blended country’s down-home melodicism with gospel’s stirring harmonies and were the backing vocalists for Johnny Cash through the mid-Seventies, all the while scoring hits on their own. The title track of the Statlers’ 1966 debut Flowers on the Wall became a crossover smash, hitting Number Two on the country chart and Number Four on the Hot 100. The song’s absurdist yet heartfelt lyrics, penned by tenor Lee DeWitt, prompted novelist Kurt Vonnegut to dub the group “America’s poets.” The biting 1970 single “Bed of Rose’s,” written by bass singer Harold Reid, took on small-town hypocrisy with a jaunty rhythm; the sweet ode to an audience member “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” neatly splits the titular question in two. In the early Eighties, the Statlers ­– minus DeWitt, who left the group in 1983 – topped the Hot Country Songs survey with “Elizabeth,” “My Only Love” and “Too Much on My Heart,” all of which were written by new tenor Jimmy Fortune. In the Nineties the group hosted a variety show on the Nashville Network. They split in 2002, although the inclusion of their songs in the film Pulp Fiction and, oddly, the video game Grand Theft Audio: San Andreas has extended their legacy to new generations. M.J.

Key Tracks: “Flowers on the Wall,” “Bed of Rose’s,” “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine?”

LAS VEGAS - MAY 14: Musician Taylor Swift performs onstage during the first ever Academy Of Country Music New Artists' Show Party for a Cause, benefiting the ACM Charitable Fund held at the MGM Grand Ballroom, MGM Grand Conference Center on May 14, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Taylor Swift

Ethan Miller/Getty

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Taylor Swift

It was inevitable that Taylor Swift would leave country music behind for pop – her superstar quality could not be contained by just one genre. As a teenager writing her own songs, Swift ­– born in Pennsylvania, groomed in Nashville – impacted country radio before she was even 18, with “Tim McGraw” a Top 10 hit, and “Our Song” her first country Number One in 2007. By the time she’d invoked the wrath of Kanye West at the 2009 VMAs, she was already playing to a different tune than her peers, and subsequent LPs Fearless and Red led to greater notoriety. Still, her conscious uncoupling from the genre that established her ahead of 2014’s smash 1989 left some wishing she kept one foot in country. “Love you, mean it,” Swift said in a 2014 Rolling Stone cover story, “but this is how it’s going to be.” J.G. 

Key Tracks: “You Belong to Me,” “Tim McGraw”

Alabama (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook), U.S. country music band, pose sitting on stools, circa 1980.. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)

Alabama (Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook)

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

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Alabama

In the late 1970s, bands did not make mainstream country music – solo artists did. Bands made dirty, free-loving rock & roll, or maybe bluegrass, but they didn’t (god forbid) mix the two, until Alabama, a trio of friends from Fort Payne, Alabama, who went on to be one of the best-selling acts of all time. Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry were so left-field that they were initially rejected from every label in Nashville, ultimately landing on RCA and introducing their style, which blended monster hooks, traditional fiddle and Southern roots, in a way that left Music Row blindsided and pearl-clutching – but then begging for more. Forty-three Number One singles later, Alabama made a new sort of musical fusion possible, one that opened up the door for everyone from Eli Young Band to Old Crow Medicine Show, whose version of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” is a new classic. M.M.

Key Tracks: “Mountain Music,” “Song of the South,” “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why)” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 23: Rosanne Cash performs at the Union Chapel on July 23, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robin Little/Redferns)

Roseanne Cash

Robin Little/Redferns

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Rosanne Cash

Johnny Cash’s daughter fused literate, vulnerable subject matter with muscular new wave-tinged production during her mainstream country heyday, resulting in a spectacular string of LPs beginning with 1980’s Right or Wrong through 1987’s King’s Record Shop. With her post-divorce (from producer Rodney Crowell) second act she dissected heartbreak down to its most minute detail, and plumbed extraordinary depths after losing her parents – and stepmother, June Carter Cash – with 2006’s grief-stricken Black Cadillac and 2014’s colorful Southern travelogue The River & The Thread, both recorded with current husband-collaborator John Leventhal. “Like any person in their twenties,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014, “I needed to get away from my parents to find out who I was. But in your thirties, you start appreciating who your parents are, and by your forties, you say, ‘They know a couple of things – maybe I should be friends with them.'” S.B.

Key Tracks: “Seven Year Ache,” “Paralyzed,” “World of Strange Design”

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: WEMBLEY ARENA Photo of Patty LOVELESS (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Patty Loveless

David Redfern/Redferns

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Patty Loveless

When George Jones died, Patty Loveless sang (with Vince Gill) at his funeral. That was perfect. Loveless’ breakthrough single was a version of Jones’ “If My Heart Had Windows,” and the legend’s own final hit was a duet with Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me.” From the late Eighties through most of the Nineties, Loveless married her roots in Appalachian bluegrass to Jones’ in-the-moment honky-tonk countrypolitan, and the result was a string of hits that modernized the old sounds. Her ballads (“Don’t Toss Us Away,” “Lonely Too Long”) made grownups tear up while her fast ones (“Chains,” “I Try to Think about Elvis”) found a solution for tears on the dancefloor and in singing along. These days Loveless can’t buy a hit. But that doesn’t mean George Jones’ greatest acolyte isn’t still the best country singer alive. David Cantwell

Key Tracks: “Don’t Toss Us Away,” “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me,” “I Try to Think About Elvis” 

TARRYTOWN, NY - JUNE 22: Country singer Marty Stuart on his tour bus at the Westchester Premiere Theater in Tarrytown, New York on June 22, 1992. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Marty Stuart

Waring Abbott/Getty

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Marty Stuart

A musician’s musician, Stuart logged more than a decade as a sideman for the titans of twang – including Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and Lester Flatt – before launching his solo career. Mainstream success arrived during the late Eighties, with Stuart building his fanbase not only on the strength of his voice, but his hotshot guitar playing, too. Now 45 years into an acclaimed career, he’s built a resume as towering as his notoriously rooster-like hairdo, collaborating with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers one minute and hosting his own cult-favorite TV program, The Marty Stuart Show, the next. On his newest release, Way Out West, he connects the dots between surf music, California country and spaghetti western soundtracks, fashioning a sound as bold and broad as his own history. A.L.

Key Tracks: “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time),” “Way Out West”

Photo of ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL; L-R (back): Ray Benson; (middle): Leroy Preston, Danny Levin, Chris O'Connell, Scott Hennige, Floyd Domino, Tony Garnier; (front): Lucky Oceans, Bill Mabry, Link Davis Jr posed, (Photo by Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns)

Asleep At The Wheel

Charlie Gillett Collection/Redferns

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Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson has been preaching the gospel of Western swing for more than 45 years, and given his imposing 6-foot 7-inch frame, his message has been hard to ignore. Of course, there’s also the music delivered by his consistently stellar band Asleep at the Wheel, a group of rotating members that faithfully re-creates one of country’s most thrilling subgenres. Benson’s admiration for Bob Wills (the Wheel have recorded several tributes to the Western swing legend) helped preserve the form in an era where it might otherwise have been forgotten. Despite only scoring one significant hit in “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” the Wheel have notched Grammys (including one for 2009’s Willie Nelson collab Willie and the Wheel) and played Austin City Limits more than any other artist, a fact helped by being one of country’s great live ensembles. J.G.

Key Tracks: “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” “Miles and Miles of