Home Music Music Country Lists

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.”

(Original Caption) : 1978- Picture shows country singer, Tanya Tucker, holding a guitar to the side and wearing a black leather suit. (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Tanya Tucker

Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty

67

Tanya Tucker

Tanya Tucker wasn’t even old enough to get a driver’s license when she recorded “Delta Dawn,” but she sang it with the confidence of someone twice her age. That gritty vocal timbre, coupled with the possibly-too-mature subject matter of her songs (like “Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone])”, made the young Seminole, Texas, native a star and an archetype for the tough-talking, rebellious female performers who followed in her wake. She could rock out with ease – check out her cover of “Not Fade Away” on TNT – but was equally comfortable selling the drama of a good ballad. Drinking and substance abuse issues threatened to derail Tucker’s career in the early 1980s, but she enjoyed an impressive second act with a softer pop-country sound in the late Eighties, scoring a long string of Top 10 hits including Number Ones “Strong Enough to Bend” and “If It Don’t Come Easy.” She hasn’t been as active in the last decade, but in fairness she’d already cranked out more hits by 20 than most people do in a lifetime. J.F.

Key Tracks: “Delta Dawn,” “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” “Texas (When I Die)”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Roy Acuff Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Roy Acuff

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

66

Roy Acuff

Country music as we know it starts with Roy Acuff. The fiddler with a quintessentially spare singing style wasn’t called “The King of Country Music” for nothing: Acuff, more than anyone, had the savvy to see the business potential in country music. During the late Thirties and Forties, when his songs like “The Great Speckled Bird” and “The Wreck on the Highway” saw him rule the charts, the first-ever living inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame helped transform the Grand Ole Opry from country bumpkin revue into a bonafide showcase. Most important, however, was Acuff’s vision in founding the Acuff-Rose publishing house with Fred Rose, which made Nashville into a publishing hotspot and ensured that Music City would forever be the cradle of country music. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Great Speckled Bird,” “The Wreck on the Highway”

SOLANA BEACH, CA - MARCH 08: Singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver performs on stage at Belly Up Tavern on March 8, 2015 in Solana Beach, California. (Photo by Daniel Knighton/FilmMagic)

Billy Joe Shaver

Daniel Knighton/FilmMagic

65

Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver is ground zero for outlaw country songwriters. A millworker from Corsicana, Texas (he lost two fingers on the job), Shaver was the man behind some of the Seventies’ most memorable songs, starting with Waylon Jennings’ seminal outlaw LP, 1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes, most which was written by Shaver. His own debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, released the same year and produced by Kris Kristofferson, is a country classic in its own right, but writing the songs has always taken priority over playing them for Shaver. “The song is the cheapest psychiatrist there is. I pretty much need one all the time,” he said in 2014. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me”

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Marty ROBBINS (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

Marty Robbins

David Redfern/Redferns

64

Marty Robbins

Few voices in country music were as instantly recognizable as Marty Robbins, and few artists took as many chances as the “El Paso” singer. Rock & roll, calypso, blues – everything was fair game for Robbins, who even moonlighted as a NASCAR driver when simply scoring country and pop hits became too easy. And Robbins scored plenty of those, starting in earnest with his doo-wop ditty “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” in 1957, one of 17 Number One singles he would record. The Arizona native’s rich croon was perfect for swinging love songs, yet he made his most enduring mark as the master of murder ballads, 1959’s “El Paso” – a Number One pop hit, as well – being the pinnacle of the form. Robbins, who suffered multiple heart attacks over the years, would die from one in 1983, at the age of 57. J.G.

Key Tracks: “El Paso,” “Don’t Worry,” “Devil Woman”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Faron Young Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Faron Young

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

63

Faron Young

While a singer on the Louisiana Hayride radio show ­– where Elvis Presley received one of his early boosts ­– Faron Young sang alongside Webb Pierce, developing a country croon that evoked that of Hank Williams. But Young, a Shreveport, Louisiana, native was his own vocalist, especially as he entered the Sixties with a sterling version of Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” He topped the country chart with the song, and entered the Top 20 on the pop survey. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Young was also an actor, appearing in a number of Westerns. Later in life, he’d capitalize on Nashville’s role as a music-biz hotbed, launching a trade paper and running a booking agency. Best of all: he recorded the most badass titled song of the Fifties: the 1955 Number One “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.” J.H.

Key Tracks: “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” “Hello Walls”

C/W musician Vince Gill performing on stage of Grand Ole Opry. (Photo by William F. Campbell/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Vince Gill

William F. Campbell/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

62

Vince Gill

The winner of more Grammys than any other male country artist – 21, as of 2017 – Vince Gill could have called it a career years ago. But that’s not this Okie’s style. He’s never been in it for the glory; rather, Gill is a slave to the music. Every Monday night, the guitarslinger and pristine vocalist can be found onstage at a Nashville club with Western swing group the Time Jumpers, playing not for his cut of the $20 cover charge, but for the joy. It’s such pure motivation that makes Gill one of country’s most valuable assets. A vocal champion of traditional country – he emotionally challenged today’s bravado-spouting artists to let him “hear how country” they are during his 2012 ACM Honors speech – Gill expertly mixes trad-country with a pop sensibility on albums like the 2006 Grammy-winning opus These Days and last year’s Down to My Last Bad Habit. And his guitar playing has landed him on records by artists like Alice Cooper and onstage with Eric Clapton. Soon, he’ll join the Eagles for two weekends of concerts, refusing to slow down, even as he just turned 60. “My body tells me I’m not the same guy, but I don’t see an old guy in the mirror,” Gill told Rolling Stone Country in 2014. “I still see that 22-year-old kid riding buses and playing the guitar and singing. I want to get as old as I can.” J.H.

Key Track: “When I Call Your Name,” “Liza Jane,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Webb Pierce Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Webb Pierce

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

61

Webb Pierce

Though his flamboyant style and material excesses sometimes threaten to overshadow his actual work, Webb Pierce is still one of the honky-tonk era’s most expressive and successful performers, having accumulated more hits than Hank Williams or any of his contemporaries while he was hot. Born in West Monroe, Louisiana, Pierce applied his penchant for self-promotion and showmanship while on the Louisiana Hayride and found his way to a contract with Decca Records in Nashville. After joining the Grand Ole Opry, he was on top: he logged an extended series of radio hits that ranged from good-timing party music (“In the Jailhouse Now,” a 21-week Number One) and weepy drinking tunes (“There Stands the Glass”), delivered in a singular, emotive tenor. And sure, his offstage exploits were well-known. He had a lavish guitar-shaped pool constructed at his Nashville-area home, he wore dazzling Nudie suits and he covered two convertibles in silver dollars because why not? Though his traditionalist style faded from popularity, Pierce stuck stubbornly to his guns and stayed active through the Eighties. He died in 1991, but for a time in the Fifties and Sixties, he brought a little extra sparkle to the country charts. J.F.

Key Tracks: “In the Jailhouse Now,” “More and More,” “There Stands the Glass”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Doug Sahm Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Doug Sahm

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

60

Doug Sahm

Most country artists pray for a chance at the Grand Ole Opry stage, but Doug Sahm had to turn down an appearance in favor of his schoolwork when he was just a teenager. Born in San Antonio, Texas, Sahm was a prodigy – he could play almost any instrument, and could have easily gone the route of becoming the new Hank Williams: musical lore puts him on stage with Williams at his last show in Austin before he passed away, creating some sort of spiritual passing of the baton. Instead, Sahm used the Tejano sounds of his home state to sometimes go psychedelic, sometimes roots and sometimes pure rock & roll with his outfit, the Sir Douglas Quintet, which changed the landscape of Lone Star music forever and chiseled his own breed of Tex-Mex blues. “We wanted to be like the Rolling Stones and carry tons of shit in our suitcases and be heavy, you know,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971, “and turn everybody on.” M.M.

Key Tracks: “She’s About a Mover,” “Mendocino” 

CIRCA 1955: Country singer Hank Thompson poses for a portrait with his guitar in circa 1955. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Hank Thompson

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

59

Hank Thompson

A disciple of singing cowboy Gene Autry, Hank Thompson was one of country music’s first hard-edged honky-tonk performers and songwriters, mixing Western Swing instrumentation with a steady stream of barroom-ready weepers and novelty tunes, delivered in his distinctively silky baritone. Thompson’s mournful 1952 single, “The Wild Side of Life,” which logged 15 weeks atop the country chart, would change the course of the male-dominated genre by inspiring the Kitty Wells answer song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.” His multi-award-winning Brazos Valley Boys Band, which took many of their musical cues from Western Swing legend Bob Wills, emphasized his vocal prowess and song content over excessive instrumentation. Thompson would inspire the character of Bad Blake (played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges in the 2009 film) in the novel Crazy Heart. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, Thompson died in 2007. S.B.

Key Tracks: “The Wild Side of Life,” “Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” “The Older the Violin, The Sweeter the Music”

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

Emmylou Harris

Chris Walter/WireImage

58

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

57

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

56

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”