There's more than one road to country glory, and it doesn't have to be one paved with hardship, empty bank accounts and nights spent shilling cover songs for measly tips. Sometimes, the path can be pretty cushy, or at least lined with reality TV and a post-collegiate record deal. From Tanya Tucker to Florida Georgia Line, we count down the stars who shot to the top of the charts without spending a decade singing "Song of the South" on Lower Broad. By Marissa R. Moss
Between the thumped-up beats and twang-hop of Florida Georgia Line's debut LP, Here's to the Good Times, there's nary a salty tear nor mournful ballad drowned in a pint of whiskey. And maybe that's because this duo's really never had anything to cry about: After graduating from Nashville's Belmont University, they went from unknown students to chart toppers in less than two years, in a, um, cruise to the top. Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, from Florida and Georgia, respectively, wrote songs between classes, crafting an EP that landed them a contract with Republic Nashville. Their first single, "Cruise," played to a broad spectrum with its nearly genreless compilation of sounds, swung along into a party anthem by the links of their wallet chains – it went on to be the best-selling country digital song of all time. "I don't think we were ever driven by success or wanting to be a star," Hubbard tells Rolling Stone. "You do something you love, you want to be good at it."
A wakeboarding accident was one of the best things to ever happen to Joshua "Jake" Owen. In college, the daredevil was planning for a golf career, but after a serious spill on the water he found himself off the team and out of ideas — until he picked up the guitar. Inspired by the sounds of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, Owen taught himself to play, eventually writing his own songs and gigging a few nights a week at the local bars peppering his idyllic hometown of Vero Beach, Florida. He then moved to Nashville, almost immediately scored a deal with RCA, changed his name to Jake and began work on Startin' With Me. Four records later, he has multiple Top 20 hits – and a set of the industry's most recognizable brows.
A native of Tullahoma, Tennessee, Lynch found his footing in Nashville by shacking up in an apartment behind the legendary Bluebird Café – a bigger, more expensive version of sleeping with a textbook underneath your pillow, hoping to absorb knowledge by osmosis. But absorb he did. Lynch hit songwriting nights several times a week, even choosing his college (Lipscomb University) based on its proximity to the club. And it worked: Lynch was signed to Broken Bow Records and released "Cowboys and Angels" in 2012. The song, along with his model good looks, signature hat that gives a nod to retro references and smooth, deep croon helped his self-titled debut soar to the top of the country charts. No word yet if the Bluebird's asked for royalties.
At the age of 13, the moody maturity on Tanya Tucker's bluegrass gospel version of "Delta Dawn" is rather breathtaking – as is her blockbuster success so early in her teenage years. Signed to Columbia Records by legendary producer Billy Sherill, her debut garnered her a Grammy nomination and critical acclaim. But unlike other child sensations, her career only blossomed from there, and she went on to be one of the only women to claim "outlaw" status alongside Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. "What makes a great song is [that] it transcends time," she told Larry King Live on "Delta Dawn." "I think that that song, if I play it today, it'll be a hit record today." Indeed.
Though he's one of country's youngest breakout stars, Hunter Hayes' career has been anything but short. Hayes was on his way to being a household name at the tender age of four, playing on talk shows and even singing at the White House when he was only seven – his nasal warble a little higher in tone then but no less promising as he belted out Cajun tunes pulling on an accordion almost as big as he was (at the time, The Tuscaloosa News pointed out that Hayes "weighs 30 pounds; the accordion weighs 18"). Gifted the instrument by his grandmother at age two, he moved on to the guitar when his costar in The Apostle, the great Robert Duvall, gave him one. Not surprisingly, his major label self-titled debut went certified platinum, on which Hayes himself played 30 instruments – including, naturally, the accordion.
The Oklahoma co-ed may have looked a little different when she made her American Idol debut on Season Four – the hair a little curlier, the clothes a little frumpier –but her star power was certain. Even honest curmudgeon Simon Cowell knew it, guessing that if she won (she did), she'd be the highest selling American Idol contestant in history. He was half right: she went on to be one of the highest-selling country artists, period, beginning with her 2005 debut Some Hearts. Now a Grammy winner, a CMA Awards co-host, a huge touring success and member of the Grand Ole Opry, it's hard to measure the massive impact and influence of one of the genre's biggest stars. And, never one to forget her roots, she still is a devoted Idol fan, returning to the show nearly every season since.
So maybe the Florida native had to shill nuts and bolts at a hardware store in Nashville for a bit, but this slick singer's rise was not only rapid but explosive: His first release, the fiddle-embellished "A Little More Country That" was the only debut single since Dierks Bentley's 2003 hit "What Was I Thinkin'" to go to Number One. He racked up a few trophies at the American Country Awards in 2010, including the title of Breakthrough Artist of the Year, propelled by his traditional instrumentation and smooth tone that embraces classic sounds in favor of pop construction. He's now at work on his third studio album — a long way from the path he'd banked on in college, when he graduated with a less-then-glamorous degree in agribusiness.
Little LeAnn Rimes blew the country world away with "Blue" in 1996 – she was only 13 when she tackled the mournful crooner intended for the late Patsy Cline, that showcased her impressive range, mature touch and breaks that burst on yodel. Instantly coined as the successor to Cline's legacy, she went on to not only win the Best New Artist title at the Grammy awards, but eventually establish a niche in the pop-country crossover market with her take on Diane Warren's "Can’t Fight the Moonlight," from the movie Coyote Ugly. The film didn't win over any feminists, but the song was a worldwide hit. Though her recent years have been TMZ fodder, with Rimes releasing more photos in bikinis than singles, her innate vocal talent is still undeniable.
From the moment he stepped out in front of the American Idol Season 10 judges wielding the microphone like a flute and singing so low he left audiences wondering if they needed to adjust the RPM on their televisions, McCreery proved himself to be a unique force with his signature, uncannily deep baritone that made both tweens and their grandmothers swoon. Ever since then, "Your Man" no longer belongs to Josh Turner – "baby lock them doors" will always be signature Scotty. After taking the Idol crown, his debut LP was rushed out on the arms of his questionable single "I Love You This Big," but no matter: Clear as Day went platinum, and he rocked the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this past February, even whipping out a little Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash medley for good measure.
Garth Brooks wasn't kidding when he talked about friends in low places – Yearwood was an entry-level employee at MTM records when she encountered the rising star and pride of Yukon, Oklahoma, who promised to help her grab some of the spotlight if his career soared like he'd hoped. It did, of course, and he took Yearwood on the road with him in 1991, the same year she released her debut self-titled record with the hit single "She's in Love With the Boy." Yearwood went on to win three Grammys, sell 12.5 million records worldwide and cement a classic with her tune for Con Air, the appropriately-soaring ballad "How Do I Live." And oh, she and Brooks definitely kept in touch – the two married in 2005.
With "Raymond," his touching tribute to an Alzheimer's patient, the Illinois native burst onto the scene in 2010 by establishing himself as a male vocal force who can balance emotional heft with subtle power and an everyman warmth. Growing up, Eldredge had always been a singer, but his guitar skills were shaky at best – so, upon moving to Nashville, he did what any aspiring country star should do: pick up the instrument and start practicing those three chords and the truth. The process inspired him to begin writing his own music, adopting a balance of narrative touch and casual melody. The strength of "Raymond" was enough to score him a slot opening for Taylor Swift's Red Tour, and his newest single "Beat of the Music," is currently hanging out in the Top 10.
The father of country-turned-twerker gave himself a 10-month goal to become famous when he dropped out of college to pursue music, and he wasn't kidding: He went from obscurity to super-stardom so quickly that the adjustment was a rocky one, even with that big ol' party in the back to keep him going. He told Country Music Magazine at the time, "one day I was living out of my car, the next day I was nominated for five Grammy awards." This was all for the achingly cloying anthem "Achy Breaky Heart," which was causing a fury and spurring impromptu dances from the offices of Music Row to Sweet 16 parties. And, apparently, mullet beats bowl cut. The song held the Number One spot on the Billboard charts for 18 weeks, dethroning the Beatles, who previously held the title.
Team Blake rules again – the 16-year-old Bradbery is more proof that landing a spot on the towering Okie's team is a surefire way to have a shot at the Voice crown. Shelton called her the "most important artist to ever walk across The Voice stage," and, sure enough, Bradbery took the title, as the show's youngest-ever champion – despite the near unbelievable fact that she had never performed live before the show began. Still, she sang with eerie confidence and perfect pitch that beguiled her 16 years, snagging her a contract with Big Machine Records and a spot on Hunter Hayes' summer tour. "I guess I'd like to be this generation's Carrie Underwood," she told Rolling Stone, making every other generation collectively feel extremely old.
Though the accomplished guitarist had played and written music through most of his childhood and teenage years, it was a pretty swift road after graduating from Belmont University to impending stardom – a week to be exact. Before the stress of finals had even worn off, the West Virginia native signed a deal with EMI Publishing. Just a few years later, after co-writing hits for other singers, he released his Arista debut, Who Needs Pictures, had a Number One hit with "He Didn't Have to Be" and took the Grand Ole Opry Stage all in 1999 (he'd be inducted as an Opry member only two years later, the youngest member ever to join at the time). Now, Paisley's one of the most respected country artists in the game, leading one of the highest-grossing tours and banking countless chart-topping debuts. So maybe not everyone suffers a post-collegiate existential crisis.
Another reality-show success story who went on to prove her worth beyond the television, Pickler, a former beauty pageant queen from North Carolina, was only 19 when she surged into the pop culture lexicon by mispronouncing "salmon" on the stage of American Idol. Pickler blamed the flub on nerves – a credible excuse, being that aside from strutting around in an evening gown as a contender for Miss North Carolina, she'd barely ever sang publicly. Initially pegged as a ditzy country answer to Jessica Simpson, Pickler made a name for herself with her strong debut, Small Town Girl, that sent three singles to the Top 20. One of them was the spunky "Red High Heels," a cheeky barnburner that paid sonic tribute to her personal American idol, Dolly Parton.