Arguably no other state has contributed as much to American music and culture as Mississippi. Situated smack in the middle of the Americana music triangle, whose anchor points are Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans, Mississippi is the cradle of blues, country and rock & roll music.
It’s easy to overlook mostly rural Mississippi when metropolises like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have long been home to celebrated music hotbeds that have produced incredible artists. But Mississippi is where the beat was born. Before there could be Chicago blues, there was Delta blues. Before Nashville became the center of country music, there was Jimmie Rodgers. And before Sam Phillips made Elvis a household name, there was Elvis Aaron Presley, who got his first guitar at Tupelo Hardware.
If you want to know why Mississippi has produced more Grammy Award winners per capita than any other state, and continues to produce stars like Rae Sremmurd, Lance Bass, LeAnn Rimes, and Hayley Williams, a road trip might be in order. But read on to learn about the best of the best — the 10 greatest Mississippi artists of all time. Just don’t make us rank them.
They don’t call him the King of Rock & Roll for nothing. One of the single biggest cultural icons of the 20th century, Tupelo son Elvis Presley has sold upward of 500 million albums and earned 18 No. 1 hits in the U.S. Presley’s musical style drew from R&B, blues, country, and gospel music, and ignited the rock & roll revolution started by black artists Ike Turner (another Mississippian), Chuck Berry, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Presley also conquered Hollywood, appearing in 27 films in the 1960s. “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and dozens of other Presley hits are universally known and part of the American songbook.
Riley “Blues Boy” King didn’t invent the blues, but he took it farther than any of his peers or predecessors dreamed possible. He sure got around, playing small towns on the chitlin circuit major festivals around the U.S. and Europe, and eventually Africa and China. One tour bus he purchased new in 1987, now on display at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, clocked more than 12 million road miles — enough to make 25 round trips to the moon. Along the way, he garnered love from his fans and respect from musicians by choosing his notes on his Gibson “Lucille” guitars carefully, a less-is-more approach that set him apart from other players. “The Thrill Is Gone,” his signature, Grammy-winning 1970 hit, is the perfect blend of his tasteful guitar playing and R&B sensibilities.
To some, the blues began when Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his guitar-picking skills (Johnson placed at No. 71 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list in 2015). Clarksdale lays claim to those crossroads, at the corner of U.S. highways 49 and 61 — as well as blues artists from Muddy Waters to Christone “Kingfish” Ingram — but Johnson actually learned to play from Charley Patton and Son House at Dockery Farms, 30 miles south as the crow flies. Johnson penned or popularized several songs now considered classics in the blues canon, including “Cross Road Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” before his music was silenced with his murder in 1938. Johnson’s slippery slide-guitar style and artistic legacy lives on through artists he influenced, including Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.
The “Mississippi Girl” from Star (really) was a country music hitmaker right out of the gate. Her 1993 debut, Take Me as I Am, spawned the single “Wild One,” which made her the first woman in three decades to have the No. 1 country song for four consecutive weeks. Hill found crossover pop success with “This Kiss,” which topped the country chart as well as hit the Top 10 on the pop chart, setting her on a path to earn three No. 1 albums and five Grammy Awards. Since marrying Tim McGraw in 1996, the pair have collaborated on each other’s albums and teamed up for three massively successful Soul2Soul concert tours in the 2000s.
When Sledge, Mississippi, native Charley Pride’s first singles went to radio in 1966, RCA Records made sure he was judged by his music and not the color of his skin. The record label issued his early sides with the name “Country Charley Pride” but without a picture. He ended up getting a fair shake as a result, and his first of 13 Grammy nominations (he would win three) with the song “Just Between You and Me.” Pride’s deep, sturdy croon was perfect for country music, and he earned numerous No. 1 country hits across three decades with songs like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” Pride celebrated 25 years as the first African American member of the Grand Ole Opry with a special performance in 2018. He passed away in December 2020.
Although he’s known for the laidback, folk-rock style and persona he perfected while living on Key West in the early 1970s, Pascagoula native Jimmy Buffett first honed his chops playing guitar and singing at nightclubs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While his early albums bore the influence of friends Jerry Jeff Walker and Jim Croce, he hit paydirt in the mid-1970s with songs like “Pencil Thin Mustache,” “Margaritaville,” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Buffett became a huge concert draw in the 1980s, packing arena and amphitheaters full of Parrotheads on his never-ending tours. Today, the Jimmy Buffett brand is everywhere from restaurants, casinos, real estate developments, and more.
Opera great Leontyne Price was exposed to music early through family and church in Laurel, and later studied her craft at the Julliard performing arts conservatory in New York City. Price toured in a successful production of Porgy and Bess and traveled extensively to perform recitals before landing her first gig at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Her performance in the opera Il Trovatore reportedly drew a 42-minute ovation from rhapsodic fans. Price became the first African American opera star and performed in European cultural centers like Paris, Milan, and Vienna. Although she retired in 1985, she returned to the stage in tribute to those who died in the 9/11 attacks. During her career, she earned 18 Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was that beat — the two-bar shuffle on songs like “Who Do You Love?” nicknamed the “Bo Diddley beat,” so infectious and rhythmic it wormed its way into hits across generations in the hands of artists like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Who, George Michael, The Clash, Guns N’ Roses, and The White Stripes. Diddley, born Ellas Bates in McComb in 1928, was a true musical innovator. Not only did he put the rhythm in R&B by honing the relentless beat bearing his name, but he also manipulated his guitars to pull out wild sounds that anticipated the psychedelic rock movement a decade early. Oh, and he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show a year before another famous Mississippian, Mr. Presley.
Locomotives like the Illinois Central, which brought blues musicians and others north to Memphis and Chicago during the Great Migration, inspired many early blues and country songs. Before he was named the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers of Meridian billed himself as “The Singing Brakeman,” a nod to his years working as a brakeman on railroads across the U.S. In 1927, Rodgers traveled to Bristol, Tennessee, and New York City to cut records of his early country-folk songs, including his smash hit “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” Rodgers recorded songs like “In the Jailhouse Now,” “Waiting for a Train,” and “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1933. Memorabilia of the country music pioneer’s life and career, including his 1927 Martin guitar with his name inlayed on the fretboard, are on display at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum.
Tammy Wynette was nicknamed the “First Lady of Country Music” after marrying country star George Jones in 1969, but by then she was already a star in her own right, with five Billboard No. 1 hits to her name. Wynette’s career took off in the late 1960s with songs like the Grammy-winning “Stand By Your Man,” which chafed with the burgeoning feminist movement, and “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” as well as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” She continued to collaborate with Jones into the ’80s and ’90s, even after their own d-i-v-o-r-c-e in 1975. Bonus: Her hometown of Tremont, where her Mississippi Country Music Trail marker stands, is just 23 miles from Belmont, where 10-time Country Music Association Musician of the Year and longtime Jimmy Buffett collaborator Mac McAnally grew up.