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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.”

Portrait of singer/guitarist John Denver performing. (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

John Denver

Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty

100

John Denver

Hitting his streak during the war-torn 1970s, John Denver kept things peppy and pleasant, walking the family-friendly line between country, soft folk and easy listening. The man had vices, but he largely kept them out of his songs, choosing instead to glorify the great outdoors in hits like “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Uncool? Perhaps. When Denver was named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA in 1975, presenter Charlie Rich responded by setting fire to the envelope containing Denver’s name, which many viewers interpreted as a repudiation of country’s pop-friendly crossover. But Denver, with his goofy grin and awww-shucks demeanor, was always content to ride his own Rocky Mountain High, leaving protest music, country classicism and the rock & roll lifestyle to his contemporaries. “I don’t mind if they call me the Mickey Mouse of rock,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Chet Flippo in 1975. His fans didn’t mind, either, and by the decade’s end, Denver had racked up nine Number One hits on multiple charts. His influence on country music remains apparent – decades after its release, “Country Roads” was the backbone of 2016’s “Forever Country,” a mash-up celebrating the CMA Awards’ 50th anniversary. Andrew Leahey

Key Tracks: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”

Carrie Underwood performs "Jesus Take the Wheel" during 2006 CMT Music Awards - Show at Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

Carrie Underwood

John Shearer/WireImage

99

Carrie Underwood

American Idol‘s fourth-season winner was a shoo-in from the start, with noted grump Simon Cowell proclaiming her the guaranteed victor early on – but even he probably never realized how far she’d take her talent. Her powerful voice and girl-next-door vibes added both weight and accessibility to early singles like the let-go-let-God anthem “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” but it was the revelation of her bad side on 2005’s revenge treatise “Before He Cheats” that endeared her to pop fans. Underwood is a legit Nashville crossover, but one with the promise and poise to evolve the genre and maintain its roots – she’s been a Grand Ole Opry member since 2008. It’s no stretch to imagine her being the first reality-show winner ever inducted into country’s Hall of Fame. Maura Johnston

Key Tracks: “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Something in the Water”

Keith Urban

Keith Urban

Tibrina Hobson/WireImage

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Keith Urban

Australia’s biggest country-music export since Slim Dusty, Keith Urban became one of the genre’s most celebrated guitar heroes during the early 21st century, championing a crossover-friendly playing style rooted not in the chicken-pickin’ flash of many country instrumentalists, but the tone and nuance of rock & rollers like Mark Knopfler. During the two decades since, his songs have tread a similar line, rooting themselves in the epic gestures of arena rock, the digital elements of pop and the storytelling of contemporary country. Several months shy of his 50th birthday, Urban remains a favorite among Baby Boomers and Millennials alike, thanks to a five-season run as an American Idol judge — a gig that plastered his face across the TV screens of 10 million weekly viewers — and a string of hit singles that never shy away from current trends. A.L.

Key Tracks: “Somebody Like You,” “Stupid Boy,” “You’ll Think of Me”

Brad Paisley, Good Morning America

Brad Paisley

Mike Coppola/GettyImages

97

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley stands out as the poster boy for the genre’s time-honored traditions. One of the biggest stars of the 21st century, the West Virginian has had 19 singles top the country charts, many of which, like “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” and “She’s Everything,” instantly resonated with fans. His 2009 album American Saturday Night established Paisley as a forward-thinking country artist, and his stature was only validated by his record sales. His dexterity on guitar makes him country’s Eddie Van Halen, and he’s also one of the most incisive songwriters of his generation. As he hits middle-age, his star-studded Love and War (his ninth consecutive LP to go Number One) has reinforced another old-school idea in 2017: growing old gracefully. Jeff Gage

Key Tracks: “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” “Welcome to the Future,” “When I Get Where I’m Going”

Country artist Toby Keith performs at the Thomas & Mack Center November 1, 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Keith is touring in support of the new album, "Unleashed." (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Toby Keith

Ethan Miller/Getty

96

Toby Keith

An Oklahoma native and former oil-rig worker, Toby Keith has tapped into the blue-collar lifestyle with humor and sincerity since his debut single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” hit Number One in 1993. With a booming voice and roughneck persona, he’s gone on to become one of the most successful, recognizable and controversial artists in the modern country era. Keith has released 17 studio albums, sold more than 40 million copies and tallied 20 Number Ones hits to date – including “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” which was written in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Striking a defiant tone, the song and its “boot up your ass” hook became synonymous with Keith, who released a string of pro-America songs in the years following: “American Soldier,” “American Ride” and “Made in America,” all of which topped the charts. Despite all the flag-waving, Keith isn’t a one-note artist. His wonderfully self-deprecating “As Good As I Once Was” and the heartbreaking “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song)” mine country tradition and highlight one of the richest baritones in the business. Chris Parton

Key Tracks: “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” “As Good As I Once Was,” “Honkytonk U”

Brooks & Dunn performing at the San Jose Arena in San Jose Calif. on December 9th, 1998. Image By: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

Brooks & Dunn

Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

95

Brooks & Dunn

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn separately kicked around Nashville during the Eighties, scoring minor hits while working as writers for hire. Introduced and paired up in the early Nineties, they were seemingly the perfect match: Dunn the reserved and serious type with the soaring voice, Brooks the gregarious showman. Together, they blended classic country ideas with honky-tonk’s raucousness, pop’s sticky-sweet hooks and just enough dancefloor-ready sass to get listeners boot-scootin’ along. Their incredible singles run included a slew of CMA awards and 23 country Number Ones, among them the drinking weeper “Neon Moon,” the nostalgia-tinged “Red Dirt Road” and the ubiquitous line-dancing anthem “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” The duo split in 2010 but reunited in 2015 for an ongoing Vegas showroom run with Reba McEntire. M.J.

Key Tracks: “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “Believe,” “Red Dirt Road”

JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE - "Jimmy Kimmel Live" airs every weeknight at 11:35 p.m. EST and features a diverse lineup of guests that includes celebrities, athletes, musical acts, comedians and human-interest subjects, along with comedy bits and a house band. The guests host for Thursday, May 4 was Kristen Bell and the guests included Charlie Hunnam, Adam Scott and musical guest Alison Krauss. (Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images) ALISON KRAUSS

Alison Krauss

Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty

94

Alison Krauss

Although rooted in bluegrass and traditional country, Alison Krauss has stamped her watermark across the full range of American roots music, winning a record-tying number of Grammy Awards with her solo albums, her work alongside the progressive string band Union Station, several contributions to the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and a stunning duets album, Raising Sand, with rock god Robert Plant. Glueing those projects together is her impressive fiddle work and one of the modern age’s most unique voices: a cool, cooing soprano that’s equal parts silk and swagger, capable of tackling high-lonesome folk one minute and sacred Southern gospel the next. A.L.

Key Tracks: “Please Read the Letter,” “Down to the River to Pray”

Jerry Jeff Walker performs, Memphis, Tennessee, May 30, 1981. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Jerry Jeff Walker

Paul Natkin/Getty

93

Jerry Jeff Walker

Though not a native Texan, Jerry Jeff Walker was one of the artists who helped put the Lone Star State – and, in particular, the city of Austin – on the country music map in the 1970s. Originally from New York state, Walker’s best-known song was 1968’s “Mr. Bojangles” (a Top 10 pop hit in the hands of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), but he was immortalized five years later with the highly influential live album Viva Terlingua! Recorded in Luckenbach before Waylon and Willie and the boys made the town famous, Terlingua‘s Tejano-infused “gonzo country” (his crack backing band including Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston were dubbed the Lost Gonzo Band) was more Texas than the outlaws themselves and became a cornerstone of Red Dirt country music. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Gettin’ By,” “Sangria Wine,” “Mr. Bojangles”

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: NASHVILLE Photo of Chris LeDOUX (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

Chris LeDoux

Beth Gwinn/Redferns

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Chris LeDoux

The life of the cowboy is one of country music’s central narratives, to the point of being cliché, but it’s the existence that Chris LeDoux actually lived. A bareback national rodeo champion, the Wyoming native’s ranch songs were the real deal, and he played the part of the maverick to a T, even refusing to sign a record contract because he preferred to play by his own rules. Until, that is, Garth Brooks’ shout-out on ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” made it too tempting to not cash in. Their subsequent duet, “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy,” helped give LeDoux his due and his mystique has only grown since his untimely death at 56 from cancer in 2005. J.G.

Key Tracks: “This Cowboy’s Hat,” “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy”

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - OCTOBER 31: Lucinda Williams performs as part of the Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre on October 31, 1999 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Lucinda Williams

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

91

Lucinda Williams

“Shouldn’t I have all this?” Lucinda Williams asks on her signature song “Passionate Kisses,” and few lines could sum up the Louisiana native’s distinct vision better. A consummate perfectionist, Williams has made a career of holding out to do things her way, often spending years to get her albums just right; her masterpiece, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, was six whole years in the making. That meant years of cult fandom but little in the way of the wider spread notoriety “the female Bob Dylan” deserved. But that’s just as well – Williams’ gritty voice is one of the most distinctive there is, and it’s all hers. “I’m kind of an anomaly. I got discovered late. And here I am, at my age,” she said earlier this year. “I have to do this.” J.G.

Key Tracks: “Passionate Kisses,” “Drunken Angel,” “Right in Time”

American country and pop musician Crystal Gayle performs onstage at Park West, Chicago, Illinois, October 5, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Crystal Gayle

Paul Natkin/Getty

90

Crystal Gayle

Brenda Gail Webb, unlike her Kentucky-born older sister Loretta Lynn, was raised in Indiana, cultivating a polished persona and singing style tailor-made for country-pop crossover. “I went middle-of-the-road because Loretta said, ‘Don’t sing my songs and don’t sing anything I would sing, because you’ll be compared,'” Gayle told Rolling Stone in 2014. “She was right. I wouldn’t have made it if I had just done that. But I love those songs.” Her earliest singles only dented the charts, but in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Gayle hit her stride. The Grammy-winning “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was a country chart-topper and Number Two pop monster, followed by two more Top 20 pop singles and a total of 18 country Number Ones. In addition to her country pedigree she’s been a consistently sophisticated interpreter of pop standards and was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry in January 2017. Stephen L. Betts

Key Tracks: “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” “When I Dream,” “Ready for the Times to Get Better”

NASHVILLE Photo of Tim McGRAW (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Redferns)

Tim McGraw

Beth Gwinn/Redferns

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Tim McGraw

Topping the charts for the first time in 1994, Tim McGraw has stood at the helm of country-pop’s ever-changing mainstream for nearly a quarter century, outlasting virtually everyone — from Garth Brooks to the Dixie Chicks — who once battled him for radio airtime. It’s no surprise that Millennial queen Taylor Swift, who was barely one year old when McGraw signed his first record contract, chose to name her debut single after the singer. Now in his fifties, he’s still the walking embodiment of his own genre: a rugged, muscled, cowboy-hatted man from the Deep South, married to a country queen (Faith Hill, whose voice can be heard on a handful of his biggest hits) and fathered by a sports hero. Trends come and go, but McGraw remains. A.L.

Key Tracks: “Something Like That,” “Live Like You Were Dying”

The Judds on 3/10/00 in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

The Judds

Paul Natkin/WireImage

88

The Judds

One of the most dynamic vocal groups in the history of country, the mother-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna Judd were peerless hitmakers in the Eighties. In a mainstream run that only lasted eight years at its height, they scored a staggering 14 Number One singles, but the success of anthems like “Girls Night Out” and “Why Not Me” – which drew heavily on the Kentucky natives’ roots in bluegrass – was hard-earned, as they’d spent years passing around cheaply-recorded cassettes before getting signed. But spurred by Wynonna’s songwriting, the Judds became a major force, and their music possessed a keen sense of female empathy. Naomi’s hepatitits C diagnosis cut short their often-tumultuous run in 1991, opening the door for Wynonna, who had increasingly asserted herself alongside her mother, to parlay her prodigious skills into her own successful solo career. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Girls Night Out,” “Why Not Me,” “Turn It Loose”

American musician Jamey Johnson performs onstage during the Farm Aid benefit concert at Millar Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 2, 2010. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Jamey Johnson

Paul Natkin/Getty

87

Jamey Johnson

Possessing a deep, muddy baritone of a voice and a songwriting style rooted in tradition that also appealed to older fans, Alabama native Jamey Johnson only hit country radio’s Top 10 once, with 2008’s nostalgic “In Color.” It was enough, though, to demonstrate that an audience still existed for artists with an ear for classic – even outlaw – sounds, helping to pave the way for independently-minded success stories like Sturgill Simpson and Aaron Watson to come. Johnson also proved that the album format wasn’t dead, reaching Platinum status with 2008’s That Lonesome Song and earning a Gold certification for his 2010 Number One double LP, The Guitar Song, without the help of another significant radio hit. As a writer, he possesses a wide range of ability, co-writing both George Strait’s “Give It Away” and Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” While he’s talked here and there about new music to come, the reclusive Johnson has remained largely silent since 2015. C.P.

Key Tracks: “In Color,” “Playing the Part”

Photo of Bill Anderson (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Bill Anderson

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

86

Bill Anderson

Nicknamed “Whisperin’ Bill” for his soft-spoken delivery, South Carolina-born, Georgia-raised Bill Anderson is a dual threat performer and songwriter with hits spanning numerous decades. A journalism major in college, Anderson applied his eye for detail to musical composition, landing hits with Ray Price (“City Lights”) and Connie Smith (“Once a Day”), among others. He had seven chart-topping hits under his own name, including “Mama Sang a Song” in 1962 and “Still” in 1963, continuing to chart through the end of the Seventies. After a detour into television, Anderson got his second wind as a songwriter in the 1990s and 2000s, co-writing Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’ haunting “Whiskey Lullabye” and the George Strait instant classic “Give It Away,” with Jamey Johnson. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, living proof that Nashville and country music truly thrives on the work of great songwriters. Jon Freeman

Key Tracks: “Mama Sang a Song,” “Still”

Eric Church Stagecoach 2016

Eric Church

Kevin Winter/GettyImages

85

Eric Church

By the time he released his 2011 breakthrough Chief, Eric Church was well on his way to perfecting his mix of Kristofferson songcraft and Kiss showmanship, a blend he supersized on 2014’s The Outsiders. And then, he promptly blew it all up, recasting himself as country’s Springsteen on the singer-songwriter masterpiece Mr. Misunderstood. Such evolution is Church’s calling card, which makes it exciting to speculate on what his albums five or even 10 years from now might sound like. A tireless live act, the Chief’s recent Holdin’ My Own Tour boasted three-hour-plus shows, every minute commanded by an artist who is always thinking two steps ahead. “I want everybody in that place to feel like they experienced something, that they felt something,” he said of his one-of-a-kind live shows in a 2014 Rolling Stone Country interview. “They’re going to tell people, ‘That show was spiritual to me. I felt it.'” Joseph Hudak

Key Tracks: “Sinners Like Me,” “Smoke a Little Smoke,” “Mr. Misunderstood”

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

83

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

82

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

81

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

80

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

79

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”