100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time: Singers Ranked - Rolling Stone
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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.”

Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman
11

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers was a man of many nicknames, from “The Singing Brakeman” to “The Blue Yodeler.” But his most accurate moniker is “The Father of Country Music” – the Mississippi singer fused his trademark blues yodeling with hillbilly sounds and rambling, folksy train songs to create the blueprint for country music. Indeed, despite dying of tuberculosis by the age of 36, Rodgers, whose singular style influenced everyone from Merle Haggard to Lynyrd Skynyrd, left behind an immeasurable legacy. He first met recording pioneer Ralph Peer in 1927, famously recording two sides in Bristol, Tenneseee, alongside the Carter Family at what would later became known as the “Big Bang of Country Music.” Before long, Rodgers recorded “Blue Yodel No. 1” (commonly known as “T for Texas”), which became a major hit, selling more than a half million copies and catapulting the traveling singer to superstardom. J.B.

Key Tracks: “Blue Yodel No. 1,” “In the Jailhouse Now” 

Garth Brooks on 10/1/93 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)
10

Garth Brooks

Divisive though he may be, Garth Brooks changed the game in country music – and when he’s gotten things right, he’s been downright visionary. One of the primary drivers of country’s crossover push during the Nineties, Brooks’ pop sensibilities irked purists but made him a superstar, and songs like “Friends in Low Places” are standards around the world. While the Oklahoma native became the biggest-selling solo artist of all time, he’s also had his stumbles (Chris Gaines, Ghost Tunes) along the way. His 2015 return to touring after a 15-year hiatus proved he’s as big a draw as ever and still one of country’s most electric entertainers. “What kills me is we’re kind of known as the traditional country artists now, because when we started out, they wanted to hang us because they didn’t think we were anything near traditional country music,” Brooks said in 2016. J.G.

Key Tracks: “Friends in Low Places,” “The River,” “The Dance”

American country music star George Jones (1931-2013) performs at Tramps, New York, New York, Thursday, November 12, 1992. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)
9

George Jones

He was country’s greatest vocalist, able to reinvent melodies and stretch out words in ways that seemed impossible and felt completely natural. No one sang the songs of devotion and heartbreak at the core of country’s mission – “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “The Grand Tour” – with more knowledge or feeling, yet Jones did rockers just as well as weepers, and early honky-tonk standouts like “Why Baby Why” and “White Lightning” could go toe-to-toe with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Jones was famed not just for his masterful phrasing, but for the way he lived the pain he sang. Well known is the story of how, when his second wife hid the car keys to keep him from drinking, he drove a riding mower in search of booze. Less well known is the wasting devastation that alcohol and drugs wrought – he was so very wrecked by 1980 that it took some two years to finish My Very Special Guests, an album featuring Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt and Tammy Wynette, whose tempestuous six-year marriage to Jones had ended in 1975, but not before it produced some of country’s finest duets.

It was Jones’ fourth wife, Nancy Sepulveda, who was credited with pulling him back from the brink in the mid-Eighties, after hard drinking and missed gigs had earned him the nickname “No Show Jones.” “All my life it seems like I’ve been running from something,” he said in 1984 as he tried to put the bottle down. “If I knew what it was, maybe I could run in the right direction. But I always seem to end up going the other way.” Yet more or less it worked, and for his last three decades he was able to enjoy the kind of reign Hank Williams never could, as those who rose to stardom in his wake, from Randy Travis to Brad Paisley, paid tribute to a legend who lived to tell the tale. J.L.

Key Tracks: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “The Grand Tour”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 4: Dolly Parton performs on stage at The Dominion Theatre on March 29th, 1983 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Peter Still/Redferns)
8

Dolly Parton

A global pop icon whose career as musician and actress transcends country, Parton is one of its greatest singer-songwriters, and her signatures – “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors” and the irrepressible “I Will Always Love You” – are among the genre’s defining classics. Her birdlike soprano has been the gold standard for countless singers, and her winking persona (“It costs a lot to look this cheap!”) has made her a heroine of camp. But even with an empire that includes the Dollywood theme park, she’s kept it real, with a string of fine 2000s bluegrass LPs joining a catalog of over 20 Number One hits. W.H.

Key Tracks: “Coat of Many Colors,” “9 to 5”

SAN JOSE, UNITED STATES: Waylon Jennings perfoming at Spartan Stadium in San Jose in 1982. He plays a Fender Telecaster guitar. (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns)
7

Waylon Jennings

It’s possible to sum up the entire Outlaw Country movement with just one letter: a flying W. The logo of Waylon Jennings, the stylized W is shorthand for one of the most popular subgenres of country music, founded primarily by an artist who, ironically, didn’t want much to do with it. Listen to Jennings’ “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” cut in 1978 at the height of the craze, and you can hear the weariness in his voice. But Jennings couldn’t help but be an outlaw; it was in his nature. The Texas native bucked Nashville convention by using his own backing band in the studio; favored an all-black aesthetic instead of gaudy rhinestones; and publicly fought with the Country Music Association, even having hats made up that read “CMA: Country My Ass.” (His longtime drummer, Richie Albright, still wears his onstage today.)

Yet Jennings’ contributions to country music go way past any ballyhooed rebellion. With a rich, growling voice and the twang of a leather-embossed Telecaster, Jennings helped create his own unmistakable sound, one that resonates today in the music of artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jennings’ own son, Shooter. In 1973, he gave songwriter Billy Joe Shaver his big break by cutting nine of his songs on the LP Honky Tonk Heroes, including the signature title track and the brooding “Black Rose.” To many, the album is regarded as Jennings’ best, but Dreaming My Dreams, released two years later, paints a more complete portrait of the man. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is full of piss and vinegar; “Waymore’s Blues” doubles as his own mantra; and “Dreaming My Dreams” is emotion laid bare, delivered by a guy who’s man enough to admit he’s had his heart broken. Jennings found a soul mate in 1969, marrying the singer Jessi Colter, and the pair recorded a series of duets. One of them, a spirited take on Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” ended up on Wanted! The Outlaws, the first country LP to sell one million copies. Jennings died in 2002 at 64 from complications of diabetes. J.H.

Key Tracks: “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Honky Tonk Heroes” 

Willie Nelson prior to a television interview to promote his Stardust album. (Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
6

Willie Nelson

One of country’s greatest crossover artists, the Red Headed Stranger (and his distinctively nasal voice) has scored hits like “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on both the country charts and the Top 40 in the Seventies and Eighties. “I look at it all just being American music, sound and whatever, and if you like it, you like it,” Nelson once said. “It don’t need a name to be enjoyable.” He ought to know, too, since he also penned some of country’s all-time greatest hits, including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” over a decade before he was world famous. But for all his pop appeal, he has lived the outlaw life that Johnny Cash mostly only sang about: He smokes marijuana, he infamously dodged the I.R.S. and he still spends more time out on the open road, touring, than musicians a quarter of his age. “Country music has given a lot more to me than I’ve given to it,” he once said. “I get to do what I want to do, live the life I want to live.” K.G.

Key Tracks: “On the Road Again,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1937: Photo of Carter Family, 1937, Virginia, Poor Valley, Carter Family, L-R: Maybelle, Alvin P., Sara. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
5

The Carter Family

The trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle created the sound of modern country in the late Twenties by singing folk songs over guitar, autoharp and banjo arrangements. Built on Sara’s heartfelt vocals and her bandmates’ harmonies and simple song arrangements, their recordings, like “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower,” have become canon for the genre. “If you listen to the early hillbilly recordings, the singers were barely singing over the instruments,” Johnny Cash once wrote. “The Carter style was built around the vocals and incorporated them into the instrumental background, usually made up of the basic three-chord structure. In essence, the Carter Family violated the main traditions of vocal and instrumental music, but in doing so created a whole new style and a whole new sound.” Even after A.P. and Sara divorced in 1939, they continued playing together. By the time the group split in 1943, they’d recorded more than 250 songs. Maybelle carried on the group’s tradition (and name) with her daughters, and the original trio’s influence still ripples through country today. K.G.

Key Tracks: “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wildwood Flower”

Loretta Lynn holds her acoustic guitar as she poses for a portrait wearing a cowboy hat, a scarf and western shirt outside a log cabin in circa 1960. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
4

Loretta Lynn

A coal miner’s daughter from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, Loretta Lynn was a wife by 15, a mother soon after and is forever the queen of country music. Lynn sang, with her crystalline mountain quiver, about veterans and scorned wives, and women who weren’t in the mood for lovin’ – as well as about those who maybe logged a little too much time between the sheets. Classics like “The Pill,” “Rated X” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” are as controversial as they are legendary; and though Lynn would often avoid attaching a feminist narrative to her music, they unfolded a whole new future for women on Music Row. With more awards than any female in the genre and scores of partnerships under her belt – with everyone from Conway Twitty to Jack White – Lynn has kept the classics coming and the naysayers guessing, with lyrics that pierce the heart and tickle the mind. “I just write about what I would do if it was me,” she told Rolling Stone. M.M.

Key Tracks: “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Pill,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” 

American rock and country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003), circa 1965. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
3

Johnny Cash

Country’s self-proclaimed Man in Black embodied outlaw country’s rebel spirit. He sang about criminals
(“Folsom Prison Blues”), he gigged in prisons (his At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin live LPs) and he overcame a nasty drug habit. Improbably, he even infiltrated the grunge era with a stripped-back folk-poet sound, courtesy of rock producer Rick Rubin, making rock songs, like Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” sound all the more cutting, thanks to his powerful baritone. But at the same time, he could sing beautiful love songs with his wife, June Carter Cash, and lead a family-friendly concert revue for ABC-TV, which he branded with the most famous salutation in country: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” His impact was so extraordinary that when
President Bill Clinton received him at the Kennedy Center Honors, he proclaimed, “[Cash] has made country music not just for our country, but for the entire world.” K.G.

Key Tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line”

Circa 1945, Full-length portrait of American country singer and songwriter Hank Williams (1923 - 1953) holding a guitar, 1940s. (Photo by Getty Images)
2

Hank Williams

Although Hank Williams’ recorded output spanned only seven years, his influence has lasted 10 times as long, and it continues to grow. His plainspoken tales of heartbreak (“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”); catchy, playful party tunes (“Move It on Over,” “Jambalaya [On the Bayou]”); and charming pickup lines set to music (“Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonkin'”) became a blueprint for artists like Willie Nelson and George Jones. “He had a real animal magnetism,” the Grand Ole Opry’s Minnie Pearl once said. “He destroyed the women in the audience.” But at the same time he was wrecking himself with alcohol and pills. The Opry abandoned him because of his unreliability in 1952, and he died the next year at age 29. All these years later, the name “Hank” appears in country lyrics, shorthand for today’s crop of stars to assert their country cred. K.G.

Key Tracks: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Merle Haggard Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
1

Merle Haggard

His story, like his music, was as American epic, shot through with improbability, struggle, sin and redemption. Born in California in 1937 in a boxcar his father had converted into a house, he was hopping freights by age ten, and at 14 spent five nights in jail after being caught with a pistol and knife returning from a road trip to Lefty Frizzell’s Texas home. He wanted to live the things he’d heard Jimmie Rodgers sing about; he idolized Jesse James and Clyde Barrow (who he sang about); he lived hard, in and out of institutions until he was released from San Quentin in 1960. “Johnny Cash once told me, ‘Hag, you’re the guy people think I am,'” he told Rolling Stone, adding, “I would’ve become a lifetime criminal if music hadn’t saved my ass.”

He began his recording career in 1962, and the electric snap of his Fender Telecaster quickly helped shape the Bakersfield Sound – the taut music that did much to define country for many of the rock bands, from the Beatles to the Eagles, who looked to its stories and twang for inspiration. His songs were about bargains with the self, a search for something better, and the price paid for both: “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” drew from his prison experience, but the black marks they wrestled with signified universally; and barroom anthems like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Swinging Doors” distilled everyday pain into something deeply lyrical.

From 1966 to 1987, he placed 38 hits at Number One on the country charts, among them the bitterly patriotic “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” though his nomad lifestyle and the pot he smoked gave him more in common with the longhairs those songs denounced than he let on. He called his far-ranging style “country jazz,” and the string of late-period albums he began releasing at age 63 in 2000 were among his strongest. “If there’s an ambition left in my body,” he told Rolling Stone in 2009, “it’s…to write eight lines that will put the condition of the country foremost again before it’s too late.” He’d done it many times by then, but he kept going. J.L.

Key Tracks: “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Branded Man”

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