100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time
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.”
Hank Williams Jr.
Following in the footsteps of a famous father – possibly even the most famous of them all – is more than most artists could handle, but Hank Williams Jr. parlayed that burden into being one country’s most popular artists during the Eighties. It didn’t come easily – “Bocephus” spent years in Hank Sr.’s long shadow before a near fatal mountain-climbing accident inspired a reinvention. Rebellious, rock-influenced hits like “Family Tradition” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” catapulted him all the way to a primetime spot on Monday Night Football, but his Confederate flag-waving renegade streak hasn’t always been warmly received: He was unceremoniously dropped by MNF after comparing President Obama to Hitler in 2011 (he was recently rehired for the gig). Despite all his controversies, Williams remains a touchstone for today’s own rowdy crop of artists, from Justin Moore to Kid Rock. Wisely, he’s also tried to place music over politics. “I don’t give a shit about the election,” he declared to Rolling Stone in 2016, “I’ve got a smash CD coming out!” J.G.
Key Tracks: “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Family Tradition,” “Whiskey Bent and Hellbound'”
“The Gambler” himself has worn a number of hats through the course of a career that stretches back more than five decades, but none has fit more comfortably for Kenny Rogers than that of a country hitmaker. Not that the Houston native was always a country singer: his earliest forays, and first (minor) hits, came as the singer of psychedelic rock band the First Edition in the late Sixties. But Rogers’ destiny was to be a solo superstar, and once “Lucille” propelled his golden rasp to the top of the country charts he never looked back. Rogers would sell over 100 million albums and star in countless TV specials, and always seemed to find himself sharing the studio with his peers, duetting with everyone from Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”) to Lionel Richie (“Lady”). “Some of the highlights of my life were duets,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I sing better on duets than I do by myself.” J.G.
Key Tracks: “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County”
Tennessee Ernie Ford
A versatile, deep-voiced performer, Tennessee Ernie Ford became the model for future generations of multi-faceted country entertainers, from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton. The Bristol, Tennessee, native was once a golden-voiced radio announcer whose catchphrase earned him the nickname “The Ol’ Pea-Picker,” but quickly moved into a long, fruitful recording career that expertly straddled different worlds. Most notably, he enjoyed tremendous crossover success with the chilling – yet irresistible – workingman’s anthem “Sixteen Tons,” originally penned by Merle Travis and, to a lesser degree, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Ford’s charismatic personality and ability to fit his voice to many different styles of music meant he was able to easily shift away from traditional honky-tonk to more pop-oriented material as well as record gospel LPs like the top-selling Hymns, all while maintaining high visibility as a primetime television host through the Sixties. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1990, shortly before his death in 1991 – one of country’s all-time great entertainers and personalities. J.F.
Key Tracks: “Sixteen Tons,” “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” “I’ll Never Be Free”
Mel Tillis is one of country’s great ambassadors. From his stint in the cast of The Porter Wagoner Show to co-starring film roles with Burt Reynolds and his theater in Branson, Missouri, the Stutterin’ Boy (as he titled his memoir) has used an inviting baritone and comic M-M-Mel stage presence to take country worldwide. He’s garnered 35 Top Ten country hits across three decades, too, but it’s his writing that’s mattered most. The hits he wrote for himself (“Commercial Affection”) and for the Hall of Fame likes of Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Charley Pride (“The Snakes Crawl at Night”), Webb Pierce (“I Ain’t Never”) Waylon Jennings (“Mental Revenge”), and Kenny Rogers’s First Edition (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”), among others, is a playlist of incomparably pining paranoia and puts Mel Tillis on the short list of country’s songwriting best. D.C.
Key Tracks: “Commercial
Affection,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Who’s Lisa?”
Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings owned two of the most identifiable voices in the genre, but there was no more “country” voice than that of Gary Stewart. Possessing a quavering, cracking tenor, the Kentucky-born, Florida-reared singer could sustain vibrato like no other, stretching out notes in a way that rivaled George Jones. Listen to his 1975 Number One “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” which features vocal runs as woozy as the song’s brilliant title. Vices were a frequent subject of Stewart’s songs, from drinking and cheating to drinking again. The alcoholic’s anthem “Drinkin’ Thing,” the adultery tale “Out of Hand” and, another boozer, “Empty Glass” were all windows into Stewart’s own tortured soul. He tragically took his own life in 2003, following the death of his wife. Today, he remains an underappreciated figure, but to those in the know, there is none better. J.H.
Key Tracks: “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “Out of Hand”
Women have never exactly had it easy in country music, but there was a stretch in the mid-to-late Nineties where the scales seemed to temporarily balance. Out of that glorious period came one of the greatest vocal groups ever to hit the stage, in the form of three young Texas natives. Shedding their earlier Western swing band configuration, badass instrumentalist sisters Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Erwin Robison, along with powerhouse singer Natalie Maines, set about dominating the country airwaves with their diamond-certified album Wide Open Spaces. It wasn’t a one-off, either: the follow-up Fly sold over 10 million as well, producing indelible, harmony-laden hits like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and the controversial, darkly comic abuse saga “Goodbye Earl.” The 2001 release Home reasserted their position as roots musicians of the highest order before their country radio career evaporated in the wake of Maines’ 2003 remarks about President George W. Bush. They never backed down, though, releasing the more rock-tinged Taking the Long Way with confrontational lead single “Not Ready to Make Nice” and the harrowing documentary Shut Up and Sing in 2006. A full decade later, they’re still just as relevant, flashing Donald Trump’s picture among a group of serial abusers for tour renditions of “Goodbye Earl,” and pretty much owning the 2016 CMA Awards by performing “Daddy Lessons” with Beyonce. Jury’s out on new recordings, though. “There’s not being inspired, but there’s also just not having the life to facilitate that right now,” Maines told Rolling Stone in 2013. “We have nine kids between the three of us.” J.F.
Key Tracks: “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Long Time Gone,” “Not Ready to Make Nice”
A true country-music showman, Porter Wagoner exuded an otherworldly air, thanks in part to his dazzling Western suits. For Wagoner, born in Missouri in 1927, performance was an art, both on record and on the stage. Which is why he was such a natural hosting his own syndicated variety show, a series that ran a remarkable 19 years. It was there that Wagoner put the spotlight on Dolly Parton, introducing her to viewers around the country. They’d go on to cut a series of duets together, including the Number One “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” but Wagoner was very much his own artist. His songs “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “The Carroll County Accident” were famous for their last-verse twists – “Carroll County Accident” in particular, the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1969, was a stunner, detailing an illicit romance that is nearly revealed in the aftermath of a wreck on the highway. Wagoner remained a mainstay at the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2008 released his final album, Wagonmaster, produced by Marty Stuart. J.H.
Key Track: “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “The Carroll County Accident”
A progressive artist during a conservative era, Bobby Bare broadened the horizons of country music throughout the Sixties and Seventies, from his early Top 40 single “Shame on Me” – one of the first country singles to incorporate a horn section – to his left-of-center collaborations with novelty songwriter and weirdo poet Shel Silverstein. He rarely wrote his own hits, focusing instead on a unique, conversational delivery that often moved between speaking and singing. Bare picked his material wisely, too, becoming one of the first stars to record songs by Tom T. Hall, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. Today, at 82, he’s still making music, releasing the new LP Things Change this year. A.L.
Key Tracks: “(Margie’s at) the Lincoln Park Inn,” “Detroit City”
A feminist trailbreaker, Kitty Wells became the first woman to top the country charts with her 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a rejoinder to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” so honest in its depiction of what causes “a good woman to go wrong” it was banned by the Grand Ole Opry. Wells started singing in her teens but didn’t find success until her early 30s, employing her twangy, no-frills voice to convey a spirited independence that drove home real-talking hits like “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God” and “The White Circle On My Finger.” (She was actually happily married to singer-songwriter Johnnie Wright for 74 years). Statements from Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” to Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons” are hard to imagine without her signal example. “She was my hero,” Loretta Lynn said when Wells passed away in 2012. “If I had never heard of Kitty Wells, I don’t think I would have been a singer myself. I wanted to sound just like her, but as far as I am concerned, no one will ever be as great as Kitty Wells.” Jon Dolan
Key Tracks: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Making Believe”
Rich, who died in 1995, was best known to country fans for massive Seventies hits like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl,” which blended his dapper piano and ingrained-wood voice with Billy Sherrill’s Countrypolitan arrangements. (He’s also remembered for a singularly rebellious act: Tasked with announcing the Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards in 1975, Rich set the card afire as he named winner John Denver). But as his records before and after showed (Rich started his career at Sun Records in the Fifties), Rich was one of the country’s greatest no-boundary artists, genre-hopping from honky-tonk and ballads to standards, jazz, R&B, gospel, even the random novelty hit. “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” is one of country’s most moving depictions of a couple coping with hard financial times. D.B.
Key Tracks: “The Most Beautiful Girl,” “Behind Closed Doors”
Snow came to his songs of the open road – “I’m Movin’ On,” “The Golden Rocket,” “I’ve Been Everywhere” – from experience: at age 12 he fled an abusive stepfather and spent the next four years working on a fishing boat. Born in Nova Scotia, his life was changed by the traveling songs of Jimmie Rodgers. “I first heard Jimmie Rodgers when I was very young, I was in my teens,” he remembered. “‘Moonlight and Skies’ – and I
became an ardent fan at that minute. I either had to duplicate Jimmie Rodgers’ success before I died, or bust.” He signed to RCA, the same label as Rodgers, in 1936, and had his first hits in Canada before cracking the U.S. market in May of 1950 with “I’m Movin’ On,” a song that blended acoustic picking and chrome-plated pedal steel into a celebration of freedom and mobility that spent a record-setting 21 weeks at Number One (Ray Charles made it a both a pop and R&B hit in 1959, and the Rolling Stones gave it a frantic live update in 1965). Though he was an early supporter of Elvis Presley and experimented with Latin rhythms and Hawaiian music in songs like “Rhumba Boogie,” Snow was a guardian of country twang and tradition in hits like “(Now and Then) There’s a Fool Such as I” and “Ninety Miles Hour (Down a Dead End Street)” – even his last big hit, “Hello Love” in 1974, was a down-home throwback, featured the sort of picking he’d heard on the Rodgers songs that first inspired him. Joe Levy
Key Tracks: “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “(Now and Then) There’s a Fool Such as I”
On Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Gram Parsons joined the Byrds to officiate a shotgun wedding between straight country and hippie folk-rock, a marriage he furthered in a cannabis-leaf-patterned Nudie suit with the Flying Burrito Brothers. His songwriting continued to shine over two solo LPs, launching the career of a young Emmylou Harris and influencing a generation of genre-blending musicians, including pal Keith Richards. Parsons died in 1973 at age 26, and never had a hit, but he remains an icon of individualism in a conservative genre. And that fragile tenor is still one of the most moving voices in the canon. Will Hermes
Key Tracks: “Return of the Grievous Angel,” “In My Time of Darkness”
In many ways, John Prine was Americana before it had a name. Like Bob Dylan, but more country, like Johnny Cash, but more folk, Prine defied odds by existing nowhere and everywhere and by becoming the master of the sharp, witty phrase that can conjure up tears and laughter at the same time. Born in Illinois, Prine was discovered by Kris Kristofferson, compared to Proust by Dylan and became the subject of a song by Kacey Musgraves. His lyrics tell stories, but they illuminated reality, too: with a nasal rasp and commanding fingerpicking, he finds the moments to sing about that no one else would notice. “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, and come home in the evening and have nothing to say,” he asked in “Angel From Montgomery,” off his self-titled LP. His work traces the exploits of youth, the limits of aging and the most crooked corners of human nature, all while cracking an illegal smile. “We hold him up as our Hank Williams,” Todd Snider told Rolling Stone. M.M.
Key Tracks: “Sam Stone,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Angel from Montgomery”
Jerry Reed, the Chuck Berry-adoring wild man and back-slapping prototype good ol’ boy who’ll be inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame this fall, could do it all. Reed was a first-call guitarist, playing in the studio behind everyone from Elvis Presley (for his own “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male”) to Bobby Bare and Merle Haggard (that’s his acoustic part overdubbed on “Okie from Muskogee”), and cutting a trio of pickers paradise albums with no less than Chet Atkins. He was a top-notch songwriter, too, capable of down-to-earth, down-on-his-luck tall tales like his own greatest chart success “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” honky-tonk sing-alongs like Porter Wagoner’s “Misery Loves Company,” and Johnny Cash’s wet-eyed anthem “Thing Called Love.” But his madcap masterpiece was 1970’s “Amos Moses,” which just might be country radio’s funniest-ever two-and-half minutes – and maybe its funkiest, too. D.C.
Key Tracks: “Amos Moses,” “East Bound and Down,” “Guitar Man”
Country artists who don’t require a last name are in rarified air, and Reba is atop that list in the modern era. Ms. McEntire has become a brand unto herself, a force in television, film and on Broadway in addition to being one of country music’s most recognizable figures. Her glowing, versatile voice helped establish the Oklahoma native as Nashville royalty, along with an unflappable sense of poise and an innate business savvy. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, she credited her longevity to both good songs choices and adapting to the times. “I love to record, the process of finding songs, going into the studio with the producers and musicians. I just really love the whole process of making music,” she said. “And social media is key, staying out there with the public and giving them what they want.” J.G.
Key Tracks: “Whoever’s in New England,” “Fancy”
Both as a member of the Stanley Brothers with guitar-playing sibling Carter and as a solo artist, Ralph Stanley helped integrate bluegrass and Appalachian music into the country genre. With Carter, he recorded the definitive version of the traditional “Man of Constant Sorrow” in 1951, and backed by the band the Clinch Mountain Boys, the brothers became regulars on the region’s bluegrass circuit. Carter’s death in 1966 ended the duo, and the younger Stanley eventually carried on under his own name with a reconstituted Clinch Mountain Boys – at one point counting Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley among its members. Stanley experienced a major career renaissance in 2000, thanks to his inclusion on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou. His rendition of the haunting “O Death” won him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal in 2002, a song he continued to perform a cappella onstage until his death in 2016 at 89. J.H.
Key Tracks: “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “O Death”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Before threatening to shove biographer Nick Tosches’ tape recorder a place it was unlikely to fit, the Killer once summed music history thusly: “Y’know, son, there’s only been four of us: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s your only goddam four stylists that ever lived.” In 1968, when rock & roll was long done with him and nothing he recorded seemed to work, a 32-year-old Lewis proved the point by reshaping country songs of despair with his swagger and pumping piano: “Another Place, Another Time,” “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and even a cover of Ernest Tubb’s 1941 classic “Walking the Floor Over You” were about empty rooms and lonely times, but Lewis made them romps. On “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” he could stand inside and outside heartbreak at the same time, and brought a reprobate’s knowledge to “Middle Aged Crazy” via the lines “He’s got a young thing beside him / That just melts in his hands.” From 1968 to 1977, Lewis sent 10 singles to the Top 10 on the Billboard country chart, four of them to Number One, by walking tall and leaving the lamentation to others. J.L.
Key Tracks: “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” “Walking the Floor Over You”
Miranda Lambert is such the complete artist today, miles above most of her peers, that it’s hard to believe she ever competed on a TV singing contest, the 2003 edition of Nashville Star. She didn’t win, but she nonetheless established herself as a creative force by co-writing almost all of her own songs. A Texas native who grew up with a love for tough-talking stars like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, Lambert is a prime example of female empowerment in today’s country, with anthemic hits like “Gunpowder & Lead” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” But she refuses to be pigeonholed, also scoring with sensitive singles like “The House That Built Me” and “Over You.” With six major label albums to her credit, she is the most awarded ACM Female Vocalist of the Year in history (eight times), a two-time Grammy winner and has so far collected 13 CMA awards, while also creating a successful side project with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, the Pistol Annies. Her latest album, the ambitious double record The Weight of These Wings, emphasizes the songwriting that first put her on the map, particularly the crushing “Tin Man,” which lays bare her own broken heart. C.P.
Key Tracks: “Gunpowder & Lead,” “The House That Built Me”
Randy Travis and his oak-aged baritone returned country music to its down-home roots in the Eighties. Starting with 1986’s “On the Other Hand,” Travis’ run of hits mixed neo-traditionalist ballads with heavenly gospel songs that could make even the most hardened soul believe he had heard the voice of God. “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “I Told You So” and “Deeper Than the Holler” are essential to country music, all of them delivered by a voice that influenced artists from the Avett Brothers to Carrie Underwood. Tragically, Travis’ singing was curtailed by a stroke in 2013, but he regained his talent enough to perform “Amazing Grace” at his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2016, a feat that cemented Travis as not just a country icon but an inspiration. J.G.
Key Tracks: “Diggin’ Up Bones,” “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Country music’s first black superstar started as a half-time entertainer while playing semi-pro baseball in Montana, an American pursuit he also helped integrate. A pure country stylist in the vein of Roy Acuff, who he grew up listening to, Pride’s creased baritone drove 19 consecutive Number Ones through the Seventies (“Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Amazing Love”). He won the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award in 1971, matter-of-factly breaking one more color barrier. W.H.
Key Tracks: “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone”
Flatt & Scruggs
When Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs first formed their legendary bluegrass group the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1948, the duo had already left an unforgettable mark on the history of the then-burgeoning genre as members of Bill Monroe’ pioneering band. But with their own group, the duo would transform bluegrass and solidify its signature sound, thanks to Scruggs’ famous three-finger banjo-picking style and Flatt’s fast-paced rhythm guitar and high-lonesome vocals. The duo performed together for more than two decades, during which time they became the country’s foremost representatives of bluegrass, before splitting up, largely due to musical differences, in 1969. Before the breakup, however, the group released four Top Ten country albums and left behind an indelible legacy of bluegrass standards that still define the genre a half-century later. “If it wasn’t for Earl Scruggs,” John Hartford once said, weighing in on the debate over who originated bluegrass-style banjo, “you wouldn’t be worried about who invented it.” Jonathan Bernstein
Key Tracks: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”
Educated at Oxford in England, trained as an Army pilot, and blessed with rugged good looks but an equally craggy voice, Kristofferson seemed like the last person you’d expect to launch a music career in the Sixties. Yet that unconventional background – especially his interest in creative writing – inspired Kristofferson to take country lyricism to a new, more literary level as a writer and performer. Densely written and world weary, songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (popularized by Johnny Cash) and “For the Good Times” inserted an introspective depth into country, and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (a huge hit for Sammi Smith) injected a sexy intimacy into the music. Toss in now-standards like “Me and Bobby McGee,” “From the Bottle to the Bottom” and “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” and Kristofferson earned his stature as country’s poet laureate. D.B.
Key Tracks: “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee”
Few country artists have had bigger careers than Alan Jackson, though he’d never be the first one to tell you. The quiet man of country stars, Jackson has been a steady hand throughout his nearly 30 years in the spotlight, during which he’s racked up more than 30 Number One singles and sold over 80 million records. Appropriately, it was Jackson’s wife who helped him catch his big break, handing off a demo on a chance encounter with Glen Campbell, who signed the Newnan, Georgia, native to his publishing company. Jackson’s glossy traditionalism shines on hits like “Midnight in Montgomery,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” – country music’s definitive memorial to 9/11 – proving that Jackson needn’t ever say a word; the music speaks for itself. J.G.
Key Tracks: “Chattahoochee,” “Midnight in Montgomery”
The Kentucky farm son who became the Father of Bluegrass – his bronze likeness now stands outside Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium – worked as a buck dancer during the Depression before turning musician, and he brought that physical joy to the sound of the Blue Grass Boys. With the hot picking of banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt alongside Monroe’s mandolin, the bandleader forged a new sound full of showboat soloing and mountain soul. It took the Grand Ole Opry by storm in the 1940s, inspiring countless musicians along the way. Country music would never be the same. W.H.
Key Tracks: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Rocky Road Blues”
Tom T. Hall
Hall’s songwriting has been compared to Chekhov’s short stories and with good reason. “I couldn’t write the ‘Darling, you left alone and blue’ or ‘I’m drunk in this bar and crying’ [songs] – I just didn’t get it,” he once said. “And so I started writing these story songs.” Hall brought humor, warmth and some of the most vividly descriptive lyrics in the history of American music to songs like “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” written after a brief encounter with a janitor at a bar at the 1972 Democratic Convention. “Don’t Forget the Coffee Billie Joe” is about a seven-mile walk into town in the winter of ’49 with a shopping list from dad that’s like a catalog of rural struggle and community (“mama needs her medicine / She’s got that real bad cough / We’ll get our check on Monday / Tell ol’ Sam we’ll pay him off’). Hall’s biggest hit was “Harper Valley PTA,” a hilarious study in small-minded, small-town hypocrisy that was a Number One pop and country hit for Jeannie C. Reilly in 1968. An English major and committed liberal, Hall infused his songs with a learned tenderness, like in “The Hitchhiker,” where he picks up a country boy in search of a job outside of Prestonsburg, Kentucky, buys him a diner hot dog (“with a lot of table ketchup“) and arrives at the bottomless life lesson “boy, you’ll never make it without help.” J.D.
Key Tracks: “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine”
A young Shania Twain, born Eilleen Regina Edwards, got her start writing songs in the woods of North Ontario, but went on to birth Nashville’s pop-crossover and become one of the best-selling country artists in history with three diamond albums. “Any Man of Mine,” from her sophomore LP The Woman in Me and first collaboration with Mutt Lange, sounds innocent enough in today’s context, but it was groundbreaking in its day: the vocals powerful, the fiddles loud, the mix and majesty as sticky and aggressive as only Def Leppard’s producer could create. In Twain’s era, women were country’s leaders – Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Reba – and the massive success of albums like her Come On Over made Taylor Swift (or even Sam Hunt) possible, changing how the world at large viewed material that came from Music Row. Before Twain, country was for honky-tonks and dancehalls. After Twain, it was for MTV and the uptown dance clubs too. M.M.
Key Tracks: “Any Man of Mine,” “You’re Still the One,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
The Louvin Brothers
The greatest singing duo in country music history, Charlie and Ira Louvin may also be the music’s first great traditionalist throwbacks, recording simple string-based music in the 1950s as honky-tonk was at its peak and Countrypolitan was on the rise, doing more with the bedrock power of their clarion voices than any slick recording could ever accomplish. Religious, path-walking Charlie and angry alcoholic Ira lived out the sin-salvation dichotomy the duo explored in songs like “The Christian Life” (later covered by the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” (which was covered by Johnny Cash). The Louvins recorded furiously, releasing three albums in 1958 alone, peaking with the 1959 landmark Satan Is Real, for which they constructed a massive cutout of the devil and set a pile of tires aflame in the classic cover art. J.D.
Key Tracks: “The Christian Life,” “The Great Atomic Power”
When Ernest Tubb died in 1984 at 70, Merle Haggard remarked, “He was the last of the cowboys.” And with his big hat and broad smile, the “Texas Troubadour,” as he was known, very much looked the part. But it was his dedication to country music and championing new talent that made Tubb such a heroic figure in the genre. In 1941, he wrote and recorded what many believe to be the progenitor of honky-tonk music: “Walking the Floor Over You.” He’d follow it up with hits like “Soldier’s Last Letter” and “It’s Been So Long Darling,” and cut the devilish drinking tune “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” in 1946. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Tubb also hosted the Midnight Jamboree radio show, spotlighting up-and-coming artists, from Johnny Cash to Loretta Lynn. His Ernest Tubb Record Shop, open since 1947, still sells country music on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. J.H.
Key Tracks: “Walking the Floor Over You,” “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin”
In the early Fifties, Frizzell enjoyed success on par with his Texas buddy Hank Williams, topping the charts five times between 1950 and 1952. But where Williams frequently probed the depths of desolation and despair, Frizzell exuded optimistic buoyancy even when he was singing about heartbreak. His career took off with the instant classic “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” which was, incredibly, only his second recording. Though Frizzell’s years of success would be somewhat limited, the natural warmth and gravity in his singing influenced generations of singers, from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to Randy Travis. “The impact Lefty had on country music is not even measurable,” wrote Merle Haggard in a foreword to a biography of Frizzell. “No one could handle a song like Lefty. He would hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one. Most of us learned to sing listening to him.” J.D.
Key Tracks: “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” “Saginaw, Michigan”
Conway Twitty began his chart career as a rockabilly icon, once removed. His million-selling ballad, 1958’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” was Elvis-imitation at its most elegant and fraught; Twitty himself was then parodied in Bye Bye Birdie. He translated that vocal attack unaltered – still elegant, still fraught, with whisper-to-a-wail dynamics and heavy on the growl – to country radio in the mid Sixties. He was as responsible as anyone for insuring that first-generation rock & roll would forever more be counted as part of the country sound. Duetting with Loretta Lynn or seducing solo, Twitty’s characteristic stance was blue-collar sexy, confident but guilty, a-tremble with sincerity. His heart is broken, or he’s about to break someone’s; it is killing him either way. “Conway Twitty,” a friend recently quipped, “is just a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack away from experiencing a huge, overdue revival.” D.C.
Key Tracks: “How Much More Can She Stand (and Still Stand by Me),” “Linda on My Mind,” “Slow Hand”
Since his 1981 debut Strait Country, George Strait has been the picture of consistency, releasing albums and singles without as much as a wobble, let alone a complete misstep. Which is why so many consider him King. Songs like “Fool Hearted Memory,” “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “The Chair” are worthy of the Smithsonian, and Strait’s performances – stoic, aside from the tapping foot and occasional grin – embody a certain type of country music, one that is classy, not showy. Yet he’s not above biting the Nashville hand that feeds him. His 2000 duet with Alan Jackson, “Murder on Music Row,” didn’t mince words, while new song “Kicked Outta Country” laments the absence of legends on country radio. The medium has always been kind to Strait, however – even they wouldn’t dare not spin his records. The result: 60 Number One singles, more than any other artist in music history. J.H.
Key Tracks: “Amarillo by Morning,” “The Chair”
A versatile entertainer whose career included a Tony-winning score for a Broadway musical based on Huckleberry Finn, Miller may be country’s greatest comic genius, a playful singer and a colorful songwriter whose hits included the underage drinking classic “Chug-a-Lug,” “Dang Me,” about a wildly irresponsible new dad, and the absurdist pun-fest “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.” He based his classic “King of the Road” on a road sign he’d seen offering “trailers for sale or rent,” and came away with a chart-topper that’s been covered by everyone from Dean Martin to R.E.M. J.D.
Key Tracks: “Dang Me,” “King of the Road”
A brilliant crossover artist, Eddy Arnold had a golden voice that seamlessly drifted between forceful storytelling and easy-listening crooning on several decades of hits like 1947’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” and 1965’s “Make the World Go Away.” More remarkable, he got onto the pop charts with more traditional twangy and galloping tunes like 1948’s “Bouquet of Roses,” 1959’s “Tennessee Stud” and 1966’s “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me,” the last of which charted at a time when rock’s British Invasion was in full effect. The singer – known as the “Tennessee Plowboy,” because he was a farmhand on his sharecropper father’s estate – learned guitar from his mother and made his radio debut in 1936, leading to a record deal in 1944 that launched a career of hits spanning seven decades. His last, “To Life,” made it to Number 49 on the country chart in 2008, the year he died. “I’m a Heinz 57 singer,” he once said, according to Country Music: The Encyclopedia. “I sing many different kinds of songs, which mean something different to many different kinds of people.” Kory Grow
Key Tracks: “Make the World Go Away,” “You Don’t Know Me”
A sharecropper’s son from Arkansas, Campbell got his start in the Sixties as part of the top-flight L.A. session band the Wrecking Crew, playing on hits by the biggest California pop acts of the time, and he found fame hosting his own TV variety show. As a singer, he scored a series of huge crossover hits that combined pop, country and rock to create an expansive sophisticated sound that helped expand the country audience. Working with Oklahoma-bred songwriter Jimmy Webb, Campbell recorded sweeping ballads like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” songs that reflected a generation’s migration from the South to the West and embodied the rise of the Sun Belt. Campbell continued his string of successes throughout the Seventies with hits like the 1975 Number One pop smash “Rhinestone Cowboy.” In recent years, despite failing health, he recorded the fine LPs Meet Glen Campbell and Ghost on the Canvas, on which he powerfully performed interpreted songs by the Velvet Underground, Green Day and Guided by Voices. Now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, Campbell bid a musical farewell with this year’s Adiós, an album recorded after his 2013 Goodbye Tour. J.D.
Key Tracks: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
If Tammy Wynette had only recorded the iconic – and polarizing – anthem “Stand By Your Man,” she’d still be remembered as one of country’s most influential artists. Even if the song and its shrugging “after all, he’s just a man” message rankled feminists for its apologist nature. But the Mississippi native was also a serial hitmaker throughout the Sixties and Seventies, cutting songs that helped redefine what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. Often, her titles alone – “I Don’t Want to Play House, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Run Woman, Run” – were enough to turn heads. But then there was that voice: emotional and pure, with the ability to make any song she recorded her own, including her string of duets with onetime husband George Jones. Wynette died in her sleep at the age of 55 in 1998, but her presence continues to be felt in the music of vets like Miranda Lambert and upstarts Lauren Alaina. J.G.
Key Tracks: “Stand By Your Man,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
Too small to work with cattle, Ray Price skipped out on studying veterinary medicine in 1946, settled on music, and became a crucial figure in both honky-tonk and the string-swept modern sounds of Countrypolitan. Born in a tiny town in northeastern Texas, he shuttled between the family farm and Dallas after his parents divorced, and the songs he began recording in 1949 mirrored that journey from the country to the city, combining the wide-open rush of Western Swing with the hard-driving rhythms of honky-tonk into a sound that came to be called the “Texas shuffle.” You can hear it in “Crazy Arms,” the aching 1956 single that spent 20 weeks at Number One on the country charts. Price nurtured future stars Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Willie Nelson in his band before shifting gears in the late Sixties to the lush orchestrations that gave his deep voice a velvet setting. His 1970 cover of Kris Kristofferson’ “For the Good Times” was so smoothly soulful that Al Green picked up on it two years later. “I just couldn’t believe that a country boy was supposed to be very ignorant and not very sophisticated – that he sang through his nose and scratched his head,” Price later said. “I was a rebel when it came to that.” J.L.
Key Tracks: “Crazy Arms,” “”Heartaches by the Number”
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Wills’ visionary role as country’s first master of genre-bridging musical synthesis can hardly be overstated. Channeling jazz, hillbilly music, blues, citified dance styles and Latin rhythms into his brand of “Texas fiddle music,” he proved that country could be as wide-ranging and vibrant as any music on the planet. With ace steel guitar player Leon McAuliffe and the smooth vocals of Tommy Duncan, Wills’ Texas Playboys hit their peak in the 1930s and 1940s with hits like “Steel Guitar Rag” and “San Antonio Rose,” songs that were rollicking yet smooth, downhome yet urbane. His influence extended far beyond country: Chuck Berry used the beat from Wills’ 1983 version of the traditional tune “Ida Red” in writing his classic “Maybelline.” J.D.
Key Tracks: “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa”
With his genial, rubbery singing style and his tough, wiry guitar playing, Buck Owens defined the hard-driving Bakersfield Sound of the 1960s and became one of the most successful country hit-makers of the era. Owens grew up in North Texas and moved with his family to Arizona during the Depression. After playing in dance bands for years, his career took off thanks to hits like “Act Naturally,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” – fun, propulsive songs with a stripped-down energy more in step with rock & roll than the more polished sounds of Nashville at the time. The Beatles covered “Act Naturally,” and Owens nodded to the psychedelic era with the fuzz-toned guitar swing of “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass.” “[The] Bakersfield Sound, I think, is a mix of Bob Wells and the Texas Playboys and Little Richard,” he said later in life. “I liked music with a big beat, and I liked the driving sounds of the drums and the guitars.” J.D.
Key Tracks: “Act Naturally,” “Together Again”
When Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at 30 years old in 1963, she only had a few hits under her belt. But at the time she was already having pop crossover success and posthumously her status only grew. Today, she is considered country’s most haunting vocalist. Her husky alto and impassioned aching delivery sucked listeners into stark depictions of romantic hope and trauma like “Sweet Dreams (of You),” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” famously written by Willie Nelson. Working with producer Owen Bradley, her sophisticated vocal style became the perfect vehicle for a Nashville moving away from the honky-tonk into a more refined sound that would help the genre connect with a broad audience. “Even though her style is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer,” Lucinda Williams has said of Cline. “That’s what set her apart from Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You’d almost think she was classically trained.” J.D.
Key Tracks: “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces”
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”
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”
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”
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”
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”
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”
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”
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)”
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”
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”
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”