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.”

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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