Country has always been a cornerstone of American music, but in recent years it has undergone quite a transformation. What was once brushed off as "hick music" is now being enjoyed by more people than ever before. Its audience has grown exponentially, and its songs are dominating the radio waves. While the rest of the music industry continues to struggle, country seems to be stronger than ever. If one thing is for certain, country music isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Country music has been growing as an art from since Eck Robertson’s recording of “Arkansas Traveler” in 1922. From the days of 78 RPM vinyl to digital downloads, fans continue to flock to the format. So who are the 25 greatest country artists of all time? That list might very well be subject to conjecture as the definition of country, but here are the acts that have made an immeasurable mark on the genre. In compiling this list, we took into consideration sales, airplay, and influence upon the genre -- and outside of it. Let the debates commence!
In the early-mid-1990s, country western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. This influence was so great that Chet Atkins was quoted as saying, "The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It's all that damn line dancing." By the end of the decade, however, at least one line dance choreographer complained that good country line dance music was no longer being released. In contrast, artists such as Don Williams and George Jones who had more or less had consistent chart success through the 1970s and 1980s suddenly had their fortunes fall rapidly around 1991 when the new chart rules took effect.
Alternative country drew on traditional American country music, the music of working people, preserved and celebrated by practitioners such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and The Carter Family, often cited as major influences. Another major influence was country rock, the result of fusing country music with a rock & roll sound. The artist most commonly thought to have originated country rock is Gram Parsons (who referred to his sound as "Cosmic American Music"), although Michael Nesmith, Steve Earle and Gene Clark are frequently identified as important innovators. The third factor was punk rock, which supplied an energy and DIY attitude.
Raised at the junction of Big Joe Turner, ‘50s rock and tavern country (slightly sleeker, ice clinking division), Dave Alvin left the Blasters on two bald tires with the hammer down. “Romeo’s Escape” thrashed and churned, Stratocaster stinging and drums hard-pounding down as Alvin’s oaken crag of a voice shook with fury. The lean, but unrepentant Hank Williams’ homage “Long White Cadillac,” all wristy downstroke, fulk-throttled moan and high hat slam, would eventually hit #1 for Dwight Yoakam, as the driving grind of accusation and betrayal “New Tattoo” would become a low end stripper with brio anthem with its lacerating guitar and swollen bass. Somewhere between Steinbeck and Bukowski, Alvin mined have-nots’ seediness without making them cheap: “Jubilee Train” worked jackhammer-rhythmed salvation, “Border Radio” was Mexican-tinged Haggard and “Fourth of July” swept yearning across an evaporated love trying to find a spark.—Holly Gleason
In 2005, country singer Carrie Underwood rose to fame as the winner of the fourth season of American Idol and has since become one of the most prominent recording artists of 2006 through 2016, with worldwide sales of more than 65 million records and seven Grammy Awards. With her first single, "Inside Your Heaven", Underwood became the only solo country artist to have a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the 2000–2009 decade and also broke Billboard chart history as the first country music artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Underwood's debut album, Some Hearts, became the best-selling solo female debut album in country music history, the fastest-selling debut country album in the history of the SoundScan era and the best-selling country album of the last 10 years, being ranked by Billboard as the #1 Country Album of the 2000–2009 decade. She has also become the female country artist with the most number one hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in the Nielsen SoundScan era (1991–present), having 14 No. 1s and breaking her own Guinness Book record of ten. In 2007, Underwood won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, becoming only the second Country artist in history (and the first in a decade) to win it. She also made history by becoming the seventh woman to win Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the first woman in history to win the award twice, as well as twice consecutively. Time has listed Underwood as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2016, Underwood topped the Country Airplay chart for the 15th time, becoming the female artist with most number ones on that chart.
Derived from the traditional Western and honky tonk musical styles of the late 1950s and 1960s, including Ray Price (whose band, the "Cherokee Cowboys", included Willie Nelson and Roger Miller) and mixed with the anger of an alienated subculture of the nation during the period, outlaw country revolutionized the genre of country music. "After I left Nashville (the early 70s), I wanted to relax and play the music that I wanted to play, and just stay around Texas, maybe Oklahoma. Waylon and I had that outlaw image going, and when it caught on at colleges and we started selling records, we were O.K. The whole outlaw thing, it had nothing to do with the music, it was something that got written in an article, and the young people said, 'Well, that's pretty cool.' And started listening." (Willie Nelson) The term outlaw country is traditionally associated with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, Steve Young, David Allan Coe, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Gary Stewart, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Martin Murphey, Tompall Glaser, Steve Earle, and the later career renaissance of Johnny Cash, with a few female vocalists such as Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, Tanya Tucker and Rosanne Cash. It was encapsulated in the 1976 album Wanted! The Outlaws.
In 1986, when he broke onto the scene, Whitley's star was somewhat overshadowed by Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But, his second album -- 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes -- helped to establish him as one of the dominant balladeers of his day. Sadly, a long career wasn't meant to be -- as his May 1989 death stilled his voice. But, talk to any singer who has come along since -- such as Tim McGraw, Chris Young, or Alan Jackson, and they will tell you just how deep his influence still runs -- even after 25 years.
Country music was aided by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Docket 80–90, which led to a significant expansion of FM radio in the 1980s by adding numerous higher-fidelity FM signals to rural and suburban areas. At this point, country music was mainly heard on rural AM radio stations; the expansion of FM was particularly helpful to country music, which migrated to FM from the AM band as AM became overcome by talk radio (the country music stations that stayed on AM developed the classic country format for the AM audience). At the same time, beautiful music stations already in rural areas began abandoning the format (leading to its effective demise) to adopt country music as well. This wider availability of country music led to producers seeking to polish their product for a wider audience. In 1990, Billboard, which had published a country music chart since the 1940s, changed the methodology it used to compile the chart: singles sales were removed from the methodology, and only airplay on country radio determined a song's place on the chart.
The most successful British country music act of the 21st century are Ward Thomas and the Shires. In 2015, the Shires' album Brave, became the first UK country act ever to chart in the Top 10 of the UK Albums Chart and they became the first UK country act to receive an award from the American Country Music Association. In 2016, Ward Thomas then became the first UK country act to hit number 1 in the UK Albums Chart with their album Cartwheels.
In the early 1970s, Jennings fought Nashville for creative control to make his music the way he saw fit. Though he had been a consistent hitmaker for close to a decade by this point, you could hear a difference on such songs as “This Time” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” He was called an outlaw, though he tended to rebel against that word as well over the years. Looking back, Jennings simply wanted to be himself –- ranging from covers of such current hits as “Can’t You See” to stunning ballads like “Dreaming My Dreams With You.”
As one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and influential artists, Joni Mitchell is the very face of folk music and yet equally at ease in the worlds of rock, pop, jazz and blues. A fixture of the 6os folk scenes in Greenwich Village and Laurel Canyon, Mitchell first got her start during university in Calgary before busking in the streets of Toronto. With ‘Woodstock’ she created the anthem for an entire generation, even though it was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that made it famous. Truly one of the most gifted songwriters in music, the enduring popularity of her albums Blue, Court and Spark, defy trends and convention and her music has been sampled from everyone from Janet Jackson to Prince.
Some might recognize Owens better for his 17-year run as the host of Hee Haw. While his run in Kornfield Kounty did make him a household name, Owens was a musical maverick in the 1960s. His Bakersfield style -- a mixture of pure honky-tonk and California rock-and-roll attitude -- served in stark contrast to the more smooth sounds coming out of Nashville at the time. He influenced not just country artists, but also John Fogerty, Ray Charles -– who recorded eight of his classics -- and The Beatles, who requested that Capitol send them each an Owens album upon its release.
The 1870s saw several conservatories open their doors, providing their string, woodwind and brass faculty, leading to the opportunity for any class level of society to learn music. 'One Sweetly Solemn Thought in 1876 by Hamilton-based Robert S. Ambrose, became one of the most popular songs to ever be published in the 19th century. It fulfilled the purpose of being an appropriate song to sing in the parlors of homes that would not permit any non-sacred music to be performed on Sundays. At the same time it could be sung in dance halls or on the stage along with selections from operas and operettas.
With her Grammy-adorned breakout solo LP, Ingénue, k.d. lang transformed from a country traditionalist to an impressionistic pop crooner, draping her dazzling mezzo-soprano over samba rhythms ("Miss Chatelaine"), oceanic cabaret-jazz ("Save Me") and breezy orchestrations from collaborator Ben Mink ("The Mind of Love"). No longer chasing the ghost of Patsy Cline, she pursued unique stylistic combinations—imbuing her formative "torch and twang" with a tapestry of colors: accordion, viola, marimba, the tropical-flavored pedal-steel of session master Greg Leisz. The album is best remembered, and summarized, by the lonesome yearning of hit single "Constant Craving." "Always someone marches brave / Here beneath my skin," Lang sings. Two decades later, she's still marching bravely—still shifting her sound with each song cycle. But Ingénue remains her signature statement.—Ryan Reed
Drawing at the well alongside Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt, the laconic, demure Lovett is a hard-luck romantic unopposed to good humor or the occasional murder ballad. Rarely eliciting emotional extremes, he’s a superb magician nonetheless; with a quick turn of phrase listeners are transported into new skin. When Lovett sings, “put down that flyswatter, and pour me some ice water” on the five-star Joshua Judges Ruth, I’m rising early for carpenter’s work on a hot July morning in southeast Texas. If alt-country takes traditional country songs and adds new elements, Lovett pulls the genre in a more soulful direction with his wry wit always on full display.—Jeff Elbel
Rock and roll has usually been seen as a combination of rhythm and blues and country music, a fusion particularly evident in 1950s rockabilly. There has also been cross-pollination throughout the history of both genres; however, the term “country-rock” is used generally to refer to the wave of rock musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s who began recording rock songs with country themes, vocal styles, and additional instrumentation, most characteristically pedal steel guitars. John Einarson states, that "[f]rom a variety of perspectives and motivations, these musicians either played rock & roll attitude, or added a country feel to rock, or folk, or bluegrass, there was no formula".
Country music gained national television exposure through Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV and radio from 1955 to 1960 from Springfield, Missouri. The program showcased top stars including several rockabilly artists, some from the Ozarks. As Webb Pierce put it in 1956, "Once upon a time, it was almost impossible to sell country music in a place like New York City. Nowadays, television takes us everywhere, and country music records and sheet music sell as well in large cities as anywhere else." The late 1950s saw the emergence of Buddy Holly, but by the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the rock n' roll influences of the mid-1950s.
These Brits played weirdo punk rock for years before releasing this weirdo record whose country influences are subtle to say the least. The dystopian feel of Fear and Whiskey is definitely more “alt” than “country,” but songs like “Abernant 1984/5” and the aptly titled “Country” are boozy strolls across wind-swept plains on far way planets. Guitarist Jon Langford’s love of country music continued to grow, and he went on to form The Waco Brothers and also appeared on alt-country stalwarts Old 97’s classic Wreck Your Life album.—Mark Lore
In 1952, Dawson began a radio show and went on to national stardom as a singing cowboy of radio, TV and film. Slim Dusty (1927–2003) was known as the "King of Australian Country Music" and helped to popularise the Australian bush ballad. His successful career spanned almost six decades, and his 1957 hit "A Pub with No Beer" was the biggest-selling record by an Australian to that time, and with over seven million record sales in Australia he is the most successful artist in Australian musical history. Dusty recorded and released his one-hundredth album in the year 2000 and was given the honour of singing "Waltzing Matilda" in the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Dusty's wife Joy McKean penned several of his most popular songs.
The first generation emerged in the early 1920s, with Atlanta's music scene playing a major role in launching country's earliest recording artists. New York City record label Okeh Records began issuing hillbilly music records by Fiddlin' John Carson as early as 1923, followed by Columbia Records (series 15000D "Old Familiar Tunes") (Samantha Bumgarner) in 1924, and RCA Victor Records in 1927 with the first famous pioneers of the genre Jimmie Rodgers and the first family of country music The Carter Family. Many "hillbilly" musicians, such as Cliff Carlisle, recorded blues songs throughout the 1920s.