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! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhZnhUiU448
Country rock was a particularly popular style in the California music scene of the late 1960s, and was adopted by bands including Hearts and Flowers, Poco (formed by Richie Furay and Jim Messina, formerly of the Buffalo Springfield) and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Some folk-rockers followed the Byrds into the genre, among them the Beau Brummels and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. A number of performers also enjoyed a renaissance by adopting country sounds, including: the Beatles, who re-explored elements of country in their later albums, like "Rocky Raccoon" and "Don't Pass Me By" from their eponymous "White Album" (1968), and "Octopus's Garden" from Abbey Road (1969); the Everly Brothers, whose Roots album (1968) is usually considered some of their finest work; former teen idol Ricky Nelson who became the frontman for the Stone Canyon Band; John Fogerty, who left Creedence Clearwater Revival behind for the country sounds of the Blue Ridge Rangers(1972); Mike Nesmith, who had experimented with country sounds while with the Monkees, formed the First National Band; and Neil Young who moved in and out of the genre throughout his career. One of the few acts to successfully move from the country side towards rock were the bluegrass band the Dillards.
The Kentucky band’s sprawling major-label debut did nothing to alter the independent spirit of singer-songwriter Jim James and his cohorts. The country-rock base retained elements of Memphis soul, classic ’70s rock and neo-psychedelic sounds, all drenched in salubrious washes of reverb. Besides, nothing says complete artistic freedom like 12 songs that average six minutes in length, many of which were recorded in a grain silo to give the reverb more reverb. Styles mix wantonly, songs meander but never go quite where you expect them to. What begins as an acoustic-driven folk song (“Magheeta”) morphs into a hard-rocking power ballad; a funkified homage to R&B clubs (“Dance Floors”) becomes an Exile on Main Street-era block party, powered by a propulsive horn section straight out of “Tumbling Dice”; and the minor-key melancholia of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse epics (think “Cortez the Killer”) forms the backbone of “Run Through” until it mutates at the chorus into the early ’80s Manchester sound reminiscent of New Order. Is it alt-country? That’s as good a descriptor as anything else.—John Schact
Dylan's lead was also followed by the Byrds, who were joined by Gram Parsons in 1968. Parsons had mixed country with rock, blues and folk to create what he called "Cosmic American Music". Earlier in the year Parsons had released Safe at Home (although the principal recording for the album had taken place in mid-1967) with the International Submarine Band, which made extensive use of pedal steel and is seen by some as the first true country-rock album. The result of Parsons' brief tenure in the Byrds was Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), generally considered one of the finest and most influential recordings in the genre. The Byrds continued for a brief period in the same vein, but Parsons left soon after the album was released to be joined by another ex-Byrds member Chris Hillman in forming the Flying Burrito Brothers. Over the next two years they recorded the albums The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) and Burrito Deluxe (1970), which helped establish the respectability and parameters of the genre, before Parsons departed to pursue a solo career.
Though she hit first with “Walkin’ After Midnight” in 1957, Cline’s true influence as an artist stems from only a three-year recording career (1960-1963). However, what she did with that time period continues to inspire countless artists around the world. Take a walk to Nashville’s lower Broadway on any given night, and you will likely hear a rising female singer doing “Crazy” -– something that will likely be the case for another 50 years or so.
After getting their start in Tuscon, Arizona’s punk scene, Green On Red moved to Los Angeles and expanded their sound to incorporate country and psych-pop influences. The move inched them closer to the Paisley Underground with the likes of Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock, as well as Thin White Rope up in Davis, California. By the time Green On Red released Gas Food Lodging in 1985, they’d begun sneaking more elements of country music—a la The Byrds—into their music, while still retaining their jangly pop prowess. There’s nary a dud on this one, each song a gem and strong enough to satiate country fans with a sense of adventure.—Mark Lore
Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s, and 1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music. Rockabilly was an early form of rock and roll, an upbeat combination of blues and country music. The number two, three and four songs on Billboard's charts for that year were Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel"; Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line"; and Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes" Thumper Jones (George Jones) Cash and Presley placed songs in the top 5 in 1958 with No. 3 "Guess Things Happen That Way/Come In, Stranger" by Cash, and No. 5 by Presley "Don't/I Beg of You." Presley acknowledged the influence of rhythm and blues artists and his style, saying "The colored folk been singin' and playin' it just the way I'm doin' it now, man for more years than I know." Within a few years, many rockabilly musicians returned to a more mainstream style or had defined their own unique style.
It was only a short, exhaustively well-rehearsed and well-recorded step away to the Eagles and Ronstadt (and Asylum Records). Their careers proved central to those of surrounding singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, and Warren Zevon, whose simultaneous countryesque confessions creatively fed both the band and the singer. For Ronstadt, country rock progressively gave way to a wide variety of other styles, always approached from the point of view of her American sources, always mounted with the painstaking studio finesse exemplified by producer Peter Asher. For the Eagles, working first with the English producer Glyn Johns and later with Bill Szymczyk, the style became so full-blown that the band’s multimillion-selling album Hotel California (1976) both dramatized the Los Angeles milieu that underpinned the country-Hollywood connection and reflected the growing significance of the symbolism of country rock. Surrounding these careers were a number of other key figures. In addition to founding the influential Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons introduced former folksinger Emmylou Harris to the music of George Jones, spawning her pursuit of a vernacular vocal art of operatic seriousness and intensity. Neil Young, formerly of Buffalo Springfield, began the traditionalist part of a gnarled, varied body of music that grew into a stylistic cosmos of genius unto itself. Like the Dillards, who came to country rock from a bluegrass background, all three chose not to work as commercially as the Eagles, Ronstadt, or Poco, whose driving force, Richie Furay, was another former member of Buffalo Springfield. Instead they preferred to have their music felt over time in ways less direct and less oriented to mass culture.
Other acts who became prominent in the alt-country genre during the 1990s and 2000s included The Bottle Rockets, The Handsome Family, Blue Mountain, Robbie Fulks, Blood Oranges, Bright Eyes, Drive-By Truckers, Old 97's, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek, Neko Case, and Whiskeytown, whose lead singer Ryan Adams later had a successful solo-career. Alt-country, in various iterations overlapped with other genres, including Red Dirt country music (Cross Canadian Ragweed), jam bands (My Morning Jacket and The String Cheese Incident), and indie folk (The Avett Brothers).
Despite the genre's growing popularity in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, alternative country and neo-traditionalist artists saw minimal support from country radio in those decades, despite strong sales and critical acclaim for albums such as the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In 1987, The Beat Farmers gained airplay on country music stations with their song "Make It Last", but the single was pulled from the format when station programmers decreed the band's music was too rock-oriented for their audience. However, some alt-country songs have been crossover hits to mainstream country radio in cover versions by established artists on the format; Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses" was a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993, Ryan Adams's "When The Stars Go Blue" was a hit for Tim McGraw in 2007, and Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" was a hit for Darius Rucker in 2013.
Country rock, the incorporation of musical elements and songwriting idioms from traditional country music into late 1960s and ’70s rock, usually pursued in Los Angeles. The style achieved its commercial zenith with the hits of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and many other less consistent performers. Country rock arose from the conviction that the wellspring of rock and roll was the work of 1950s and ’60s regionalists such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and George Jones, as well as, to some extent, that of the Carter Family and Flatt and Scruggs and other artists who had blossomed in local folk and bluegrass scenes before the establishment of the Nashville recording industry.
Along with Johnny Cash, there may not be any other country performer who is as well-known across the world as Dolly Parton. Whether it be for her music or her acting, she continues to reign as an entertainment icon. She also ranks as one of the best songwriters in any format -- with compositions ranging from her life growing up in Appalachia to emotional songs of farewell, such as the timeless “I Will Always Love You.”
With a name like The Tragically Hip, the bluesy-Canadian rock outfit sealed their fate by being cool to Canadian audiences but never cracking the US and world markets. They’ve been called “Canada’s R.E.M” (only by Americans, we suspect) for their clever lyricism and their roots-rock meets alt-country sound. With a staggering amount of hit songs and albums under their belt from the past 30 years, they are part of Canada’s cultural identity, so much so that when beloved frontmen Gord Downie performed his last concert with the band in 2016, 11.7 million Canadians tuned in to watch.
Don Messer's Jubilee was a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based country/folk variety television show that was broadcast nationally from 1957 to 1969. In Canada it out-performed The Ed Sullivan Show broadcast from the United States and became the top-rated television show throughout much of the 1960s. Don Messer's Jubilee followed a consistent format throughout its years, beginning with a tune named "Goin' to the Barndance Tonight", followed by fiddle tunes by Messer, songs from some of his "Islanders" including singers Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain, the featured guest performance, and a closing hymn. It ended with "Till We Meet Again".
Country influences combined with Punk rock and alternative rock to forge the "cowpunk" scene in Southern California during the 1980s, which included bands such as The Long Ryders, Lone Justice and The Beat Farmers, as well as the established punk group X, whose music had begun to include country and rockabilly influences. Simultaneously, a generation of diverse country artists outside of California emerged that rejected the perceived cultural and musical conservatism associated with Nashville's mainstream country musicians in favor of more countercultural outlaw country and the folk singer-songwriter traditions of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan.
Country music has enjoyed mainstream exposure and success throughout the '60s and '70s in the United Kingdom. However, this somewhat diminished in the '90s and 2000s. Though, there have been exceptions such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain in the '90s (particularly the latter) and Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks in the 2000s. Crossover hits (in terms of singles and albums) within the country genre are few and far between and have been since the '80s. There are some British country music acts and publications. Although radio stations devoted to country are among the most popular in other Anglophone nations, none of the top 10 most-listened-to stations in the UK are country stations, and national broadcaster BBC Radio does not offer a full-time country station (BBC Radio 2 Country, a "pop-up" station, operated four days each year between 2015 and 2017). The BBC does offer a country show on BBC Radio 2 each week hosted by Bob Harris. UK Country music is overseen by the British Country Music Association.
There’s nothing really flashy to say about the career of George Strait. He didn’t really break any musical ground nor did he become a trend-setter in how his music was made or marketed. But, he proved that there has always been a market for knowing what you do –- and doing it well. To this day, he has had more singles top the charts than any other country performer, and his recent string of sell-outs in Las Vegas for 2016 shows prove that audiences are still clamoring for hits like "All My Ex's Live in Texas."
With the introduction in the mid-1970s of mainstream music on FM radio stations, where it was common practice to program extended performances, musicians were no longer limited to songs of three minutes' duration as dictated by AM stations for decades. The most notable musicians to benefit from this and one of the largest Canadian exports is the progressive rock band, Rush. Rush have produced 25 gold records and 14 platinum (3 multi-platinum) records, making them one of the best-selling ensembles in history, and on April 18, 2013, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the classical world, homegrown talent Canadian Brass was established in Toronto 1970—they are credited with reshaping concert presentation style for classical artists, now copied and valued everywhere in the classical world.
Just as Loretta Lynn sang about female empowerment in the 1960s, so did Tammy Wynette. The one-time hairdresser turned her marital strife into musical gold via such classics as “Apartment # 9,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and “Stand By Your Man” –- and that was before she married George Jones. No other female singer sang about heartbreak with as much conviction and power -- influencing generations to come in the process.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as “the most important record producer to emerge in the 80s”, Lanois is one of Canada’s distinguished producers-composers and has worked with the likes of Brian Eno (Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks), Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmyous Harris and is the man behind U2’s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. In his famous studio in Hamilton, Ontario, he produced records for Canadian artists such as Martha and the Muffins and Ian and Sylvia. As a solo artist, the multi-instrumentalist and singer released a string of albums that featured his wonderfully atmospheric textures and poetic songwriting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx8igsV3YgM