The same period saw a concerted effort to recover some of country music’s root values. Mandolin-player Bill Monroe and his string band, the Blue Grass Boys, discarded more recently adopted rhythms and instruments and brought back the lead fiddle and high harmony singing. His banjoist, Earl Scruggs, developed a brilliant three-finger picking style that brought the instrument into a lead position. Their music, with its driving, syncopated rhythms and instrumental virtuosity, took the name “bluegrass” from Monroe’s band.
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!
On the surface, the definition of country rock should be relatively simple. When people think of country rock music and country rock songs, they imagine country singers making the dreaded switch to play rock music. However, many of the best country bands made the switch from rock to play country-infused rock songs, thus the name of country rock. Bands would record using a pedal steel, sing about themes commonly associated with country and by the beginning of the 1970s, country rock became a genre that became popular in the mainstream.
The greatest commercial success for country rock came in the 1970s, with the Doobie Brothers mixing in elements of R&B, Emmylou Harris (a former backing singer for Parsons) becoming the "Queen of country-rock" and Linda Ronstadt creating a highly successful pop-oriented brand of the genre. Pure Prairie League, formed in Ohio in 1969 by Craig Fuller, had both critical and commercial success with 5 straight Top 40 LP releases, including Bustin' Out (1972), acclaimed by Allmusic critic Richard Foss as "an album that is unequaled in country-rock" and Two Lane Highway, described by Rolling Stone as "a worthy companion to the likes of the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and other gems of the genre". Former members of Ronstadt's backing band went on to form the Eagles (two members of band were from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco), who emerged as one of the most successful rock acts of all time, producing albums that included Desperado (1973) and Hotel California (1976). However, the principal country rock influence in the Eagles came from Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles are perceived as shifting towards hard rock after he left the band in late 1975. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils had hit singles “If You Wanna Get To Heaven” (1974) and "Jackie Blue" (1975), the latter of which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. The Belammy Brothers had the hit "Let Your Love Flow"(1976). In 1979, the Southern rock Charlie Daniels Band moved to a more country direction, released a song with strong bluegrass influence, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", and the song crossed over and became a hit on the pop chart.
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.
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".
Often compared to fellow Canadians, The Band, Blue Rodeo are a Canadian country-rock institution. Since forming in 1984, the Toronto-based quintet were a huge hit in Canada in the 90s thanks to their dynamic mix of American pop, country and blues and two-part harmonies reminiscent of the Everly Brothers. With a solid roots-rock sound and two-part harmonies, their 1990 album, Casino, did achieve some stateside success due in part to their hit single, ‘Til I Am Myself Again’. Since then, they’ve become one of Canada’s renowned legacy acts that tour worldwide.
RCA released his first single in 1965 without the obligatory publicity photo -– unheard of for a new artist. But, Pride was unheard of -- an African-American man singing country music. However, it wasn’t before long that Pride quickly became one of the biggest stars in the format. He won the 1971 Entertainer of the Year award from the CMA, and his sales eclipsed everyone else on the RCA label for a time in the 1970s -– even Elvis Presley.
"O Canada" was originally commissioned by the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, the Honourable Théodore Robitaille (1834–1897), for the 1880 St. Jean-Baptiste Day ceremony. Calixa Lavallée (1842–1891) wrote the music, which was a setting of a patriotic poem composed by the poet and judge Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier (1839–1920). The text was originally only in French, before it was translated into English from 1906 on.
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.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same timeframe. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including "Blue Yodel", which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs and gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.
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.
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.”
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.
Shania Twain became the best selling female country artist of the decade. This was primarily due to the success of her breakthrough sophomore 1995 album, The Woman in Me, which was certified 12x platinum sold over 20 million copies worldwide and its follow up, 1997's Come On Over, which was certified 20x platinum and sold over 40 million copies. The album became a major worldwide phenomenon and became one of the world's best selling albums of 1998, 1999 and 2000; it also went on to become the best selling country album of all time. Unlike the majority of her contemporaries, Twain enjoyed large international success that had been seen by very few country artists, before or after her. Critics have noted that Twain enjoyed much of her success due to breaking free of traditional country stereotypes and for incorporating elements of rock and pop into her music. In 2002, she released her successful fourth studio album, titled Up!, which was certified 11x platinum and sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Twain has been credited with breaking international boundaries for country music, as well as inspiring many country artists to incorporate different genres into their music in order to attract a wider audience. She is also credited with changing the way in which many female country performers would market themselves, as unlike many before her she used fashion and her sex appeal to get rid of the stereotypical 'honky-tonk' image the majority of country singers had in order to distinguish herself from many female country artists of the time.
Quite possibly, no artist on this list manages to have the universal appeal of Willie Nelson. The legendary figure has been able to make believable his recordings of compositions from Lefty Frizzell, Irving Berlin and Paul Simon -– and sound authentic on each one. He qualifies as the ultimate curveball. You never know what to expect from him, only that it will find favor with the public.
Outside of the United States, Canada has the largest country music fan and artist base, something that is to be expected given the two countries' proximity and cultural parallels. Mainstream country music is culturally ingrained in the prairie provinces, the British Columbia Interior, Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada. Celtic traditional music developed in Atlantic Canada in the form of Scottish, Acadian and Irish folk music popular amongst Irish, French and Scottish immigrants to Canada's Atlantic Provinces (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). Like the southern United States and Appalachia, all four regions are of heavy British Isles stock and rural; as such, the development of traditional music in the Maritimes somewhat mirrored the development of country music in the US South and Appalachia. Country and Western music never really developed separately in Canada; however, after its introduction to Canada, following the spread of radio, it developed quite quickly out of the Atlantic Canadian traditional scene. While true Atlantic Canadian traditional music is very Celtic or "sea shanty" in nature, even today, the lines have often been blurred. Certain areas often are viewed as embracing one strain or the other more openly. For example, in Newfoundland the traditional music remains unique and Irish in nature, whereas traditional musicians in other parts of the region may play both genres interchangeably.
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.
A little girl voice that held ages, “Broken Things” offered redemption as well as deep love for those damaged by life. For Julie Miller, whose second album for Hightone following a Christian career, there was always salvation peeking through the cracks of her songs. Beyond the divine, there was the charismatic “I Need You,” the Appalachian dirge “Orphan Train” and the percussively minor-keyed creeper “Strange Lover,” an homage to – of all things — cocaine. Emmylou Harris would record the shimmering “All My Tears” and Lee Ann Womack would embrace “Orphan Train” and “I Know Why The River Runs” further broadening Miller’s reach. But the songwriter with a dexterous voice that does many things – howl, coo, caress and throttle – remains her own best interpreter. “I Still Cry,” a straightforward elegy, suggests the way some people linger in unlikely ways long after they’re gone with the sorrow profoundly transparent in her tone, bringing both naked vulnerability and intuitive playing that exemplifies the best of Americana.—Holly Gleason
In India, the Anglo-Indian community is well known for enjoying and performing country music. An annual concert festival called "Blazing Guitars" held in Chennai brings together Anglo-Indian musicians from all over the country (including some who have emigrated to places like Australia). The year 2003 brought home – grown Indian, Bobby Cash to the forefront of the country music culture in India when he became India's first international country music artist to chart singles in Australia.
Pioneers of a more Americanised popular country music in Australia included Tex Morton (known as "The Father of Australian Country Music") in the 1930s. Author Andrew Smith delivers a through research and engaged view of Tex Morton's life and his impact on the country music scene in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. Other early stars included Buddy Williams, Shirley Thoms and Smoky Dawson. Buddy Williams (1918–1986) was the first Australian-born to record country music in Australia in the late 1930s and was the pioneer of a distinctly Australian style of country music called the bush ballad that others such as Slim Dusty would make popular in later years. During the Second World War, many of Buddy Williams recording sessions were done whilst on leave from the Army. At the end of the war, Williams would go on to operate some of the largest travelling tent rodeo shows Australia has ever seen.
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r66QCpscnTA