Ken Burns’ much-anticipated Country Music documentary begins airing on PBS this upcoming weekend. To honor the occasion, we've compiled our own review of artists who definitively shaped the genre that we recognize today as country music. One of the most apparent things revealed by this challenging exercise is just how blurry, fluid, and arbitrary the lines can be which separate country music from other neighboring genres. With its origins in same gospel and folk music forms (both black and white) shared by blues, jazz, r&b, soul, and rock, debates around exactly where the lines should be drawn continue down to the present day, witness the recent Billboard booting of Lil Nas X‘s and Billy Ray Cuyrus’ mega hit “Old Town Road” from the country charts. But just like any other aspect of American culture, that cross-cultural murkiness is a prime factor in its beauty and staying power.
In this first part, we consider the artists from country music’s earliest decades, up through approximately the mid-century point. Disclaimer: A limited list like this will necessarily exclude any number of otherwise worthy names. Principle consideration was given not merely to an artist’s raw popularity or number of chart-topping hits, but the reach of their influence on the genre (and even beyond) as a whole. Want to argue with our choices? By all means, let us know how you feel – about our inclusions as well as our exclusions – on Facebook.
10. George Jones
Waylon Jennings said it best: “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones.” Known for his unmatched vocal phrasing, tone, and delivery, when George Jones sang a song he owned it completely, his persona filling every emotional nook and cranny and his rich, warm voice imbuing every expression with just the right nuance. Music critic David Cantwell described Jone’s unique way of identifying with the speaker in his songs as the musical equivalent of method acting. Following years working honky tonks and small-time radio gigs, the Texas native first struck music chart gold with 1959's “White Lightnin’” (ironically more of a rockabilly number than a country song). He dominated the country charts for the next decade with hits like “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Walk Through This World With Me,” and, following an alcohol-and-drug-fueled decline throughout the 70s, came roaring back in 1980 with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” But most importantly, he set the gold standard that succeeding generations of male country music vocalists still strive to measure up to.
9. Kitty Wells
Kitty Wells was a trailblazer for a host of other assertive female country music artists who followed her. She promptly followed up “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” her slap-down reply to Hank Thompson's “Wild Side of Life," with the equally pointed “Paying For That Back Street Affair,” in response to Web Pierce’s “Back Street Affair.” (Due to it’s rather forthright treatment of just what it is “that has caused many a good girl to go wrong,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” also had the distinction of being briefly banned by both the Grand Ole Opry and NBC radio – until it soared up the charts in 1952.) Wells collected numerous awards over the course of her long career, and still ranks among the most successful female vocalists in the history of the Billboard country charts. And in contrast to what one might assume, given the subject matter that made her most famous, she enjoyed 74 years as the happily married wife of one man, fellow singer-songwriter Johnnie Wright. (Bonus Fact: Kitty Wells was one of the few country music stars actually born and raised in Nashville, TN.)
8. Ernest Tubb
Dubbed “the last of the cowboys” by Merle Haggard, but more generally known as the “Texas Troubadour,” his 1941 hit “Walking The Floor Over You” is flagged by many as the original of the honky tonk sub-genre, with later stars as varied as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Dwight Yoakam nurtured in the glow of its neon twang. His other hits include “Waltz Across Texas,” and “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” and his Midnight Jamboree radio show helped launch the careers of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop has been a fixture on Nashville’s Lower Broadway since 1947.
7. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Another of the genre-bending synthesizers that marked country’s early decades, Bob Wills was simultaneously deeply rooted in the past and far ahead of his time in many respects. Steeped in the Texas fiddle tradition as well as blues picked up from African-American childhood neighbors and playmates, one of Bob Wills’ early gigs was as a member of a traveling outfit known as the Light Crust Doughboys, a band sponsored by Texas Senator and flour mill magnate W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. (Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?) Under heavy influence from Wills, The Doughboys were purveyors of a rollicking mix of old-time country and western and jazzy big band that was soon dubbed “Western Swing” and further refined by Wills and vocalist Tommy Duncan after they left the group to form The Texas Playboys. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys went on to produce numerous and highly influential recordings throughout the 1930s and 1940s – some of their biggest hits include “Maiden’s Prayer,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” and “Bubbles in My Beer” – and they played for huge barn dances and hoedowns all across the U.S., drawing crowds that rivaled and even exceeded those of more mainstream names of the day, such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. The band featured amplified instruments and drums so loud that the group were infamously dis-invited by the Grand Ole Opry after one tempestuous appearance in late 1944.
6. Johnny Cash
A member of the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame, “The Man in Black” used his famously unrefined barritone voice to unsurpassed effectiveness, singing with equal emotional intensity and authenticity songs of rebellion and redemption, love and loss, fast trains and fistfights. Raised in poverty in rural Arkansas, Cash’s professional music career began in the mid 1950s with records that walked a fine line (see what we did there?) between rockabilly and country, produced in good company (Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis), for the legendary Sam Phillips, at Sun Records in Memphis, TN. Alongside his burgeoning catalog of hits in coming years, including “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” grew an outlaw persona that was more cultivated than genuine, but he never lost sight of his humble, working class roots. An internationally famous star of his own TV special by the late 1960s (along with second wife, June Carter, whom he had married in ’68), he nevertheless recorded two landmark albums during the same period as free live concerts for prisoners.
5. Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
Bill Monroe, aka “The Father of Bluegrass,” holds the distinction of being the founder of one of the most important sub-genres within country music. Hailing from western Kentucky, the mandolin-picking Monroe’s signature sound emerged as a fusion between the mournful, high-register harmonies associated of his own Scottish heritage and the driving rhythm of the blues, picked up from an African-American fiddler and guitarist, Arnold Schultz. His Blue Grass Boys band became a virtual nursery for talented musicians who served as understudies on a revolving basis over the years and then went on to further expand and define the genre on their own, including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Don Reno, and Vassar Clements. As just one example among many of the cross-pollination that has always marked popular music, Monroe’s signature tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was the B-side of Elvis Presley’s first big hit for Sun Records (“That’s All Right Mama”). (Monroe himself later performed and re-recorded more upbeat versions of the tune, originally a slow waltz, perhaps as a nod of approval to Elvis’ rock-and-roll re-working of the number.)
4. Jimmie Rodgers
In the first week of August, 1927, during the two days after Victor representative Ralph Peer, operating as a field recorder in Bristol, Tennessee, had made his first recordings of The Carter Family, he auditioned and then recorded a lanky, consumptive, former railroad brakeman from Mississippi. Subsequent recording sessions by Jimmie Rodgers at Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey produced a string of hugely influential classics, such as “In the Jailhouse Now,” and a series of “Blue Yodel” tunes that were a thoroughly unique mix of hillbilly twang, Alpine yodeling, and 12-bar blues. The first of this latter series, “Blue Yodel No. 1” (aka “T for Texas”) sold half-a-million 78rpm copies (a phenomenal number for the day), started a nationwide yodeling craze, and launched Rodgers to superstardom. Always a drifter, Jimmie Rodgers embraced the hustle-and-bustle life his newfound fame brought, and spent the next several years performing on the road, appearing in films, and cranking out more recordings. The lifestyle took its toll: Rodgers finally succumbed to tuberculosis and died in a New York City hotel in May, 1933, just two days after a recording session which he was barely able to finish due to weakness. While he is known as “The Father of Country Music,” his broad influence cuts across musical genres, extending not only to the undisputed direct musical descendants (e.g. Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Merle Haggard), but also less obviously to the blues (e.g. Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf), folk (e.g. Leadbelly, Woodie Guthrie), and rock (e.g. Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Grateful Dead).
3. Roy Acuff
Roy Acuff's everlasting fame would be secured simply on the basis of his legacy as a performer. “The King of Country Music” rose to fame in the 1930s as a fiddler and singer of chart-topping hits such as “Wabash Cannonball,” and “The Great Speckled Bird.” He also joined Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry that same decade and, along with Minnie Pearl, became inseparably associated with that institution for the next 50 years. As a gauge of his popularity and cultural influence, legend has it that a battle cry used by some Japanese soldiers in WWII went thus: “To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!” But his most profound impact was on the business side of the country music equation. In partnership with songwriter Fred Rose in 1942, he founded the firm of Acuff-Rose, which quickly became the premiere publishing organization in country music and firmly established Nashville as the country music capital.
2. The Carter Family
A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle (also Sara's cousin) all hailed from southwest Virginia and were steeped in the mountain music and shape note gospel singing that marked the region. Their recordings, starting with those made for Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, featured several songs that achieved canonical status for the country tradition, including “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Wabash Cannonball,“ “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” (The melody of the last served as the basis for Roy Acuff's “The Great Speckled Bird,” Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” and Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”) But it was perhaps “Mother” Maybelle’s unique style of guitar playing, with strumming punctuated by an alternating and/or melodic bass line, that left the most indelible stamp on country music – and virtually all popular music downstream. The family itself also represents the closest thing that country music has to a royalty: Maybelle performed in later incarnations of the group with her daughters, one of whom, June, famously married Johnny Cash.
1. Hank Williams
Hank Williams’ influence upon country music is comparable to that which Elvis Presley and The Beatles combined had upon rock and roll. He had the complete package: iconic vocal styling, songwriting brilliance, and good looks combined with a mesmerizing stage presence. (“He destroyed the women in the audience,” recalled Minnie Pearl.) During an all-to-brief professional career that lasted only seven years, he turned out song after song that established the standards for the genre downstream: “Honky Tonkin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and, “Hey Good Lookin’,” just for starters. No stranger to life’s darker side, he explored it thoroughly (“Lost Highway”) while extolling the glories of redemption (“I Saw the Light”). But Williams’ demons refused to leave him alone. After years of alcohol and drug abuse, he met death at a mere 29 years old in true legendary fashion: strung out in the backseat of a car rolling down the highway en route to a scheduled performance, bequeathing the name “Hank” to serve as a virtual synecdoche for the institution of country music itself.