Top 10 Country Music Artists Who Shaped the Genre, Part 2
Our list of artists who definitively shaped the genre that we recognize today as country music (Part 2).
In Part One, we considered the artists from country music’s earliest decades, up through approximately the middle of the 20th century. Using the same as our approximate starting point, here are our picks for the Top 10 artists who’ve left the most indelible marks on the genre in the intervening decades.
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10. Buck Owens
In the late 1950s, a distinctly rock-and-roll and honky tonk-infused version of the country sound emerged out in California, as a stripped-down reaction to the heavily produced recordings (often with orchestral accompaniment) that were coming out of Nashville by that time. Although Buck Owens did not invent the “Bakersfield Sound,” as it came to be called (Wynn Stewart probably deserves that recognition), he does get credit as the first star to popularize it among a broad audience. Owens’ good-natured personality came out in hits such as “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” and “Act Naturally.” His songs were covered by everyone from The Beatles to Ray Charles, and Dwight Yoakam stands out among later stars who were heavily influenced by his sound. But his greatest fame probably came as co-host (along with Roy Clark) of the long-running hillbilly comedy television show, Hee Haw.
9. Garth Brooks
Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Garth Brooks, whose musical tastes were influenced at least as much by the likes of KISS and Elton John as by George Jones and George Strait, re-defined the genre when he crashed the country music scene in the early 90s. With unequaled drive, perhaps motivated by dismissive suggestions that he was just another “hat act,” he soon left no doubt that he was anything but, with a steady string of mega-hit songs that ran along a spectrum encompassing honky-tonk anthems (“Friends in Low Places”), poetic ballads of almost existentialist import (“The Dance”), rousing appeals for societal transformation (“We Shall Be Free”), to everything between and beyond. But it was his reputation as a live performer of incomparable intensity – a country artist who imported arena rock attitude and production values into his live shows – that catapulted him into century-spanning superstardom and continues to draw record crowds almost 30 years later.
8. George Strait
With 60 number 1 hits to his credit – more than any other artist of any musical genre – George Strait has undoubtedly earned the nickname “King of Country.” But the future monarch almost called it quits after years of hard work building a regional following together with his Ace In the Hole Band, only to be turned down by every Nashville record label. Convinced by his wife to keep trying, he got the break he was looking for soon thereafter when one of those labels reconsidered, and he never needed a second chance afterwards. Although it was his traditionalist, heavily Western Swing-influenced repertoire that initially gave the record labels pause, it turned out to be just what the audiences of the time were craving after several years of pop-infused songs dominating the country charts. Known as much for his gentlemanly demeanor as for his smooth-but-straightforward singing voice, “King George” paved his way to four decades of unprecedented success with early career hits such as “Amarillo by Morning,” “The Chair,” “Ocean Front Property,” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
7. Dolly Parton
Despite having cultivated a persona based largely upon keeping the public wondering just how much of her is “real,” there can be no doubt that Dolly Parton’s country credentials are as genuine as they come. Born in a one-room cabin amidst the mountains of east Tennessee, as one of 12 children, with an illiterate but brilliant father and a mother steeped in the traditions of mountain music, Dolly was performing music herself on local radio and TV while still a child, and made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage at 13 (where she first met Johnny Cash). She moved to Nashville the day after graduating from high school, made some initial recordings that achieved moderated success, appeared regularly on “The Porter Wagoner Show” for several years starting in 1967, and saw her career really take off starting in the early 70s. Gifted with a distinctive soprano voice and songwriting abilities to boot, her self-penned biggest hits include “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “9 to 5.” Her career has also brought great success and notoriety as a cross over pop artist, an actress, businesswoman, and a philanthropist, but her conquests in the country music realm nevertheless outshine all her other achievements. She shares the record (with Reba McEntire) for the most number 1 country hits (25) by a female artist.
6. Charley Pride
Ray Charles’ landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” recordings in the early 60s prompted both a rediscovery of the interrelatedness of black and white popular music in America and a reimagining of new possibilities for extending those commonalities in ways that would increasingly cut across the lines that had tended to separate races as well as musical genres. But for all that groundbreaking work on the country side of the charts, Charles remained essentially an R&B artist; it was Charley Pride who arose a decade later to become country music’s first bona fide black superstar. One of 11 children born to a poor family of Mississippi sharecroppers, young Charley pursued a professional baseball career for over a decade, playing music gigs on the side as a means of earning extra money. At the encouragement of country stars Red Foley and Red Sovine, he began to actively pursue a career in music, and after a demo tape made it into the hands of Chet Atkins he was promptly signed to an RCA Victor contract. Over the next two decades, his success for that record label was eclipsed only by that of Elvis Presley, as he tallied up 52 top-10 hits (including 30 number one hits) on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, including “Just Between You and Me,” “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” “Roll On Mississippi,” and “Mountain of Love.”
5. Waylon Jennings
After an early career as a DJ and then as a performer on the rockabilly scene (he famously gave up his seat on the doomed airplane that killed his friend and bandmate Buddy Holly, along with J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens), Waylon Jennings spent the late 60s as a moderately successful country artist. But he chafed in the tightly-controlled environment at his Nashville record label, and took advantage of changing circumstances in the early 70s to renegotiate a contract that gave him more control over the direction of his own music. The results soon began to pay big dividends for all involved, as Waylon’s newer and grittier persona began resonating with audiences almost immediately. A string of hit songs ensued in the following years – “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” “Rainy Day Woman,” “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” “Mammas, Don’t Let You Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (both of the former two being duets with friend and fellow “Outlaw,"" Willie Nelson), and the theme song from the hit TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” (for which Jennings also served as the narrator). His distinctive voice – deep and warm, with an edge that was both rough and mellow – was as unmistakable as his visual appearance: long, dark hair and beard, black leather vest, black hat, and black-and-white-tooled-leather-clad Fender Telecaster.
4. Patsy Cline
With her crushed velvet alto voice on top of lushly-arranged accompaniments, Patsy Cline’s recordings epitomize the “Nashville Sound” that characterized country music at mid-century. A spitfire from Virginia with an unmistakably country attitude, her biggest hits, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy,” all enjoyed broad appeal and crossover success on both the country and pop charts. While recuperating from a life-threatening car crash in 1961, she befriended and mentored an up-and-coming Loretta Lynn. Though her life and career were cut tragically short by a plane crash in 1963, her posthumous reputation has exalted her beyond the confines of country (though she did become the first female inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame ten years after her death) and into the realm of American pop cultural icons.
3. Willie Nelson
A native Texan who had relocated to Nashville in 1960, Willie Nelson scored early success as a songwriter, with hits such as “Hello Walls” (first recorded by Faron Young) and “Crazy” (first recorded by Patsy Cline). But after his own career as a singer failed to ignite, and following a series of personal misfortunes, he relocated back to Texas in the early 70s, disillusioned with the music business altogether. But the music business wasn’t yet done with Willie, not by a long shot. Rejuvenated and re-inspired by the diverse music scene in Austin, he ditched the clean shaven look in favor of denim and long hair, formed his own backing band, and, over the next several years, managed to carve out a new career on his own terms. Though his label at the time, Columbia Records, had serious misgivings about releasing his stripped-down concept album “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975, it went on to achieve enormous success, both critically and commercially, and is today ranked among the most noteworthy albums in 20th century popular music. While he subsequently became most readily associated with the burgeoning Outlaw Country movement, Willie Nelson’s broad eclecticism (witness his 1978 album “Stardust,” filled with signature covers of old pop/jazz standards) guaranteed him a lasting legacy which defies any attempts to neatly pigeon-hole.
2. Loretta Lynn
In a career spanning six decades, Loretta Lynn has amassed more awards than any other female country artist. Just listen to the autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for a sketch of her early life. (As an aside, is it possible to get any more country than rhyming “hard” and “tired”?) She married Oliver Vanetta (aka “Doolittle,” “Doo,” and “Mooney”) Lynn when she was just 15 years old, and shortly thereafter, they departed Kentucky for the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest, where they started a family and remained for the next decade. During that time, and with the encouragement of her husband and the $17 guitar he bought for her with his hard-earned money, she began writing songs and playing in local clubs with a backup band she had pulled together. After cutting her first record, the self-penned “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” in Hollywood in 1960, she and “Moonie” hit the road with their family in tow to promote the new record at radio stations across the country. By the time they reached Nashville, the song was No. 14 on the country charts, and regular appearances on both The Wilburn Brothers’ television show and the Grand Ole Opry, as well as a major recording contract, soon followed. Lynn’s groundbreaking songs tackled everything from abusive relationships, to birth control, to the Vietnam War, sometimes earning her the scorn of radio stations who refused to play some of her more controversial records, but ultimately winning for her an undying legacy of respect, love, and devotion.
1. Merle Haggard
When Johnny Cash gave one of his famous prison concerts on New Years Day, 1959, 21 year old Merle Haggard was among the audience members, doing time after a string of run-ins with the law that began in his early teens. (Cash himself reputedly once told him years afterwards, “Hag, you’re the guy people think I am.”) But that concert marked a turning point in young Merle’s life. From then on, he began to envision a new future for himself and to work toward it self-consciously. He joined a country music band in prison, and, upon his release later the next year, he determined to keep his nose clean and focus on a music career from there on out. Once that course was set, it didn’t take too long. Recording in Bakersfield, California, he had a song in the top 20 by ’63 (“Sing a Sad Song”), another one that reached number 10 the following year ("(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers”), and after a string of other top 10 hits, he scored his first of 38 number 1 singles in ’67 with “Branded Man.” Other songs, such as “Mama Tried,” clearly drew on his own experiences as an incarcerated criminal. Always a champion of the working man, Merle Haggard nevertheless managed to walk a fine line throughout his career. “Okie from Muskogee,” to cite the most obvious example, pays lip service to the traditionalist values shared by most blue collar conservatives, but its ripe potential for tongue-in-cheek interpretation was not lost on anti-establishment types either. That uncanny ability to effectively speak to both sides of the cultural divide that had emerged by the late 60s (and still persists) is perhaps his greatest achievement and the best explanation for his enduring greatness and success.