Top 10 Women in Country Music History
Female recording artists and performers have flexed their muscle and exercised a steady guiding hand upon country music since its earliest inception down to the present day. As consummate practitioners of their craft, these women are worthy of honor and respect from country music fans of all generations. Proceeding in chronological order (more or less), our Top 10 picks are:
1. Maybelle Carter
Country music probably owes more to Maybelle Carter than to any other woman – indeed, perhaps than to any other person – in its long and storied legacy, as her honorific monicker, “Mother Maybelle” bears witness. As one third of the original Carter Family, one of the foundational acts of the genre, Maybelle sang and provided instrumental backup on several instruments, including autoharp and banjo. But it was her innovative guitar technique, dubbed the “Carter Scratch,” which transformed the role of the guitar from a rhythm to a lead instrument, and thus set a ground-breaking precedent which had a profound influence on all of American popular music downstream. But Carter’s matronly role had another important dimension as well: at various times she served as loving mentor/surrogate mother to a number of other country music notables, including Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash.
2. Kitty Wells
While two-thirds of the original Carter Family act were female, it wasn’t until 1952, when Kitty Wells scored a number one hit with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” that a solo female artist topped the country charts and became a bona fide superstar in her own right. Wells’ chart-topping success continued through the mid-60s, with an overall career that extended for at least three more decades. Among her other noteworthy achievements, she received top female vocalist awards for 14 consecutive years and was also honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
3. Patsy Cline
In a meteoric career cut famously and tragically short, Patsy Cline, as both a country and a crossover pop artist (one of the first), established a reputation as one of the most influential female vocalists of the 20th century. The 2019 film Patsy & Loretta chronicles her brief role as a friend and older mentor to an aspiring young Loretta Lynn.
4. Loretta Lynn
Always one to tell it like she saw it, Loretta Lynn’s career was established on songs – many of them penned by her own hand and based on her own experiences – that championed a contemporary woman’s perspective on topics ranging from cheatin’ and drinkin’ husbands, to divorce, to birth control. Throughout the intervening six decades, she has demonstrated a feisty willingness to push other boundaries and relentlessly explore new territory, witness her much-lauded 2004 album, Van Lear Rose, which she, in her seventies, recorded with collaborator/producer Jack White.
5. Tammy Wynette
Tammy Wynette was certainly no stranger to the kind of heartache and failed relationships that so many of her many hit songs chronicled. Through five marriages, including a famously tumultuous one to George Jones, she consistently exhibited an outward demeanor of classy composure and understated strength, qualities which no doubt contributed (along with her self-evident success as a singer-songwriter) to her reputation as the “First Lady of Country Music.”
6. Dottie West
Arising from an early life of poverty and abuse in rural Tennessee, Dottie West moved to Nashville in 1961 and became acquainted with several up-and-coming songwriters at that time, including Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. She also developed a close personal friendship with Patsy Cline. Following a string of initial hits, she became the first female country artist to be awarded a Grammy (Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “Here Comes My Baby”) in 1964. Her star continued rising throughout the 70s 80s, with more hits (including “Country Sunshine,” which she penned herself, originally as a commercial jingle for Coca-Cola), and awards. She also had great success as a duet partner alongside Kenny Rogers during the same period. Her life was brought to a tragic, abrupt end by a car crash in 1991, as she was hurrying to make it to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House for a scheduled performance.
7. Dolly Parton
Singer, songwriter, country music star, pop music star, movie star, cultural icon, entrepreneur, philanthropist – Dolly Parton’s legendary 50+ year career is like a surging river that long ago overflowed its banks and almost defies description. As a testimony to her insanely versatile talents, consider that she wrote the tender farewell ballad “I Will Always Love You” and the dark, pleading “Jolene” on the same day! But despite all the glitz, glamor, and largesse, Dolly has remained true to her bona fide country roots, and remains at heart the same old country girl who was born in that one-room cabin at the feet of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee.
8. Reba McEntire
A dynamite personality with some of the most devoted fans in country music, Reba McEntire has certainly earned “The Queen of Country” title which is often attributed to her. The Oklahoma native signed her first record deal in 1975, but fought an uphill battle before achieving breakthrough success – seven albums and almost a decade later – in the mid-80s. Several of her 24 number one singles feature protagonists much like herself: headstrong women determined to follow their dreams and live their lives as they see fit, despite all of the challenges and obstacles.
9. Wynonna Judd
As one half (along with her mother, Naomi) of the highly successful duo The Judds, Wynonna, who was just 19 years old when they signed their first record deal, got an early taste of stardom. After dominating the country airwaves for most of the 80s, the duo disbanded in 1991, due to Naomi’s health, and Wynonna lost no time in establishing herself as a highly-respected and successful solo artist and one of the most powerful voices – male or female – in the industry.
10. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift’s musical career has been a game-changer. Bursting on the scene as a 16-year-old singer-songwriter prodigy in 2006 with her eponymous debut album, the waves she’s made in the industry since have been spawned not only by her hit recordings (though there have certainly been plenty of those), but also by her undaunted determination to remain firmly in control of her own professional destiny. A restless musical soul, Swift has also refused to remain pigeon-holed in a single musical genre, venturing out of her country cradle to find great success as a crossover pop artist. Her most recent recordings are an exploration of new musical territory in a realm somewhere between synth-infused pop and ballad-based indie-folk.