Country Music is a fantastic genre of music but can be quite intimidating to those who are just dipping their toe in this style of music. There are a lot of misconceptions about this style of music and honestly, they are not completely unfounded, but here I have put together a list of my 10 essential country artists.
Hank Williams: The Man Who Inspired a Generation
Hank Williams is regarded as one of the most influential American singer-songwriter of the 20th century, paving the way and inspiring many of the artists you will see on this list. A complicated man who was disabled, due to his spina bifida occulta, which is the less severe form of the condition, and an alcoholic his songs tugged on the heartstrings of many listeners. His style of storytelling would be very important to creating the Country Music we know today. He was taught how to play the guitar by African American blues musician Rufus Payne, who influenced Williams’s musical style. His son, Randall would go on to perform as Hank Williams Jr, carving out his own legacy in Country music.
Williams set the agenda for contemporary country songcraftThe Country Music Hall of Fame
the standard by which success is measured in country music
Tammy Wynette: The First Lady of Country Music
Tammy Wynette, along with Loretta Lynn, paved the way for women’s voices to be included in the male-dominated Country Music genre. She is one of the most influential and successful artists that the genre has produced due to her amazing vocal range that feels safe and at the same time is filled with raw emotion. Her self penned Stand by Your Man is her signature song being used in films and TV shows to this day. Other notable songs include I Don’t Wanna Play House, D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.
Wynette was married five times, with two ending in divorce and two being annulled, she also had four children. These events in her life and betting on herself, moving to Nashville and pursuing a career in music is what makes her music and self-penned songs so iconic still to this day. She paved the way for women like Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile to write and record their own music while also controlling their own careers in the process. Tammy Wynette has sold an estimated 30 million records worldwide.
Brandi Carlile: The LGBTQ+ Queen of Country
Brandi Carlile is an American singer-songwriter who has made an impact not just in Country Music but also in the genres of Folk Rock and Americana releasing seven albums to date. Carlile has been openly Lesbian since 2002 which is a rarity in the Country Music scene and has spent years advocating for LGBTQ+ and Women’s rights. She has been nominated for 25 Grammys winning nine. Along with her own work she has been a producer and songwriter for Tanya Tucker as well as founding the country music supergroup The Highwomen, alongside Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, in 2019, inspired by The Highwaymen.
Her musical inspirations are far and wide including, but not limited to, Elton John, Indigo Girls and Johnny Cash. She has also had the pleasure of working with two out of three of these, but performed at the We Walk the Line: a celebration of the music of Johnny Cash, performing a rip-roaring performance of Folsom Prison Blues. Her songs have been covered by the likes of Adele, Pearl Jam and Dolly Parton.
Carlile has ADD and is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist playing both the guitar and piano as well as singing. Most recently she has collaborated with Miley Cyrus on the song Thousand Miles from her eighth studio album Endless Summer Vacation.
“I’ve gone through all sorts of vocal phases, from pop to blues to R&B, but no matter what I do, I just can’t get the country and western out of my voice.”
The Chicks: There Not Ready To Make Nice
The Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, hail from Dallas, Texas and are one of the biggest female acts in the Country Music scene. For the majority of their over 30-year career, the band has consisted of Martie Maguire  and sisters Natalie Maines and Emily Strayer née Erwin. Previous members included bassist Laura Lynch and vocalist and guitarist Robin Lynn Macy.
Starting off in bluegrass and moving on to counter, The Chicks wouldn’t make it big until their 1998 release Wide Open Spaces with their current lineup. They followed this up with their next album the following year called Fly. Six of their singles made it to number one including Without You and Bruce Robison’s Travelin’ Soldier. In 2002 their cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s Landslide went to number one on the Adult Contemporary chart.
The trio would cause controversy after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when Manies told the crowd of their fans in London that they didn’t endorse the war and were ashamed of then-U.S. President George W. Bush and that he came from Texas. This resulted in a huge backlash from American fans resulting in a hiatus. Three years later they would release their biggest crossover hit Not Ready to Make Nice from the album Taking the Long Way, which was in retaliation to the backlash they received.
14 years later they returned with their new album Gaslighter and collaborated with Taylor Swift on Soon You’ll Get Better from her 2019 album Lover.
Waylon Jennings: The Outlaw
Waylon Jennings went from playing in a backing band for Buddy Holly to one of the most successful country artists of all time.
Jennings was born Waylon Arnold Jennings on 15th June 1937 in Littlefield, Texas becoming a pioneer of the Outlaw country music movement. By the age of eight he had started playing guitar and left school at 16 and by 21 had completed his first recording session and began playing bass for Buddy Holly. His career spanned over 40 years and allowed him to get to know the men who would eventually form the Highwaymen. From living with Johnny Cash, being involved in the outlaw scene with Willie Nelson, and running in the same circles as Kristofferson, Jennings would form lifelong friendships with all three men.
Jennings also composed and sang the theme song for the television show The Dukes of Hazzard and provided the narration for the show. In 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Waylon Jennings passed away on 13th February 2002.
The Carter Family
The Carter Family are one of the most influential and underrated acts to be involved in the country music scene. Beginning their recording career in 1927 they produced music in the folk, bluegrass, country and southern gospel genres. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars with the original family lineup. Sara, A.P. and Maybelle Carter, recorded between 1927 to 1956. Their song Can the Circle Be Unbroken has been sampled and covered by multiple country artists including Johnny Cash. Their other recordings such as Wildwood Flower and I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes became standards of country music.
The Carter Scratch which was a method of playing both lead and rhythm on the guitar was pioneered by Maybelle and has since become one of the most copied styles of guitar playing. The second generation of the Carter Family was made up of her daughters, Anita, June and Helen who would perform as a trio and alongside their mother for many years. June Carter would go on to be the most widely known of the family due to her love story with the bad boy of country music, Johnny Cash. June Carter Cash has many writing credits to her name but her most famous song is Ring of Fire, which became famous thanks to The Man in Black.
It has been noted that ‘by the end of the twenties, Maybelle Carter scratch … was the most widely imitated guitar style in music. Nobody did as much to popularize the guitar, because from the beginning, her playing was distinctive as any voice.The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music (2005)
A third incarnation of the singing family group released an album in 2010 called Past & Present under Carter Family III and consisted of John Carter Cash, the son of June Carter and Johnny Cash, his then-wife Laura (Weber) Cash and Dale Jett who is the grandson of A.P. and Sara Carter. June’s other daughter Rosie Nix Adams has also been a semi-regular member of the group. Carlene Carter has also been involved, along with producing pop music, she first joined the group in 1987 during the group’s second incarnation.
Willie Nelson: A Cultural Icon
Willie Nelson was one of the main figures of outlaw country, a subgenre of country music that developed in the late 1960s as a reaction to the conservative restrictions of the Nashville sound. Nelson is also very involved in activism including for the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana. Willie also helped organize Farm Aid in 1985 to help raise money to benefit American farmers, this is still held annually with Nelson appearing at everyone. He’s a pretty cool cat in my opinion.
He was born Willie Hugh Nelson on 29th April 1933 in Abbot, Texas, and was born during the Great Depression which would greatly influence him politically and in his songwriting, which he began at the age of seven. He would begin finding success as a country artist in the 50s and 60s but it wouldn’t be until the 70s that his career would really take off. His 1975 album Red Headed Stranger is his most critically acclaimed album while the 1980s would see him release his hit songs On the Road Again and To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before. In 1993 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Just this year Nelson has released two studio albums and doesn’t look like he will be slowing down even at the age of 90.
Kris Kristofferson: A Legendary Songwriter
A songwriter to his core there are many songs you’ve probably heard that you didn’t know were written by the almighty powerhouse that is Kris Kristofferson. With over 100 songs to his name including I’ve Got to Have You, Something They Can’t Take Away, and The Last Time he is one of the most prolific songwriters of the Country music scene that has had great cross-over success. He also worked closely with Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and fellow Highwaymen Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Kristofferson was born on 22nd June 1936 in Brownsville, Texas as Kristoffer Kristofferson. What a name from the man whose grandparents emigrated from Sweden. He retired in 2021 and was a singer, songwriter, and actor. Kris attended Oxford University on a scholarship and spent the years between 1958 to 1960 there gaining a degree in English literature.
His writing credentials are long and varied with some of his biggest hits being sung by other artists such as Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down and Help Me Make It Through the Night. Kristofferson briefly dated Janis Joplin who recorded his song Me and Bobby McGee. When it comes to acting Kristofferson is best known for his role in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born. In 2004 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dolly Parton: The Queen of Country
Dolly Parton is an American singer-songwriter, musician and actress who is the most influential female musician to come out of the Country Music scene while also breaking through to the mainstream. In her nearly 60-year career, her first album Hello, I’m Dolly was released in 1967, she has written a whole host of songs while also maintaining control over her own songs and career.
From her start with Porter Wagnor to leaving his show and carving out her own path, Parton has never compromised her artistry, paving the way for many women in the music industry. Her career floundered in the 90s like many artists of her time, but she has had a career renaissance since the mid-00s playing at Glastonbury and a new album due out later this year.
Her most famous song, I Will Always Love You, skyrocketed to number 1 thanks to Whitney Huston and her role in The Bodyguard. Other hits of hers that have received critical acclaim and are loved worldwide include Jolean, 9 to 5 and Here You Come Again. On top of this, she is very involved in charitable endeavours and has also helped her God Daughter, Miley Cyrus, in her time of need. The pair have dueted on many occasions.
Dolly Parton’s look is carefully curated by the singer, choosing to look like a rhinestone Barbie with big blond hair and fabulous outfits. This has helped her hide in plan sight when not on tour or making appearances, allowing for her to live a normal life with her husband. She gives Big Barbie energy, as she has proven that the way she looks doesn’t determine how successful you can be. She is smart, talented and capable while also looking like a bombshell.
It takes a lot of money to look this cheap
Johnny Cash: The Man In Black
The Man In Black was known for his rich baritone voice and calming influence, along with a whole host of hits. Despite being one of the biggest Country artists of all time he crafted a career that spanned decades and resulted in him having great cross-over success. Cash is one of the most influential artists of all time with people from every genre and background praising him for his writing, musical skill and persona.
Born J. R. Cash on 26th February 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, he would go on to be one of the biggest and most well-known country stars of the last century. His music and style have inspired a whole generation of artists and musicians among people from every walk of life. A man of the people, a rebel, and a god-fearing man, he was a man of many contradictions, but he was always himself.
On stage, he was a rebellious free thinking unapologetic man with a calm bass-baritone voice while his demeanour was that of a sombre and humble man. He performed free prison concerts, advocated for Native American rights, and wore an all-black stage outfit earning him the nickname of The Man In Black. He passed away on 12th September 2003.