Well, I’ve counted down the best songs and the best albums in this publication previously. The logical next countdown is compiling the greatest country artists in one place. I haven’t done a list in a while, and I had a lot of fun arranging these artists. They’re all great in their own way, and it’s an impossible task to form a definitive collection. But I’ve tried my best, mostly thanks to my own personal opinion.
One thing to note before beginning the list. The artists included here all greatly impacted the country mainstream, apart from two. You’ll see which two that did not in due time. But trust me, the two acts which are included here that are/were largely underground *earned* their spot.
Let’s begin with the honorable mentions:
Webb Pierce- Webb was truly a formative figure in the history of honky-tonk.
Reba McEntire- She’s worn many coats. But she should always be best remembered for her 90s output.
Jessi Colter- Waylon’s wife. “I’m Not Lisa” is a classic of the genre.
Carrie Underwood- One of the best pure voices in country history. She may lean pop; yet if she recorded traditional country, she’d already be a legend.
Ray Price- Singer of so many country music standards.
Guy Clark- One of the greatest songwriters in music history. “If I could just get off of this LA freeway…”
Jim Reeves- “Gentleman” Jim Reeves. An historic Nashville Sound voice.
Louvin Brothers- One of the first star duos in all of music.
Dixie Chicks- Such a great mix of tender ballads and honky-tonk rockers.
Bill Anderson- Now mostly known as a songwriter. But he was once a huge performing star as well.
And now to the list of 50.
50.) Keith Whitley
Whitley was a man taken way too soon thanks to his addiction to the bottle. Country fans will forever be left wanting more and wondering what might have been, but thankfully we still have an outstanding discography to look back upon. Whitley’s smooth, distinctive vocals fit country music perfectly.
Essential songs: “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,”
“When You Say Nothing at All,” “I’m Over You,” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Essential album: Don’t Close Your Eyes
49.) Brooks & Dunn
Brooks & Dunn is a bit of an enigma in some ways. The duo did more to expand the genre in the 90s than they may be credited for thanks to solid, neotraditional country that leaned rock in many ways. I’ve always looked at the duo as a singles-focused group, with an ultra-consistent output released to radio. Their body of work as a whole sneakily turned into one of the best of the modern age.
Essential songs: “That Ain’t No Way to Go,” “Brand New Man,” “Red Dirt Road,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and “Neon Moon”
Essential albums: Brand New Man and #1s…and Then Some
48.) Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert is one of most critically-acclaimed artists of today. She was the ACM Female Vocalist of the Year for nine years in a row and can count two Grammy Awards to her name. What has made Miranda so succesful, in my opinion, is her ability to walk a fine line somewhere between commercial-friendly Carrie Underwood and independent-minded Kacey Musgraves.
Essential songs: “The House that Built Me,” “Over You,” “Kerosene,” “Love Letters,” “Famous in a Small Town,” and “Tin Man”
Essential albums: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Weight of These Wings
47.) Faron Young
An unasbashed, iconic hero of honky-tonk music. Faron Young helped Willie Nelson get on the map by recording his quirky “Hello Walls.” Faron met a sad end in 1996, dying from a self-inflicted gunshot after years of drinking and a depression that stemmed from feeling as though the music industry had abandonded him.
Essential songs: “Hello Walls,” “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” “Wine Me Up,” and “Three Days”
Essential albums: This Is Faron Young! and The Best of Faron Young Vol. 2
46.) Lefty Frizzell
Lefty Frizzell, other than Hank Williams, arguably had the biggest influence on others in country music pre-1970. George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson were all tremendously influenced and inspired by the honky-tonker’s vocals. The Hag wrote in a forward to a biography about Lefty, “No one could handle a song like Lefty. He would hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one.”
Essential songs: “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” “Long Black Veil,” “Saginaw, Michigan,” and “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)”
Essential albums: Listen to Lefty and 16 Biggest Hits
45.) Emmylou Harris
In my mind, the greatest female voice to ever grace country music. Emmylou is the defintion of a songbird in every sense of the word. Her long-ago friendship with Gram Parsons is legendary, and her work with the Hot Band so highly influential. Bluegrass, country, rock and roll. Emmylou’s fingerprints are everywhere.
Essential songs: “Wheels,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Hickory Wind,” “Blue Kentucky Girl,” and “Angel Band”
Essential albums: Elite Hotel, Luxury Liner, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, and Wrecking Ball
44.) Don Williams
The Gentle Giant. A Don Williams song is just good for the soul; It feels like a long-lost friend from years ago. Such a warm, inviting artist. Vocals as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey and a true *presence* on stage. We miss you, Don.
Essential songs: “Tulsa Time,” “Come Early Morning,” “Shelter of Your Eyes,” “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy,” “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” and “You’re My Best Friend”
Essential albums: I Believe In You and Icon: Don Williams
43.) Turnpike Troubadours
Yes, they’re that good. Evan Felker’s songwriting places the band firmly in the pantheon of the greats. And RC Edwards, Kyle Nix, Ryan Engleman, Hank Early, and Gabriel Pearson help form one of the greatest damn bands in the world. We can only pray and hope Evan Felker gets the help he needs.
Essential songs: “Long, Hot Summer Day,” “The Bird Hunters,” “Good Lord Lorrie,” “The Funeral,” “Down Here,” “The Mercury,” “Long Drive Home,” “The Housefire,” and “Tornado Warning”
Essential albums: Diamonds & Gasoline and Turnpike Troubadours
42.) Garth Brooks
If I’m making this list based purely on influence, Garth immediately moves way up into the top ten. But as it were, Garth still makes the list with his music alone. People seem to forget that despite his arena rock shows and public persona, Garth really didn’t deviate that far from fantastic neotraditional country. Plenty of fiddle and steel can be found across all his albums along with western themes and straight-forward country lyrics. I appreciate Garth the most when I focus just on his music.
Essential songs: “Cold Shoulder,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “The River,” “The Dance,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “Friends in Low Places,” “Pushing Up Daisies,” and “Papa Loved Mama”
Essential albums: Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind, and In Pieces
41.) Flatt & Scruggs
Flatt & Scruggs had a tremendous impact on not just the country genre but all of music as a whole. The duo brought bluegrass and old-time music to popular culture and made it cool again. Their talents were unmatched, and the two men played off each other perfectly.
Essential songs: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Cripple Creek,” “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”
Essential albums: Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall and Foggy Mountain Jamboree
That will do it for Part One!