The 30 Greatest Country Musicians of All Time, According to Rolling Stone

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard's early life was dogged by poor living conditions and a lack of money, which led to petty crime and short stints in prison. Haggard was inspired by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the characters he sang about.

Haggard admitted that if it hadn't been for music he would have lived a life of crime, so it's no wonder he earned 38 country number-ones in just 20 years.

Hank Williams

Hank Williams was a true pioneer of country music, releasing a plethora of high-quality tracks throughout a highly productive seven-year period. Songs like Jambalaya (On The Bayou) transcended the genre, being covered by The Carpenters and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Williams was the musical touchpoint for Willie Nelson, who would also go on to become a country music stalwart. It's interesting to think about what else he could have achieved in his career if he hadn't passed at the age of 29.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's persona and catchy melodies helped him transcend the country music genre. Songs like Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line helped him to achieve commercial success worldwide, seeing him crossover into rock and roll territory.

He was known for his snarling, bad-boy attitude, but was apparently gentle and intelligent behind the scenes. He was still producing his best work up until his death, with his cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails being a particular standout.

Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn matured very quickly, becoming both a wife and a mother before she was even classed as an adult. She also had to bear the burden of being the most famous woman in the country music scene.

On the one hand, Lynn had to fight against the sexism of the country music of the time, forcing her way into prominence. On the other, she had to defend herself for not adding a heavy feminist message to her songs.

The Carter Family

The Carter Family is known as one of the main acts that helped modernize country music in the 20th century. Consisting of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle, they were a true family business.

Their music was built around vocals, rather than instrumentals, even though each member had genuine instrumental talent. Over their 30 years in activity, the trio managed to record a total of over 300 songs, many of which are still remembered fondly today.

Willie Nelson

Ever since he first arrived in Nashville in 1960, Willie Nelson has created some of America's most beloved country songs. Over the decades, he has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Buddy Emmons and Patsy Cline.

After managing to make a living out of his songwriting talent, Nelson began penning songs for artists such as Cline, as well as Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. Nelson also found success as a solo artist, releasing over 100 studio albums.

Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings was at the forefront of the Outlaw movement, releasing country music with an extra hit of attitude. Jennings' stubbornness was present throughout his career, as he tended to go against both tradition and the authority figures of the music industry.

Jennings became known for his all-black, rhinestone-free outfits, his leather-wrapped Fender Telecaster, and his growling voice, which set him apart from many of the family-friendly country acts. His free-spirited attitude meant he became one of the main faces of progressive country music.

Dolly Parton

Over her many years in music, Dolly Parton has become more of a pop star than a country star alone, known around the world thanks to songs such as 9 to 5, I Will Always Love You, and Jolene.

Despite being in the industry for over 55 years, Parton is still performing, although she has toured less in recent years. She still releases new music, with her latest album and the 49th of her career, Rockstar, being released in November 2023.

George Jones

George Jones seemed to revel in heartbreak, as it clearly brought the best out of him. He would wail melodies like a wolf at a full moon, while also being able to attack his quicker, heavier songs with relative ease.

Jones had his personal struggles, as alcohol misuse led him to miss many shows in the eighties, almost ruining his legacy. However, he came through it and remains a much-beloved country artist and an inspiration to many today.

Garth Brooks

Despite amassing very little fame outside of the USA, Garth Brooks is one of the biggest-selling solo artists of all time, shifting over 170 million records throughout his career. He leans towards the poppier and more accessible side of country music.

Brooks had less success with his alter ego Chris Gaines, which saw him try out other styles. The concept album was not well received, and he had to ditch the movie he had been developing about Gaines' fictional life.

Jimmie Rogers

Active in the music industry since 1910, Jimmie Rodgers was one of the earliest country stars to be able to record their music. This helped him earn the nickname, The Father of Country Music.

He was also the first artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Artists such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were greatly inspired by his work.

Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline possessed the sort of voice that could not be limited to country music. Songs like Crazy, written by Willie Nelson, and Strange, helped her to become more than just a country singer, taking her from national fame to global fame.

It was the delivery of her vocals, and her effervescent personality, that made her music appealing to non-country fans. Cline's career was cut tragically short at the age of 30, following a plane crash in 1963.

Buck Owens

The Bakersfield sound of the 1960s was defined by many, but none more so than Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. The latter was known for his tendency to carry his sound as close to rock and roll as he could.

This hint of rock and roll pricked up the ears of real music stars, such as The Beatles, who covered Owens' song Act Naturally. They did palm it off as the token Ringo-on-vocals song, but they nonetheless gave country some global airtime.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys

Bob Wills, along with the help of his Texas Playboys, created a new sub-genre of country music, known as Texas fiddle music. It combined jazz, blues, and traditional country, all mixed up and sprinkled with some Latin and big city influence.

The group hit its peak in the 1930s, but their influence was felt long after, with rock and roll hero Chuck Berry pinching the beat from The Playboys' 1938 reworking of the traditional song, Ida Red, for his song Maybelline.

Ray Price

Ray Price almost didn't become the most influential country musician of his time. He could have worked with the cattle on his family farm in Texas, and he nearly studied veterinary medicine at college.

Instead, he chose music, becoming a key figure in the honky tonk scene and amassing a string of number-one singles throughout his career. He also helped bring new talent, such as Willie Nelson and Roger Miller, into the limelight.

Tammy Wynette

Best known for her hits D-I-V-O-R-C-E and Stand By Your Man, Tammy Wynette was one of the most influential country artists of the 20th century, and she used her voice to break through into the once heavily male-dominated genre.

Wynette made sure she appealed to the traditionalist male audience, often singing songs about women standing by their husbands even if they were in the wrong. No matter the subject matter though, her songs became hits thanks to her powerful vocals.

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell got his first big break as part of the famous Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. The group was revered inside the industry for being the go-to backing band for the majority of Californian artists.

Campbell eventually became a singer in his own right and even hosted a television variety show. He became a mainstay of the US country charts throughout the 1970s, releasing a string of Californian-inspired country hits, including the famous Rhinestone Cowboy.

Eddy Arnold

Eddy Arnold evolved throughout his music career, releasing songs as a crooner, pop artist, and country musician. He also spent time in the pop charts in the 1960s with The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.

Arnold's longevity in the industry was astonishing, as he made his radio debut in 1936 and released his last record in 2005. He once described himself as a 'Heinz 57 singer', as he sang all sorts of songs.

Roger Miller

Roger Miller's novelty songs added some comic relief to the country music scene during his active years. His lyrics focused on topics not usually covered in country songs, such as underage drinking and poor parenting.

Miller's talents weren't just restricted to comedy songs, as he also wrote and performed songs for Disney's 1973 animated version of Robin Hood. He was also an actor, performing in the Tony Award-winning musical, Big River.

George Strait

Such is George Strait's influence on the genre, he is often referred to as The King of Country Music. In the 1980s, he brought the traditional country sound back into the mainstream. He also holds an impressive musical world record.

George Strait holds the record for the most number-one singles for any performer in any genre, with 60 in total. He earned his first in 1982, with Fool Hearted Memory, and scored his most recent chart-topper with River of Love in 2008.

Conway Twitty

Conway Twitty was inspired to become a musician after hearing the Elvis Presley song, Mystery Train. He slicked his hair back, made his way to Sun Studios in Memphis, and did everything he could to replicate Elvis' sound.

Twitty wouldn't step out of Elvis' shadow until 1965 when he decided to adopt his stage name and transfer from the world of rock and roll into country music. He'd have to wait until '68 for his first top-five country hits.

Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell was the very epitome of a flawed genius, capable of producing magic while trying to fend off personal demons and misdemeanors. He was largely known for his unique vocal delivery, which inspired the likes of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

His time in the spotlight was short, mostly because of his issues with substance abuse and brushes with the law. He was regularly arrested for engaging in inappropriate behavior with fans, which has somewhat tainted his musical legacy.

Ernest Tubb

Ernest Tubb was the typical country musician's musician, donning the full cowboy get-up while playing a brand of country often regarded as the forerunner to honky tonk music. His style attracted fans such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

He was also seen as a mentor for Cash and Loretta Lynn, who both came through at a similar time. Tubb's dedication to shining the spotlight on others on his radio show made him a hugely popular figure in the Nashville scene.

The Louvin Brothers

Charlie and Ira Louving, professionally known as The Louvin Brothers, are one of the most beloved double acts in country music history. Known for their string-based sound, the brothers enjoyed major success throughout the 1950s, when honky-tonk was in its golden age.

The most striking thing about the brothers was their differences. Charlie was a devout Christian and very much the calming influence on the group, while Ira was a party animal with a hot temper. Between them, they created a legendary sound.

Shania Twain

Shania Twain is one of few country stars to truly go mainstream, thanks to radio-friendly hits such as Man! I Feel Like a Woman and That Don't Impress Me Much. Therefore, it's no wonder she is one of country music's biggest-selling artists.

One of the major aspects of her legacy is that she updated the traditional country sound to appeal to a younger generation, never once compromising to appeal to the purists. Her sound helped to spawn even bigger artists such as Taylor Swift.

Tom T. Hall

Tom T. Hall is revered for the stories that his lyrics tell. They were often inspired by real-life moments in Hall's life, which may have been deemed too mundane to sing about by other artists.

It worked for Hall though, as he was the brains behind many a country number-one, for himself and other artists that he wrote for. His songs continue to inspire young country artists to this very day.

Bill Monroe

Known as the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe served as an inspiration for many of the USA's top country stars. His legacy has been immortalized in the form of a statue outside Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, one of the city's most beloved venues.

Monroe's energy-filled style was heightened by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who both played in his band during his peak years in the 1940s. It has often been said that country music was never the same after Bill Monroe entered the scene.

Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson is one of the best examples of the insular nature of country music fans. He is virtually unheard of outside the USA, but has sold over 80 million records and released 30 number-one singles nationally.

Unfortunately, Jackson's health has declined in recent years, but he is still trying to keep his cowboy hat in the ring, touring whenever he feels well enough to do so. Hopefully it's a long time before this country legend says goodbye.

Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson's early life doesn't fit the usual mold of a country singer. He received a high-class education at Oxford University in England, before training as an army pilot. Throughout his training, he maintained an interest in creative writing.

That gave Kristofferson an edge over many of his contemporaries, as his songs had interesting stories to back up the melodies. Songs such as Me and Bobby McGee and Sunday Morning Coming Down were popularized by Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash respectively.

Flatt & Scruggs

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs set up their band in 1948, cleverly naming it, Flatt and Scruggs. They had both originally been a part of Bill Monroe's band, before going off to do their own thing.

Flatt & Scruggs performed for over two decades, boasting four country number-one albums released in that time. They also wrote an abundance of country classics that are still covered by artists today.

Charley Pride

Charley Pride flipped the traditional country music stereotype on its head in the '50s and '60s, becoming the first black country music superstar. He would experience even greater success, enjoying 19 consecutive country number-ones, cementing his name into the genre.

In fact, at one point in the 1970s, Charley Pride was RCA Records' best-selling artist behind Elvis Presley, which is extremely high praise considering some of the extraordinary talents that they had on their books at the time.

Randy Travis

Country singer Randy Travis mixes the traditional country style with gospel music, preaching his religious ideology to his many adoring followers. His deep, baritone voice has kept him in the thoughts of country music fans throughout his 40+ year career.

Travis suffered a stroke in 2013, which left him unable to sing and fearing that his career was over. Through a lot of grit and determination he learned how to sing once more, performing at his Country Music Hall of Fame induction in 2016.

Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert is one of very few country musicians on Rolling Stone's list who was born after 1980. She was first noticed by the public after appearing on the TV talent show Nashville Star in 2003.

She has since released ten studio albums and won two Grammy awards. Her music is often anthemic, but she has also released a selection of ballads that have gone down well with country music fans and critics alike.

Jerry Lee Lewis

After Jerry Lee Lewis' rock and roll career took a nosedive once the news had broken that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, the Great Balls of Fire singer had to take a step back and retreat into making country music.

Fans of the country genre took Lewis under their wing, helping him to resurrect a career that looked like it had escaped him. Despite all his wrongdoing, Lewis managed to get a handful of downbeat, gloomy singles into the Billboard Country Charts.

Stanley Brothers

Led by Ralph Stanley along with his brother Carter, the Stanley Brothers pushed their brand of country music in various directions throughout their career. They integrated elements of Appalachian music as well as Bluegrass, creating a brand-new sound.

The duo ended prematurely, following Carter's death in 1966. Ralph went on to perform under the name Clinch Mountain Boys, who enjoyed decent success, roping in some of the genre's finest exports to make music with him.

Reba McEntire

Reba McEntire's career goes beyond just country music. She has spent time working in television, as well as appearing on Broadway. She failed to conform to the usual down-on-their-luck country stereotype, proving her worth as a businesswoman as well as a musician.

Overall, it is her voice that made her the golden girl of the Nashville scene. It is a voice that has changed as she has aged, but never faltered. Her longevity is impressive, and she shows no signs of slowing down.

Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed was one of the most in-demand country musicians during his active years, often the first choice as a backup guitarist for acts such as Elvis Presley. But he had his sights set on more than just session and background work.

Reed had a few hits of his own, as well as writing hits for acts such as Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash. His lyrics were sometimes somber, but he could also write with genuine humor and wit, which is difficult to do.

John Prine

John Prine occupied the blurry space between folk and country, with his work having elements of both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sprinkled in. He is one of few country stars who wrote interesting lyrics, going against the grain of the genre.

Prine is seen by many who grew up in the '60s and '70s as their generation's Hank Williams, an artist who helped to move country music forward while maintaining its rich tradition. Prine kept releasing music until his death in 2020.

Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons, best known for his work with The Byrds, is one of the greatest country music stars of all time. Despite an untimely death at the age of 26, Parsons has a surprisingly large catalog of hits.

While Parsons never had a number one, he has a large fan club of artists who have been influenced by his work over the years. One of these was Emmylou Harris, who covered two of his songs as she was starting out.

Hank Snow

Hank Snow had a tough childhood, having fled his home in Nova Scotia to escape abuse at the age of 12. He spent the next four years working on a fishing boat, where he was forced to grow up very quickly.

Snow first found country music as a downtrodden but hopeful teenager. He signed to RCA Records in 1936 but didn't make it big for 14 years. I'm Movin' On was his breakout song, later covered by Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones.

John Denver

John Denver’s decision to make music about the lighter sides of life might not have endeared him to country traditionalists, but it won him huge mainstream success. 

Although his untimely death in an aircraft accident cut his career short, Take Me Home, Country Roads will forever remain a singalong classic, cementing Denver's legacy as one of country’s greats.

Carrie Underwood

The winner of American Idol’s fourth season, Carrie Underwood is arguably the most successful artist in the show’s entire history. 

Straddling the line between pop and traditional country, Underwood has won legions of fans across the entire spectrum of musical taste.

Keith Urban

Despite lacking the American roots shared by most country musicians, Keith Urban is one of the genre’s biggest stars. 

With his trademark Aussie twang and intricate guitar skills, Urban has achieved stratospheric success, scooping multiple Grammys and releasing a slew of chart toppers.

Toby Keith

The fact that Red Solo Cup is Toby Keith’s best-known song is something of a travesty, given the overall quality of his discography. 

Keith’s time spent working on oil rigs gives his music blue-collar authenticity, and tracks like American Made strike the kind of patriotic note that makes country fans swoon.

Brooks & Dunn

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn both spent several years trying to crack Nashville’s country circuit throughout the 80s. 

While they achieved modest success independently, after joining forces in 1990 the duo took the country scene by storm, topping the Country Singles chart a hugely impressive 23 times.

Chris LeDoux

While the cowboy lifestyle is one of country’s most enduring motifs, Chris LeDoux was one of the few artists who could claim to be the real deal. 

A rodeo champion, LeDoux’s authenticity made him one of the genre’s most compelling voices, and he was unsurprisingly popular with traditionalists.

Brad Paisley

With 19 chart topping singles, Brad Paisley’s inclusion in the pantheon of country legends is beyond dispute. 

One of the genre’s greatest guitar heroes, Paisley continues to sell out stadiums around the world, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Lucinda Williams

Throughout her career, Lucinda Williams - dubbed “the female Bobby Dylan” by fans - has adopted a strategy of quality over quantity, often spending years polishing a single album. 

It’s a strategy that’s worked, with the word “flawless” often appearing in critics’ reviews of her records.

Crystal Gayle

When she was getting her start in the music industry, Crystal Gayle’s older sister Loretta Lynn advised her to develop her own sound to avoid unfavorable comparisons. 

Gayle took the advice to heart, adopting a more polished style than Lynn and finding considerable mainstream success in the process.

Tim McGraw

For proof of Tim McGraw’s legendary status in the country scene, consider the fact that Taylor Swift named her very first record after him. 

McGraw’s influence looms large over the entire country scene, and it has done since he first topped the charts in 1994.

The Judds

Throughout the 80s, the mother daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna Judd could be counted on to deliver a seemingly endless stream of country hits. 

While Naomi has stepped back from music in the wake of a hepatitis C diagnosis, Wynonna continues to set the scene ablaze with her vocal talents.

Jamey Johnson

The embodiment of the outlaw archetype, Jamey Johnson is immensely popular with country purists, delivering tales of America’s gritty underbelly in his instantly recognizable baritone.

Although Johnson's never had much in the way of mainstream success, that seems to be exactly the way he likes it.

Bill Anderson

In sharp contrast to the gruff delivery of many of his contemporaries, Bill Anderson was known for his soft vocal delivery that bordered on whispering. 

In addition to penning his own records, Anderson also composed hits for a number of other stars, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

Eric Church

One of the torchbearers of contemporary country, Eric Church burst onto the scene in 2011 with his acclaimed album Chief. 

Known for constantly reinventing his sound, Church brings a level of showmanship to his performances that sets him apart from from many of his more reserved peers.

Townes Van Zandt

One of country’s most tragic figures, Townes Van Zandt passed away at the age of 52, the result of a life spent battling with addictions. 

The demons that drove him to an early grave also found their way into his music, with many of Zandt's records striking a distinctly haunting tone.

Lynn Anderson

Lynn Anderson inherited her songwriting talent from her mother, who penned Merle Haggard’s iconic record (My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers). 

After cutting her teeth on the Nashville circuit in the 70s, Anderson gained widespread recognition with a string of hits including the classic What A Man My Man Is.

Statler Brothers

Despite the name, the Statler Brothers weren’t actually related to each other; the band’s members met at church, and they stayed true to their gospel roots throughout their career. 

After performing as Johnny Cash’s backing singers throughout the 70s, the Statler Brothers struck out on their own, winning legions of fans.

Connie Smith

Known for the matchless power of her vocals, Connie Smith became the first female country artist to score a number one with her debut single. 

Smith’s list of admirers includes Dolly Parton, who considers her talents equal to those of Barbara Streisand and Linda Ronstadt.

Taylor Swift

It can be easy to forget that Taylor Swift got her start in country music, given that she’s now one of the most famous pop stars on the planet. 

It seems that Swift may be mulling a return to her roots, although her once-iconic cowboy boots have yet to make a formal comeback.

Rosanne Cash

The daughter of perhaps the greatest country musician of all time, Rosanne Cash insisted on forging her own path from the very beginning of her career. 

A formidable songwriter with a penchant for exploring the bleaker sides of life, Cash has achieved the remarkable feat of not being overshadowed by her father.

Marty Stuart

Lacking the ego that propels many top musicians, Marty Stuart was perfectly content lending his immense talents to the musical endeavors of country’s biggest stars. 

Eventually, however, Stuart struck out on his own, effortlessly proving himself equal to the giants whose careers he helped propel.

Lee Ann Womack

After establishing herself as a talented songwriter and penning hits for a number of other artists, Lee Ann Woman gained widespread prominence with her self-titled debut album in 1997. 

Although she’s been embraced by mainstream audiences, Womack has stuck to her roots, retaining the support of country purists.

Merle Travis

Merle Travis was one of the first country artists to embrace the electric guitar, distinguishing himself with his technical musical abilities. 

Travis was also a talented songwriter, releasing enough hit records to earn induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.

Vern Gosdin

Nicknamed “The Voice” for his trademark, mournful vocals, Vern Gosdin got his start with The Hillmen in the 70s before embarking on a wildly successful solo career. 

Known for his innate knack for penning tear-jerkers, Gosdin turned in hit after hit throughout the 80s, including Chiseled in Stone, which became CMA’s Song of the Year in 1989.

Tanya Tucker

With her gruff vocal delivery and indomitable Texan swagger, Tanya Tucker immediately captured the hearts of country music fans when she broke through with her debut single Delta Dawn. 

Despite struggling with addiction throughout her career, Tucker remained a consistent hit maker, churning out chart toppers at a prodigious rate.

Billie Joe Shaver

During his early 20s, Billie Joe Shaver lost two of his fingers in an accident while working in a mill. 

Undeterred, Shaver adjusted his playing technique and took the country scene by storm, pioneering the outlaw style and becoming one of the most iconic country stars of all time.

Vince Gill

While accolades aren’t everything, the fact that Vince Gill has won more Grammys than any other male country artists speaks to both the volume and the quality of his output.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Gill is still one of the most active performers in country, regularly playing in Nashville’s clubs and bars.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris’ extraordinary talent for harmony means that - even when she’s covering other records - you always feel like you’re listening to something brand new. 

Later in her career, Harris also demonstrated a growing strength for songwriting, certifying her as one of the all-time greats.

Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton often drew from history when composing his lyrics, with a particular fondness for dramatic battles and the Alaska gold rush. 

Although his life was cut tragically short by a car crash, Horton’s storytelling legacy was carried on by artists like Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall.

John Anderson

Considered by many to be the rightful heir to Merle Haggard’s legacy, John Anderson proved that there was still a market for outlaw music at a moment when country was going mainstream. 

Pairing grizzled vocals with twangy steel guitars, Anderson reminded country fans what their beloved genre’s soul truly sounded like.