Country music has been growing as an art from since Eck Robertson’s recording of “Arkansas Traveler” in 1922. From the days of 78 RPM vinyl to digital downloads, fans continue to flock to the format.
That list might very well be subject to conjecture as the definition of country, but here are the acts that have made an immeasurable mark on the genre. In compiling this list, we took into consideration sales, airplay, and influence upon the genre — and outside of it. Let the debates commence!
John R. “Johnny” Cash (1932-2003) was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, and author, who was widely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century and one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide. He died of complications from diabetes in 2003. It was suggested that Cash’s health worsened due to a broken heart over his second wife’s death.
Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash sang about the prison experience, but Merle Haggard lived it. A singer/songwriter who made his mark with songs about the common men and women, his music ran the gamut –- from songs of love and heartbreak to unabashed patriotism.
Keith Whitley’s country career was short – only consisting of two albums and a handful of singles during his lifetime – but he has been immortalized as one of the most influential and tragic figures in the genre’s history. Born and raised in Kentucky, Whitley joined bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley’s band as a young man and soon became the group’s lead singer. Beginning his solo career in the early Eighties, he worked his way to critical acclaim and commercial success with the 1988 album Don’t Close Your Eyes, pairing a classic, bluegrass-country vocal with contemporary production.
But one year later, the 33-year-old artist died at the height of his artistry, succumbing to the effects of alcohol poisoning. Even so, emotionally complex songs like “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “When You Say Nothing at All” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” have gone on to become canonized as country classics, and Whitley has been cited as an inspiration by artists from Vince Gill to Chris Young. C.P.
Carrie Marie Underwood is an American singer, songwriter, and actress. She rose to fame as the winner of the fourth season of American Idol, in 2005. Her debut album, Some Hearts, was released in 2005.
Along with Johnny Cash, there may not be any other country performer who is as well-known across the world as Dolly Parton. Whether it be for her music or her acting, she continues to reign as an entertainment icon. She also ranks as one of the best songwriters in any format — with compositions ranging from her life growing up in Appalachia to emotional songs of farewell, such as the timeless “I Will Always Love You.”
Troyal Garth Brooks is an American singer and songwriter. His integration of rock and roll elements into the country genre has earned him immense popularity in the United States.
In his song “It’s Alright,” Waylon Jennings stated ‘If we all sounded like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.” Truer words were never spoken. Jones’ unique phrasing and heartfelt delivery kept him a viable commercial force for well over five decades.
Breaking through in the traditional era of the 1960s, Lynn was anything but conventional. She wrote and performed songs that were very much different from the other women of the time. Hits like “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin” and “The Pill” spoke to a generation that was going through the same exact thing. Her success with a more feisty approach led to her becoming the first female winner of the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award -– as well as the cover of Newsweek — and her influence can still be heard today from such artists as Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.
In the early 1970s, Jennings fought Nashville for creative control to make his music the way he saw fit. Though he had been a consistent hitmaker for close to a decade by this point, you could hear a difference on such songs as “This Time” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” He was called an outlaw, though he tended to rebel against that word as well over the years. Looking back, Jennings simply wanted to be himself –- ranging from covers of such current hits as “Can’t You See” to stunning ballads like “Dreaming My Dreams With You.”
There’s nothing really flashy to say about the career of George Strait. He didn’t really break any musical ground nor did he become a trend-setter in how his music was made or marketed. But, he proved that there has always been a market for knowing what you do –- and doing it well. To this day, he has had more singles top the charts than any other country performer, and his recent string of sell-outs in Las Vegas for 2016 shows prove that audiences are still clamoring for hits like “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”