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. So who are the 25 greatest country artists of all time? 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!
30. Vern Gosdin
His nickname was "The Voice" -- long before the NBC series. We don't know how more definitive that needs to be. Gosdin's phrasing was on par with anyone -- Jones or Haggard, who both considered themselves among the singer's biggest fans. Always something of an underdog in the business, the bulk of Gosdin's recorded output came from smaller, independent labels. But, when you heard him on slices of real country such as "If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)" or "Today My World Slipped Away," record companies were of no major importance. He sang each song like it would be his last, and inspired a generation in the process.
29. Vince Gill
With the possible exception of Marty Robbins, Vince Gill stands as one of the most musically diverse artists of the format. Whether it be pop, rock, country, gospel or bluegrass, he does it all –- and does it with as much musical precision and dedication than anyone else ever has. As a singer, a songwriter, or a picker, Vince Gill has few peers.
28. Keith Whitley
In 1986, when he broke onto the scene, Whitley's star was somewhat overshadowed by Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But, his second album -- 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes -- helped to establish him as one of the dominant balladeers of his day. Sadly, a long career wasn't meant to be -- as his May 1989 death stilled his voice. But, talk to any singer who has come along since -- such as Tim McGraw, Chris Young, or Alan Jackson, and they will tell you just how deep his influence still runs -- even after 25 years.
27. Dixie Chicks
All controversy aside, the trio of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison managed to create a musical sound that appealed to a mixture of traditional minded fans, as well as newcomers to the format. In a time period where many artists were starting to sound alike, the Dixie Chicks managed to stay true to their Texas sound –- giving the country format some of its’ most outstanding music of the period.
26. Tim McGraw
One of the most versatile artists on this list, McGraw's career stretches from '90s dance numbers like "Indian Outlaw" to tear-jerking ballads like "Don't Take The Girl" and the powerful "Live Like You Were Dying." He isn't afraid to expand his boundaries, either, with collaborations with such artists as hip-hop star Nelly. McGraw has also made a name for himself as an actor in Hollywood, delivering fine performances in movies such as Friday Night Lights and Oscar-winning The Blind Side, going far and beyond simply playing a singer on screen like many of his peers.
25. Kenny Rogers
Other artists had been successful crossing over before Kenny Rogers, but he made it an art form. As a member of the First Edition, several of the band’s pop records crossed over to country, and as a solo artist, he notched some of the biggest hits in both markets from 1977-1987. As a touring artist, he was the first country performer to consistently sell out arenas night after night, with only his recent announcement of retirement bringing that segment of his career to a close.
24. Randy Travis
In the fall of 1985, The New York Times proclaimed traditional country music as “dead.” Just a few months later, this North Carolina native burst upon the scene that owed as much to Lefty and Hank as it did anyone currently on the radio. His Always and Forever album stayed at the top of the Billboard Country Albums chart for an astonishing 43 weeks -– and hit the top 20 on the Billboard 200 long before Soundscan -– unheard of for a traditional-based artist. Randy Travis rewrote the rules for the format – with a pen of classic-inspired ink.
23. Eddy Arnold
Though some younger fans might not truly appreciate just what Eddy Arnold brought to the format, his down-home personality along with his slightly more sophisticated tone made him one of the format’s most bankable crossover stars. With a reign on the country top 40 that lasted for close to four decades, Arnold managed to keep a career going from the days of 78 RPM to the digital age.
22. Hank Williams, Jr.
Though his father was one of the first major superstars of the genre, Hank Williams, Jr. marches to the beat of his own drummer. Much of his early hit output was in a traditional style, such as 1972’s “Eleven Roses,” but it was later southern rock-inspired hits such as “Family Tradition” and “Women I’ve Never Had” that proved that Junior was in a league of his own. Also adding to his legend was his stage show, which inspired a generation -- including Garth Brooks.
21. Ray Price
In a recording career that spanned over six decades, "The Cherokee Cowboy" possessed a voice that never seemed to age. If anything, his warm crooning tone only got better with time. Price's early hits were textbook performances in the honky-tonk vein, while 1967's "Danny Boy" ushered in a more uptown vibe that he expanded on in hits such as Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times." Price also had a keen ear for other talent, giving early jobs to Willie Nelson and Roger Miller, among others.
20. Patsy Cline
Though she hit first with “Walkin’ After Midnight” in 1957, Cline’s true influence as an artist stems from only a three-year recording career (1960-1963). However, what she did with that time period continues to inspire countless artists around the world. Take a walk to Nashville’s lower Broadway on any given night, and you will likely hear a rising female singer doing “Crazy” -– something that will likely be the case for another 50 years or so.
19. Tammy Wynette
Just as Loretta Lynn sang about female empowerment in the 1960s, so did Tammy Wynette. The one-time hairdresser turned her marital strife into musical gold via such classics as “Apartment # 9,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and “Stand By Your Man” –- and that was before she married George Jones. No other female singer sang about heartbreak with as much conviction and power -- influencing generations to come in the process.
18. Taylor Swift
Even though her hit album 1989 has taken her on a pop path, you simply can’t argue the impact of the singer on the country format. The moment the industry heard her debut single “Tim McGraw,” it was apparent that she was onto something. Swift also displays a strong awareness of who she is as a songwriter –- knowing also who her audience is. She is as much of a juggernaut as Garth Brooks in terms of her success – and how she treats people in the industry.
The idea of a band in country music had never really succeeded on a commercial level -- until Alabama kicked in the door in 1980. RCA rolled the dice on them, and it was an investment that paid off quite well –- over 30 No. 1 singles, 75 million in album sales, and the only band (so far) to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year award three times. To further underscore their success story, all of their singles for RCA in the 1980s -– save 1987’s “Tar Top” -- found their way to the pinnacle of the charts.
16. Conway Twitty
While some might argue that Twitty didn’t change the rules of the format like a Haggard or Jones, his influence on the format can’t be understated. From 1968 until his passing in 1993, Twitty charted hit after hit. His 40 No. 1 hits on the Billboard charts was a record that held firm for years until George Strait broke it. From “Hello Darlin” to “Don’t Take It Away,” and all the way through to “She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind,” Twitty was the perfect example of the word evolution.
15. Shania Twain
Twain parlayed her movie-star looks into becoming one of the most popular female vocalists of the video age -– a la such clips as “Any Man of Mine” and “I’m Gonna Getcha Good.” It also helped that (along with former husband/producer Mutt Lange) she created some of the most intriguing music of the time period, along with some mind-bending arrangements that fused country with rock as seamlessly as anyone had ever done.
14. Charley Pride
RCA released his first single in 1965 without the obligatory publicity photo -– unheard of for a new artist. But, Pride was unheard of -- an African-American man singing country music. However, it wasn’t before long that Pride quickly became one of the biggest stars in the format. He won the 1971 Entertainer of the Year award from the CMA, and his sales eclipsed everyone else on the RCA label for a time in the 1970s -– even Elvis Presley.
13. Kenny Chesney
If there has ever been a manual on how to build a career, Kenny Chesney would be its case study. He started slow -- earning his first top 10 hit in 1995 -- but by the early part of the next decade, Chesney was in the fast lane. He hasn't pulled over since. His records run the gamut from tropical-based hits as "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" to thought-provoking slices of life as "When I Close My Eyes" or "Don't Blink." Whether it's on record or his stage show, nobody works harder than Kenny Chesney.
12. Reba McEntire
Borrowing a page from the textbook of Dolly Parton, the former elementary school teacher from Oklahoma became one of the first female artists to sell albums and concert tickets on a level with the male artists. In addition to her music, she helped to shape the format with ground-breaking videos such as “Whoever’s In New England.” Along the way, she built an empire called Starstruck that is one of the biggest success stories the format has ever seen -- for any gender.
11. Buck Owens
Some might recognize Owens better for his 17-year run as the host of Hee Haw. While his run in Kornfield Kounty did make him a household name, Owens was a musical maverick in the 1960s. His Bakersfield style -- a mixture of pure honky-tonk and California rock-and-roll attitude -- served in stark contrast to the more smooth sounds coming out of Nashville at the time. He influenced not just country artists, but also John Fogerty, Ray Charles -– who recorded eight of his classics -- and The Beatles, who requested that Capitol send them each an Owens album upon its release.
10. Garth Brooks
Brooks shattered the blueprint for what a country singer should sound like -– on stage and off. His music was a fusion of George Jones and James Taylor, and his concerts are like nothing a country fan has seen before or since. Brooks also changed the way that the format was thought about from a sales standpoint -– selling well over 100 million copies of his music, making a Brooks release date seem something akin to a national holiday for retailers across the globe.
9. Loretta Lynn
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.
8. George Strait
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."
7. Waylon Jennings
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.”
6. George Jones
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.
5. Dolly Parton
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.”
4. Hank Williams
Williams’ recording career only lasted five years. But, his recordings and compositions are simply about quality over quantity. When he sang of sadness and love lost, you felt each and every line. Though his passing took place over 60 years ago, no country songwriter continues to be as revered as Hank Williams –- as it should be.
3. Willie Nelson
Quite possibly, no artist on this list manages to have the universal appeal of Willie Nelson. The legendary figure has been able to make believable his recordings of compositions from Lefty Frizzell, Irving Berlin and Paul Simon -– and sound authentic on each one. He qualifies as the ultimate curveball. You never know what to expect from him, only that it will find favor with the public.
2. Johnny Cash
He changed the rules at Sun in the '50s, and recorded some groundbreaking records for Columbia in the '60s, but Cash was still shattering musical boundaries in the '90s and 2000s with his American Recordings series. The Man in Black's influence stretches not only through country music, but in just about every other genre.
1. Merle Haggard
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.