11 Best Country Music Artists of All Time
Every country singer's dream is to make it to the Grand Ole Opry—where it all starts for most of the country music Hall of Famers on our list.
As far back as country music origins, country music’s love affair with dry, candid truths, Johnny Cash famously proclaimed in “Folsom Prison Blues” that “time keeps dragging on.” Bearing this maxim in mind, how might the Man in Black rank in a list of the best country artists of all time?
People across the country have enjoyed the melody of country music for decades. From listening on their radio, to the boom of the record player, and now to the sophisticated Victrola Stream carbon works with Sonos Turntable or portable Victrola Bluetooth Record Player Suitcase. Country music has been enjoyed far and wide, so their has inevitably been some shining stars that can’t be forgotten along the way.
When dealing with a genre as storied and diverse as country music, special attention must be paid to the genre’s forebears, if only as a means of appreciating the exciting newer artists their music inspired.
A comprehensive list should include names from every era, region, and flavor of the country music tradition. From the lilt and twang of the genre’s good old days to the pop-infused ballads of a younger generation, here are the 11 best country music artists of all time.
#1 Merle Haggard
Though Merle Haggard courted plenty of it in his life, we’ll head off any controversy by placing him front and center in our list of all-time country best artists. A freight train hopper by the age of 10—and an inmate of San Quentin prison by the time of Johnny Cash’s New Year’s Day concert there in 1959—“The Hag” credited music with saving him from a life of criminality.1
Armed with his iconic Fender Telecaster and a deceptively smooth voice, some of Merle’s most beloved songs include:
- “The Fightin’ Side Of Me”
- “Mama Tried”
- “Sing Me Back Home”
#2 Dolly Parton
Don’t tempt Dolly Parton with a good time. A dazzling actress, singer-songwriter, style icon, and famed theme park purveyor, we’re here to celebrate her contributions to the lively canon of country music. Her discography boasts a staggering total of 52 studio albums released over six decades in the industry—but don’t think for a second this means Dolly values quantity over quality.
With a larger-than-life hairstyle and a lilting soprano full of pluck and pizzazz, Dolly is one of the greatest to ever strut across a country stage. Here are some of her most celebrated songs:
- “9 to 5”
- “Coat of Many Colors”
#3 Johnny Cash
Anytime there’s a conversation about the greatest country music artists, Johnny Cash’s name ain’t out of earshot.
Cash gained national prominence in the era rock ‘n roll first exploded onto the American music scene, and he famously toured with the likes of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.2 Yet despite his cross-cultural and genre-defying acclaim (his most popular songs include a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”), the Man in Black never strayed far from his country roots.
As a public figure, Johnny Cash is remembered for his rebellious spirit and compassionate attitude toward America’s rejects and misfits: He played concerts for prisoners across the US.
As a musician, he’s revered for his haunting baritone and lyrical mastery, with his most acclaimed songs including:
- “I Walk the Line”
- “Folsom Prison Blues”
- “Ring of Fire”
#4 Garth Brooks
Numbers aren’t everything, but with 157 million units sold, it’s hard to deny Garth Brooks’ mass appeal.3 Garth’s willingness to break with convention and temper his country grit with a hint of bubbly pop has occasionally made him a target by country music’s most determined sticklers and sophists—but Garth himself remains unapologetic in this regard. He puts it best in his best-selling ballad, “Friends In Low Places”:
“Blame it all on my roots,
I showed up in boots,
and ruined your black tie affair”
After formally announcing his retirement in 2000 to focus on family, Brooks has steadily returned to the world of music and began a stadium tour in 2019.4 With gifts akin to those this musician possesses, we’re happy to know he couldn’t keep away.
#5 Hank Williams
Perhaps no single artist embodies country music’s twin pillars, romance and tragedy, as fully as singer-songwriter Hank Williams. Throughout his tumultuous life as an artist and performer, Williams sang with twining, poetic lyrics and twanging, plaintive tenor.
Appearing on his first radio broadcast at the tender age of 13, Hank’s life in music was tragically cut short on New Year’s Day, 1953.5 He was 29 years old. In just 16 years, he gifted country music fans with a number of timeless classics and serenades, including:
- “Lovesick Blues”
- “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”
- “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”
#6 Loretta Lynn
Country music’s natural affinity for underdog stories finds its ultimate expression in the life and music of Loretta Lynn. Loretta is happy to tell the story herself, singing about her humble beginnings in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She belongs to a lineage of strong and capable women, from her sisters, Peggy Sue and Crystal Gayle (both successful country artists in their own right), to her mother, Clara Marie, who used the Sears catalog as wallpaper to keep Loretta’s childhood cabin warm and lively.6
That warmth is evident in Lynn’s narrative-driven songwriting and smooth, Kentucky-bourbon vocal inflection. She’s best known for:
- “You Ain’t Woman Enough”
- “Blue Kentucky Girl”
- “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”
#7 George Jones
George Jones cemented his place in the annals of country music history with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” considered by many to be the greatest country song ever released.7 Though it was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, Jones’ vocal delivery on this song is the work of an artist, exhibiting a stylized plunk and drawl that spawned countless imitators throughout the following decades.8
If Loretta Lynn’s voice was Kentucky bourbon, Jones’ was Tennessee whiskey: sweet with a hint of smoky charcoal, mellow but not without a bite. He’s regarded as one of the greatest country singers of all time.
#8 Willie Nelson
What would country music be without Shotgun Willie, the “Red Headed Stranger?” Probably a lot less fun. Since he first rose to prominence in the 1970s, Willie has epitomized the myth of the wandering outlaw. However, you’re more likely to see his picture in music publications than wanted posters outside the nearest saloon.
As one of the earliest county artists to achieve mainstream success through cross-genre collaborations (don’t even ask about his song with Snoop Dogg), Nelson runs the gamut regarding flavor and style. If you’re looking for a good place to start, try:
- “On the Road Again”
- “Always on My Mind”
- “Whiskey River”
#9 Tammy Wynette
One of many tragic figures on our list, you can feel the sincerity when Tammy Wynette sings of heartbreak. Wynette was 23 years old and a divorced mother of three when she quit her job as a hairdresser to move to Nashville and pursue a career in music. Her gamble paid off, and country music is far better for it.
In her too-short life, Tammy dealt with chronic illness, an abusive relationship, and a kidnapping attempt.9 Through it all, she never failed to deliver the passionate vocal performances that she came to be known by. Her greatest hits include:
- “I Don’t Wanna Play House”
- “Stand by Your Man”
#10 The Carter Family
The closest thing to real country music royalty, we’d be remiss not to include the Carter Family. In the style of all great families, the Carters were progenitors of not only a number of their era’s trends and styles but several successful solo artists that bore the Carter name in future generations.
A collaborative project of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle, the Carter Family is responsible for pioneering both the style of vocal harmonization that would come to dominate country music after that and the “Carter lick,” a guitar-picking pattern that became massively popular in the ensuing decades.10
Some of their most popular songs include:
- “Wildwood Flower”
- “Keep on the Sunny Side”
- “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”
#11 Townes Van Zandt
At the beginning of this list, we asserted that we didn’t intend to stir any controversy. But where would country music be without a bit of drama?
While he doesn’t score highly on name recognition, Townes Van Zandt might just be your favorite country artist’s favorite country artist. The original writer of enduring classics like “Pancho and Lefty” (a favorite of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard) and “To Live is to Fly” (famously covered by Guy Clark), Van Zandt cast himself in the mold of the wandering troubadour.
During a private concert in 1988, he told the story of writing his heart-wrenching piece “Buckskin Stallion Blues” while stranded in Colorado, having gambled away all his worldly possessions in a game of craps.11
With stories like that, it’s no wonder he counts songwriters by the likes of Bob Dylan among his devoted fans.12
Sadly, we couldn't include the likes of Kenny Rogers, Faith Hill, Miranda Lambert, Conway Twitty, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Waylon Jennings, and Patsy Cline on our list but deserve mention for their contribution to the genre and music in gene.
Harken Back to Country’s Roots with Victrola Vinyl
When you’re ready to hang your hat after a long day at the ranch or the office, nothing does the trick like your favorite country tunes.
Your whole life, you’ve always prided yourself on choosing the best tool for the job, be it your old pickup or your blue suede shoes. So why settle for a subpar listening experience?
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- PBS. Merle Haggard: Learning to Live with Myself. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/merle-haggard-learning-to-live-with-myself/1545/
- Concert Archives. Elvis Presley / Johnny Cash / Carl Perkins / Buddy Holly. https://www.concertarchives.org/concerts/elvis-presley-johnny-cash-carl-perkins-buddy-holly
- Statista. Top-selling artists worldwide as of August 2022, based on certified sales. https://www.statista.com/statistics/271174/top-selling-artists-in-the-united-states/
- The Boot. 22 Years Ago: Garth Brooks Announces His Retirement. https://theboot.com/garth-brooks-retirement/
- Biography. Hank Williams. https://www.biography.com/musician/hank-williams/
- Country Living. 15 Things You Didn't Know About Loretta Lynn. https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/g3088/things-you-didnt-know-about-loretta-lynn/
- American Songwriter. George Jones: The Songwriter. https://americansongwriter.com/songwriter-u-153773/
- The New Yorker. The George Jones Sound. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-george-jones-sound/
- Country Living. The Story Behind Tammy Wynette’s Tragic Life. https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a44810/tragic-life-of-tammy-wynette/
- Country Music Hall of Fame. Carter Family. https://www.countrymusichalloffame.org/hall-of-fame/carter-family/
- YouTube. Townes van Zandt - 02 Buckskin Stallion (A Private Concert). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJN5W-EreVs/
- Rolling Stone. Flashback: Bob Dylan Covers ‘Pancho and Lefty’ at Bonnaroo in 2004. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-bonnaroo-2004-1219819/