Based on critical standing, influence, and sales, here are country music's essential group performers. Greater weight has been accorded to those acts who have stood the test of time over newer groups.
1. The Carter Family
Essential Album: Can the Circle Be Unbroken?
All country artists owe a debt to the Carter Family. Their songbook popularized traditional folk songs and sister Maybell's finger-picking influenced future guitarists.
2. Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
Essential Album: The Very Best of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. Any group pairing mandolins and banjos owe him a tip of the hat -- not to mention his band Bluegrass boys.
3. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Essential Album: Bob Wills Anthology
The grandaddy of Western swing influenced everybody with his combination of jazz, hillbilly fiddling, and dance-hall swing music. He showed that country music could absorb nearly every genre it touched. His upbeat mix kept people entertained during the Depression.
4. Flatt & Scruggs
Essential Album: The Essential Flatt & Scruggs: 'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered
Monroe may have created bluegrass, but his students Flatts & Scruggs popularized it with virtuosic banjo-playing and high lonesome vocals. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt both played in Monroe's Blue Grass Boys before forming their own outfit. In the 1950s and '60s, they epitomized bluegrass.
Essential Album: 50 Years of Hits
Alabama escaped the urban cowboy curse to become one of the most successful acts of the '80s and '90s. Their rich harmonies resulted in chart-topping hits such as "Dixieland Delight" and "Love in the First Degree."
6. The Louvin Brothers
Essential Album: When I Stop Dreaming
Ira and Charlie Louvin created magic on wax. Their religious songs and high harmonies resulted in the cult gospel album Satan Is Real and left a heavy influence on the Everly Brothers.
7. Charlie Daniels Band
Essential Album:The Essential Charlie Daniels Band
Fiddle-player Charlie Daniels helped invent country rock with this off-the-rails band. It formed in the early 1970s and made headway with the Mason-Dixon rocker "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
8. The Flying Burrito Brothers
Essential Album: Gilded Palace of Sin
The Byrds were more popular, but The Flying Burritos Brothers gained a cult following that outlasted them. The group, founded by Gram Parsons, provided the country-rock blueprint to subsequent genre-benders.
9. The Stanley Brothers
Essential Album: The Complete Mercury Recordings
Performing from the 1940s to the '60s, Carter and Ralph Stanley were were heavily indebted to Bill Monroe for their traditional sound. Yet their versions of "Little Maggie" and "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow" remain an invigorating bridge between mountain music and bluegrass.
10. Dixie Chicks
Essential Album: Wide Open Spaces
The Dixie Chicks re-engineered bluegrass for a stadium crowd in the late 1990s. Their debut Wide Open Spaces became one of the biggest-selling country albums of all time, but controversy cast a shadow on the group's later years.