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Country's Top 10 Most Influential Artists

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Trying to determine the 10 most influential country music artists of all time is a tricky endeavor. Beyond a small handful of very obvious choices, the waters get a little muddier, and the debate becomes a little more heated. Country music fans are very passionate and opinionated, so putting together a list like this is bound to result in a few hackles being raised. We’re talking about opinions after all, and you know what they say about those! So, in the interest of merely stating mine (and I’d love to hear yours, too), here’s my list of the 10 most influential country artists of all time.

1. Hank Williams

Hank Williams
Blank Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Born on September 17, 1923 in a log cabin in Garland, Alabama, Hank Williams was a leading pioneer in the burgeoning honky-tonk movement of the 1940s. His charismatic performances mesmerized audiences, as evidenced by his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949 when he tore the house down singing “Love Sick Blues.” So taken was the crowd by Williams that they demanded six consecutive encores. Beyond his singing and mesmerizing performances, however, it is Williams’ amazing songwriting that remains his biggest legacy.

2. George Jones

© Bandit Records
When George Jones was a kid, he sang for tips on the street corners in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas. Like one of his idols, Hank Williams, Jones’ life has paralleled the somber tales of his songs. But it’s his voice that has earned him such immense stature in country music, a lofty perch that borders on canonization. Among his countless peers who consider him the greatest country singer of all time, Waylon Jennings summed it up best when he declared, “When George Jones sings a song, that song’s been sung.”

3. Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers was the first singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Known to millions as the Singing Brakeman and the Father of Country Music, Rodgers blended traditional folk melodies with African-American blues, jazz, yodeling and early railroad work chants. His recording career lasted only six short years, but his output was immense, and it quickly became the benchmark for generations to come. He was a major influence on scores of future Hall of Famers, including Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.

4. Kitty Wells

Kitty Wells single-handedly tore down industry barriers for women in country music—and she did it all with one simple song. Her 1952 recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” which was an “answer song” to Hank Thompson's “Wild Side of Life,” was a blistering female rebuttal that resonated with millions of country fans, particularly women. Prior to her arrival, it was assumed by record labels that female country singers just couldn’t sell records. Wells proved them all wrong.

5. Lefty Frizzell

When William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell exploded onto the country music scene in 1950, he dazzled audiences with a unique vocal styling of bending vowels, a technique that would be emulated for generations to come. At the height of his popularity, one that for country music fans rivaled Elvis Presley’s, he had four songs in the top 10 simultaneously, a feat only matched by The Beatles a decade later. Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson count Frizzell among their biggest influences.

6. Roy Acuff

Nicknamed the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff was the personification of country music for nearly 40 years. He was also the face of the Grand Ole Opry until his death in 1992. He was instrumental in bridging the chasm between country music’s early backwoods persona to the more mainstream genre it became. Acuff was the first living person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

7. Loretta Lynn

© Interscope
Loretta Lynn's rags-to-riches story is well-known. After notching her first country hit in 1960 with “Honky Tonk Girl,” she became the dominant female voice in country music for nearly two decades. The irresistible Kentucky drawl in her voice is pure country, and that she actually wrote much of her own material, most of which was purely autobiographical, further cemented her iconic status.

8. Eddy Arnold

Eddy Arnold proved that country music could be equally at home in a tuxedo as it was in a pair of overalls. Nicknamed the Tennessee Plowboy, Arnold had two distinct and amazing careers, first as a wildly successful traditionalist starting in the 1940s, then as the forerunner to the smooth crooning “countrypolitan” movement of the ‘60s. No country star has ever charted more hits than Eddy Arnold.

9. Ernest Tubb

For 50 years, Hall of Famer Ernest Tubb was the dictionary definition of a honky-tonk singer. Admittedly not the greatest singer to ever grace the stage, he was beloved by millions of fans, as well as the countless aspiring artists he famously helped along the way. He was a mainstay at the Grand Ole Opry, and his midnight radio show from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop was instrumental in launching the careers of some of country’s biggest future acts.

10. Merle Haggard

Standing on the podium just under Hank Williams, Merle Haggard is the most influential singer-songwriter of the modern era, and the versatility in his repertoire is unmatched. From tender ballads and drinking songs to political railings and populist anthems, his simple songs touch the heart and speak to us in a language we all understand. He is the songwriter’s songwriter.

11. Honorable Mentions

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the cacophony of criticism undoubtedly raining down on me. What? No Johnny Cash or Carter Family? No Willie Nelson or Vernon Dalhart? No Tammy Wynette, George Strait, Garth Brooks or Jim Reeves? (And that’s just a short list of potential slights—I could add a dozen more in a heartbeat.) But this is my list today. It could change tomorrow. I welcome your thoughts. Let it rain! I can take it. Feel free to write your own review below.
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