Ah, to be young. It seems kids keep starting their show biz careers earlier and earlier, and child prodigies are all the rage nowadays — just check the YouTube views.
But country music has always prided itself on making stars of seemingly common folks with uncommon talent. It’s pretty normal for a country singer to be in his or her 30s before getting a shot in the spotlight. And yet, the genre has also had its fair share of youngsters who completely mesmerize audiences and skyrocket to stardom, sometimes before they even hit puberty.
Even Justin Timberlake started out by playing country music under the name Justin Randall. He appeared on Star Search at age 11 in a hat and boots with a big ol’ belt buckle singing Alan Jackson’s “Love’s Got A Hold On You.”
Being a child prodigy isn’t just about being popular at a young age. It’s also about being really, really good at what you do. Here are 10 of country music’s greatest child prodigies.
10. Glen Campbell
Before he eventually became one of the best-selling country artists of all time, the “Rhinestone Cowboy” grew up in complete poverty. One of 12 children, Glen Campbell helped his father in the cotton fields and spent evenings playing music with the rest of the family.
In his autobiography, Campbell reveals that his dad ordered a $5 guitar for him when he was barely out of diapers. “I was only four but I walked two miles to the mailbox every day to see if it had arrived,” says Campbell. “When it finally did you couldn’t get it out of my hands.”
Campbell excelled at guitar so quickly that he was playing with his uncle’s Western swing band before the age of 10. He quit school in his teens to start touring in his own band before eventually moving to L.A., where his hard work and determination would earn him a career as a beloved figure in country music, television and film.
9. Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs is arguably the greatest living country and bluegrass musician today, but it didn’t happen overnight.
Skaggs began playing mandolin at age 5 and was already on stage with Bill Monroe by age 6. At age 7, he performed on television with Lester Flatt and bluegrass hero Earl Scruggs (as seen in the video above).
Ever since a young age, Skaggs has been noted for his unique playing style and ability to adapt bluegrass instrumentation and arrangements to other popular music of the times. He’s a real musician’s musician, garnering the respect of his peers in every genre. He’s also earned a combined 16 CMA and ACM awards and twelve No. 1 hits.
8. Martie Maguire and Emily Robison
Born Martie and Emily Erwin, these two sisters are better known as two thirds of the Dixie Chicks, and two of the finest musicians in modern country music.
They grew up incredibly close and both began learning instruments at a young age. Martie learned classical violin when she was only 5, eventually also learning fiddle style at age 12, a talent that would earn her national acclaim in her teens.
Meanwhile, younger sister Emily became a 5-string banjo virtuoso shortly after beginning at age 10 (Martie jokes that she made Emily learn banjo because she could already tell she’d be a better fiddle player than her). The two also became proficient in nearly every other stringed instrument, not to mention their vocal harmonies, which form the foundation for the Chicks’ award-winning sound.
The two busked and performed with other musicians throughout most of their teens and early twenties before eventually teaming up with singer Natalie Maines. And the rest of their record-setting career is history.
7. Earl Scruggs
Speaking of banjo virtuosos, Earl Scruggs laid the foundation for other country and bluegrass musicians like Martie Maguire, Emily Robison and Ricky Skaggs. His three-finger playing technique featuring picks on the thumb and first two fingers was unique all to himself, and was eventually dubbed “Scruggs style” in his honor.
Scruggs was born in 1924 and by 1930 was already playing live in public. His style was much more rhythmic than typical banjo playing of the time and earned him a spot playing with Bill Monroe. He eventually went on to his own career, which many attribute to a revitalization of bluegrass music in the mainstream and ultimately a huge influence on modern country music. His “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is a classic tune in American composition.
Earl Scruggs has won just about every major award there is, including the National Heritage Award in 1989.
6. Barbara Mandrell
When Patsy Cline calls you the real deal, you know it’s true. Barbara Mandrell established herself as such a talented multi-instrumentalist by age 13 that she had already earned a spot touring with country music legends such as Cline, Johnny Cash and George Jones.
Mandrell’s bread and butter was her lap steel and slide guitar, but she also become proficient in accordion, saxophone and several other instruments. In 1979 she beat out her heroes Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle to win the CMA Female Vocalist Award.
Her success would ultimately translate to the TV and silver screen as well. She survived a car wreck in 1984 and announced a full time shift to acting in 1997.
5. Alison Krauss
Before Alison Krauss became the Grammy’s most-awarded living artist of all time with 28 wins in 2012, she was starting her own band at age 10 and making her debut independent record at age 14. She also won several fiddle competitions and was named one of the most promising bluegrass musicians in America at only 13 years old.
Also one of the finest voices in American music, Krauss signed a record deal and released her first major album at age 16 and would eventually go on to become a beloved figure in music and film, as well as a sought-after session musician.
Her contributions to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack cemented her as a musical icon. At only 44 years old, Alison Krauss is poised to set seemingly unbreakable records for country music awards and critical success.
4. Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee was so popular in the 1960s that only three artists out-performed her on the charts that decade: Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and The Beatles. Not bad company for “Little Miss Dynamite,” who was also the top-selling solo female act that decade.
Lee began singing at age 5 and was the primary income earner for her family before she turned 10, thanks to her appearances on radio. Often considered a cross-over artist between pop, country and rockabilly, Lee was also one of the first American women to score serious international success, where her career really took off after fading in the American mainstream.
Lee got her big break when she performed on the touring TV show Ozark Jubilee, and signed a contract with Decca Records only months later at age 11. Her song “I’m Sorry” would ultimately help define what became known as the “Nashville Sound.”
3. Billy Gilman
To this day, Billy Gilman is still the youngest artist to chart a Top 40 hit on the country music charts. It all started in 2000, when Gilman released the single “One Voice” on Epic Records. An album of the same name would go on to reach double platinum status (selling more than 2 million copies), an amazing feat for a young solo artist at the beginning of the file sharing era.
Gilman is the youngest artist to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums charts and one of the youngest ever to be nominated for a Grammy. His fame quickly fell off when his voice changed with puberty, but Gilman recently emerged again in 2014. That same year he also came out as gay, one of few country artists to do so.
2. Hunter Hayes
One of the only child prodigy country artists still in his prime, Hunter Hayes made his first national TV appearances by age 4, received a guitar from Robert Duvall at age 6 (seriously) and performed for then-president Bill Clinton at age 7.
The talented multi-instrumentalist kept performing while honing his songwriting skills with a move to Nashville in 2008. Taylor Swift caught wind of Hayes’ work and invited him to open some dates on her Speak Now tour, a move that eventually helped propel Hayes to pop country stardom.
Hayes is the youngest male country artist to be nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy’s, as well as Best Country Album and Best Solo Country Performance.
1. LeAnn Rimes
LeAnn Rimes is the epitome of “childhood prodigy” thanks not just to her immense critical acclaim and commercial success, but her undeniable talent and influence on female country vocalists.
Rimes was already touring with her dad and singing the national anthem at Dallas Cowboys games by age 9. She released 3 independent albums before her 1996 label debut Blue. She became the youngest artist to win a Grammy at age 14 with her wins for Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. She also became the first country artist to win the Best New Artist award.
Rimes unprecedented success inspired countless new musicians and reinvigorated the country music industry’s quest for new young talent. Her crossover success in the adult contemporary market also laid the groundwork for future country crossover success from artists like Lady Antebellum.