It’s been a rough year for losing musicians, especially in country. From Little Jimmy Dickens to Glenn Frey to Merle Haggard, the country world has said goodbye to some truly monumental artists.
It’s never easy when our musical heroes pass, but it’s certainly a great time to not only celebrate their legacies, but step back and appreciate the artists we still have with us. Here are 15 living legends, all of which are over 70 years old, in country music.
15. Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver is a true outlaw country pioneer. He’s lived through on-stage heart attacks and the tragic loss of his son to heroin, all the while pioneering music that has always been more revered by his contemporaries than the commercial world. With a larger-than-life personality and the outlaw biography to back it up, Billy Joe Shaver is truly a legend.
14. Jerry Jeff Walker
While “Mr. Bojangles” is without question Jerry Jeff Walker’s most famous song (it’s been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone), his influence on country music, especially Texas country, is undeniable. In more than 30 albums, Jerry Jeff Walker coined the new genre “Cowjazz” and inspired a trough of relentlessly original storytellers.
13. Wanda Jackson
Wanda Jackson is known as the “Queen of Rockabilly,” but just watch her perform “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” at Town Hall Party in 1958 and you’ll see how her legendary status infiltrates country, too. Jackson’s attitude and confidence are undeniable, and she was almost as profound an influence on women’s rights as Loretta Lynn. And like Lynn, she doesn’t know the word “quit.” Jackson released her 31st album in 2012 at the ripe young age of 74.
12. Emmylou Harris
There’s a reason Emmylou Harris is one of the most sought-after singing partners in the world. Her silky smooth voice lends itself perfectly to just about every duet you could imagine. She’s worked with pretty much every significant artist of her era, and has been nominated for 39 Grammy’s, snagging 13. The only thing bigger than her voice is her heart, as she’s become a leading activist for women, veterans, animals and a host of other causes.
11. Peter Rowan
One of the last true legends of bluegrass, Peter Rowan got his start with Bill Monroe in the 1960s before spending the next four decades leaving his mark as both an instrumentalist and writer on countless works. Rowan is one of the most versatile musicians in music and a renowned yodeler. He may not be a household name, but Rowan is truly a legend in bluegrass, and with bluegrass’ influence on country music, he belongs on the list.
10. David Allan Coe
If you’ve never been in a country bar when David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” came on the jukebox, you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest sing-along treasures. Coe is an outlaw country artist through and through. Nothing Sacred and Underground Album were two of the more controversial records in country music due to their irreverence and profanity, but Coe is far from a shock artist. His style led some to coin him the first “alt-country” artist and he’s been unapologetically himself his whole life.
9. Glen Campbell
This one comes with a sad footnote. While Campbell is still with us, his very public fight with Alzheimer’s has relegated him to full-time care, and he can no longer play music. But Campbell, who has sold more than 45 million albums, will leave behind an amazing legacy that spans music, television and film. The documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is a fantastic look at his career and subsequent tour while going through Alzheimer’s. It also brought us his Grammy-winning farewell song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”
8. John Prine
John Prine is a songwriter’s songwriter. He co-wrote a song already on this list (David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Call Me By My Name”) and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Prine was noted as one of Bob Dylan’s favorite writers, and has received similar praise from music’s biggest heroes, including Johnny Cash and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. Prine’s lyrical voice is truly one-of-a-kind.
7. Don Williams
The “gentle giant” of country music, Don Williams was one of the first bass vocalists in country (along with Johnny Cash). A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Williams has 17 No. 1 hits and a whole slew of songs recorded by country stars both young and old. The native of tiny Floydada, Texas announced his retirement in March 2016 after nearly 50 years on the scene. But who knows, he may poke his head out again for a show or two, if we’re lucky.
6. Kris Kristofferson
If all you knew about Kris Kristofferson was he’s a member of the supergroup The Highwaymen, it would be enough. But Kristofferson has been a success in everything he’s done, from the military to country music to movies and even voicing video games. He wrote nearly all of his songs by himself and has garnered almost 48 BMI awards for his songs. In October 2015, the 79-year old hinted to releasing a new album called The Cedar Creek Sessions.
5. Charley Pride
Charley Pride is one of the most remarkable men in country. Aside from being a pioneer for African-Americans in music and being one of only three black men in the Grand Ole Opry, Pride was also a professional baseball player and a three-time Grammy Award winner. His song “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'” is a staple in country’s storied history.
4. Dolly Parton
Dolly’s image has become larger than life thanks to her media appearances, theme park “Dollywood” and pop culture status. Like several of her contemporaries, Parton has had success in just about everything she’s done, and her rags-to-riches story still inspires to this day. But when all is said and done, Parton is most proud of her honest songwriting, which holds up among the greats.
3. Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers may have been one of the first country artists to successfully cross over into pop, but he’s always remained a legend with a foot planted firmly in both worlds. His works are listed among the most influential country albums of all time, and his likable demeanor has left him as an American favorite, regardless of genre preference. Rogers has also famously retired from music, saying he doesn’t much recognize country anymore and he wants to focus on being a dad.
2. Willie Nelson
Another outlaw country pioneer with a dodgy history that is only outpaced by his amazing successes, Willie Nelson is one of the most prominent figures in American music. Much like Parton, his fame goes beyond his works and into the pop culture stratosphere. He was awarded the Gershwin Prize by the Library of Congress for his lifetime’s achievement to music and countless others for his advocacy efforts. One of the world’s most prolific songwriters, the Country Music Association named its lifetime achievement award after him.
1. Loretta Lynn
It’s impossible to summarize the influence Loretta Lynn has had on country music through her 60-year career. The 84-year-old is the most-awarded female country artist and a figure who transcends genre boundaries as one of the most-recognizable popular figures in American history. She gave hope to female artists and women everywhere, and she’s still going strong. Lynn is a modern American treasure.
And just for good measure, here’s a beautiful duet between the top two on our list.