There’s been no shortage of discussion about the state of women in country music. Country radio continues to ignore the work of modern female artists to the disdain of country fans who crave variety and quality songs. But this issue isn’t entirely new. Women have been at the forefront of country music from the beginning, and they’ve always had to work harder than their male counterparts for a seat at the table.
Thankfully, they persevered. From Carter Family matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter to modern hit-makers like Miranda Lambert, female artists have shaped the genre of country music, pushing it in new directions and offering important glimpses into the life of the American woman. From a pioneering mother-daughter duo to a trailblazing singer-songwriter, here are 30 of the top female country singers of all time.
The early 1980s country charts were dominated by men until Naomi and Wynonna burst onto the scene in 1983. The mother-daughter duo from Kentucky racked up multiple No. 1 hits and a slew of CMA awards between 1983 and 1991. From their songs of rural simplicity (“Grandpa”) and no-holds-barred sass (“Girls Night Out”), The Judds are one of the greatest country acts of the last 30 years.
It’s no surprise that Pam Tillis followed in the footsteps of her famous dad, Mel Tillis. She grew up in Nashville and made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of 8. But while her legendary father was an obvious inspiration, Tillis blazed her own trail with 1990’s Put Yourself in My Place. The album spawned three Top 10 hits, including the steamy southern saga “Maybe It Was Memphis” and the barroom shuffler “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” Tillis came to define the neo-traditional sound of 90s country radio and remains one of the most important voices in the genre.
Connie Smith may not always be mentioned among contemporaries like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, but she should be. Smith, who entered the country scene in 1964 with the Bill Anderson-penned heartbreaker “Once A Day,” is one of the most underrated vocalists in country history. “Once A Day” became the first single be a female country artist to reach No. 1 on the country charts.
Dottie West was already one of the most popular country singer-songwriters in the 1960s, but by the mid 1970s her popularity had reached its zenith. Decked out in her signature sequins, West took the country world by storm with a series of duets with Kenny Rogers and the in-your-face “A Lesson in Leavin’.” West died from injuries sustained in a car crash in 1991, but her legacy as a country music icon lives on.
Though she’s known as an alt-country queen, no list of female country artists would be complete without Lucinda Williams. The impact that Williams has had on the genre as a whole can’t be understated. Her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, with its homespun tales of Southern Gothic heartache, was a welcome respite from the uniformity of country radio. Williams, who released her 12th studio album in 2016, remains one of the most introspective voices in country and Americana.
Known for her powerhouse vocals and the gut-punch emotion of tracks like “Independence Day,” Martina McBride is one of the most influential artists of the last three decades.
The undisputed “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson proved that it wasn’t just Elvis who knew how to get kids to shake, rattle and roll. Jackson began her career touring with The King and probably taught him a few things along the way. Now at age 80, Jackson still tours regularly and shows no signs of slowing down.
Mississippi-born Faith Hill came into Music City swinging with her 1993 debut album Take Me As I Am, which spawned three No. 1 singles. Since then, Hill has continued to prove herself as one of country’s most impressive artists, enjoying crossover success with songs like 1999’s sultry “Breathe”
Now that she’s an international superstar, it’s easy to forget that Underwood got her start on American Idol. It’s a testament to her star power — at that incredible voice — that any ties to Ryan Seacrest have long ago faded away. Boosted by the success of the saucy revenge track “Before He Cheats” and the showstopping “Two Black Cadillacs,” Underwood has become one of the most revered singers of the genre.
With songs like “Seven Year Ache” and a cover of her dad Johnny’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” Rosanne Cash ruled 1980s country radio. She released her 13th studio album The River and the Thread in 2014.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a dose of folk sensibilities to country music in the 90s. Her 1994 album Come On, Come On, which included the tale of domestic desperation “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and a rollicking cover of Lucinda William’s “Passionate Kisses,” was unlike any other album in the country scene.
Jean Shepard has never gotten her due recognition for opening doors for women in country music. But it’s not too late to change that. Shepard was one of the first women to headline honky tonks back when it was considered uncouth for women to hang out in smoky dives. Thankfully, Shepard didn’t give a damn. She added a woman’s voice to the honky tonk world with hits like the cheeky “I’m Tired of Playing Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)” and “A Satisfied Mind.”
Mississippi Delta queen Bobbie Gentry is one of the most curious cases in country music. In 1967, her beguiling “Ode to Billy Joe” captivated the entire nation. (The album of the same name knocked the Beatles from the top of the charts.) Her blues tales of southern womanhood (“Fancy,” “Mississippi Delta”) were unlike anything else in the genre and she was one of the first female country artists to write and produce her own music. Then one day in the mid-1980s the Chickasaw County singer decided she’d had enough. She left the music business seemingly for good and no one is quite sure why. But she did leave us with several albums worth of enchanting music before she left the spotlight.
Linda Ronstadt is often tied to the rock scene of the ’70s, and with good reason. But country music can lay claim to the powerful singer as well. Over her 40-year career Ronstadt collaborated with artists across all genres, including Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash. She had her first country hit with 1973’s “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” In 1987, she teamed up with good friends Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton for the popular Trio album.
From amped up, bold hits like “Gunpowder and Lead” and “Kerosene” to the career-defining 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings, Lambert has earned her place as one of the greatest country artists of all time.
Trisha Yearwood started out working as a background vocalist in Music City, but it wasn’t long before she took center stage. Yearwood broke out with 1992’s critically acclaimed Hearts in Armor, which spawn two Top 10 singles (“She’s In Love With the Boy,” “Walkaway Joe”). The Georgia native continued to rack up hits throughout the 90s and early 200s, becoming one of the most successful female vocalists in country.
The 1970s were a wild time in country music and no one was having more fun than Tanya Tucker. After scoring her first hit single at the age of 13 with “Delta Dawn,” Tucker went on to become one of the most popular vocalists in country music for the next thirty years. Eschewing woe-is-me ballads for hard-charging honky tonk, the Texas native carved out a place for herself that was entirely her own.
Lee Ann Womack
The crossover smash “I Hope You Dance” may be remembered as Lee Ann Womack’s biggest hit single but fans of the Texan’s country-gold voice already knew her heart and soul were planted firmly in country music. Her 1997 debut album, filled with hardcore honky tonk gems like “The Fool” and “Never Again, Again” placed Womack in the category of neo-traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait. Over 20 years later, Womack is still honoring her roots with the stellar album The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone.
Pop-country queen Shania Twain broke out with her sophomore album The Woman in Me, which lead the way for 1997’s Come On Over, the best-selling record by a female artist of all time.
Bluegrass fans were already familiar with the angel-voiced Alison Krauss before her participation in the cultural phenomenon that was the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Her albums, from 1999’s Forget About It to 2017’s Windy City have earned her a reputation as a genius interpreter of songs.
The Dixie Chicks
Fearless and insanely talented, the Dixie Chicks burst onto the country music scene with 1998’s Wide Open Spaces. The trio replicated that success with 1999’s Fly, which produced two No. 1 singles and their most controversial song to date, the vengeful “Goodbye Earl.” Following the release of their back-to-basics album Home, lead singer Natalie Maines made her now infamous remarks on President George W. Bush. The incident may have halted their careers on country radio, but it did little to deter their historic impact on the genre. Their 2016 world tour was a huge success, proving that the Chicks are as in demand as ever.
Kentucky native and a cousin to Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless has country music in her soul. Her high-lonesome country wail can pierce through the heart of even the most jaded music fan. Her 1994 album When the Fallen Angels Fly, including the assertive “Blame it On Your Heart” and the heart-wrenching “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” was a critical and commercial smash, making Loveless one of the most important vocalists of the 90s and in country music as a whole.
Emmylou Harris got her start as Gram Parsons’ vocal partner, but the country-folk queen proved to be a solo success with records like 1978’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town.
With her dynamite voice and larger than life personality, Oklahoma-native is one of the most beloved and acclaimed vocalists in the history of country music. Over her 40-year career, McEntire has racked up over 30 No. 1 hits.
June Carter Cash
The daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, June Carter already had an impressive country music pedigree before she wrote and recorded some of country music’s biggest songs. From her collaborations with Johnny to her songwriting prowess, June Carter Cash is one of the most influential women in country history.
Kitty Wells broke down barriers with her 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” becoming the first female country singer to top the U.S. country charts.
Considered to be one of the best — if not the best –vocalists in country music history, Patsy Cline accomplished in a few short years what most artists hoped to accomplish in a lifetime. She pioneered the Nashville sound with unforgettable hits like “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Heartache has never sounded so good.
You can distinctly hear the pain in Tammy Wynette’s voice when she sings. From her timeless duets with George Jones to smash hits “Stand By Your Man” and “Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad,” Wynette is among the most beloved and influential female singers in the genre.
It’s downright impossible to imagine country music without Dolly Parton. Her monster hits “I Will Always Love You,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene” and countless others aren’t just part of the fabric of country music, they’re part of the cultural lexicon. As honest as she is lovable and as bold as she is smart, Dolly Parton is God’s gift to country music.
In many ways, country music is about a sense of place. When we’re home, we start dreaming about the world beyond our door. But when we leave, we often find ourselves longing for our family home. Growing up in Kentucky’s Butcher Holler, Loretta Lynn didn’t have to search far for inspiration. She married and had four kids all before she released her first single, “Honky Tonk Girl.” Taking from her own life experience (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin'” Lynn went on to write some of the best country songs ever written. From her early studio work to the 2004 Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn is a living reminder of country’s roots and the top female country artist of all time.