Ranking the greatest singers in country music history is no easy feat. There will inevitably be those who say some inclusions should rank higher or lower. Others may be deemed “too pop” for a list of country artists. If there’s one thing about country music, its fans are a passionate and unwavering bunch. After all, it’s what’s kept the genre and its inhabitants — the underdogs, the superstars and the pop-country pioneers — in business all these years. From a 1990s boundary-pusher to a traditional troubadour, here’s our ranking of the 30 best country singers of all time.
Shania Twain burst onto the country music scene in the early 90s with a pocket full of songs and a fearless attitude. Her breakout album The Woman in Me and crossover smash Come On Over redefined country music and made her one of the most beloved artists in the genre. Twain’s influence can be heard in contemporary favorites like Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris.
The suits in Nashville may have turned their back on the Dixie Chicks, but that hasn’t slowed the trio down. Their breakout album Wide Open Spaces made them a force to be reckoned with, a reputation they more than lived up to on subsequent albums. Their songs, from the darkly humorous “Goodbye Earl” to the soaring “Not Ready to Make Nice,” are reminders of the group’s fortitude in the face of adversity.
Along with his contemporaries Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill brought country music back to its roots in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “When I Call Your Name” and “Go Rest High On That Mountain” are country staples that will never go out of style.
From her tough-as-nails anthems like “Gunpowder and Lead” and “Kerosene” to her work with the country super-trio the Pistol Annies, Miranda Lambert has made a career out of speaking her mind. Her stellar 2016 double album The Weight of These Wings is further proof that she’s one of the greatest country singers and writers working today.
It’s no wonder that Dwight Yoakam was embraced by the ’80s L.A. punk scene when he was still searching for his big break. Yoakam was never afraid of being an outsider if it meant doing what he loved. So while Music Row was harnessing a slick, pop-driven Urban Cowboy sound, Yoakam went full honky tonk. The hardcore country sound displayed on tracks like “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Little Ways” won him accolades from traditionalists, alt-country fans and industry heroes like Buck Owens and Johnny Cash.
Known for his smooth voice and killer musicianship, Glen Campbell helped bring country to the pop masses with his smash hits “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Wichita Lineman.”
A pioneer of the honky tonk sound, Lefty Frizzell had a profound impact on country music. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and George Strait have all named Lefty as an inspiration.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest living songwriters, Kris Kristofferson has never made being commercial a priority. And that’s exactly how he became one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville. “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” are country standards. While he may be best known for his work behind the pen, Kristofferson’s raw voice and soul-baring demeanor make him one of the most compelling country singers of all time.
A leader of the late ’80s neo-traditional movement in country, Randy Travis reminded everyone that the sound of Hank and Lefty was far from dead with dance hall favorites like “On the Other Hand.”
Known for his game-changing hits “King of the Road” and “Dang Me,” Roger Miller had a skill for making sense out of the seemingly nonsensical. Beyond the sometimes whimsical nature of his lyrics, Miller found truth. No one said it–or sang it–quite like Roger Miller.
Charley Pride skyrocketed to stardom in the late 1960s, charting eight No. 1 singles on the Billboard country chart between 1969 and 1971. His smooth baritone and Countrypolitan sound culminated in his 1971 song “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.”
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Waylon said it best when he sang “Bob Wills is Still the King.” If it hadn’t been for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, country music would’ve missed out on countless great songs and artists. Wills and the Texas Playboys brought Texas Swing beyond the Lone Star state with “New San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love.”
Long before Luke Bryan and Keith Urban were delivering high-energy performances on par with rock shows, Garth Brooks was changing the concept of what a country concert could be. But beyond the lights and pyrotechnics, Brooks is first and foremost and incredible songwriter and performer. One only needs to listen to “Much To Young to Feel This Damn Old” and the “The Dance” to see that at the end of the day, for Garth, it’s all about the fans and the music. Brooks kinetic and genre-pushing live shows laid the groundwork for modern artists artists like Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett and Jason Aldean.
A pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound, Buck Owens brought a West Coast swagger to country music with his song “Tiger By the Tail” and “Act Naturally,” inspiring latter day game- changers like Dwight Yoakam in the process.
There’s no one in country music more consistent than Alan Jackson. The Georgia-native has been making hardcore country for nearly three decades. His signature songs, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Remember When,” and “Livin’ On Love” sound as good today as the day they were recorded. His influence can by seen in artists like Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley.
One of the most beloved country stars on the planet, it’s impossible to imagine country music without King George. His 60 No. 1 hits speak for themselves. Songs like “The Chair,” “I Cross My Heart” and “Unwound” are proof that traditional country will never go out of style.
With a buttery baritone and a stage presence to make Elvis Presley jealous, Conway Twitty flawlessly transitioned from rockabilly to suave, swoon-worthy country in the late 1950s. The Mississippi-native’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” “Linda On My Mind,” and the come-hither “Lay You Down” proved that country music could be downright provocative.
Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” is considered one of the quintessential country songs, but the Texas Troubadour’s impact on country music stretched far beyond even that essential song. Tubb’s honky tonk style and post-Opry show the Midnite Jamboree influenced countless dreamers to take the stage.
A powerhouse singer with a teardrop in her voice, Tammy Wynette rocked the country world with her songs “Stand By Your Man,” “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Her duets with George Jones are some of the most spellbinding and heartbreaking vocals in country history.
An innovator of the Nashville Sound, Patsy Cline had the country world in the palm of her hand in just a few short years. Though she was taken too soon, her eternal classics “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams” made us forever in her debt.
Considered to be the father of country music, Jimmy Rodgers changed the course of country music with his recordings of “T For Texas” and “Blue Yodel No. 9.” Country legends Hank Williams and Merle Haggard (among many others) counted Rodgers as one of their greatest influences.
Armed with Texas swagger and a take-no-prisoners attitude, Waylon Jennings set Music City on fire in the 1970s as part of the Outlaw Country movement. Though he’s known for his hard-driving songs about rough living, Jennings wasn’t afraid to show his tender side with heartbreakers like “The Wurlitzer Prize.” Modern day outsiders like Eric Church owe a lot to Ol’ Waylon.
Dolly Parton’s name alone evokes sighs of love and admiration from even the most casual country fan. The Tennessee Mountain queen continues to stun with slice-of-life tunes like “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors.”
The Carter Family
A.P., Sara and Maybelle were among country music’s first full fledged stars. In the 1920s and ’30s, the group brought classic mountain folk songs out of the hills and onto radios across the nation with songs like “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
His name is synonymous with country music and his impact on the genre can’t be overstated. From “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” to his latter career resurgence with “Hurt,” Johnny Cash is more than just a country legend. He’s an American icon.
You have to marvel at Willie Nelson. Even after 60 years in the music business, we’re all still enamored with the Red Headed Stranger. From his freewheeling “On the Road Again” to tender ballads like “Yesterday’s Wine,” Willie Nelson is one of the greatest country singers of all time.
Country music has always been about writing your life. And no one is more adept at biographical songs that Loretta Lynn. Her unforgettable hits “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Fist City” were ripped from the pates of her own life.
Hank Williams has been gone for over 60 years now, but he’s still among the first mentioned in discussions of country icons. If there’s a country music bible, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” would be in the opening pages.
Perhaps the greatest interpreter of songs in country history, George Jones could make a listener cry with a single note. His signature songs “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “The Grand Tour” are as revered today as the day they were first released.
It’s tough to argue against Merle Haggard as country’s greatest songwriter and performer. Haggard had a knack for writing songs that resonated with people from all walks of life. Songs like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Branded Man” and “Sing Me Back Home” painted a portrait of hardship that, for some, would otherwise be difficult to comprehend. Those who lived that hardship found eternal kinship in Haggard’s songs of triumph and sorrow.