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  • Country Music Stars
  • Jocelyn R. Neal (bio)

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When less than ten percent of top country singles were typically sung by women, Dolly Parton (left) blazed her way to the top of the charts by covering a man’s song and yodeling her way into the spotlight. From Steel Magnolias, copyright 1998, Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive.

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Tradition runs deep in country music. One of the hallmarks of the genre is that new generations of singers pay tribute to their predecessors by building on their legacies and adhering to the strongest claims of lineage. Stars cover the songs of their own heroes, borrow and build on their styles, and openly educate their fans about the musical traditions to which they lay claim. As a result, the careers and influences of the greats within country music are hopelessly entangled.

Any “Top Ten” list is most easily characterized by the names omitted. After all, why is Eddy Arnold not on this list, given that he placed almost 150 hits on the country charts in a career that spanned decades? The absence of Johnny Cash, George Strait, and Merle Haggard, three more luminaries whose music has inspired generations, is equally conspicuous and sure to incite comment. The “first family” of country music—Sara, Maybelle, and A. P. Carter—surely deserve honoring, even more so since their legacy has been carried on through a musically rich family tree and has been revived in the past decade by a retrospective trend in country music. And perhaps no two band leaders were more influential in shaping the course of country music over the span of nearly a century than Bob Wills and Bill Monroe, two exceptionally talented and strong-willed men whose musical innovations are immeasurable. Such a litany could go on and on.

In order to meet the pragmatic task at hand, namely to compile a “Top Ten” list of country stars (not a “Top Fifty,” or “Top Two Hundred”), I gave myself two challenges: first, include at least one star active in every decade since the 1920s, and second, feature five men and five women. Some of these artists wrote their own songs; some did not. Some were part of the mainstream; others worked outside that tradition but influenced it nonetheless. Finally, each of them has found commercial success in the country genre, a characteristic that has led some fans to challenge their twang-centered country authenticity at times. Just who qualifies as a “real” country singer in the first place remains a major debate within the genre, and this list unapologetically includes several artists whose country credentials have come under attack at various points in history. But if nothing else, perhaps the list will spark conversations about all the greats who don’t appear, and through that dialogue, we can all visit and re-visit some of the most moving, memorable music ever recorded.

10. Dixie Chicks

Founded in 1989 as an all-female bluegrass quartet, the Dixie Chicks balanced savvy management of their band with virtuosic playing. They hired a new lead singer, Nashville came calling, and at a time when pop-crossover country saturated the airwaves, the Chicks brought acoustic instruments, shuffle rhythms, and feisty, beer-drenched feminist twang back to the top of the charts, and looked good doing it. The first years of the new century were indelibly marked by their unique sound. Even after political controversy damaged their airplay on format radio, [End Page 71] the Chicks proved true to their musicianship and personal integrity, and recently brought home a pile of Grammy awards for their outspoken country music.

9. Garth Brooks

Garth Brooks never apologized for having listened as a kid to as much Journey, Bruce Springsteen, and Dan Fogelberg as George Jones and George Strait. When his career took off in 1989, he married a deep respect for country tradition with a savvy incorporation of stadium rock’s entertainment ideals. Anthems such as “Friends in Low Places” and “The Dance” established him as the voice of a new generation of country music, a new incarnation...


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