Like back in the mid-1980’s, country music has taken a dive into commercial radio friendly pop songs. While there are a few playing “real” country such as Whitey Morgan and Wade Reeves, the majority of it isn’t authentic country. While there are artists such as Hank III and Steve Earle who have confidently raised a middle finger to the Nashville establishment, it hasn’t eradicated the onslaught of pop artists masking as country singers. If you think Carrie Underwood is country, then you’ve obviously never heard of Patsy Cline.
Today, country artists are judged more on how they look rather than how they sound. Here are a few artists that remained true to the genre and never sold out despite of what was in vogue at the time.
Number Ten: Buck Owens. With a catalog including 21 number one hits to his credit, Buck Owens is an icon. He helped defined the Bakersfield sound as a legitimate style in country music and influenced countless artists to follow in his footsteps. Originally a fiddle player, Owens would travel as a truck driver and sit in on recording sessions at Capital Records with the likes of Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson and Del Reeves. His early recording was a rockabilly single, “Hot Dog,” and he used the pseudo name Corky Jones in order to not interfere with his country career. 1958 would prove to be a pivotal year for Owens as he met and befriended Don Rich who quickly joined Owens’ band, the Buckaroos. Soon after, Buck released the single “Second Fiddle” which peaked at number 24 on the Billboard country charts. But that was just a warm up as his second single, “Under Your Spell Again,” reached the number four spot, and the 1960 release of “Above and Beyond” topped out at number three.
After the success of the three singles, Owens was pitched the song “Act Naturally” (written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison) in ’63. At first, Buck didn’t like the tune, but Rich convinced him to record it. This proved to be the right call as the hit carried the number one spot for four weeks and was Owens first number one song. The Beatles would record it in 1965. From there on out, the world was his oyster as he produced hits such as “Tall Dark Stranger,” “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass” and “A Happening in London Town” to close out the ’60s.
The 1970’s would prove to be good to Owens. Besides co-hosting the popular television show Hee Haw, Owens and company had another number one hit with “Made In Japan.” He went on to release more hit singles including “Arms Full of Empty,” “Ain’t It Amazing Gracie,” and the original “Streets of Bakersfield.” In total, Buck Owens released 39 studio albums, 9 live albums, 16 compilations and 97 singles. Owens is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Sadly, we lost this American treasure in 2006. He was 76.
Number Nine: Dwight Yoakam. Deeply influenced by Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam has sold 25 million records and has 12 gold and 9 platinum albums. Unlike so many slick and plastic country artists, Yoakam never sold out, and his brand of country is pure and authentic with just enough twang. When he first hit Nashville, Urban Cowboy was sweeping the nation, and country music had become mainstream and contemporary. Yoakam’s twangy honky tonk style was deemed “non commercial” and outdated, but he wasn’t phased and continued to play his Bakersfield style of country.
His major label debut, Guitars, Cadillacs Etc., Etc. was released in 1986, and while the music was twangy, the videos were slick and stylish. “Honky Tonk Man” was the first country video to appear on the rock-oriented MTV and launched Yoakam’s career with crossover appeal. From there it seemed he could do no wrong as his albums were selling at record speed (pun intended). His third release, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room, gave the country crooner his first number one with a duet with childhood hero, Buck Owens on “Streets of Bakersfield.”
By the mid-eighties, Dwight was being praised by fellow artists such as Johnny Cash (who called him his favorite country singer). The media were also overly kind to this Kentucky-born singer. Besides writing well-crafted tunes of his own, he also chose some interesting covers such as Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” the Clash’s “Train in Vain” and Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” Dwight Yoakam has achieved success on his own terms and continues to give us great music. In 2011 he offered up 3 Pears, which featured a collaboration with Beck. With three Grammys to his credit, this darling of the press isn’t done yet.
Number Eight: Merle Haggard. The “hag” has achieved iconic status around the world and is still recording and touring after nearly six decades, and he is showing no signs of slowing down. Merle Haggard, along with Buck Owens, is credited to defining the Bakersfield sound and has adopted the title as an outlaw. After serving time in prison, he decided it was time to clean up his act and pursue a music career. His tunes could either make you want to get into a fight or leave you crying in your beer.
First achievement was in 1964 with Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song,” which went on to be a national hit for Hag. Following the success of that tune, he recorded “(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which would be his first top ten hit. Still unable to crack the number one spot, he recorded “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” which gave Merle his first number one in ’66. However, his next single would prove to make the Hag a star. Okie From Muskogee was released in 1969. It was interpreted as a political statement, but later on in his career, he admitted otherwise.
The hits kept on rolling out as he released “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me,” and the deeply personal song, “Mama Tried.” The 1970’s would prove to be equally as successful as Hag’s chart domination with songs such as “If We Make It Through December,” “Carolyn,” “Always Wanting You” and “Grandma Harp.” To date, Merle Haggard has had 38 number one hits, won multiple awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association and three Grammy awards. He has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Number Seven: Waylon Jennings. Waylon Jennings is a legend with a body of work that spans decades. Jennings formed his first band at age 12, the Texas Longhorns, who played a hybrid of country and bluegrass. His second band, the Waylors, played at a local bar where they developed a large fan base, but more importantly, Waylon was developing his unique style. After releasing several singles to moderate success on Trend Records, Waylon set his sights higher and eventually signed with RCA/Victor in 1965. He released his major label debut, Folk-Country the following year. He would release two more albums in 1966, Nashville Rebel and Leavin’ Town which contained “Anita, You’re Dreaming” and “Time to Burn Again,” which both charted at 17 on Billboard.
He continued to chart throughout the 1960’s with singles such as “The Chokin’ Kind,” “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” “Just to Satisfy You,” and a collaboration with the Kimberlys on “MacArthur Park” resulted in a Grammy. However, the 1970’s would far exceed even his greatest expectations. In 1972 he released two albums that went against the grain with the “Nashville Sound” as Good Hearted Woman and Ladies Love Outlaws would spur on the “outlaw country” movement. In 1973 came a couple of critical acclaimed albums, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes. Waylon took full advantage of his new found success and offered up This Time and The Rambling Man on which both title tracks topped the Billboard country charts. But it was the single “Dreaming My Dreams” which gave the outlaw his first number one.
In 1976, he teamed up with his longtime friend, Willie Nelson, to record the first country album to be certified platinum, Wanted! The Outlaws. The disc also featured his wife, Jessie Colter and Tompall Glaser. Ol’ Waylon followed in 1976 and featured a duet with Nelson, “Luckenbach Texas.” Their third collaboration was an equally impressive hit. Waylon and Willie spawned the hit “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”. In the mid ’80’s, Waylon teamed up with Johnny Cash, Willie and Kris Kristofferson to form the supergroup The Highwaymen and hit the number one spot with the title track. Waylon has influenced such alternative country artists as Hank III and Steve Earle.
Number Six: Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson has been a force in country music for over six decades with a body of work that is timeless. While his early years weren’t lucrative, he managed to sell a couple of songs: “Night Life” for $150 and “Family Bible” for $50 (which was a hit for Claude Gray in 1960). After relocating to Nashville, Nelson met fellow songwriter Hank Cochran who got him a gig at a publishing company, Pamper Music. It was there where his writing career started taking off as Faron Young had a hit with “Hello Walls,” Bill Walker recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Roy Orbison gave “Pretty Papers” a makeover, and Patsy Cline had a major hit with “Crazy.” While he recorded a couple of singles, “Willingly” and “Touch Me,” which did crack the top ten spot, but his debut album …And Then I Wrote for Liberty Records vanished into obscurity. He was signed to RCA in 1964, but it would take him until ’73 to chart with “Bloody Mary Morning” from his celebrated disc, Phases and Changes.
Nelson continued to record Redheaded Stranger, which housed the hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” He would continue recording hit albums such as The Sound in Your Mind, Troublemaker and Stardust and would have hit singles with “Good Hearted Woman,” “Uncloudy Day,” “Remember Me” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” to close out the ’70’s. The 1980’s would bring Willie to the silver screen as he was cast in Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose which contained the hit “On the Road Again.” He would duet with Julio Iglesias on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and Merle Haggard on “Pancho and Lefty.” He then took the song made famous by Elvis, “Always On My Mind,” and turned it into an album which won three Grammy awards. He continued his collaborations with Waylon and joined the outlaw along with Cash and Kristofferson on The Highwaymen. Throughout the ’90’s, Nelson has kept busy with touring and recording. His latest, Band of Brothers is receiving mixed reviews, but is classic Willie Nelson.
Number Five: Johnny Cash. While Johnny Cash is best known to younger audiences for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails of “Hurt,” John R. Cash was a legendary singer/songwriter with a career spanning over five decades. In 1954, Johnny moved to Memphis and auditioned for legendary producer Sam Phillips. At first, Phillips wasn’t impressed and sent the budding singer packing. But Cash was determined and eventually won the producer over and recorded two rockabilly styled tunes, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” which each found moderate success on Hit Parade. In 1957, Sun Records issued “Folsom Prison Blues,” which peaked at number five, and “I Walk the Line” shot to the number one spot on the country charts and number 20 on the pop charts. He signed with Columbia where he released the smash hit “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” In 1960, Cash toured with the Carter Family, and it was there where he met his soulmate and future wife, June. One of his standards, “Ring of Fire,” topped both the country as well as the pop charts in 1966. In 1967 he won his first Grammy for a duet with June Carter, “Jackson.”
Cash felt deep empathy for prison inmates and he issued two live albums from prisons between ’68 and ’69, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin, which featured the crossover song “A Boy Named Sue.” Though he continued to chart in the 70’s by the 80’s, he began to see a decline in popularity despite an induction into the country music Hall of Fame. By 1990 it seemed that Cash’s run as a country star were all but over until he met producer Rick Rubin. Rick was best known for his rap and hard rock, but he signed Johnny and set out to make a record called American Recordings. The record was a mix of original material and covers by some well respected artists such as Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. The recording was embraced by the public, critics and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
His follow-up, Unchained was another hit for Cash as he enlisted Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to accompany him. The result was another Grammy nod. His last two records, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: Man Comes Around were met with equal enthusiasm. The video for the cover of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” has been called his epitaph. The moving images on the video mirrored what Johnny was going through. In 2003 his wife June died and four months later, Johnny joined her. Rick Rubin still had enough material to fill two albums and in 2006 American V: A Hundred Highways was released to critical acclaim.
In 2010 American V: Ain’t No Gravel would be the last we would hear from the legendary performer. Johnny Cash received a bevy of awards throughout his career including, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Kennedy Center Honors just to name a few.
Number Four: George Jones. George Jones had a well-deserved reputation as a rebel and his alcohol-related incidents are well documented. However, Jones was almost an immediate hit as his record “Why Baby Why” made the charts, which followed with a tour with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In 1959, he released another record, “White Lightin’,” which hit the number one spot on the country charts. However, after signing to United Artists, Jones would knock it out of the park with “She Thinks I Still Care.” After owning the country music charts with hits such as “The Race is On,” “My Favorite Lies,” “Love Bug,” and the hit with his soon to be wife, Tammy Wynette, “Take Me.” He would only chart at the number one spot in the 1960’s with “Walk Through This World With Me” in ’67.
Though she was already married, Jones won Tammy over and they married in 1969. Soon they became known as Mr. And Mrs. Country Music and churned out several hits as a duo including, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” “Near You” and “Let’s Build A World Together.” But Jones’ drinking was more than Tammy could handle and the couple divorced in 1976. Ironically, the two kept their professional relationship intact as they continued to tour as a duo and in 1980 they recorded Together Again which spawned the hit “Two Story House.” By that time, Jones hadn’t had a hit in six years and was considered washed up by many, but the release of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would prove everyone wrong. The song hit the number one spot and stayed there for 14 weeks and is regarded by many as the best country songs of all time. It won a Grammy, and the Academy of Country Music gave it a couple awards as well.
The success of the song gave Jones a new lease and label interest from CBS Records as he continued to deliver such hits as “I’m Not Ready Yet,” “Same Ol Me,” “Still Doin’ Time” and a duet with Ray Charles on “We Didn’t See a Thing.” Jones would score his last number one in 1982 with “I Always Get Lucky With You.” Jones continued to record despite the “popification” of country music and even managed to score a Grammy for his song “Choices” in 1999. Along with a handful of Grammy awards, George Jones also received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 and 2012 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the list goes on and reads like a book. Jones’ influence can be heard in the voices of artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. He lived a fast and hard life, but it was also a long one as he lost his life at age 81 in 2013.
Number Three: Hank Snow. If you’re talking traditional country, look no further than Hank Snow as this Canadian born singer released 150 albums and charted 85 singles. Snow was already an accomplished guitarist when he took a job as a fisherman in 1926. It was while at sea that Snow first heard Carson Robinson and Vernon Dalhart. Though times were hard, Snow managed to earn a living doing odd jobs. He got his first taste of the limelight when he performed in a minstrel show in black face and sang the song “I Went to See My Gal Last Night,” which resulted in a standing ovation.
In 1933 Snow would play wherever he could, often for no money and gained the name the “Cowboy Blue Yodeler.” The Canadian signed to RCA/Victor in 1936 where he would stay for forty five years. His first release was “The Prisoned Cowboy” and “Lonesome Blue Yodel.” Snow would tour around Canada, but Nashville was calling, and the singer relocated to the city in 1945. Now going by Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger, he released the single “I’m Moving On,” which charted at number one and stayed there for an unprecedented 21 weeks. The same year, 1950, he released two more number one hits, “The Golden Rocket” and “The Rhumba Boogie,” which each held the top spot for seven weeks. With his rhinestone suits, he played the part as a country star and influenced others to dress in the same manner.
As a gifted songwriter, Snow was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. His songs have been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones.
Number Two: Bob Wills. Waylon Jennings once penned a tune called “Bob Wills is Still the King,” which shows us just what a profound influence Wills had on country music. Know also as “King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills carved out a legacy and influenced everyone that followed. Along with his band, the Texas Playboys, Bob recorded several hits including “Steel Guitar Rag,” “Smoke on the Water” and “New Spanish Two Step.”
The Playboys formed in 1934 and included Tommy Duncan on lead vocals, although Wills did sing the occasional blues number. Soon after the formation of the band, Wills added a horn section (the first country artist to do so). Bob would be deeply influenced by jazz and it showed on his recordings as well as live performances. In 1940, the band recorded “New San Antonio Rose,” which sold a million units. It wouldn’t be long before the Grand Ol Opry came knocking, and although horns and drums were not considered country at the time, Wills got a pass.
By 1945, The Texas Playboys were outdrawing famous acts such as swing kings Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Wills and the boys played dances throughout the west which attracted up to 10,000 fans per week. Wills released two singles in 1950, “Ida Rose Likes to Boogie” and “Faded Love,” which both charted in the top ten. There was just one problem, Wills was a binge drinker and became unreliable to show up for gigs. Tommy would take the brunt of the audiences’ anger until he was fired in ’58. Though he continued to tour, his brand of country music was fading into obscurity in the late ’50’s as rock and roll was taking over. By the late 1960’s he was all but forgotten despite an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968.
In 1969 Wills suffered a stroke which ended his career and he would be dead by the next year. Bob Wills left behind a legacy and influenced the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Number One: Hank Williams. While his life was short, Hank Williams left a body of work which is being examined to this day. But long before he would achieve worldwide acclaim, he was offered a 15 minute show on WSFA to play live twice a week for $15 weekly. This gave him enough money to start his first band, the Drifting Cowboys, who enjoyed a successful run, but as World War II broke out, all the members except Hank would be drafted. By 1945, Williams was back at WSFA where he would write songs such as “Mother is Gone,” “Won’t you Please Come Back to Me,” and “Honkey Tonk” to perform live on the radio. In 1947, Williams signed to MGM Records and recorded the massive hit, “Move it on Over.”
While he wrote some now American standards, he was showing progress on such tunes as “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy,” Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “Moanin’ the Blues.” In 1951, Hank offered up “Dear John,” which found success, but the B- side would go down in history as one of the greatest songs ever recorded, “Cold, Cold Heart.” His last recording session yielded the hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but he wouldn’t live to see it become a hit. However, he left a catalog of unreleased material which would be reexamined including “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which has been covered by everyone from Elvis to Bob Dylan. He has been inducted into every hall of fame imaginable since his death, won a Grammy and in 2010 was given the Pulitzer Prize. As an influence, you name it and he’s probably had a bearing on their career.