Top 25 Classic Country Singers

The timeless voices of country music

American country singer and songwriter Hank Williams holding a guitar, 1940s.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Here are the country legends that won't go away: country music's essential solo artists. This list is based on longevity, commercial success and enduring influence.

1. Hank Williams
Essential Album: 40 Greatest Hits
Hank Williams's early death cemented his legacy, but it's because of songs like "Lovesick Blues," "Cold Cold Heart" and "Lost Highway" that he continues to captivate listeners.

2. Johnny Cash
Essential Album: Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958
After a string of hits and commercial success the 1950s and '60s, Johnny Cash gained a new following in the '90s with his American Recordings series.

3. Merle Haggard
Essential Album: Down Every Road 1962-1994 
Merle Haggard has one of the most distinct voices and is one of music's most gifted songwriters. His prolific songbook includes drinking tunes ("Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down"), political screeds ("Okie from Muskogee") and jailhouse lamentations ("Mama Tried").

4. Jimmie Rodgers
Essential Album: The Essential Jimmie Rodgers
Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music star, providing the blueprint for solo artists to come. His charismatic mix of folk, blues, and Tin Pan Alley songs were topped off with his signature "blue yodel." After Rogers died of tuberculosis at the age of 35, he became known as the Father of Country Music.

5. Waylon Jennings
Essential Album: Honky Tonk Heroes 
Country singer Waylon Jennings brought a rock 'n' roll spirit to country music in the '70s. Originally a member of Buddy Holly's backing band The Crickets, Jennings was a central figure of the outlaw country movement that arose in opposition to the polished Nashville sound.

6. George Jones
Essential Album: 50 Years of Hits 
Since his first hard-drinking hit in 1959 with "White Lightning," Jones's operatic voice has had a profound impact on listeners. Following a dark period in the '70s, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes in 1980 with the album I Am What I Am, which features his signature song "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

7. Dolly Parton
Essential Album: Coat of Many Colors 
Dolly Parton's pin-up curves, angelic voice and affecting songwriting make her a triple threat. Her talent has endured over the decades thanks to her winning personality and, more importantly, classics like "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You" and "9 to 5."

8. Loretta Lynn
Essential Album: Blue-Eyed Kentucky Girl
Born and raised in Kentucky coal country, Loretta Lynn put her hardscrabble history to use in her songs. In the 1970s, the flinty singer courted controversy with the songs "Rated X" and "The Pill." In 2004, she made a comeback with the Jack White-produced stunner Van Lear Rose.

9. Willie Nelson
Essential Album: Red Headed Stranger | Album Review
Nelson's idiosyncratic phrasing and jazz-influenced fretwork set him apart from his contemporaries. His songs "On the Road Again" and "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain" showed his singular style had commercial appeal.

10. Lefty Frizzel 
Essential Album: Look What Thoughts Will Do
Lefty's honky-tonk classics "Look What Thoughts Will Do," "I Love You a Thousand Ways" and "The Long Black Veil" rival those of his contemporary, Hank Williams. Frizzell's warbling singing voice left an imprint on all who followed.

11. Buck Owens
Essential Album: The Buck Owens Collection 1959-1990
Buck Owens was the ambassador of the Bakersfield Sound. His amped-up honky-tonk sound gave Nashville a run for its money, electrifying the charts with the songs "Act Naturally" and "Tiger by the Tail."

12. Gene Autry
Essential Album: 22 Legendary Hits
The epitome of the singing cowboy, Gene Autry was a star both on record and onscreen.

His clean-cut persona brought new fans to country music with the help of frontier classics like "Back in the Saddle Again" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

13. Kitty Wells
Essential Album: Countrypolitan Classics - Kitty Wells
Wells set the mold for female country singers in 1952. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" broke down barriers, proving female country singers were commercially viable -- and weren't to be trifled with.

14. Kris Kristofferson
Essential Album: Kristofferson
Kristofferson's gem-cut lyrics earned him a reputation as a songwriter's songwriter—country music's answer to Bob Dylan. Janis Joplin ("Me and Bobby McGee") and Johnny Cash ("Sunday Morning Coming Down") performed his songs before his gravelly voice proved itself a worthy instrument.

15. Gram Parsons
Essential Album: Grievous Angel
Gram Parsons pioneered country rock as a member of multiple bands, among them The Flying Burrito Brothers.

After the group dissolved, he came into his own as a solo artist in the 1970s with a pair of classic albums. He died in 1973, cutting his career short.

16. Glen Campbell
Essential Album: Glen Campbell - The Capitol Years 1965-1977
In the 1960s, Glen Campbell brought a pop sheen to country music. His honey voice and orchestral arrangements yielded the  No.

1 hits "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston" and "Rhinestone Cowboy."

17. Patsy Cline
Essential Album: Gold
Patsy Cline took country music into the pop charts with her full-throated vocals on "Crazy," "Walkin' After Midnight" and "I Fall to Pieces," before her life was cut short by a plane crash in 1963.

18. Porter Wagoner
Essential Album: The Essential Porter Wagoner
Porter Wagoner did more than help introduce Dolly Parton to the world ("I Will Always Love You" was dedicated to him). As host of his own TV show and singer of "Carroll County Accident," he was also one of country music's most singular figures.

19. Ernest Tubb
Essential Album: The Singer, the Writer, the Country Pioneer
Ernest Tubb's folksy delivery and ubiquitous lead guitar put him in the lineage of Jimmie Rodgers. He was country music's next big star, whose lovelorn "Walkin' the Floor Over You" stomped all over the charts in 1941.

20. Tammy Wynette
Essential Album: Stand by Your Man
Best known for "Stand by Your Man," Tammy Wynette was one of country's biggest female stars in the '60s and '70s. Her embattled marriage with George Jones made her life as much of a soap opera as her music.

21. Chet Atkins
Essential Album: The Essential Chet Atkins
Chet Atkins was a highly influential producer, music exec and guitar player.

His distinctive picking is heard on hundreds of country recordings, including his own as a solo artist: "Mister Sandman" and "Boo Boo Stick Beat" among them.

22. Jim Reeves
Essential Album: Anthology
Jim Reeves's smooth country stylings make him a trademark example of the Nashville sound. His popularity was only strengthened after his death, thanks to the canny handling of unreleased recordings by his widow.

23.  ​Roy Acuff 
Essential Album: The Essential Roy Acuff 1936-1949
Roy Acuff's voice is straight from the Tennessee hills. He brought an old-timey dimension to every song he performed. He was also a notable songwriter and music industry figure, who played a significant role in the careers of Hank Williams and Roy Orbison, among others.

24. Ray Price
Essential Album: The Essential Ray Price | Album Review
Ray Price's songs were the equivalent of a feather-stuffed bed, with silken arrangements pinned by his smooth vocals.

"Heartaches by the Number" and "Release Me" are among his best known songs.

25. Roger Miller
Essential Album: King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller
Country music's resident satirist is good for more than a laugh. Despite being one of Nashville's unusual acts, he managed to crack the Top 10 with songs like "King of the Road" and "Dang Me."