Where do the best country music artists get their start? Many began singing or learning how to play an instrument as children, devoting their attention early on to the popular music of the rural south. Others segued into country music from different passions and found their way to the genre; singing or playing ballads and dance tunes on fiddle, guitar, steel guitar, keyboard, or drums. With the upcoming 2019 CMT Music Awards honoring the current best performers in the industry June 5, now is a perfect time to see who's made it big in the music genre—and how they did it.
Here, Stacker looks at the top 50 country artists using calculations based on weekly performance figures from Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Top Country Albums. Many artists who appear on the list were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Several of them even had multiple #1 hits in a row, and many featured here will also perform at the 48th annual CMA Music Festival, one of the biggest and most popular country music festivals in America, beginning June 6.
Read on to learn which singer’s band died in a plane crash, who used to be a semi-pro baseball player, and what stars earned their claim to fame from reality TV shows.
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This artist has been a judge on the musical reality competition “The Voice” ever since it began. Shelton came onto the country music scene in 2001 with his song “Austin,” and he went on to become a seven-time Grammy nominee. Shelton also appears on Stacker's list of the top 100 country songs of all time.
Bryan, born in Leesburg, Georgia, started playing guitar at 14 and became popular with early singles like “All My Friends Say” and “Someone Else Calling You Baby." His album “Kill the Lights” earned him six #1 singles on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
Aldean started singing when he was 14, then broke out with a self-titled album in 2005. He earned his first Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year award in 2016.
Marty Robbins was a popular country music performer between the 1950s through 1980s. He died in 1982. He had 94 songs on Billboard’s country singles charts in his career. The song "Singing the Blues" held the #1 spot for 13 weeks in 1956.
In the early 1980s, Gill's first solo album, “Turn Me Loose,” earned him the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist award. His tune “When I Call Your Name” also earned him a Grammy Award for best country song. Over the course of his career, he’s won more than a dozen Grammys.
Known as one of country music’s most successful duos, this mother-daughter team had 14 #1 singles between 1984 and 1989. The Judds have sold over 20 million albums and won five Grammys.
Twain’s nickname is “The Queen of Country Pop.” Twain’s second album (“The Woman In Me”) broke worldwide sales records when it came out in 1995. She’s won five Grammys.
With over 11 million albums sold and three Grammys, Paisley has had his fair share of recognition. Last year, Paisley released his 11th studio album. It was his ninth studio album to debut at the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
Murray began singing as far back as when she was 7 years old. She’s in her 70s now, with 50 million albums sold under her belt. She’s won four Grammys and led the way for Canadian divas, being from Nova Scotia.
The song “Delta Dawn” was Tucker’s first top 10 hit when she was a teenager. She went on to become a Grammy Award-nominated singer and create her own record label, where she released the album “Delta.”
In 1977, the Academy of Country Music Awards named Rabbitt a top new male vocalist. In 1998, he died of lung cancer, not because he was a smoker, but because he had spent most of his singing days performing in smokey clubs. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist was just shy of 57.
Clint Black, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has been recognized by People magazine as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World." Two of his country singles, "A Better Man" and "Killin' Time," were the #1 and #2 country singles the year they came out
Underwood was the winner of the 2005 season of "American Idol," which catapulted her to fame. She was the youngest person to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry at only 26, and she has won plenty of Grammy Awards. She continues to experience mainstream success, including playing the title role in NBC's "The Sound of Music Live!" in 2013.
When she was only 20, Swift became the youngest artist in history to win the Grammy for album of the year. Her other awards include Billboard's woman of the year and entertainer of the year from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Her album "1989" won Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album in 2014. Swift's now a pop music star. Check out the songs that made her famous in Stacker's look at Swift's throwback hits.
In 2001, Urban, who can play seven instruments, had his first #1 hit on Billboard magazine's country singles and tracks chart with "But for the Grace of God." Urban was raised in Australia and is married to Nicole Kidman. He’s also been a judge on "American Idol" and has won four Grammy Awards.
The Statler Brothers were originally a church trio, but later became a quartet. The four men were childhood friends from Salem, Virginia, and were part of Johnny Cash’s road and television shows. They won three Grammy Awards and also earned recognition from the Country Music Association.
Elvis Presley, born in Mississippi, is one of the most successful musicians of all time, having sold over 600 million singles and albums. He fused different styles and genres of music and is the only performer to have been inducted into three different halls of fame.
Jim Reeves’ hit “Four Walls” launched his career, while his later hits like “Blue Boy” and “Billy Bayou” made him a star. Reeves died when he was killed in a plane crash in 1964.
Known for her popular song “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Gayle won the top female vocalist from the Country Music Association in 1977 and 1978. She is related to country music singers Patsy Lynn and Peggy Lynn, and she is also the younger sister of Loretta Lynn.
Arnold had 147 songs make the Billboard country music charts in the 1940s through the 1960s, including “That’s How Much I Love You” and “I’ll Hold You in My Heart.” In 1966, Arnold was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was 46 at the time and the youngest inductee ever to receive the honor.
The Oak Ridge Boys have won Grammy, CMA, and ACM awards in the 50 years they’ve been singing together. Some of their hits include “Elvira” and “Thank God For Kids.” The group has had more than a dozen national #1 singles.
For nearly two decades, Sonny James spent more time in the #1 chart position than any other artist in country music. For 57 weeks, he clung to the top spot. James is also the first country artist to incorporate the R&B style into country music.
This country music band has had 14 #1 hits and sold more than 23 million records. Their latest album, “Back To Us,” is the follow-up to “Rewind,” which featured hits such as “Rewind” and “I Like the Sound of That.”
Born in Texas, Price studied to be a veterinarian before making a career switch to music. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. His song, "Crazy Arms" stayed #1 for 20 weeks in 1956.
Nicknamed "The Gentle Giant," Williams served in the Army for two years before becoming a musician. He had scored 17 #1 singles on the Billboard country singles chart, including "The Shelter of Your Eyes."
This Grammy winner is well known for her hit "Stand By Your Man." She stepped into the public eye when she appeared on "The Porter Wagoner Show" and later signed with Epic Records. In 1998, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A native of North Carolina, Travis was discovered when he was only 18. His album “Storms of Life” rose to the top of the charts, and he sold millions of copies of other albums, picking up a Grammy along the way.
Campbell, the son of a sharecropper, sold around 45 million records during his career and, in 2005, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He died in 2017 from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 81.
Named for Leon Eric (“Kix”) Brooks and Ronnie Gene Dunn, this group’s first album was “Brand New Man,” but the album “Hard Workin’ Man” launched them; it debuted at #3 on the Billboard country album chart.
An Oklahoma native, Keith was inspired by the musicians who performed in his grandmother's supper club. His self-titled debut album went platinum in 1993. Keith has collaborated with popular artists such as Willie Nelson and even tried his hand at acting in 2008.
Milsap is a winner of six Grammys, eight Country Music Association awards and four more Academy of Country Music trophies. He had 40 #1 country hits, and eight of his albums went gold.
Chesney was born in Tennessee. He went gold with “Me and You” in 1996 and double platinum with “Everywhere We Go” three years later. In 2008, he was nominated for seven CMA Awards.
One of Parton’s many nicknames is "The Queen of Nashville." Her movie debut was the comedy "9 to 5," for which she picked up an Oscar nomination and a handful of Grammy Awards. Her iconic hit song, "I Will Always Love You," which became the theme song for the movie "The Bodyguard," was awarded the top spot on CMT’s 100 Greatest Love Songs of Country Music.
Lynn is the mother of actresses Patsy Lynn and Peggy Lynn. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was the first woman to win the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year.
George Jones’ father, a truck driver, bought him his first guitar when he was 9, and he learned to play from a teacher he met in Sunday school. “Why Baby Why” was the first hit for Jones, who started singing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956. Throughout his career, he earned many awards, such as Grammys, but he suffered from severe alcoholism.
Known for his trademark beard, Rogers’ start came when he recorded "That Crazy Feeling" for a small Houston label; he was only 19. He sang often with Dolly Parton, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Johnny Cash, the subject of the movie “Walk the Line,” is one of the best-selling artists of all time. He began writing music at age 12, and one of his most beloved albums is “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.” Cash received awards from the CMA, but struggled with substance abuse problems throughout his career.
At only 11 years old, Williams sang at the Grand Ole Opry. His first album, a tribute to his father, “Hank Williams Jr. Sings the Songs of Hank Williams,” came out three years later in 1964.
Born as Alvis Edgar Owens Jr., Buck Owens was incredibly popular on the country charts in the mid-1960s. “Act Naturally” and “My Heart Skips a Beat” were just two of his well-known hits. He played shows at Carnegie Hall and the Fillmore in San Francisco and also earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Jennings learned to play guitar as a child. In 1959, he was supposed to get on a private plane, but gave up his spot to J.P. Richardson who was feeling unwell. Those on board that plane, including Richardson, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens, were killed in a crash shortly after takeoff. Jennings won his first Grammy Award in 1969 for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "MacArthur Park."
Married to fellow country music star Faith Hill, McGraw’s hits have historically topped the charts. He picked up three Grammys and awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
Jackson grew up in rural Georgia singing gospel music. He won a CMA award for Entertainer of the Year three separate times. And in 2017, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Brooks had 18 #1 hits on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles chart. His biggest hits include "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places." In 1991, his album "Ropin' the Wind" landed in the top spot on the Billboard pop chart; it was the first country album ever to do so.
McEntire began singing in childhood, and in her adult career, she earned seven gold and five platinum albums, as well as two Grammys. In 1991, eight members of McEntire’s band died in a plane crash. Fortunately, she was not on the plane.
Pride played professional baseball before he segued into country music. Between 1967 and 1987, he recorded 52 top 10 country hits. He’s also a Grammy winner, and throughout his career has sold tens of millions of records.
Twitty, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame by the end of his career, recorded 55 #1 singles and sold over 50 million records. Born in Mississippi, Twitty had a popular string of hits that were duets with Loretta Lynn, including “After the Fire is Gone” and “Lead Me On.”
This band, named to the Country Music Hall of Fame, recorded 21 straight #1 singles and sold an impressive 73 million albums. The band has also been inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born in Texas in 1933, Willie Nelson continues to perform today, and many artists cover his hits. Nelson started writing his own songs shortly after getting his first guitar at the age of 6. In 1975, his album “Red-Headed Stranger” hit #1 on the country charts and was so well received that it crossed over into the top 40 on the pop charts.
Haggard had around 40 #1 hits during his long career. Although he served time in prison, he won plenty of music awards for both singing and songwriting. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and died in 2016 in California.
At the age of 29, Straight entered the country music scene in 1981, releasing “Unwound” as his first single in 1981. Today, he holds the record for most #1 singles. In 2006, Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.