The Top 10 Male Country Artists of All-Time

Anytime someone makes a top 10 list of any kind, let alone one ranking something as subjective as musical success, there is a lot of disagreement. This is not a list of the most commercially successful acts or the most talented songwriters. Those lists would look entirely different. This is a list of who made the best music, backed up by a variety of different information. Listed as justification for the rankings is a catalogue of the artists hits on the country charts, album sales and peak years, as defined by years charting consistent number-one hits. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Honorable Mention: Willie Nelson, Glenn Campbell, Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakum, Brooks n’ Dunn, Alan Jackson, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, David Allan Coe, Vince Gill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rogers, the Carter Family

Top 10 Singles:

10. Conway Twitty:

Top 10 Singles: 75

Top 10 Albums: 33

Total Sales: over 50 million albums

Notable Hits: Hello Darlin’, Tight Fittin’ Jeans, I’d Just Love to Lay You Down

Peak Years: 1968-1986

Nicknames: none

Background:

Admittedly, Conway Twitty is not someone I planned to include on this list. At first blush, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson or Buck Owens are more deserving candidates. But that is due largely to the fact that Twitty lives in the shadow of some of the more dominate icons of the 60s, 70s and 80s, who will appear later on this list. Twitty, more commonly known by my generation for his portrayal on Family Guy and his Twitty City theme park, held the record for most #1 country hits until George Strait narrowly eclipsed his mark of 40 number one country singles in the mid 2000s. He is also the only man on this list to ever top the Billboard Pop charts. In 1959 his rockabilly hit Only Make Believe rocketed to number one in the nation. His commercial success would warrant higher placement on many lists, but there is little about his music that differentiates him from other stars of his era.

9. George Strait

Top 10 Singles: 86

Top 10 Albums: 41

Total Sales: over 100 million albums

Notable Hits: Check Yes or No, Amarillo by Morning, All My Ex’s Live in Texas

Peak Years: 1982-2008

Nicknames: The King, The Cowboy, The Fireman

Background:

George Strait rode on to the country music scene from Poteet, Texas in the early eighties and never looked back. Over the ensuing thirty years he would go on to chart a stunning and untouchable eighty-six top ten country hits, and break the record for most number-ones. He was the gateway to a new era of smooth sounding highly produced country music. The King, as he was called, probably had the longest run of relevancy in country music that will ever be seen. Why then is he ranked relatively low? Strait was really good for a long time, but that’s just it, he was only good. While acts like Garth Brooks and other crossover successes credit him with paving the way, his music itself is not nearly as captivating as much of the works of Brooks n’ Dunn, Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson. His soft tenor voice is easy listening, but no one would classify many of his songs alone as among the all-time greats. Simply put, this list prioritizes quality over quantity.

8. Hank Williams, Junior

Top 10 Singles: 42

Top 10 Albums: 31

Total Sales: over 20 million albums

Notable Hits: Family Tradition, A Country Boy Can Survive, Whiskey Bent and Hellbound

Peak Years: 1979-1987

Nicknames: Bocephus

Background:

Hank Jr. grew up in the shadow of an icon, and prospered into a legend in his own right. An early career defined by barroom ballads of hard drinking and reckless living matured into serious works like All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down, Old Habits, and Blues Man. Hank wrestled for decades to defy the expectations of his fans to be the next iteration of his father, and developed his own sound. He fused country rock with the popular outlaw brand to create a unique style that has never been replicated or duplicated. The party songs are great, the cryin’ songs are great, and his persona is rivaled only by that of Jones and Cash.

7. Johnny Cash

Top 10 Singles: 40

Top 10 Albums: 33

Total Sales: over 90 million albums

Notable Hits: Ring of Fire, Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues

Peak Years: 1963-1979

Nicknames: The Man in Black

Background:

Nominal fans of the genre will stop reading here. Many crossover country fans consider Cash the undisputed king. While he is one of the all-time greats, much of his larger than life status has more to do with his persona than his music He was a champion of the working man, fighter for the rights of the incarcerated, and fierce patriot. The Man in Black was a living legend by the late 70s. His barreling baritone voice, successful TV show, and warm personality made him a national favorite for decades. However, his sound as a whole is rather monolithic. His catalogue does not have the same diversity as many of the other stars on this list. Cash had a certain sound, and it is legendary, but he’s not an artist most people could sit and listen to for hours on end. His songs general feel upbeat, even when they convey messages of hardship or sadness. Cash was great, but he didn’t pluck at the heart strings like most of the all-timers.

6. Alabama

Top 10 Singles: 51

Top 10 Albums: 26

Total Sales: over 75 million albums

Notable Hits: Song of the South, Dixieland Delight, Mountain Music

Peak Years: 1980-1993

Nicknames: the Bama Boys

Background:

The musical trio from Ft. Payne, Alabama is the only group that earned inclusion on this list. Country music has never been a genre typically known for favoring bands over strong solo acts, and Bama stands head and shoulders above all other country groups (sorry Dixie Chicks). For thirteen years, Alabama cranked out hit after hit. They created a new style of smooth country rock, and rose to superstardom with a mix of sad country ballads and upbeat foot stomping fiddle songs championing their southern heritage. They blended electric guitar and vocal effects with hard country fiddle music like no one before, and absolutely exploded through stereos on an unexpecting world in the early eighties. Some would argue they are ranked too highly, but look no further than their notable hits listed above for an explanation. Go into any bar in the country, be it a happening college bar in Knoxville or a dirty old Honky Tonk in rural Pennsylvania, and turn on one of their mega hits, and you will see ever toe in the joint start tapping. Alabama revolutionized country music, and their megahits remain popular with younger generations.

5. Waylon Jennings

Top 10 Singles: 53

Top 10 Albums: 29

Total Sales: unknown

Notable Hits: Luchenback, Texas, Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, Good Hearted Woman

Peak Years: 1974-1985

Nicknames: Watasha

Background:

Waylon, as much as Cash, was an icon in his own time. Along with friends Willie Nelson and Tampall Glaser, he went to war with the Nashville establishment and won. Jennings, frustrated for years by creative restrictions from pop country Nashville producers, went out on his own in the early 70s, and created a new sub-genre, Outlaw Country. He gave music row the finger and moved down the street to Glaser’s studio, later dubbed “Hillbilly Central” for it’s production of anti-pop country music. In 1974, Jennings’ Outlaw record became the first ever country album to be certified platinum, and just like that the revolution was afoot. He rejected the smooth Nashville Sound and its full orchestras and choirs for a new take on traditional country. He mixed steel guitar and fiddles with a hard electric base guitar to create a distinctive sound, and paired it with lyrics about taking on the man and fierce independence. He is the father of a genre, and is prominently paid homage by outlaw stars of today.

4. Garth Brooks

Top 10 Singles: 36

Top 10 Albums: 23

Total Sales: 157 million albums

Notable Hits: Friends in Low Places, The Dance, Callin’ Baton Rouge

Peak Years: 1989-1998

Nicknames: alias Chris Gaines

Background:

Garth Brooks is the most commercially successful country music singer ever. His beautiful tenor voice and more pop friendly style led to a country invasion of the pop charts the likes of which has never been seen before or since. Brooks is also one of, if not the greatest live acts ever. His concerts are legendary for fan involvement and overall quality. To this day he packs nearly every arena he visits for at least one night. Brooks could do it all, from tear jerking ballads to harder party songs, to foot stomping country hits. He is a lock for the country music Mt. Rushmore.

3. Merle Haggard

Top 10 Singles: 71

Top 10 Albums: 39

Total Sales: unknown

Notable Hits: Mama Tried, Okie from Muskogee, Pancho and Lefty

Peak Years: 1966-1984

Nicknames: The Hag, The Okie from Muskogee, The Poet of the Common Man

Background:

When nominal fans think of Merle Haggard, they think of his perceived right-wing ballads about standing for the flag and not smoking dope. They miss the point entirely. His nickname, the Poet of the Common Man, was not bestowed in vain. His music is some of the most beautiful and nuanced the genre has ever known, rivaled only by Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. As a 20 year old convict, he watched from the audience as Johnny Cash played live in Folsom Prison. Some years later, he would appear beside Cash on the latter’s television show to confess to the country that the lyrics from his hit Mama Tried about turning 21 in prison were autobiographical. Before he died, he praised Sturgill Simpson as the only country artist left not simply singing about “having sex on a tailgate.” He did what few could do, he made powerful, meaningful songs full of nuance and metaphor, and found enormous commercial success with them.

2. Hank Williams, Senior

Top 10 Singles: 37

Top 10 Albums: 2

Total Sales: unknown

Notable Hits: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Lovesick Blues, Your Cheatin’ Heart

Peak Years: 1949-1953

Nicknames: Luke the Drifter, Lovesick, The Hillbilly Shakespeare

Background:

Hank Williams was a comet, bright beautiful and gone in the blink of an eye. In 1953, only a few years into his career, he was dead at just 28 years old. What he did in only half a decade nearly no other country star has ever surpassed. He had 37 top ten and dozens of all time great songs off just two studio albums. Hank was the first ever country mega star. He took what Jimmie Rogers and Mother Maybelle started and laid the foundation for the thriving industry that it is today. He wrote tirelessly, earning the nickname Hillbilly Shakespeare for his tear jerking ballads. Those, paired with a voice that sounded like a cold wind through a lonely cave, made him the father of a musical style. A tormented soul, cursed with spina bifida and the resulting opiate addiction, put into words the pain and wandering of millions. He made country music into an art form, and will never be forgotten.

1. George Jones

Top 10 Singles: 86

Top 10 Albums: 41

Total Sales: over 100 million albums

Notable Hits: He Stopped Loving Her Today, The Grand Tour, If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)

Peak Years: 1959-1983

Nicknames: Possum, No-Show Jones

Background:

“George Jones was my all-time favorite singer.” – Dolly Parton

“He was the greatest singer of all-time.” – Merle Haggard

“The world just lost the greatest singer who ever lived.” – Mel Tillis on the occasion of George Jones Death

George Jones didn’t sing country music, he didn’t live country music, George Jones IS country music. There has never been another voice like his, the personification of a steel guitar, whining and winding from low to high in verse after verse about heartbreak. George Jones could sing a phone book, and it would tug at the heartstrings. The thrice divorced hard drinking hillbilly could have earned inclusion on any top 10 list with just one song, He Stopped Loving Her Today. But he didn’t stop after recording the greatest country ballad of all time. He went on to record hit after hit, each one marked with his unmistakable voice. Anyone in country music during Jones peak would tell you the most dreaded job in the industry was following Jones on stage. There is a reason that not until the uber talented Chris Stapleton picked up Tennessee Whiskey, none of his songs were ever covered by his peers to great success. He never got the accolades he deserved, largely because awards show hosts were worried if he was nominated, he might show up. And wherever Jones, who exclusively performed and recorded drunk, showed up, chaos ensued. This deeply flawed and complicated man is the archetype of a country singer. There will never be another.

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