Top 10 Country Acts Who Rock
We admit we’ve often scratched our heads when rock fans say they don’t like country music. After all, rock is as indebted to country — especially Southern rock and the entire singer-songwriter movement of the ’70s — as it is to the blues. Also, many of our favorite rockers, including Bob Dylan, Elton John and Neil Young, have long incorporated some twang into their sound as a nod to their roots.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about country but didn’t know where to start, use our list of Country Acts Who Rock as a primer. These 10 men and women — and plenty others who just missed the cut (sorry, Loretta Lynn!) stand out because the quality of their work and career longevity have long made the rock world notice.
Her last name (we’ll get to her father later) may have helped give her career a boost, but Rosanne Cash earned her fame — and a spot on our list of Country Artists Who Rock — on her own. Her albums ‘The Wheel’ (1990) and ‘Interiors’ (1993), which chronicled the end of her marriage to Rodney Crowell (also a great country artist), are as unflinchingly honest as anything Joni Mitchell ever recorded. Her most recent effort, 2014’s ‘The River and the Thread,’ finds her still at the top of her game.
Arguably country music’s greatest pure singer, George Jones could, to use the cliche, sing the phonebook and make you cry. He’ll always be remembered for his duets with Tammy Wynette and solo classics like ‘The Grand Tour,’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and ‘She Thinks I Still Care.’ And if you think Axl Rose perfected the art of being late to the stage, let’s just say there’s a reason Jones earned the nickname of “No-Show Jones.”
One of the defining practitioners of the Outlaw Country genre, Merle Haggard was in the crowd at San Quentin when Johnny Cash performed there in 1958. After his release he, along with Buck Owens, helped popularize the Bakersfield Sound, a less-polished reaction to what was coming out of Nashville that was also a tremendous influence on the L.A. country-rock scene. And he’s a fantastic guitar player to boot.
His rugged good looks made him a movie star in the ‘70s, but Kris Kristofferson started out as a janitor in Columbia Records’ Nashville studio, sweeping up and emptying ashtrays while studying the masters (including Dylan, who recorded ‘Blonde on Blonde’ there during Kristofferson’s employment). Eventually, he got his songs into the hands of the right people, including Janis Joplin, who had her biggest hit with his ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’
Because of her crossover pop success, Dolly Parton doesn’t always get the credit she deserves. But she lands a spot on our list of Country Acts Who Rock because underneath the image is a whip-smart woman (with a great sense of humor about it) who has recorded dozens of classic country songs – many of them self-penned -- since her early days with Porter Wagoner in the late-‘60s. A natural entertainer and tireless performer, Parton is still going strong, with her 42nd album, ‘Blue Smoke’ released in May 2014. And we proudly admit to loving ‘Islands in the Stream’ unironically.
A death at a young age caused by a battle with addiction has been the life story of many a rock star. Hank Williams, who died at 29 on New Years Day, 1953 – 18 months before Elvis Presley first set foot in Sun Records – got there first. But in the half-decade before that, he defined country songwriting with his honest, direct and emotional tunes that have been covered by artists as diverse as Tony Bennett, George Thorogood, the Replacements and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
He’s probably loved as much these days for his marijuana advocacy as his music, but Willie Nelson and with his well-worn guitar, Trigger, have been a major force in country music since the mid-‘50s. He started as a songwriter, penning hits like ‘Crazy’ for Patsy Cline and ‘Pretty Paper’ for Roy Orbison. By the ‘70s he, along with Haggard (see No. 8 on our list of Country Acts Who Rock) and Waylon Jennings were the leaders of the burgeoning Outlaw Country scene. Mainstream pop success and film roles beckoned, and he’s also used his fame to launch, with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, the annual Farm Aid concerts in 1985.
When Steve Earle’s first albums came out in the mid-'80s, he was marketed as somewhat of a country version of Bruce Springsteen thanks to his honest and emotional portrayals of blue-collar life. But within a few years, his addictions caught up with him. A prison sentence on drugs and weapons charges in the early-'90s helped him clean up and, in 1995, he began releasing a string of incredible albums that continues to this day.
As a folksinger working the clubs along the Eastern seaboard, Emmylou Harris was discovered by Gram Parsons, who was striking out on his own after his departure from the Flying Burrito Brothers. He taught her about country music and after his 1973 death, she embarked on a successful solo career that has seen her follow her muse at every step.
Who else to top our list of Country Acts Who Rock but the Man in Black? Whether singing spirituals, love songs or songs of injustice, Johnny Cash’s baritone gave weight to every note he sang, from his early hits on Sun, through his socially relevant work in the ‘60s and his late-in-life hit albums produced by Rick Rubin. The 2005 biopic, ‘Walk the Line,’ may have Hollywood-ized some aspects of his life, but his 1997 book, ‘Cash: The Autobiography,’ holds nothing back.