With her rich contralto and distinctive vocal phrasing, she changed the course of Nashville. Here, to celebrate Patsy Cline's birthday, are 20 of the most acclaimed and influential female singers in country music history.
Virginia-born Patsy Cline—who died in a 1963 plane crash when she was just 30, at the height of her career—was among the most revered country singers of the 20th century. No, make that singer of any kind in any era. One of Nashville's first female headliners, she paved the way for female country singers to come with such indelible hits as "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson), "I Fall to Pieces" and "Walkin' After Midnight." Asked about her distinctive vocals, Cline said, "Oh, I just sing like I hurt inside." And we felt every bit of that hurt.
Parton has been called "God's gift to country music." Smart and fun, bold and honest—with an instantly identifiable soprano vibrato singing voice—she has had 41 Top 10 country albums and 110 charted singles over the past 40 years. Not to mention nine Grammys and two Oscar nominations. Despite her crossover success, the beloved Parton has remained faithful to her rural Tennessee roots. "If you talk bad about country music, it's like saying bad things about my momma," she says. "Them's fighting words."
She's the best-selling female artist in country music history. Raised in Ontario, Canada, Twain earned the title Queen of Country Pop with her powerful voice and era-defining hits like "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" and "You're Still the One." She was forced to retire from performing in 2004, her voice weakened by Lyme Disease, but in 2017 Twain returned with "Now," her first album in 15 years. It debuted at No. 1, and this year she's back on tour, in the midst of a colossal comeback.
Raised in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky—as described in her autobiographical 1969 hit "Coal Miner's Daughter"—Lynn was married and had four children before she released her first single, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl." Since then, she has had more than 50 Top 10 hits on the country chart, with a vocal delivery that retains every lick of her rural accent. In recent years Lynn has suffered serious health problems, including a stroke. Yet she's still recording, with a new album soon to be released. "I don't know what I'd do with myself if I retired," says the 83-year-old singer. "Wash dishes?"
With her emotional songs about the difficulties of life and relationships, Wynette emerged in the '60s as one of country's most beloved artists. Dubbed the First Lady of Country Music, she recorded such iconic—and polarizing—hits as "Stand By Your Man" and "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" as well as a string of duets with husband George Jones. And though she died in 1998 at the age of 55, Wynette's voice—the essence of country—has influenced such singers as Miranda Lambert and Faith Hill. Said Wynette of her broken-hearted song style: "The sad part about happy endings is there's nothing to write about."
Dolly Parton once said of her: "There's really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending." Of the three, Smith is the most unjustly underrated, possessing a vocal instrument of extraordinary power and elegance. Born in Indiana, raised partly in West Virginia, she topped the country chart with her very first single, 1964's "Once a Day" Now 77, Smith continues to record, her last release in 2011 titled "Long Line of Heartaches."
Hill has proved herself as one of country's most popular and enduring contemporary artists since her 1993 debut album "Take Me as I Am," which generated two No. 1 singles, starting with "Wild One." Follow-up albums brought the Mississippi native huge crossover success—1999's "Breath" remains one of the most successful country-pop LPs of all time. Married since 1996 to Tim McGraw (with whom she has recorded and toured), Hill says she'll always stay true to her roots, despite her pop appeal. Country music, she says, "speaks about real life and about truth and it tells things how they really are."
The "American Idol" winner long ago left behind her reality-show beginnings. Hailing from Muskogee, Oklahoma (the place made famous by Merle Haggard), Underwood has a powerful voice and down-home glam that made her one of the fastest-rising music stars of the 2000s in any genre. Billboard magazine calls her country music's "reigning queen," and for good reason: Underwood has sold more than 65 million records worldwide. And despite her forays into the worlds of pop and rock, she keeps coming back to country, as evidenced by her 2018 single "Cry Pretty," the title track of her latest album.
Country music's first female superstar, Wells—an actual native of Nashville—made history as the first woman to reach No. 1 on the country chart, with 1952's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (for which she received a $125 union scale recording payment). With a feminine country twang, Wells continued singing hurtin', cheatin,' heartbreakin', God-fearin' songs from a woman's perspective until her retirement in 2000 at the age of 80 (she died in 2012). Said fan Dolly Parton: "Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us. She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business."
From Longview, Texas, the 34-year-old Lambert has achieved megastar status with such self-penned hits as "Gunpowder & Lead" and "Kerosene." She's a two-time Grammy winner and recipient of 13 CMA Awards. The Academy of Country Music has named her Female Vocalist of the Year eight times, more than any other artist. With what one critic called "pretty girl on fire" attitude, Lambert has chosen to follow in the tough but vulnerable footsteps of her idols Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard. "Heartbreak is good fuel for country songs," she says. "And cheating."
Country music royalty and one of its most recognizable figures, McEntire has racked up more than 30 No. 1 hits, starting with 1982's "Can'r Even Get the Blues." The Oklahoma-born daughter of a champion rodeo steer roper taught herself guitar at a young age, drawing upon the music of Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline for her versatile and distinctive vocal stylings. In recent years, McEntire has ventured into a successful acting career. But, she says, "I'll never turn my back on country music."
Lee Ann Womack
Though her biggest hit was a country-pop crossover single—2000's "I Hope You Dance"— Womack has since held firm to the authentic twang and quiver of her Texas-bred voice. Comfortable singing a heartbreak honky tonk tune ("Never Again, Again") or a haunting ballad ("Last Call"), she honors both the classic country tradition of Wynette and Cline while exploring the roots and Americana sound. "I don't sing country music because I'm not capable of singing other kinds of music," Womack says. "I sing it because it's the most beautiful kind of music there is."
June Carter Cash
The Virginia-born daughter of hillbilly music pioneers Maybelle and Ezra Carter, June entered the world as country music royalty and performed with her legendary family by the age of 10. The hotter-than-a-pepper-sprout singer went on to a successful solo career and later joined forced with husband Johnny Cash. One of country music's great female songwriters, Carter Cash, who died in 2003, also sits in the pantheon of country's immortals for having written "Ring of Fire."
Rooted in bluegrass and traditional country, Krauss has a voice that Rolling Stone described as a "cool, cooing soprano that's equal parts silk and swagger, capable of tackling high-lonesome folk one minute and sacred Southern gospel the next." Raised in Illinois, Krauss has won 27 Grammys as a solo artist, with the group Union Station and for a duet with Robert Plant. Her contributions to the soundtrack of 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" played a major role in reviving interest in bluegrass and American roots music.
Daughter of the great Man in Black, Rosanne Cash ruled 1980s country radio with such hits as the country chart-topping "Seven Year Ache." Born in Tennessee and raised in California, she has recorded and performed across genres—from folk to pop to rock, blues and Americana—but her roots remain in country. Her 2006 album "Black Cadillac" heartbreakingly chronicles Rosanne's grief after the deaths of her father, her mother Vivian Liberto and her stepmother June Carter Cash—all within a two-year period. Said Cash: "When my dad died a lot of songs came, and they're still coming."
From her early days singing delicate harmony with Gram Parsons to her 2018 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Harris—who grew up in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia--has been country's true "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." A master interpreter of the songs of others, she took Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" to the top of the country charts, Harris has also emerged as an insightful songwriter in her own right. And though she began as a folk singer, she's now in the Country Music Hall of Fame,
One of the great blues-inflected voices of country music, Gentry shot to stardom with her mysterious 1967 single "Ode to Billy Joe," a song that captivated the nation. Born in Mississippi, she was among the first female country artists to compose and produce her own music. Although she put out a string of Southern-drenched albums, Gentry never quite matched her earlier success. In a move as puzzling as her biggest hit, she retired permanently from show business in 1978—without ever revealing just what it was that was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
One of rockabilly's all-time greats—male or female—Jackson burned up the vinyl with such incendiary cuts as "Fujiyama Mama" and "Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad." After rockabilly's decline in the '60s, the Oklahoma-born singer turned to traditional country, hitting the charts with the wonderfully titled "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine" and "My Big Iron Skillet." Still performing at age 80, Jackson is currently working on a new album produced by Joan Jett (!), due in 2019.
Never mainstream Nashville, the Louisiana-born Williams is an alt-country queen, equally comfortable in country, rock, blues and folk and most often singing songs of her own composition. With her distinctive Southern-molasses vocals and often gritty tales of hard living, heartache and "Passionate Kisses," she is one of the unique modern-day voices in country—and all music.
Standing 4 feet 9 inches and appropriately nicknamed Little Miss Dynamite, Lee spanned the pop and country charts before it was a thing. One of the very few artists who can claim that the Beatles were her opening act (in the early '60s, at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany), she turned to pure country in the '70s and released a string of Top 10 hits in that genre. In 2007, Lee put out an album titled "Gospel Duets With Treasured Friends," featuring the likes of Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.
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