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"Sometimes you don't realize how true country songs are until you find yourself in the middle of one."
"Well, my woman stayed true, and I'm sober..."
—Greg Proops, Whose Line Is It Anyway (unlikely country songs)
"You're not supposed to say the word 'cancer' in a song.
—Brad Paisley, "This is Country Music"
Ah, Country Music. The American answer to Folk Music that is mostly associated with places like Kansas and men wearing cowboy attire unironically. Despite its widespread notoriety, country music is not bad, as proved by many musicians, and is in fact by some measures the most listened-to genre of music in the United States.
Country music as a genre of its own originated in the 1920s in the United States, primarily played on string instruments, most notably the guitar, fiddle and banjo. It has its roots in the folk ballads of the Appalachian Mountains, which in turn descended from the various folk traditions of the British Isles. Depending on whom you ask, the offshoot genre of bluegrass might be referred to as "good country music". Modern mainstream country has progressed through a "Nashville sound" in the 1970s, which layered the string sections on heavily, and a 1980s pop-heavy "Urban Cowboy" sound inspired by the film Urban Cowboy, followed by a more traditional wave in the 1990s inspired by honky-tonk music. Modern mainstream country music has become a melting pot, ranging from more traditional acts such as George Strait and Alan Jackson to pop acts such as Carrie Underwood, and in-betweens such as Brad Paisley. Starting in the 1990s, a large number of pop and rock acts, ranging from Bon Jovi and Jewel to Kid Rock and the Eagles, crossed over to country with varying degrees of success. The crossover acts, in particular Taylor Swift, are often among the most divisive in the fanbase.
On that note, the fanbase is stereotyped as being right-wing Boisterous Bruisers who personify the Deep South of Eagle Land. While such an portrayal is two-dimensional and uneducated, one must remember k.d. lang was blacklisted for being outspokenly pro-vegetarian (she didn't come out as a lesbian until after she felt she no longer had a country fanbase to alienate). And yet the Dixie Chicks were surprised when their fans turned on them after bad-mouthing George W. Bush (granted, the death threats were a bit much).
"Alternative Country" (sometimes abbreviated as "Alt-Country") is a loosely defined term that means, more or less, the attitude of Alternative Rock with a country sound, pioneered by folk and punk influenced singer/songwriters like Lyle Lovett in the mid 1980's. This came to prominence in The Nineties, with artists like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams and bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Wilco (who quickly moved into more general Alternative Rock). There has traditionally been very little overlap between the fandoms of regular country and alternative country, with the latter being treated more as a subgenre of Rock than of Country.
- Ryan Adams: An alt-country musician (mostly), he's experimented with other genres most notably indie rock and metal. He's married to former teen pop star Mandy Moore.
- Alabama: Most popular band in the genre; most #1 hits for any country band. Named Artist of the Decade for the '80s."
- Jason Aldean: A-list country singer known for being one of the more rock-oriented acts in the genre.
- Dierks Bentley
- Clint Black
- Garth Brooks: One of the best-selling acts in any genre, explosively popular throughout the 90s only to retire abruptly in 2001. Often credited or blamed with reintroducing pop influences to country music. Named Artist of the decade for the '90s.
- Brooks and Dunn: Most popular duo in the genre, most #1 hits for any country duo.
- Zac Brown Band
- Jimmy Buffett: More thought of as a pop singer, but much of his fanbase overlaps with country music.
- Glen Campbell
- Johnny Cash
- Kenny Chesney
- David Allan Coe: A key figure in the decidedly un-mainstream "Outlaw Country" movement of the 70s. Recorded a couple of very dirty albums back in the day. At the behest of Shel Silverstein, no less.
- Dixie Chicks: One of the most popular (and controversial) all-female acts in the genre.
- Lefty Frizzell: Perhaps the most influential country artist ever along with Hank Williams.
- Merle Haggard: Legend who is one of the most prolific and esteemed singer-songwriters in country music history.
- Faith Hill
- Alan Jackson: Consistently acclaimed singer-songwriter who is known for his self-described simple songs, "everyman" disposition, and countless well-received recordings.
- Waylon Jennings: One of the most respected country musicians ever, and a chief member of the outlaw movement of the 1970s.
- George Jones: Known as "the greatest living country singer," and often regarded as the genre's greatest vocalist.
- The Judds: Second most-popular country music duo (they were tops until Brooks & Dunn trumped them).
- Toby Keith: One of the genre's more politically-oriented acts.
- Kris Kristofferson: Known for writing songs made famous by other people ("Me and Bobby McGee" was popularised by Janis Joplin), but also well-regarded in his own right.
- Lady Antebellum
- Miranda Lambert
- Lyle Lovett: The trope maker of Alternative Country and, for a while, one of the few alternative country acts to get attention on country radio. Nowadays, you're likely to find his music playing on an Adult Alternative station rather than your local country station.
- Loretta Lynn: Legend who is arguably the most important female country artist. Called the "First Lady of Country Music", a title that has never been granted to anyone else. Named "Artist of the Decade" for the '70s.
- Reba McEntire: Most Top 10 country hits for any female singer, also very popular as an actress. When people talk about "the Queen of Country," it's her - unless it's Dolly Parton.
- Tim McGraw: Highly successful commercially; made independent Curb Records a driving force in the country industry.
- Ronnie Milsap: Prolific 70s and 80s country-pop singer, best known for being one of the only blind musicians in the genre.
- Willie Nelson: Venerable singer-songwriter who has written or recorded numerous classic songs. Also known for being ridiculously prolific in recent years and collaborating with just about every musician in existence.
- The Oak Ridge Boys: A gospel group dating from the 1940s, The Oaks got retooled into a country-pop band following a membership change in the 1970s.
- Brad Paisley
- Dolly Parton: Like Reba, she is known almost as much for her acting as for her singing.
- Charley Pride: Most popular black artist in the genre by far.
- Rascal Flatts
- Marty Robbins Named "Artist of the Decade" for the '60s.
- Kenny Rogers
- Blake Shelton
- The Statler Brothers
- Ray Stevens: Popular novelty artist.
- George Strait: Most #1 hits of any artist (44 on Billboard, 56 on all charts). Known for his extraordinary longevity, he's been a commercial A-lister for almost thirty years with no signs of slowing down. Named Artist of the Decade for The Aughts.
- Sugarland: The genre's current hottest duo.
- Taylor Swift: Insanely popular among teenagers.
- Randy Travis: Highly regarded singer-songwriter who achieved his greatest commercial success during the neotraditional movement of the late 1980s of which he was a key component. Mostly recorded gospel music in the 2000s.
- Shania Twain: One of the biggest crossover successes of the 1990s.
- Conway Twitty: Known for his rock influences and overt sexual themes.
- Carrie Underwood: By far, the most successful American Idol winner in terms of commercial and chart success.
- Keith Urban: A little bit of Australian flavor on the charts.
- Kitty Wells: The first female country music star. She passed away in 2012, at age 92.
- Hank Williams: A legend whose career was cut far too short, arguably the greatest and most influential country musician.
- Hank Williams, Jr.: Son of the legendary Hank Williams, but managed to craft a substantial career and identity of his own. One of the leading lights of the late 70's "outlaw country" genre.
- Hank Williams III: Grandson of Hank Williams and son of Jr., he's carved out a unique career different from both his grandfather and father and is one of the more popular alternative country artists today, largely influenced by Punk Rock, Heavy Metal and the neotraditional country scene. (His guitar case bears Woody Guthrie's famous "This Machine Kills Fascists" sticker, fairly clearly indicating his stance vis-a-vis the stereotypical country fanbase).
- Lucinda Williams: One of the more popular alternative country singer-songwriters. Daughter of the poet Miller Williams; of no relation to the three Hanks.
- Chely Wright: Most famous nowadays for being the only openly gay country star.
- Dwight Yoakam: Another notable early Alternative Country musician, Yoakam is a Honky-tonk singer who brought back his genre until it died yet again.
- An AV Club retrospective article pointed out that this made him a more divisive figure than a contemporary band who wrote explicit songs, put naked babies on their album cover and worked with Steve Albini.
- or Kitty Wells
- And she's almost as much for both of those as for her large...tracts of land
- While k.d. lang came out years before her, she had already left the genre by the time she did so; see the top of the page.