The Definitive Dozen: Country's Greatest Voices

Country Music, October/November 1999


A sassy, throaty growl. A mournful, soul-shaking wail. A soothing, buttery-smooth croon. What is it that makes a voice one of country's greatest? It's not necessarily beauty or technical prowess, although many of county's most revered voices are also some of its most perfect. But to us, the greatest voices are those that define country. A defining voice is more than the sum of the octaves it reaches, more than perfect pitch, control or phrasing. The power of a truly great voice is indelible; it outlives its owner, so its greatness relies little on popularity, record sales or chart position.

The voices that have defined country music over the generations spawn imitators, yet remain inimitable. Often paired with singular, classic songs, they make a lasting impact on our lives and speak the troubles, joys and sorrows of multiple generations. No matter the era in which they inhabit the music charts, these voices remain unique and unmistakable answers to the question, "What is country?"

In this issue, Country Music strives to spotlight the voices that most define country music. We polled music journalists, critics and industry insiders, tallied their picks with ours, and came up with a definitive dozen. No doubt people will argue about our choices; narrowing down the vast field of outstanding artists to the 12 most influential, distinctive voices inevitably boils down to a fine hair-splitting. But for us, these voices are the sound of country.

Dolly Parton

A Dolly Parton discussion starts with her cartoonish figure. If you're lucky it moves on to her unparalleled songwriting gifts. Rarely, though, does talk turn to her voice, which is as pure a mountain instrument as any fiddle or dulcimer.

When she first hit Nashville, she was told she'd never make it with a voice that sounded like a squirrel on helium. But Porter Wagoner heard something else: an honest, direct quality that made her his perfect duet partner. After eight years together, she struck out on her own, bidding goodbye to Wagoner with the timeless "I Will Always Love You.' As a solo, Parton made inroads into the pop world with slick productions and several Hollywood features.

When she became a pop icon, it was easy to ignore her vocal gifts. But Parton possesses an unerring sense of pitch and a gift for ornamentation that rival that of any Julliard-trained diva. Quite simply, there is only one Dolly Parton. From the first note, she's unmistakable, the ultimate compliment for any singer.

-Bob Cannon

The other 11

Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Vern Gosdin.

The honorable mentions

Marty Robins, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Emmylou Harris, Eddy Arnold, Conway Twitty, Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Buck Owens.

The new generation of defining voices

George Strait, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Reba, Dwight Yoakum, Randy Travis.