What does it take to be considered one of the greatest women country music has ever seen?
Songwriting skills? Career longevity? Powerful vocals?
All this and more.
Today, we’re getting to know a few of the most influential women in country music.
Let’s jump in!
Women in Country Music
Some of the most extraordinary women in country music are household names. Others are from a bygone era that time has almost forgotten. Alison Krauss. Tammy Wynette. Leann Rimes. Connie Smith. These women have all contributed some sort of greatness to this male-dominated industry.
Being considered a great woman in this genre takes talent, of course. But it also requires considerable drive and determination.
These women write and sing songs that ruffle feathers. They held their ground when others thought they would fail. Their powerful voices bring life to the thoughts and feelings of so many others. Each passing year, they break through boundaries and set new records.
Here, we dig into some of the greatest women in country music (in alphabetical order.)
#1 Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton grew up in a two-room home in rural Sevier County, Tennessee. She was the fourth of twelve children. Her father was an illiterate farmer, and her mother was a homemaker who loved to sing.
Dolly would write her own songs and sing to anyone who would listen. She was fortunate to have an uncle who encouraged her skills as a singer-songwriter. She knew that being a musician was all she wanted and what she was meant to do.
By age 10, she was performing on local television, and radio shows out of Knoxville. When she was 13, Dolly performed at the Grand Ole Opry. And as soon as Dolly graduated from high school, she left for Nashville. Her first band, The Travelin’ Family Band, included four of her siblings, an uncle, and a cousin.
She loved makeup, wigs, and fancy clothing and created a persona that was all her own. Her look showcased her confidence. Dolly knew she could become a great musician regardless of how others perceived her.
Dolly saw duet success with Porter Wagoner early in her career. Released in 1967 was her first solo album, Hello, I’m Dolly. But it wasn’t until February 1971, Dolly’s single Joshua reached number one on the charts.
As with many of her songs, Dolly drew from her life in rural Appalachia. In it, she sings of a young orphan woman visiting a recluse who everyone said was mean and hostile. The song ends with them falling in love and becoming a family.
In 1974, Dolly wrote I Will Always Love You as a tribute to Porter Wagoner. It reached number one on the country charts, and Elvis Presley wanted to cover it. The business-savvy she learned from her father gave Dolly the confidence to say no. Had Elvis covered the song, it would have cost Dolly 50% of the royalties.
Jane Fonda approached Dolly about joining her and Lily Tomlin in a film called 9 to 5. Dolly agreed to star in the movie on one condition, that she write the title track. According to Dolly, she was rubbing her acrylic nails together, and the jingle came to her. Released in 1980, 9 to 5 was the first song to land at the top of the country and pop music charts at the same time.
Dolly’s business sense set her apart in a time when women were looking for more individual rights. She wisely protected the publishing rights to her catalog of songs and ensured she would always receive full royalties for her work.
She also crossed genre lines with Grammy nominations in pop, bluegrass, and gospel categories. Dolly’s an actor, a producer, an amusement park owner, and a philanthropist.
Ms. Parton holds the Guinness World Record for the most decades with a song in the Top 20 Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart (six.) She also holds the record for the most hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart by a female artist (107.) Her induction into various Halls of Fame and the number of awards she has received is extensive.
Dolly redefined what women in country music were capable of, and the world noticed.
#2 Kitty Wells
Born in Nashville in 1919, Ellen Muriel Deason grew up where country music lived. She was one of six children born to a musically inclined couple. Her father played guitar, and her mother loved to sing. Beginning in 1936, she performed on local radio with her sisters.
At 18, she married Johnnie Wright, who dreamt of becoming a country music star. At Johnnie’s suggestion, while on tour with him and Jack Anglin, she adopted the stage name Kitty Wells.
While touring with her husband, Kitty wrote and recorded her first hit in 1952. It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels was her response to The Wild Side of Life, Hank Thompson’s song about cheating. This powerful ballad spoke out against those cheating husbands.
She responded that the blame should not only be on the woman. Considered controversial, quite a few radio stations banned the song. But audiences loved it. Kitty sold 800,000 copies during its initial release. It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels was the first single by a female to reach number one on the country charts.
Kitty’s recording and release of Making Believe reached number two on the country charts. And although that may not seem like a big deal, that song holds the record for maintaining that spot for 15 weeks. Jimmy Work wrote the melancholy tune about a person hoping to reunite with their former love.
Heartbreak U.S.A. was one of Kitty’s most successful singles. The song was her last number one on the country chart, staying there for four weeks out of the 23 it was on the chart. It’s about a woman hoping her love won’t find another woman while stationed overseas.
Kitty was unafraid to make records that shared deep emotions and hurt from a woman’s perspective. The songs she sang were in opposition to the life she lived as a wife and mother.
Kitty was the first female country singer to top the US Country charts. Over her career, she had a record in the Billboard Top Ten 35 times. Her singles hit the charts over 80 times.
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, Kitty would receive other honors as well. And in 1991, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
#3 Loretta Lynn
Although there are some discrepancies as to which year she was born, Loretta Webb was born in a coal miner’s shack in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky.
Loretta was the second of eight children. Of all her siblings, only one other went on to sing, her half-sister, Brenda Gail Webb. We know her as Crystal Gayle.
Whether she was born in 1932 or 1935 only mattered when she wed Oliver “Mooney” Webb. Loretta called him “Doo,” short for another moniker, “Doolittle.” In 1948, it would have been illegal had she married him at 13 instead of 15.
It wasn’t long after they married that she became pregnant with the first of six children. Before finding success in the country music world, she was a mother of four.
Loretta’s marriage to Doo was full of physical abuse and affairs. But when it came to music, he was her greatest supporter. Their tumultuous marriage inspired many of the songs she wrote.
Early in her career, she covered a song of Patsy Cline’s, and when Patsy heard it, she insisted on meeting Loretta. The two became great friends ending only because of Patsy’s early death.
Loretta’s first single to reach #2 on the charts was in 1966. After meeting a fan, Loretta took ten minutes to write You Ain’t Woman Enough. The woman confided that she worried another woman would steal her husband. Loretta told her, “She ain’t woman enough to take your man!”
In 1967, Loretta received her first certified gold album with Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). It was also the first number one song written by a female artist that sang the song. This was the first of many controversial songs Loretta would write.
Considered her most famous song, Loretta released Coal Miner’s Daughter in 1970. It became another number one hit for the singer. She later wrote an autobiography (1976) by the same name. The film Coal Miner’s Daughter saw Sissy Spacek playing the lead role.
Loretta Lynn was the first woman in country music to receive a certified gold album. She recorded 16 singles that reached number one on the charts plus 51 Top Ten hits.
She’s the author of controversial songs such as The Pill, Rated X, and Out of my Head and Back in My Bed. All these songs reached number one on the country music charts.
Loretta was the first woman to be named “Entertainer of the Year” by the Country Music Association (CMA.)
After her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988, Loretta took some time off to care for her husband. Loretta returned in the 2000s with an album co-produced by Jack White (of the White Stripes). She won two Grammys for the album in 2004.
Loretta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. In 2018, the CMT Artist’s of the Year Awards presented her with the Artist of a Lifetime Award.
In our minds, she’s absolutely one of the fiercest women (and people) in country music.
#4 Patsy Cline
Born in 1932, Virginia Patterson Hensley grew up one of three children. Her mother was a young housewife. Patsy’s father was a blacksmith with a temper and a drinking problem.
The family moved a lot, and “Ginny” would find herself standing up to her father on behalf of her mother. She and her mother would form an incredible bond as a result. Her father abandoned his wife and children when “Ginny” was 16. She left high school so she could work and help her family.
Patsy could not read sheet music, but she loved to sing. Inspired by Kitty Wells and Kate Smith, she sang anywhere and everywhere. Around 13, she experienced a throat infection that changed her voice forever. The booming voice known all over the world changed country music.
She began performing at 14, starting first in local talent shows. She once approached a DJ about singing on his Saturday morning program. Soon after, she had regular gigs at nightclubs. Ginny was bold and not afraid to seek out opportunities to have her voice heard. By age 15, she auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry.
Encouraged to find a more suitable stage name Patsy became her professional name in 1952. Married in 1953, she became Patsy Cline. After their divorce in 1957, Patsy opted to keep the surname as her professional moniker.
Patsy was in a significant car accident in 1961. While in the hospital, she heard Loretta Lynn’s I Fall to Pieces cover. Patsy didn’t hesitate to invite Loretta to the hospital to meet her. They became fast friends, with Patsy being one of Loretta’s biggest supporters.
Arthur GodfreyTalent Scouts was a popular show like American Idol. Patsy made it onto the show in 1957. They requested she sing Walking After Midnight, which was not the song Patsy had wanted to sing. But, she relented.
That performance catapulted the track to #2 on the country charts and #12 on the pop charts. The song sold over 2.5 million records in her lifetime, but Patsy only made about $900 from it.
Although it wasn’t a song Patsy particularly liked, I Fall to Pieces was one of her first records with her new label. In late 1961 it reached #1 on the country charts and #12 on the pop charts. For the first time, Patsy felt financial success.
Written by newcomer Willie Nelson, Crazy was the next single released. Fresh off her car accident in the summer of 1961, Patsy struggled to record the song. With a couple more weeks of healing under her belt, Patsy came back and knocked it out. The song was an instant hit in the US and Europe.
In 1961 and 1962, Patsy would become the second artist named Billboard’s “Favorite Female Artist.” Kitty Wells held the title for nine years. She was the first woman to headline her own concerts and the first country singer to headline in Las Vegas.
Ms. Wells was also the first to petition the Grand Ole Opry for membership. She went on to break gender norms by being the first woman to wear pants on the Opry stage.
After she died in 1962, Patsy continued to win hearts and awards. She became the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.
#5 Reba McEntire
Reba McIntire was the third of four children raised on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. When the family traveled, her mom encouraged singing and taught the four to sing in harmony.
Reba grew up inspired by artists such as Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and Patsy Cline. She sang at various rodeos and other venues whenever she got the chance.
In 1975, country artist Red Steagall reached out to bring Reba to Nashville to record a demo. She signed with Mercury Records that November. She left Mercury in 1983, looking forward to more control over her career and the songs she recorded.
Reba signed with MCA Records in 1984. Reba still wasn’t happy despite her first album with the label providing a top ten record. It wasn’t long after she began finding her own songs. Her second album with the label became known as her breakout album. She won Female Vocalist of the Year from the CMA in 1984.
Reba would record over 100 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with 25 hitting number one. In time, she would become an actress on television, film, and Broadway. She also has her own clothing line.
In 2022, Reba’s Place – a restaurant, live music venue, and retail shop, will open in Oklahoma.
Reba’s first number one was in 1982. Can’t Even Get the Blues from Unlimited is about a woman who feels like she’s hit rock bottom in love and life. She’s so exhausted that she doesn’t even have the energy to be blue.
Although not one of her highest-rated songs, Fancy is probably one of Reba’s most iconic songs. It follows a young girl who came from nothing to prosperous adulthood by learning to be nice to the gentlemen as a courtesan.
Cherie Oakley cowrote Turn on the Radio without a specific singer in mind. Reba called and asked to record it within a few days of its completion. In 2011, it reached number one, Reba’s 25th. It’s a song written from the perspective of a woman done wrong and her ex who was trying to reach out. Her reply to the ex was if you want to hear my voice, turn on the radio.
Reba’s seventh album, My Kind of Country, brought more traditional sounds back to country music. Her music is capable of expanding into the genres of country-pop, mainstream pop, soul, and R&B.
Her focus has always been on singing songs for women, telling the stories they may not be able to tell. She has recorded number one records four decades in a row.
Reba was instrumental in higher production values for country concerts. She believed they needed to be almost as flashy as pop shows.
Ms. McEntire joined the Grand Ole Opry in January of 1986 and was the Academy of Country Music’s Top Female Vocalist Award winner seven times. In addition, Reba won the American Music Awards Favorite Country Female Artist award a record-breaking 12 times.
Going strong in 2011, Dolly Parton inducted Reba into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That same year she again reached number one with Turn on the Radio. She has won three Grammy awards and received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2018. Congress also awarded her the National Artistic Achievement Award. She’s one of four entertainers to have received this award.
The Greatest Women in Country Music – Strong and Confident
The one thing synonymous with being named one of the greatest women in country music is confidence. These women stood up for themselves in an industry where women were traditionally “managed” by their male counterparts. They found a boldness to speak up for themselves and know their worth.
These amazing women also spoke up for others who may not have had a chance to be heard. They blazed a trail by going against the grain and becoming the artist they wanted to be.
Whether they were singer-songwriters or singers, these women brought a unique vision and sound to the country genre. They’re some of the most remarkable women in music, regardless of the genre.
Who are your favorites? Do you agree with the ones we chose? Let us know!