One of the great debates in a multitude of topics lately has been “What would the Mount Rushmore of [insert topic here] be?” So, naturally some of us who seem to have formed a little bit of a community of country music purists on Twitter thought it would be fun to choose our Mount Rushmore of Country Music. Now, we could’ve simply chosen our four favorite artists of all-time and had said that’s that, but the term “Mount Rushmore” has come to signify the greatest or most influential in a field so we set out to truly pick who we considered to be the most influential or the greatest artists in the history of country music.
These are our choices:
Julian Spivey – The Word
There are dozens of legendary figures in the history of country music that one could argue belong on a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, but the only one who I believe to be an absolute must is Hank Williams. If your Country Music Mount Rushmore doesn’t include Hank Williams, it’s invalid. Yes, the genre existed before Hank Williams and if you want to put Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or pack the entire Carter Family on your Mount Rushmore that’s fine by me, but Hank must be there too. Williams took the form and melded it with blues thanks to his mentor Rufus Payne, an old black bluesman, and brought a more poetic songwriting to the genre that truly helped it boom into the second half of the 1900s. Hank influenced everybody who came after him (at least up to a certain point maybe 10-20 years ago) and didn’t just have an impact on the future of country music, but also rock & roll where he influenced Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones among others.
I think the second most influential artist in the great history of country music after Hank Williams is, without a doubt, Johnny Cash. And, I believe that Cash has been the artist to bring more fans into the genre than any other – I know he did so with me. Johnny Cash is just as much Rock & Roll, especially in attitude and swagger, as he was country music and he was able to bridge the gap between the two genres. Especially in the ‘90s when Rick Rubin helped Cash rekindle his career it wouldn’t be unusual to see fans of all ages and styles at a Cash show – you might have Nirvana fans mingling alongside people who’d loved Cash since the Sun Records days of 40 years before. There’s also never been a country star as understanding and accepting of the down-trodden as Cash was, and that means a helluva lot to me.
Known as the “Poet of the Common Man” I’m not sure there’s ever been a greater songwriter in the history of country music than Merle Haggard, especially when it came to the hard times. Haggard knew hard times, having spent actual time in San Quentin Prison (where he saw Johnny Cash perform and drew inspiration), so when he sings songs like “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” he’s not just making up fiction. When Haggard sang it, you could believe it and you could feel it and that goes a long way in developing a lasting relationship with a performer. In 2014, when current country music stars in collaboration with CMT selected the 40 most influential performers of all-time it was Haggard who topped the list.
Williams, Cash and Haggard are no-brainers for me when constructing a Country Music Mount Rushmore. But, when it comes to the fourth and final selection I’ll admit that there’s maybe as many as five artists who I could say belong. The choice for me ultimately comes down to Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings – two artists who collaborated so often throughout their careers and led the Outlaw Movement that completely changed country music in the ‘70s. Ultimately, I went with Nelson because I felt like his impact, especially as he’s the one country music stalwart still out there entertaining people and changing lives with his music today, is likely more important to the growth – both past and future – for the country music genre. Not only has he had a career featuring some of the most well-known and greatest songs in country history – “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” etc. – but, he also wrote some of the greatest country songs of all-time for other artists like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young. He’s the greatest living artist in country music.
Nathan Kanuch – Shore2Shore Country
The easiest choice on the list. There would be no modern country music without Hank. He took country music to new frontiers and became perhaps the genre’s first ever superstar. Williams also embodied the genre’s traditions and themes in a near perfect way. He traveled down the lost highway from the day he was born, destined to live the words he was singing.
Known as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank was an incredible songwriter. He could write and sing the simplest of words yet make them so vivid and poignant. Hank sang about ramblin’, the American South, and painful heartbreak - and he lived it all before meeting his tragic end way too soon.
There’s no arguing that George Jones is the greatest singer in country music’s storied history. But I’d go even farther. George is the greatest singer to ever walk the planet. George’s voice was an instrument in and of itself; it basically mimicked the lonesome, wailing sound of a steel guitar.
Yet Jones wasn’t just a great singer. Everything he sang was believable and authentic. I’ve said many times that two things will always get you through any heartbreak - whiskey and some of the Possum’s songs. No one sang about heartache better. Jones has always been there for me. “The Grand Tour,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me,” “Still Doin’ Time,” “The Door,” and, of course, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Those are all classic, lonesome songs.
We were blessed that George made it through all his demons. Somehow. He stared down hell many, many times to give us years and years of classic country music.
Outlaw country has begun to be chastised and degraded by those hipster outlets (you all know who). But outlaw country is one of the greatest things to ever happen to the genre. And Waylon Jennings defined and, still does define, outlaw country. He’s my personal favorite country artist of all-time. The artist who I see as revolutionizing country music for the better. Waylon simultaneously returned country music to its roots while firmly leading the genre into the future by fighting for the freedom of the artist.
Waylon’s guitar playing was top-notch. He quit his $1500/a day cocaine cold turkey in the early 1980s. He flew to a Johnny Cash show just to play bass for the Man in Black when he promised Johnny that he would find him a bass player. The list goes on and on. He was ornery to the last, refusing to show up to his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. One last chance to get one over on the establishment that fought him for so many years.
There would be no Bakersfield Sound without Buck Owens. Revolutionary. Icon. Legend. No words do Buck justice. His harmonies with Don Rich were magic. His songwriting was simple, relatable and poignant. And not many people know it, but it was Buck who taught Don Rich that twangy guitar sound.
While Nashville was focusing on either lush arrangements or trying to capture a rockabilly sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buck was experimenting with an entirely different sound. It would come to define Buck and later The Hag. It was the Bakersfield Sound. And it would prove an early ancestor to the outlaw movement in terms of a strategy to combat mainstream Nashville.
Megan Bledsoe – Country Exclusive
Though my least favorite of the four I chose, Hank Williams belongs on any Mount Rushmore of Country Music without question. The country genre would not exist without him, and although not the first to sing country music, he was the first to be a country star. Few in country, or in music in general, have made the impact Hank Williams did in such a short time. All of country music rests on his shoulders, and we'll be hard-pressed to find a modern artist to whom people are still listening to 70 years from now the way people still listen to Hank today.
Willie Nelson is a pillar of country music, immortal and unchanging, still touring and churning out music year after year and showing no signs of slowing down. And it's all still quality. From Redheaded Stranger, arguably the greatest country album of all time, to Stardust, which charted for 10 years, right up to his latest album at 85-years old, Willie just keeps drawing from an endless well of wisdom. He has become one of the most recognizable and beloved artists in the genre, and his influence and legacy cannot be overstated.
Merle Haggard was the living, breathing definition of country music. He sang about the real struggles of the American people, and you listened because he lived it. There are more poetic and thoughtful songwriters than Haggard, but perhaps none as relatable and compelling. He embodied the American dream, from being in prison to one of the greatest artists of all-time in any genre. There will never be another who has quite the same spirit or defines country music and culture so well just by their life.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard helped define the outlaw movement, a break with commercialism. George Strait did that in his own way, bringing a more traditional sound in the ‘80s but doing it from the inside. He has been one of the greatest ambassadors for country music, never compromising his sound or his principles, staying on one label for nearly 40 years and speaking to generations. Obviously, 60 No. 1's is ridiculous, but that's only part of the reason he's earned his place here - it's more about the fact that he has managed to unite the traditional and modern fans in an era where everything is so polarizing.
Grant Ludmer – Critically Country
Though country radio success doesn't mean what it used to, George Strait managed to notch 60 No. 1 hits across his four decades long career. A model of consistent, traditional country music, George Strait without a doubt is the King of country music.
Loretta Lynn is responsible for some of the greatest classic country music songs of all time including 24 No. 1 songs and 45 million albums sold over a six decade long career. Lynn is the Queen of country music.
Some will try and replicate the outlaw that was Merle Haggard in their music, but none will come close to the authenticity that comes from a life lived this far on the edges. Haggard was a trailblazer in the genre and one of country music's original outlaws.
As with the other three artists on my Mount Rushmore of Country Music, Hank Williams is on this list because of the impact and lasting influence he had on the genre. Despite his career lasting only seven years, he recorded some of country music's most classic songs and gave a blueprint for what country music is at its best.
So, there you have it … our Mount Rushmores of Country Music.
We all agreed that Hank Williams is an absolute must to have on a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, as he was the only unanimous choice between all four of us. Merle Haggard appeared on three of our four Mount Rushmores of Country Music. If we were to have a consensus for the “official” Mount Rushmore of Country Music the last two slots would go to Willie Nelson and George Strait, who both appeared on two of our four lists.
The most surprising aspect of the four of us doing these Mount Rushmore of Country Music lists, for me – Julian Spivey – was the fact that some truly all-timers within this great genre like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn (the only female performer to appear on any of our Mount Rushmores of Country Music) only appeared on one list each. I guess, that just goes to show you exactly how many legendary figures there have been throughout the history of this great genre of music.
Let us know in the comments who would make your Mount Rushmore of Country Music!!
by Julian Spivey
Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile graced the stage of The Caverns on PBS’s “Bluegrass Underground,” which originally aired on PBS on Friday, August 3, for a special one-hour episode featuring her brilliant work, most of which appears on her latest release By The Way, I Forgive You.
Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You, her sixth studio album, was released in February to critical raves and has remained one of the best albums of the year and has earned her multiple nominations for the Americana Awards & Honors, which will occur next month during AmericanaFest in Nashville.
“Bluegrass Underground” debuted in 2011 and features roots music from the Americana, folk, country and bluegrass genres in The Volcano Room, 333-feet below ground in the Tennessee Cumberland Caverns, making for one of the most interesting and beautiful music venues in the United States.
Carlile said: “[It’s] one of the coolest gigs we’ve ever played – it’s kind of like Red Rock if you could go in the rocks,” referencing the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado.
She opened her set, which consisted of 10 songs on the episode, with the opening track from her latest release “Every Time I Hear That Song,” which has one of the best melodies and choruses you’re going to hear from any song in any genre this year. It would be one of six songs from the album performed on the show.
My favorite performances of the show – and two of my favorite songs of 2018 period – were “The Mother,” which is a beautiful tribute to Carlile’s first daughter Evangeline, and “The Joke,” a terrific anti-bullying sentiment which NPR called: “a country-rock aria dedicated to the delicate boys and striving girls born into this divisive time.”
Among the older stuff in Carlile’s repertoire performed during the show were “Raise Hell” from her 2012 release Bear Creek and “The Eye,” from her Grammy-nominated 2015 release The Firewatcher’s Daughter. One of the true highlights of her performance was a cover of Elton John’s 1971 song “Madman Across the Water.” John was a major influence on Carlile and she taught herself to play piano as a kid after being introduced to his music.
Other performances during the fantastic broadcast from By The Way, I Forgive You included “Whatever You Do,” “Party of One” and the upbeat “Hold Out Your Hand,” which served as a rip-roaring finale to the program and got the audience thoroughly energized.
The one-hour special, “Bluegrass Underground” episodes are typically 30 minutes in length, was a precursor to the show’s eighth season, which will premiere in the fall and include performances from Turnpike Troubadours, Mary Gauthier, Kathy Mattea, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Flatt Lonesome and more.
by Julian Spivey
There’s a frequent country music argument I seem to keep having every few months or so, but have never gotten around to writing about and that topic is controversial comedian Ben Hoffman and his country music alter ego Wheeler Walker Jr.
I don’t like the guy. It seems I’m in the minority. And, frankly that’s part of what’s so upsetting about Wheeler Walker Jr. to me. It’s not so upsetting that I’m in the minority when it comes to a musical opinion – there’s nothing new about that. Just ask all the Journey and AC/DC fans I’ve annoyed over the years with my dislike of those bands, but Wheeler Walker Jr. seems beloved by my preferred music community and I just don’t understand it.
When Wheeler Walker Jr. (and I will continue to refer to him by all three names because it’s a character) burst onto the scene in 2016 with the Dave Cobb produced Redneck Shit I was intrigued because so many writers I follow were praising his music. Even though I wasn’t too keen on song titles like “Fuck You Bitch” and “Which One O’ You Queers Gonna Suck My Dick?” I put one of his songs – I think it was “Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass” on – because I trusted these people raving about him. I realized immediately the whole thing was a joke, even though I didn’t know it was stand-up comedian Ben Hoffman behind it at the time, but the sophomoric humor (which I’ve almost never enjoyed) just wasn’t my style. I didn’t need to hear much more. Though since that release I have given some more of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs a listen to try and figure out what it is people see about his act and music that I just don’t get.
His second release Ol’ Wheeler, also produced by Dave Cobb who literally seems to produce most of my favorite musicians these days from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna, was acclaimed by many within the industry. Furthermore, artists I greatly respect and admire seemed be on the “Wheeler Train,” as well. So, I gave it another try. The song “Summers in Kentucky” starts off like a decent country song, but then you get to the verse that goes: “Used to press your pussy up against my mouth/now you’ve had a couple kids and it’s all stretched out/But I’m starting to think we could figure it out/Summers in Kentucky, wanna be back now.” I get it that it’s effectively a punchline in the song after two verses of what would pass as truly decent country music and, frankly, it’s a well-set up punchline. It’s just not my type of humor. It’s also fairly clean compared to much of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s lyrics – believe it or not. His songs are in the brand of David Allen Coe’s (another artist I have absolutely no use for) X-rated albums, but focusing on the sex stuff, rather than the racism. I’d say 90 percent of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs are sex songs in the most raunchy way imaginable.
When I voice by disinterest and dislike of Wheeler Walker Jr. I have some fellow writers I talk with on social media say stuff to the effect of “Listen to the music. It’s actual country music.” But, I don’t care, especially being a music fan who’s typically more into lyrics than music. But, even if the music is well-played and sounds great if you were to take “Dueling Banjos” and add fart sounds on to it wouldn’t make it worthwhile. That’s basically what Wheeler Walker Jr. is; he’s a decent sounding record with George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” over it. Except for Carlin is funny and Wheeler Walker Jr. just thinks singing “her tongue knows where my butthole’s at” is comedic genius.
Yes, Wheeler Walker Jr. is a parody of today’s country music, but with more traditional country music played instrumentally, but the biggest issue with his music is the misogyny involved. Yes, mainstream country acts like Florida Georgia Line frequently perform misogynistic songs and this is (maybe a parody of that, though having caught a bit of Hoffman’s short-lived Comedy Central show years ago I’m not so sure), but I don’t believe a lot of his fans realize that. They love it because it’s misogynistic, not because it’s playing against that side of mainstream country. I know this because when I share my opinions of Wheeler Walker Jr. online I get responses from people like “You sound like a bitch” and “Don’t getchya panties in a bunch hoss.” Both of those are real.
I’ll also get the frequent: “would you rather listen to Luke Bryan?”
My responses are always a variation of the two artists essentially being the same thing to me. Both are fake. Both are pretty much play acting, even if Bryan doesn’t ever admit to it. As a music lover the last thing I want to spend my time with is something fake, especially if it’s offensive to me.
You can like Wheeler Walker Jr. all you like. I would never sit here and claim you shouldn’t listen to something you like. I’m just sharing the reasons why I don’t like it. But, when it comes to my community of music listeners – in this case the alternative/outlaw country community – I must wonder what it is you truly see in this guy? Maybe it’s just that we have different tastes in humor?