Hall Worthy: 2021 Expanded Edition

The Country Music Hall of Fame has a problem.

Currently, it only inducts two artists a year: one from the Modern Era (20-44 years of national prominence), and one from the Veteran Era (45 or more years of national prominence.)

So what’s the problem?  Well, as the list that follows will demonstrate, there are dozens of worthy artists competing for these slots.  Country music grew so much in popularity and impact over the past few decades that the glacial pace of inductees hasn’t been able to keep up.  It’s been 20 years since the Hall did a “catch up” year, inducting nine acts and three others in one fell swoop.

The problem is particularly acute for eighties and nineties artists, where several worthy acts broke through every year, and is compounded as new artists become eligible each year.

So instead of ranking my top ten for each category as I’ve done in previous years, I’m taking a new approach: a thorough list of all acts that I consider worthy of induction in both categories, in reverse chronological order.  This list will be revised and updated annually to remove those inducted each year and to add newly eligible acts, as well as those I may have overlooked. (Comments are open!)

What criteria did I use? The same mushy one that all Halls of Fame use, a combination of commercial success, artistic merit, career longevity, and influence on other artists, with the exact balance of those four traits different for every artist listed.  Some acts are just too big too leave off of the list.  Others are just too damn good to overlook.  In terms of eligibility year, I used twenty years after the first top ten hit as my rule of thumb, with one notable exception that’s noted in that act’s blurb.

As for the numbers for this go round: 35 artists for the Modern Era, and 15 for the Veteran Era, with the last handful of Modern Era recommendations moving to the Veteran Era in the coming years, should they not be nominated.

Here we go….

Hall Worthy: 2021 Edition

Part One: The Modern Era

 

Blake Shelton

Eligible Since: 2021

The newest artist on this list, Shelton is in his first year of eligibility, as he broke through twenty years ago with “Austin.”  In addition to a long string of hits at country radio, Shelton’s role as a coach on The Voice has given him additional reach into the larger pop culture world.

 

Rascal Flatts

Eligible Since: 2020

One of two major artists to break through in 2000, Rascal Flatts became the most commercially successful country band since the Chicks, dominating the Vocal Group category at award shows and scoring big crossover hits like “What Hurts the Most” and their cover of “Life is a Highway.”

 

Keith Urban

Eligible Since: 2020

Since scoring his first top ten hit in 2000, Keith Urban has maintained his place as one of the biggest artists in country music, winning multiple Entertainer of the Year trophies and scoring regular hits at radio.  He was also the first country artist to serve as a judge on American Idol, spending four years on the panel at the end of the show’s original run on Fox.

 

Brad Paisley

Eligible Since: 2019

One of the few young traditionalists to emerge in the late nineties, Paisley found tremendous success simply by staying in that lane, largely avoiding the worst of the pop-country and bro-country trends of the past twenty years.

 

The Chicks

Eligible Since: 2018

The most successful female group and country group of all time, the Chicks raised the bar for musicianship and artistry while shattering the ceiling for how many records a country band could sell.  They’ve recently emerged from a lengthy recording hiatus, and everyone from Miranda Lambert to Taylor Swift cites them as a major influence.

 

Kenny Chesney

Eligible Since: 2015

The biggest touring artist in country music – when Garth isn’t touring, at least – Chesney’s rise to fame was slow and steady.  He started scoring top ten hits in 1995, but didn’t reach full superstar status until a couple of years into the 21st century.  He’s stayed there ever since.

 

Alison Krauss & Union Station

Eligible Since: 2015

The winner of more Grammys than any other act associated with country music, Alison Krauss has made enough of her most important work with Union Station to warrant their induction alongside her.  Radio has only played one record of hers that wasn’t a collaboration, but she’s still managed to build a nice collection of gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums along the way.

 

Shania Twain

Eligible Since: 2015

Twain may have only released five studio albums in her career, but the middle three made her the top-selling female country artist of all time. Her impact on the point of view presented by female artists was as seismic within country music as Madonna’s had been on pop music.  She remains a top draw in Vegas and on the road.

 

Faith Hill

Eligible Since: 2014

Another one of the most successful female artists in country music history,  Faith Hill successfully navigated several different eras of country music, with every one of her six studio albums going multi-platinum.

 

Tim McGraw

Eligible Since: 2014

By the turn of the century, Tim McGraw was the biggest male artist in country music, with several multi-platinum albums and several singles with lengthy runs at #1.  With George Strait fading from the radio in recent years, McGraw is now the oldest artist to still get regular airplay with his new releases.

 

Toby Keith

Eligible Since: 2013

A steady hitmaker in the nineties, Keith truly found his groove in the first decade of the new century, branding himself as a modern-day outlaw with an acerbic sense of humor.  He had a healthy twenty year run at radio, from 1993’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” to his most recent top ten hit, 2012’s “Beers Ago.”

 

Martina McBride

Eligible Since: 2013

Breaking through with a pair of Gretchen Peters hits – “My Baby Loves Me” and “Independence Day” – McBride was another slow and steady star.  By the late nineties, she’d broken through to multi-platinum with Evolution, and she went on to dominate the Female Vocalist races from 2002-2004.

 

Diamond Rio

Eligible Since: 2011

One of the few country bands that had the musicianship to match their killer harmonies, Diamond Rio had a longer run at radio than most groups do, from their debut #1 hit in 1991, “Meet in the Middle,” right through their last chart-topper, 2002’s “I Believe.”

 

Pam Tillis

Eligible Since: 2011

Pam Tillis is one of the only second generation country acts in history to achieve prominence that rivaled their parent – in her case, Hall of Famer Mel Tillis.  Her string of critically acclaimed albums netted three platinum and two gold awards, and her influence on their own work has been cited by nineties contemporaries Martina McBride and the Chicks, as well as rising stars like Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark.

 

Trisha Yearwood

Eligible Since: 2011

The most heralded female singer of her generation, Yearwood released eleven albums between 1991 and 2005 that sold gold, platinum, or multi-platinum, earning 27 Grammy nominations (and three wins) along the way.  She’s recently returned to music after focusing primarily on her family and her popular cooking show on the Food Network.

 

Mark Chesnutt

Eligible Since: 2010

Breaking through with the stunning “Too Cold at Home” in 1990, Chesnutt was one of two Hall Worthy traditionalists to launch a successful run of hits that year.  Despite flirting with pop on his cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,”  Chesnutt has been a keeper of the honky tonk flame for most of his career.

 

Joe Diffie

Eligible Since: 2010

Since his tragic death last year to COVID-19, Diffie’s catalog has received a long overdue reappraisal.  Yes, he had quite a few novelty hits. George Jones did, too.  But Diffie’s heartbreak ballads are as good or better than those of most of his contemporaries.

 

Clint Black

Eligible Since: 2009

With fellow Class of 1989 veteran Garth Brooks already in the Hall of Fame, it’s easy to forget that it was Clint Black who was setting the pace at first with his landmark Killin’ Time debut.  Black’s first 24 singles went top ten, making him among the most consistent hitmakers of the nineties.

 

Travis Tritt

Eligible Since: 2009

Another Class of 1989 superstar, Tritt brought a southern rock flavor to his country records, making him one of the biggest stars of the genre for much of the nineties.  He recently released his first new album in several years, produced by Americana titan Dave Cobb.

 

Patty Loveless

Eligible Since: 2008

Loveless had a good run at MCA Records before joining the Epic roster and becoming one of the biggest and most respected artists of the nineties.  Loveless has apparently retired from recording since her last release, Mountain Soul II, which won her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

 

K.T. Oslin

Eligible Since: 2007

Oslin’s run on the charts wasn’t very lengthy  – she scored four #1 hits, two platinum and one gold album, all in the space of five years.  But she shattered precedence as an artist and a songwriter, breaking through at age 46 and becoming the first woman to win the CMA for Song of the Year.

 

Ricky Van Shelton

Eligible Since: 2007

One of the biggest stars of the late eighties through early nineties, Ricky Van Shelton’s stunning vocals breathed new life into several country standards, as well as some contemporary material of his day.

 

Kathy Mattea

Eligible Since: 2006

The female troubadour of the eighties and nineties, Mattea’s lengthy hit career was followed by several projects of historical significance, with an emphasis on preserving the traditional songs of Appalachia and coal country.

 

Keith Whitley

Eligible Since: 2006

His hit career was truncated by his early death, but his influence on the singers who came after him cannot be overstated.

 

Dwight Yoakam

Eligible Since: 2006

Arguably the most glaring omission of the Modern Era.  Yoakam’s Bakersfield sound and rock sensibility created some of the most dynamic and daring music on country radio for the better part of a decade.

 

Sawyer Brown

Eligible Since: 2005

They were launched into stardom by winning Star Search, but they steadily grew their craft until they were releasing some of the best country music of the early nineties.

 

The Judds

Eligible Since: 2004

This mother/daughter duo helped lead the New Traditionalist movement of the mid-eighties, alongside fellow superstars Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Randy Travis.  Wynonna’s lengthy and laudable solo career must be considered, too.

 

Dan Seals

Eligible Since: 2004

A major hitmaker for several years, Dan Seals found additional success as a songwriter for other artists.  His brief pop career as England Dan was quickly overshadowed by nearly a dozen #1 country hits, including classics such as “Bop,” “Everything That Glitters (is Not Gold),” and “Meet Me in Montana.”

 

Lee Greenwood

Eligible Since: 2002

He’s largely remembered for his CMA Song of the Year-winning ballad, “God Bless the U.S.A.”  But Greenwood was one of the most successful acts of the early-to-mid eighties, winning two Male Vocalist trophies and releasing three gold studio albums and a platinum hits collection, enough to make him one of the top sellers of his day.

 

Rosanne Cash

Eligible Since: 2001

Cash’s incredibly successful career as a commercial country artist included eleven #1 singles in just nine years.  Her work since 1990 has aimed inward, and received consistent critical acclaim and awards attention.

 

Steve Wariner

Eligible Since: 2001

Wariner’s hit career spanned twenty years and three major labels, with his guitar prowess also garnering tremendous acclaim, as well as three Grammys for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

 

John Anderson

Eligible Since: 2000

Among the earliest of the New Traditionalists, Anderson had a string of hits in the eighties for Warner Bros., then revived his career in the early nineties with his double platinum classic, Seminole Wind.

 

The Bellamy Brothers

Eligible Since: 1999

The first act on this list to be eligible since before the turn of the century, The Bellamy Brothers converted a one hit wonder pop career into a lengthy run on the top of the country charts, scoring hits from 1979 through 1992.

 

John Conlee

Eligible Since: 1998

Since breaking through in 1978 with “Rose Colored Glasses,” Conlee’s been an Opry staple, regularly performing his numerous hits from the seventies and eighties.

 

Vern Gosdin

Eligible Since: 1997

Affectionately known as “The Voice,” Gosdin’s influence as a singer outstripped his chart success, but he had quite a bit of that, too, especially in the latter half of the eighties. (Check out Zack’s profile of Gosdin over at The Musical Divide. It’s essential reading.)

 

Part Two: The Veteran Era

 

Eddie Rabbitt

Eligible Since: 1996

Rabbit’s Urban Cowboy-era hits were inescapable, dominating the country and the pop charts, but they don’t tell the whole story of his career, which featured some great music before and after that era, too.

 

Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers

Eligible Since: 1995

Another easily overlooked band, possibly because of their Countrypolitan stylings.  With and without his brothers, Larry Gatlin scored more than thirty top forty country singles over the years, including the geographically inclined hits, “All the Gold in California” and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You.)”

 

Crystal Gayle

Eligible Since: 1995

With 34 top ten hits to her credit, Gayle was one of the biggest crossover country stars of the seventies and eighties.  If inducted, she’d join Loretta Lynn as the only pair of siblings to earn solo inductions into the Hall of Fame.

 

TG Sheppard 

Eligible Since: 1995

Another quiet hitmaker, Sheppard scored 21 #1 hits over the course of just thirteen years, including his breakthrough 1975 hit, “Devil in a Bottle,” and the playful “I Loved ‘Em Every One.”

 

Gene Watson

Eligible Since: 1995

Watson’s lengthy hit career included classics such as “Fourteen Karat Mind” and “Love in the Hot Afternoon.”  45 years after his first top ten hit, Watson joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2020.

 

Mickey Gilley

Eligible Since: 1994

Cousin of fellow Hall Worthy artist Jerry Lee Lewis,  Mickey Gilley launched his career with “A Room Full of Roses,” a 1974 #1 hit.  His run of hits lasted for several years, reaching new heights during the Urban Cowboy craze of the early eighties.  Gilley’s Club, opened in 1970, served as the primary location for the John Travolta film.

 

 

Linda Ronstadt

Eligible Since: 1994

Already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ronstadt’s impact was also felt throughout country music, starting with her hit solo records in the seventies, and then her award-winning collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris in the eighties and nineties.  Her vocal style was a huge influence on the entire generation of female singers that broke through in the late eighties and early nineties.

 

Johnny Rodriguez

Eligible Since: 1993

The most successful country artist ever of Hispanic descent, Rodriguez scored 20 top ten hits between 1973 and 1983, including classics like “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “You Always Come Back (to Hurting Me).”

 

Donna Fargo

Eligible Since: 1992

Donna Fargo launched to stardom on the strength of the self-penned hits, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” and “Funny Face,” both of which sold a million copies and crossed over to the pop chart.  “Happiest” also earned her Song of the Year at the ACMs, making her the first female songwriter to win that award.

 

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Eligible Since: 1992

The only act on this list that had their breakthrough with an album: 1972’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which would eventually be followed by two additional volumes.  Their radio hits started more than a decade later, with their signature song, “Fishin’ in the Dark,” topping the country singles chart in 1987.

 

Charlie Rich

Eligible Since: 1992

Rich was one of the biggest stars in the country in the mid-seventies, shining brightest with the award-winning Behind Closed Doors album, which featured the title track and the #1 pop and country hit, “The Most Beautiful Girl.”

 

Tanya Tucker

Eligible Since: 1992

Tucker’s star shone so bright that she was still scoring major hits 25 years into her career.  Her recent comeback with her Grammy-winning While I’m Livin’ project further strengthens her case for joining the Hall of Fame.

 

Freddie Hart

Eligible Since: 1991

Freddie Hart had already been charting minor hits for seventeen years when he finally broke through in 1971 with “Easy Loving,” which netted him two consecutive wins for CMA Song of the Year.  Several big hits followed, and he remained a presence on the country charts into the eighties.

 

Anne Murray

Eligible Since: 1990

Perhaps because she’s been more associated with Adult Contemporary music, it’s easy to overlook that Murray had a lengthy hit run at country radio, scoring the first of her 25 top ten hits in 1970 (“Snowbird”) and the last in 1990 (“Feed This Fire”).

 

Johnny Paycheck

Eligible Since: 1986

Often mistaken for a one hit wonder (“Take This Job and Shove it”), Paycheck was a steady hitmaker from 1966 through 1986, when he scored a moderate hit with “Old Violin.”

 

David Houston

Eligible Since: 1983

Another artist with one hit (“Almost Persuaded”) that overshadowed a consistent hitmaking career, Houston was a staple on the country charts from the early sixties through the mid-seventies, including hit collaborations with Tammy Wynette (“My Elusive Dreams”) and Barbara Mandrell (“I Love You, I Love You”).

 

Stonewall Jackson

Eligible Since: 1979

Singer of the “Waterloo” hit that predated ABBA’s, Stonewall Jackson stuck largely to a honky tonk sound on his biggest records, even though his last top ten hit was a cover of Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.”

 

Jerry Lee Lewis

Eligible Since: 1977

Fellow seminal rockers Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Brenda Lee have been in the Hall of Fame for decades now, making the omission of Lewis stand out, especially since he scored top ten country hits in four consecutive decades.

 

Wanda Jackson

Eligible Since: 1974

The Queen of Rockabilly had a very successful country career that spanned many years, yet her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to be matched by its Country Music counterpart.

 

Billy Walker

Eligible Since: 1974

Closing out the list with another artist who broke through in 1954, Billy Walker scored top ten hits from 1954 through 1975, and was legendary for his musicianship.  He was an active Opry member for 46 years, from his induction in 1960 to his death in 2006.

 

6 Comments

  1. Good list, I know there’s others who are eligible but you wanting to keep things with those most likely to be inducted makes sense.

    6 women come to mind as missing from your list though as I think good cases can be made for them. Rose Maddox, Lynn Anderson, Janie Fricke, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lorrie Morgan, and Lee Ann Womack. I could see Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett making good cases on the men’s side of things too.

  2. I think part of the problem is also that they elect all of three acts per year to the Hall of Fame (which is two less than the number normally slotted for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even fewer still if you count that some of the RRHOF entries are groups). This is at least partly responsible for the huge backlog; and while some cynics want this to be the case to keep “undeserving” acts out (of which there are unfortunately plenty in today’s country [IMHO]), it has actually had the hugely detrimental effect of keeping plenty of truly deserving ones out.

    With respect to Linda Ronstadt: Obviously it would be nice to have her in the Country Music Hall, since her Rock Hall induction came arguably only because of her Parkinson’s diagnosis. She would certainly have the backing of her Trio pals, plus Trisha Yearwood and dozens of other fan-peers. But whether she gets in really depends, to me, on whether the folks who run the place can set aside these facts about her: that she was never a country artist in the strictest Nashville sense of the term; that she worked almost entirely out of Los Angeles; had a decidedly left-of-center approach to the genre when she touched upon it; and hasn’t minced words about what she thinks about country radio these days. If they can accept Linda for who she is and has always been, and if the clock doesn’t run out on her life before it happens, maybe she’ll get in.

  3. Narrowing down the veteran era is a daunting task. Personally, I think Dallas Frazier and Bradley Kincaid are stand-out examples of artists long overdue for induction. I could also make a strong cases for Lynn Anderson, Rose Maddox (or perhaps the entire Maddox Brothers & Rose), Joe Maphis, Moe Bandy and Bonnie Guitar. I do think the 15 you selected for the veterans category are all well qualified, even Ronstadt, whose influence compensates for a country resume that is very thin indeed.

    Part of the problem with the way the CMHOF is viewed today is that it is viewed from the perspective of hit records. Therefore strongly influential artist such as Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart are usually overlooked, as are diversified artists such as Teddy & Doyle Wilburn who had a long-running syndicated television show and were very on top of the business end of the business (also Billboard shorted the Wilburns with their very truncated 50s & 60s country charts – according to Music Vendor/Record World
    the Wilburn Brothers charted an extra 30 songs that never appeared on Billboard’s country charts.

    Personally, I am rooting for Stonewall Jackson and David Houston to be inducted, although I don’t foresee it happening.

  4. I came to Hank Williams, George Jones, Dolly, Johnny Cash, Patsy and steel pedal, guitars and lonesome whines because of Ronstadt. In our neck of the Northeast in the 70s Country was big hair squaresville. Linda more than anyone else brought rural sounds- decidedly Southwest – to a broad often rockin’ urban audience. Even prior to her fame she sang C & W to rockers- just ask Keith Richard’s and Jagger. More often and with far more sobriety displaying her musical chops, than Gram Parsons, she introduced us to those sounds.

  5. While I’m very happy to see Anne Murray and Linda Ronstadt included in the Veteran Era group, I would say that John Denver contributed more to country music than either lady, especially if you consider his songwriting.

  6. @ bob:

    With respect to John Denver, I don’t think there’s any question that a huge amount of his material is very much in a neo-traditionalist country aesthetic, especially when compared to what clogs so much of country radio today. Whether the problems he caused among the Nashville establishment back when he was at the apex of his popularity in the mid-1970’s have entirely been forgotten, however, is another matter. If they have, then I think he has a shot.

    One can’t forget, though, that John Denver was part of the same 1960’s folk music explosion where Linda and Emmylou started out, or that his first songwriting hit was “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, a #1 hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary near the end of 1969.

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