Category Archives: 100 Greatest Men

100 Greatest Men: #51. Sonny James

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Decades before Taylor Swift found her way from country to pop radio, Sonny James scored the first teenage love crossover hit, setting up a long-running career that would eventually earn him a slot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Sonny James hails from Alabama.   His birth name, James Hugh Loden, and he grew up in a musical clan that performed as the Loden Family.   In the band, he used the handle Sonny Loden, and his father quickly noticed that his son's talent meant the band could perform full-time.  Now dubbed Sonny Loden and the Southerners, they played radio stations and dance halls across the south, until the marriages of his bandmate sisters set in motion the band's demise.

Sonny went back and finished high school, and after a brief military stint in Korea, he returned to professional music, signing with Capitol Records.  The label suggested the stage name Sonny James, and the young singer made a name for himself on radio and television spots, while also scoring modest country hits.

His big break came with the smash hit “Young Love”, a sweet song about teenage devotion that skyrocketed to gold-selling status in 1956.  It topped the country chart for nine weeks, and reached #2 on the pop chart.   On the latter tally, its success was limited by Capitol's inability to meet demand for the 45.  Actor Tab Hunter reaped the benefits of this, and had the #1 pop single despite radio preferring James' version.

During this period, James became known as the Southern Gentleman through his various television appearances, and he joined the Grand Ole Opry cast for a time, beginning in 1962.   Throughout the early sixties, he recorded for a handful of different labels before returning to Capitol in 1963.  It was with his second stint at the label that he achieved his greatest success, scoring a stunning string of hits that included sixteen consecutive #1 singles.  In 1971, he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He switched to Columbia in 1972, and for a brief period, radio played hits from his new label while also spinning records that Capitol continued to release after his departure from their roster.  As with many artists from his era, the hits slowed down as the seventies came to an end, and he reached the top ten for the 43rd and final time in 1977, with the appropriately titled, “You're Free to Go.”

James retired in 1983, but made his first television appearance in more than two decades in 2006, as he accepted his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.   He continues to reside in Nashville, and he makes occasional public appearances for special events.

Essential Singles:

  • Young Love, 1956
  • You're the Only World I Know, 1964
  • I'll Never Find Another You, 1967
  • It's the Little Things, 1967
  • Running Bear, 1969
  • It's Just a Matter of Time, 1970
  • Empty Arms, 1971

Essential Albums:

  • The Southern Gentleman, 1957
  • Sonny, 1957
  • Need You, 1967
  • Empty Arms, 1971

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100 Greatest Men: #52. Keith Whitley

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Some of the greatest artists in country music left the scene just as they reached staggering artistic heights, leaving fans to forever wonder what might have been.

Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, and was performing music from a very young age.  A prodigious talent, he was only fifteen years old when he met Ricky Skaggs while competing in a regional music contest.  The two became fast friends, and were soon performing on stage with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.

Whitley made two separate runs as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys with Stanley, then performed in a group called New South, led by J.D Crowe.   After appearing on more than a dozen albums, first with the Boys and then with New South, he finally pursued a solo career in the early eighties, signing with RCA records.

His first album, A Hard Act to Follow, made little impact, but his second set, L.A. to Miami, earned him stardom. It featured his breakout hit, “Miami, My Amy”, and raised his profile considerably, but Whitley was displeased with the album's slick sound.   He truly found his voice on his first gold album, Don't Close Your Eyes, which featured three consecutive #1 hits, including the CMA Single of the Year, “I'm No Stranger to the Rain”, and the modern standard, “When You Say Nothing at All.”

Whitley became a new standard-bearer for neo-traditional country music, receiving critical acclaim that exceeded that of contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton.   With the chart success and a marriage to fellow country artist Lorrie Morgan that had just produced a son, Whitley was poised for long-term professional and personal success.

Sadly, he was battling alcoholism, a fight that he lost in May 1989, when he died of alcohol poisoning.  Amazingly, his success continued posthumously with the album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me also selling gold and featuring three big hits.   He remained a presence on radio in the early nineties through duets with other artists.   A collaboration with Morgan earned the CMA Vocal Event trophy, and a collaboration with Earl Thomas Conley reached #2 in 1991.

Whitley's recording career was brief, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his influence has cast a long shadow over the genre.

Essential Singles:

  • Miami, My Amy, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • When You Say Nothing at All, 1988
  • I'm No Stranger to the Rain, 1989
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Brotherly Love (with Earl Thomas Conley), 1991

Essential Albums:

  • L.A. to Miami, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Kentucky Bluebird, 1991

Next: #51. Sonny James

Previous: #53. Brooks & Dunn

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100 Greatest Men: #53. Brooks & Dunn

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The very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, two struggling solo artists came together in the nineties and became the most c0mmercially successful duo in country music history.

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn both released solo work in the eighties to little fanfare, though they had encountered some success in other areas.  Brooks earned many songwriting credits, including hits by John Conlee (“I'm Only in it For the Love”), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (“Modern Day Romance”), and Highway 101 (“Who's Lonely Now.”)  Dunn had recorded a few sides for Churchill records that received little attention, and won a nationwide talent contest in 1988 that earned him another shot to record in Nashville.

Arista Nashville founder Tim DuBois thought the two would work well together as a duo, and despite reservations on both their parts, the chemistry was immediately there.   Upon release of their debut album Brand New Man in 1991, the duo instantly shot to the top of the charts.  Thanks to a string of four #1 singles, their first album sold more than six million copies, beginning a remarkable run of success at both radio and retail.

With Dunn usually handling lead vocals and Brooks providing the most energy in their live shows, the duo had a mostly uninterrupted run, with all but their final album selling at least gold, and most selling platinum.   They won dozens of industry awards, mostly in the Vocal Duo categories, but they were also named Entertainers of the Year twice at the ACM's and once at the CMA's.

As their career progressed, their critical acclaim largely dwindled, as their emphasis on rave-ups overshadowed their often remarkable ballads.  Still, by the time they had broken up in 2009, they had accumulated 26 #1 hits and record sales in excess of 27 million, making them the top-selling duo in country music and second only to Simon & Garfunkel among duos of all genres.    Both Brooks and Dunn are now pursuing solo careers, with Dunn already scoring a #1 country album and top ten single at radio.

Essential Singles:

  • Brand New Man, 1991
  • Neon Moon, 1992
  • Boot Scootin' Boogie, 1992
  • You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone, 1995
  • My Maria, 1996
  • The Long Goodbye, 2001
  • Red Dirt Road, 2003
  • Believe, 2005

Essential Albums:

  • Brand New Man, 1991
  • Borderline, 1996
  • Steers & Stripes, 2001
  • Red Dirt Road, 2003

Next: #52. Keith Whitley

Previous: #54. Hank Thompson

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100 Greatest Men: #54. Hank Thompson

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A legendary star who performed for more than sixty years, Hank Thompson stayed relevant as country music slowly moved from a regional music to a national one.

Born and raised in Waco, Texas,  Thompson modeled his musical style after Texas swing greats like Bob Wills and Gene Autry.  After a stint in the navy,  Thompson developed his musical craft, putting together an outstanding backing band called the Brazos Valley Boys.   The band released a few singles on independent labels, before Tex Ritter landed them a major label deal with Capitol.

Thompson would record with Capitol for eighteen years, and most of his essential work would be recorded during that period.  Thompson and his band recorded scores of hits in the fifties, including classics like “The Wild Side of Life”, which spent fifteen weeks at #1.   Before Thompson finally went solo in 1968, the band had accumulated more than two dozen top ten singles.

Thompson was a pioneer in country music marketing, starring in the first color television variety show the genre had seen, and having the first tour with corporate sponsorship.  Along with Marty Robbins, he was one of the first to make full-length country albums with a unifying concept, and in 1961, he released country music's first big live album.

Thompson recorded solo material with Dot starting in 1968, which earned him a few scattered hits in the late sixties and the early seventies.   Like many of the country stars of his generation, his star dimmed with the arrival of the Nashville sound and the increasing urbanization (and suburbanization) of the genre's audience.  Still, he remained a huge concert draw around the world, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Thompson passed away in 2007, only a month after officially retiring from live performing.

Essential Singles:

  • Humpty Dumpty Heart, 1949
  • The Wild Side of Life, 1952
  • Rub-a-Dub-Dub, 1953
  • Wake Up, Irene, 1953
  • Wildwood Flower, 1955
  • Squaws Along the Yukon, 1957

Essential Albums:

  • Songs of the Brazos Valley, 1956
  • Dance Ranch, 1958
  • Songs for Rounders, 1959
  • At the Golden Nugget, 1961
  • A Six Pack to Go, 1966
  • Smoky the Bar, 1969

Next: #53. Brooks & Dunn

Previous: #55. Roy Clark

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100 Greatest Men: #55. Roy Clark

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Thanks to a long-running syndicated television show, well-rounded entertainer Roy Clark was one of the most familiar country music personalities for more than two decades.

He grew up along the eastern coast of America, born in Virginia and living in both Staten Island, New York and Washington D.C.  Even in his youth, he refused to limit himself, pursuing boxing and baseball as passionately as the banjo.   Still, by age 17 he had performed on the Grand Ole Opry.   His stellar musicianship scored him a spot backing Jimmy Dean, and he made several appearances on Dean's D.C. television show.

After further stints backing Hank Penny and Wanda Jackson, his solo career took of in the sixties.  Though he was never a consistent hitmaker, he did record two signature songs during this decade: “The Tips of My Fingers” for Capitol in 1963, and “Yesterday, When I Was Young” in 1969.  He was better known for his appearances on variety shows and sitcoms like the Beverly Hillbillies.

His true legendary status came when he signed on as co-host of Hee Haw, the country knock-off of the very popular Laugh In.   The show was a ratings smash when it debuted in 1969, and after switching to syndication in 1971, it would remain a television staple until 1992.   Clark's combination of musicianship and humor made him an icon for the genre during an era where it still received  limited exposure on television.

The show's early run raised his profile on the radio as well, and he scored seven top ten hits between 1970 and 1976, including his only #1 single, “Come Live With Me.”   After winning the CMA award for Comedian in 1970, he was named the Entertainer of the Year in 1973.   With the advent of cable television, Clark received further exposure on televised episodes of the Grand Ole Opry, which finally made him a member in 1987.   He also helped establish Branson, Missouri as a mecca for country legends, opening his own theater there in 1983.

Clark was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

Essential Singles:

  • Tips of My Fingers, 1963
  • Yesterday, When I was Young, 1969
  • I Never Picked Cotton, 1970
  • Thank God and Greyhound, 1970
  • Come Live With Me, 1973
  • If I Had to Do it All Over Again, 1976

Essential Albums:

  • The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark, 1962
  • Yesterday, When I was Young, 1969
  • Roy Clark Live!, 1972
  • Roy Clark's Family Album, 1973
  • The Entertainer, 1974
  • Roy Clark in Concert, 1976

Next: #54. Hank Thompson

Previous: #56. Bobby Bare

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100 Greatest Men: #56. Bobby Bare

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With a career that has spanned seven decades, Bobby Bare's body of work has made him one of the genre's most influential and critically acclaimed recording artists.

Raised in poverty by his widowed father, Bare was on his own by age fifteen.  He built his own guitar and played in a Springfield, Ohio band before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a music career full-time.  His first single, “The All-American Boy”, was recorded under the name Bill Parsons.  It became a surprise pop hit, reaching #2 in America and the top thirty in England.

His pop career was short-lived, thanks to being drafted into the army.  When he returned from service, he resumed performing under his own name, pursuing a singing and songwriting career in the pop music field.  He shared an apartment with Willie Nelson and toured with some big pop acts, before turning his attention to country music in the early sixties.

Chet Atkins signed him to RCA in 1962, and he had a string of  big hits for the label, including classics like “Detroit City”, “The Streets of Baltimore”, and “500 Miles Away From Home.”  Bare began incorporating elements of the folk music scene into his music, and by the end of the decade, he'd established a reputation for tackling challenging material on record, including the controversial “(Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn.”

A brief stint on Mercury Records in the early seventies continued the streak of critically acclaimed albums, but he returned to RCA shortly thereafter. It was on that label that he released the landmark album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies.  The double album showcased the songs of Shel Silverstein, including the #1 hit, “Marie Laveau” and a duet with his son on “Daddy What If?”  Thus began a fruitful partnership with Silverstein that resulted in more critically acclaimed albums, though none of them would approach the commercial success of their first collaboration.

As the seventies progressed, Bare became aligned with the Outlaw movement, and by the early eighties, he was drawing on the catalog of writers such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.  After releasing his 1983 album Drinkin' From the Bottle, Singin' From the Heart, Bare took more than a decade off from recording. In recent years, he has returned to prominence through the Americana scene, and is now viewed as one of the forefathers of that fledgling musical movement.

Essential Singles:

  • Detroit City, 1963
  • 500 Miles Away From Home, 1963
  • The Streets of Baltimore, 1966
  • (Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn, 1969
  • How I Got to Memphis, 1970
  • Daddy What If? (with Bobby Bare, Jr.), 1974
  • Marie Laveau, 1974

Essential Albums:

  • Detroit City and Other Hits, 1963
  • 500 Miles Away From Home, 1963
  • (Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn, 1969
  • This is Bare Country, 1970
  • Bobby Bare sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies, 1973
  • Down & Dirty, 1980

Next: #55. Roy Clark

Previous: #57. Kenny Chesney

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100 Greatest Men: #57. Kenny Chesney

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After many years as a mid-level country artist, Kenny Chesney fused arena-size country with Caribbean rhythms to become one of the genre’s biggest stars of the 21st century.

Born and raised in East Tennessee, Chesney didn’t seriously start pursuing music until he was in college, despite being an enthusiast his entire life.   While continuing his studies, Chesney played in a bluegrass band and for tips at a Mexican restaurant.  He managed to finance a demo album and moved to Nashville in 1991.   He played at a local honky-tonk called the Turf, and eventually landed a publishing deal in 1992 that led to a record deal with Capricorn in 1993.

His debut for the label, In My Wildest Dreams, found little success, but it laid the groundwork for a new deal with BNA Records.  His second set, All I Need to Know, put him on the map.  Throughout the nineties, he slowly built a career at radio and retail, as his songs inched higher on the charts and he moved from gold, to platinum, and then to multi-platinum sales by the end of the nineties.

Still, there was little to indicate that he was about to explode into superstardom.  But as his live shows gained greater attention, Chesney began to incorporate Caribbean sounds into his music, styling himself as an island singer in the same vein as Jimmy Buffett.  Through stronger song choices that helped repair the novelty act image that had been created with hits like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”, Chesney began to earn critical acclaim for his work.

By the mid-2000′s, Chesney was the biggest act in country music, selling millions of copies of his albums and more concert tickets than even the biggest pop and rock acts of the day.  He dominated the awards circuit, and even managed to sell big numbers of indulgent side projects like Be Who You Are and Lucky Old Sun.

Today, Chesney remains a top concert draw and a core radio act. He is currently prepping another studio album and a co-headlining tour with Tim McGraw.

Essential Singles:

  • That’s Why I’m Here, 1998
  • The Good Stuff, 2002
  • Anything But Mine, 2005
  • Who You’d Be Today, 2005
  • Beer in Mexico, 2007
  • You and Tequila (with Grace Potter), 2011

Essential Albums:

  • I Will Stand, 1997
  • No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, 2002
  • When the Sun Goes Down, 2004
  • Be as You Are: Songs From an Old Blue Chair, 2005
  • The Road and the Radio, 2006

Next: #56. Bobby Bare

Previous: #58. Carl Smith

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100 Greatest Men: #58. Carl Smith

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One of the most successful country stars of the 1950′s, Carl Smith is as well known today for his famous relatives as for his legendary music.

Born and raised in the same Tennessee town as his childhood idol Roy Acuff, Smith taught himself guitar as a teenager.  He performed on local shows and in local bands as a teen, including the Cas Walker radio show that would later showcase a young Dolly Parton.  After a stint in the army, he did some backing musicianship until landing his own contract with Columbia Records in the late forties.

Thus began a remarkable string of commercial success.  Smith was one of the most dominant artists of the fifties, scoring a stunning 31 top ten hits during that decade.  His smooth vocal style made for a powerful contrast to the honky-tonk and rockabilly sounds of his records.   He scored signature hits with “Loose Talk” and “Are You Teasing Me”, among many others.   He became a television personality as well, often guest hosting the ABC hit, Jubilee USA.

He was also widely known for being one-half of a country superstar marriage with June Carter.  Though their marriage didn’t last too long, it did produce another future country star in daughter Carlene Carter.   After their divorce, Smith married another country star, Goldie Hill.  By the late fifties, he was also appearing in Western films.

As dominant sounds of the genre changed, Smith’s chart success dwindled a bit,  but he remained a presence on the country hit parade throughout the sixties and seventies.  He continued to both sing and act on a variety of network television shows, and wise investments allowed him to retire from the music business, though he still made some independent recordings that emphasized Western swing.

He spent the remainder of his life showing horses with Hill, until illness claimed her life in 2005.   Smith passed away five years later, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of classic country music.

Essential Singles:

  • Let’s Live a Little, 1951
  • Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way, 1951
  • Are You Teasing Me, 1952
  • Hey Joe, 1953
  • Loose Talk, 1954
  • You are the One, 1956

Essential Albums:

  • Carl Smith, 1956
  • Softly and Tenderly, 1956
  • Smith’s the Name, 1957
  • The Country Gentleman Sings His Favorites, 1967
  • Carl Smith Sings a Tribute to Roy Acuff, 1969

Next: #57. Kenny Chesney

Previous: #59. John Anderson

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100 Greatest Men: #59. John Anderson

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As one of the finest new traditionalists of the eighties and nineties, John Anderson pushed the boundaries of country music without sacrificing its distinctive heritage.

Like many of his contemporaries, Anderson grew up on both country and rock and roll.  He was a teenager when Merle Haggard led him to the genre, and what he heard was enough to motivate him to move to Nashville.  He did construction work around town, including putting the roof on the new Grand Ole Opry in the early seventies.  Over the next few years, he made a name on the club scene, which soon earned him a recording contract with Warner Brothers.

The label patiently worked him as a singles act, and as he gained traction at radio, they released his self-titled debut in 1980.  Its honky-tonk, traditional sound stood in stark contrast to the pop-flavored country that dominated the day.  With his second album, John Anderson 2, he solidified himself as a leader of the nascent new traditionalist movement, covering Lefty Frizzell and Billy Joe Shaver alongside original songs.

Still, it was the pop-flavored “Swingin’” which earned Anderson his greatest notoriety in the eighties.  The million-selling single earned Anderson the CMA award for Single of the Year, and was the peak of his years with Warner Brothers.  By the time he left the label in the late eighties, he’d scored twelve top ten hits.  But despite the fact that the sound he’d brought back to the forefront was all over country radio, he struggled for airplay and the critical acclaim of his early years faded away.

Then, a stunning second act.  Anderson signed with BNA Records in 1991, and staged a major comeback with the #1 hit, “Straight Tequila Night.”  It served as the anchor to the 1992 album Seminole Wind, which earned rave reviews and double-platinum sales.   Anderson was nominated for every major industry award, with the most attention going to the title track,  a poignant environmental plea for the protection of the Florida Everglades.

Anderson maintained momentum with the follow-up album, Solid Ground, which sold gold and included three big hits.  For the rest of the nineties, his success at radio was less consistent, and he scored his last significant chart action with “Somebody Slap Me”, a top thirty hit that was his first release for Mercury Records.

The new millenium brought a well-received collaboration with John Rich, with the resulting album, Easy Money, earning Anderson’s strongest reviews since Seminole Wind.   More recently, Anderson co-wrote Rich’s single, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”  In addition to maintaining a hectic touring schedule, Anderson is currently preparing a new studio album, slated to include guest appearances by Haggard and Willie Nelson.

Essential Singles:

  • I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday), 1981
  • Wild and Blue, 1982
  • Swingin’, 1983
  • Straight Tequila Night, 1991
  • Seminole Wind, 1992
  • I Wish I Could Have Been There, 1994

Essential Albums:

  • John Anderson 2, 1981
  • Wild & Blue, 1982
  • All the People are Talkin’, 1983
  • Seminole Wind, 1992
  • Solid Ground, 1993
  • Easy Money, 2007

Next: #58. Carl Smith

Previous: #60. Don Gibson

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100 Greatest Men: #60. Don Gibson

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The writer of several timeless country standards, Don Gibson put down his pen often enough to maintain a remarkable, decades-long career as a singer and performer.

His childhood was fraught with adversity.  His railroad worker father died when he was just two years old, and his mother remarried a sharecropper.  Gibson loathed the farm life, but also school, which he dropped out of after the second grade.   Paralyzed with shyness and hindered by a speech impediment, his escapism was the music he heard on the radio.

As a teen, he learned guitar and modeled himself after other performers, paying the bills by hustling pool.   His growing instrumental talent blossomed into a band.  Formed in 1948, Sons of the Soil garnered enough attention to earn a spot on a popular radio show.  It was there that Gibson’s individual talent shone through.

A Mercury Records producer heard them and issued four sides for them, but the band split up in 1949.  After another stint in a band called the King Cotton Kinfolks,  Gibson pursued a solo career.   A deal with Columbia resulted in promising records, but no commercial success.  Gibson focused on his songwriting, and honing his craft earned him a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose.   He insisted in an accompanying recording contract, which he received from MGM Records.

After a long wait, the hits came fast.  Over the course of the next few years, he wrote and recorded songs that are now synonymous with country music.  “Sweet Dreams” was his first top ten hit, and later was immortalized by Patsy Cline.  “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were a powerful two-sided hit on both the country and pop charts.  While the former became Gibson’s signature song, the latter is now considered a Ray Charles classic.  Meanwhile, “Just One Time” was a #2 hit two times.  Gibson took it near the top in 1960, and Connie Smith revived it in 1971.

The hits slowed in the sixties and seventies, but still remained constant.   He had a series of successful duets with Dottie West, most notably the #2 hit “Ring of Gold.” In 1972, he returned to #1 for the first time in fourteen years with “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” later covered by Mark Chesnutt.  He spent much of the seventies collaborating with Sue Thompson, charting eleven songs together from 1971 to 1976.

From the eighties up until his death in 2003, Gibson remained an Opry performer and elder statesman of the genre.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, a nice bookend to his Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction back in 1971.

Essential Singles:

  • Sweet Dreams, 1956
  • Oh Lonesome Me, 1958
  • I Can’t Stop Loving You, 1958
  • Sea of Heartbreak, 1961
  • Rings of Gold (with Dottie West), 1969
  • Woman (Sensuous Woman), 1972

Essential Albums:

  • Oh Lonesome Me, 1958
  • That Gibson Boy, 1959
  • I Wrote a Song…, 1963
  • Great Country Songs, 1966
  • Country Green, 1971

Next: #59. John Anderson

Previous: #61. Charlie Daniels

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