The Few Remaining Icons

Time CashI’ve heard it said so many times in the past week: the death of Michael Jackson is my generation’s equivalent of the Death of Elvis Presley. (I can only assume that makes Kurt Cobain our Janis Joplin?)

He was a controversial figure, to be sure, and much like Elvis, a tragic figure even before his tragic death. Being a music fan first, I lost interest in Jackson a long time ago, simply because he’s made so little music in the past two decades – a mere three studio albums in more than twenty years.

But there’s no doubt that he’s an icon, the embodiment of the MTV age and the breakdown of barriers between pop, R&B and dance music.  Who does pop music have left that’s in the same league? Only Madonna, but since she’s still very much at the top of her game and is anything but a tragic figure, don’t expect the mourning for her to begin any time soon.

But pop music isn’t the only genre running low on icons. What country acts remain that could garner significant coverage upon their death? Johnny Cash’s death made the cover of Time magazine, an honor usually reserved for former Beatles members. CNN broadcast live from Tammy Wynette’s funeral back in 1998.

In contrast, Waylon Jennings and Porter Wagoner, two legends and Hall of Fame members, made barely a ripple in the national news media. It’s easy to imagine the same fate for George Jones and Merle Haggard, two country music icons that have never been nearly as popular in the media beyond country music.

Who are the icons in country music that could command the same attention as Wynette and Cash, or perhaps even Jackson, when their road comes to an end?


  1. Those were the two I thought of. Maybe Willie Nelson, too. But I wonder how much the “gone too soon” element plays into things.

  2. I’m a little queezy when people say that MJ is this generation’s Elvis, though that’s probably because I’m technically a bigger fan of Elvis’ music.

    I think Dolly, Willie and Loretta would very likely get the media treatment similar to Johnny Cash. I’m inclined to think that Reba might too, though I’m a bit less sure.

  3. Dolly Parton & George Strait. I don’t think Randy Travis would fall under this category (not a personal thing – from a media perspective).

    An interesting thing to think about is whether or not any relatively new, current artists have the potential to grow into an icon like the ones mentioned above. It seems there are fewer and fewer artists these days who do, but perhaps there are one or two?

  4. I wonder about George Strait though. I think he’s huge in country music, but largely unnoticed by those outside of it.

  5. I think Dolly’s icon status is pretty well cemented. If she passed away any time in the next 100 years, I believe she’d be celebrated on the same scale as Cash. Her contributions to music and popular culture at large certainly merit it.

    I think Garth Brooks and Reba are iffy. Both made huge steps outside country music, but maybe not enough to warrant global attention. I’ll wait and see what the next decade has in store for them.

  6. I think the age thing does play a factor. However, the first few that came to mind were definitely Dolly, Willie, Reba and George Strait. I think George Jones would receive a lot of coverage in the country community and some mainstream American news coverage.

  7. As far as Garth goes, I don’t think there will be an overflow of media coverage. Unless he dies young, he needs to do something to redefine himself and make himself artistically relevant. Cash continued to redefine himself artistically even up until his death. If Garth just goes through the next 40 years being acknowledged for what he did in 1991, it won’t see as much national coverage as Cash.

    I even think Willie Nelson won’t see as much, just because everybody liked him. I know I’m painting myself into a corner here by suggesting Nelson isn’t the definition of outlaw but when you compare Nelson and Cash, its a comparison of a fun-loving guy that everybody loves versus this conflicted, tortured soul. That embodiment was part of Cash’s image and transcended through his music and allowed his listeners to see it in themselves, furthering his influence. I’m sure I’ll get blasted for this post haha

  8. I would like to think that Willie will be revered in the media for his entire body of work, including the songs that he wrote, alongside the Outlaw image he parlayed in the 70s. A man who writes classics like “Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, and others that people keep doing over the decades is, in my opinion, worthy of a certain amount of attention when they depart.

    I’d also like to think that Linda Ronstadt, however private a singer she has been, would be shown some love when she passes away. After all, three generations of female country and roots-rock singers revere her; and she has largely been free of scandal (save for what she said in Las Vegas in 2004, which was ridiculously and not surprisingly overblown in the media).

  9. I would think Shania would get considerable attention when she passes. Someone said it would be kinda cool too note who future icons would be, and for my generation(present teens), I think Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift have all set themselves up for future icon status. Taylor is a little iffy, but I think even if her popularity as a singer declines she still is a great songwriter.

  10. And just why not randy travis? – if it weren’t for randy turning country back to its roots in the 80s for people like Garth to coattail on, country may not have even opened the door to Garth and a few others at the time. It wasn’t until randy Travis came along that you even saw many country artists on such shows at Jay leno, David Letterman, good Morning America, Saturday Night Live, etc. I attribute this to his publicist at the time, Evelyn Shriver. Randy has had a phenominal career with acting, gospel music, country, etc. He is as deserving as any of the others in my opinion. Just because radio has chosen to slam the door on him for whatever reason, he has given a lot to the industry. He’ll be remembered in my heart, I know, fforever and Ever, Amen. Thank God i can still enjoy him to date and just saw him for two shows this past weekend. Yes, some of us still do go to his shows believe it or not.

  11. I think it would have to be someone who is not only relevant in country music, but also big in music in general and media. Michael Jackson was known by everyone, but I’m not sure how much country music superstars are known outside of North America and for people who don’t listen to country music to the scale of Madonna/Elvis/Michael

    I would state Reba would be up there, but but still state that her passing wouldn’t be HUGE stories. She’ll get coverage though. Same with Garth/Dolly. I think Shania would get a good amount of attention.

    Also, country music stars don’t get the media attention that other celebs do. People just don’t know enough about them, or hear about them often enough to be huge news.

    I think in the country music industry, when Reba/Garth/Dolly/Shania/George all pass away, they’ll be huge news. But no where near the scale that Michael has recieved, or other musical acts such as Madonna or Janet Jackson will recieve.

  12. Reba, Garth, and Shania (especially) broke into the mainstream in a way that would suggest they be lauded similarly to Michael Jackson but, even as undoubtedly successful commercially as Shania was, that sort of success still doesn’t stand up to the continually resonating icon status that Michael, Johnny Cash, and Madonna have enjoyed.

    “Thriller” “Like a Virgin” and “Walk the Line” stand out more in the public’s mind far more than “Friends in Low Places” and “You’re Still the One” ever will.

    Dolly is a superstar. Same with Willie. It will be a huge deal. And though he isn’t as appreciated in the mainstream as he should be, George Jones will be mourned by mainstream if only because the outpouring of grief from the country music industry (performers, media, etc) will force it.

  13. In country, Willie Nelson will get treatment very close to Johnny Cash’s passing. In the rock world, Bruce Springsteen will. Both are deserved.

  14. JoeB,
    I agree that Micheals coverage is pretty big, but I think that you have to look at which generations they impacted. Micheal Jackson was definatly more of an icon of Generation X with Thriller and throughout the 80’s.

    Whereas, I think teens and kids that were around in the 90’s when Garth and Shania were big will think of them as icons to their generation.

  15. JoeB: I’m 28. For my generation “Friends in Low Places” was a HUGE song. It made it cool to be a country music fan and at every wedding, party, dance I’ve been too- when that song comes on, everyone knows the words.

  16. Icon/Iconic – tough to decide whether anyone truly is an Icon in the strictest sense of the word. In my lifetime I think that the only Americans who accurately could be described as Icons would be Ronald Reagan, JFK , Martin Luther King, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra,Paul Newman, Ted Williams, Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali, Joe Louis and maybe one or two others

    Using a looser definition you could add others such as Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, maybe a (very)few other entertainers plus Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Johnny Unitas

    When it comes to persons such as OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, I think the negatives associated with them SHOULD prevent them from from achieving that status, although from the recent press coverage ,it seems that our current unthinking pop culture society considers moonwalking sufficient to cancel out the weirdness associated with Michael Jackson (sigh)

  17. I admit that Michael’s alleged “bad behavior” (alleged, because it was never proven in a court of law that he did anything) taints his iconic status to a degree, though his mishandling of those scandals in terms of public relations was even worse. But I think he’ll be far more worthy of iconic status than his father, who, to me, merits a long stretch in Purgatory for what he did to his kids.

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