Discovering the Real Names of Country Stars

From Patsy Cline to Shania Twain, Stage Names Remain Popular

The names of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams are etched into country music history. However, that’s not their real names. Instead, Cline was born with the name Virginia Patterson Hensley. And despite the countless references to “Hank” in country music lyrics, his actual name is Hiram King Williams.

From the early days of country music to the present era, country stars have reinvented their image with new, catchy names. Kitty Wells, who entered the country charts in 1952 with the landmark “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” is often considered the Queen of Country Music. It’s probably an easier name to remember than her real one, Ellen Muriel Deason. Also, Roy Rogers brings to mind a friendly cowboy image. What if he had used his real name, Leonard Franklin Slye? Hmmm.

In the 1950s, a TV producer in Georgia met a talented teen named Brenda Mae Tarpley. He believed that her name was too hard to remember, so he shortened it to Brenda Lee. Also known as Little Miss Dynamite, she’s currently the only woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The 1970s hosted a number of still-famous names in country music. Conway Twitty borrowed his first and last names from Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Texas. Before that, he was known as Harold Lloyd Jenkins. Still identified with the “Rocky Mountain High” of Colorado, John Denver wisely dropped his real name — John Henry Deutschendorf. Johnny Paycheck once signed his name as Donald Eugene Lytle. Donna Fargo dropped Yvonne Vaughn, then became known as “The Happiest Girl in the U.S.A.” When Virginia Wynette Pugh famously strolled into producer Billy Sherrill’s office, she probably didn’t know she was about to become Tammy Wynette. And Crystal Gayle changed her name from Brenda Gail Webb on the advice of her older sister, Loretta Lynn, noting that Brenda liked that Southern staple, Krystal hamburgers.

One of the biggest country stars of the 1980s kept his real first name but slightly adjusted his surname, transforming from Randy Traywick to Randy Travis. Back then, he shared the country charts with the intriguing mother-daughter duo, Diana and Christina Ciminella, a.k.a., the Judds. Naomi Judd smartly retrieved her maiden name for the famous moniker, while Wynonna eventually dropped it altogether.

Speaking of famous couples, how about Samuel Smith and Audrey Perry? Oh, you might know them by their middle names — Timothy and Faith. See, Tim McGraw adopted his last name when he found out his real father was Tug McGraw, while Faith Hill kept her last name from her first marriage before she became a superstar.

Dropping the first name and using the middle name is a common practice in country music. There’s Troyal Garth Brooks, Valerie June Carter, Morna Anne Murray, Margaret LeAnn Rimes, Ernest Clay Walker and Jessie Keith Whitley, to name a few. Meanwhile, some artists chop their last names, like Gary Allan Herzberg, Toby Keith Covel and Jimmy Wayne Barber. Or if you’re exceptionally confident, you swap out your old name with the French term for “The Voice,” thus evolving from Gary Wayne Vernon Jr. to Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts.

Finally, do you know the artist with the best-selling country album in history? That would be Eileen Regina Edwards. When her mother married a man in the Ojibwa Indian tribe, Eileen took his last name. To honor him, she also changed her first name to the Ojibwa word for “on my way.” Indeed she was. The world knows her now as Shania Twain.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.