Although country music was dominated by men when Billboard began ranking country songs in 1944, the landscape changed for female artists in the 1950s and 1960s, as the genre claimed Nashville as a recording center and the Country Music Association was formed to create new and larger audiences. This would also be the period when the music was battered by the advent of rock ’n’ roll but would ultimately find renewed vigor through outlets as disparate as bluegrass festivals and crowd-appealing network TV shows.
It’s a fool’s game to try to rank these groundbreaking women in order of their importance or influence. So what we’ve done is list them chronologically according to their first appearance on the Billboard chart.
THE HALL OF FAMERS
Probably the most prolific female songwriter of them all, Felice Bryant (1925-2003) and her fiddle-playing husband, Boudleaux, moved to Nashville in 1950 to work as full-time composers. They were encouraged by the success Little Jimmy Dickens had a year earlier with their song “Country Boy,” which rocketed to No. 7. Cuts by Carl Smith would follow.
But dwarfing these early successes were the hits they wrote for the Everly Brothers, among these “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Then in 1968 came their insanely infectious “Rocky Top,” first a hit for the Osborne Brothers and, in time, a staple for every bluegrass banjo player who ever lived. The Bryants were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1991. An exhibit about their life is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum through August 2.
After having performed in the shadow of her husband Johnny Wright and his singing partner Jack Anglin, Kitty Wells (1919-2012) blew that duo out of the water in 1952 with her massive hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It was her first record to chart and an “answer song” to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” which lamented “I didn’t know God made honky tonky angels/I might have known you’d never make a wife.”
To this, Wells’ tune responded, “It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels/as you said in the words of your song/Too many times married men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Wells (real name: Muriel Deason) became known as the Queen of Country Music and would score two more No. 1’s in a chart history that extended into 1979. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976
A hardcore country traditionalist, Jean Shepard (1933-2016) played bass in an all-woman band called The Melody Ranch Girls before setting out on a solo career. Her first chart song and only No. 1 came in 1953 with “A Dear John Letter,” a duet with Ferlin Huskey. Like Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “A Dear John Letter” topped the charts for six weeks.
Among Shepard’s Top 5 hits were “Satisfied Mind” and “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar).” In 1960 she married singer Hawkshaw Hawkins, who, three years later, was killed in the plane crash that took Patsy Cline’s life. Shepard was welcomed into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
The brother-and-sisters act The Browns first charted in 1954 with “Looking Back to See,” a song Jim Ed Brown (1934-2015) and Maxine Brown (1931-2019) wrote. With the ensemble’s lineup rounded out by Bonnie Brown (1938-2016), their songs reached into the Top 10s and Top 20s until 1959 when they exploded with “The Three Bells.” It crowned the country charts for 10 weeks, the pop charts for four and even rose to No. 10 on the R&B rankings.
The song made the trio international stars and earned them extensive exposure on network television. Although they never again reached “The Three Bells” stature, they continued recording and touring until 1967. After their split, Jim Ed went on to a long and successful solo career, and Maxine recorded one album. The Browns were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Such was her wide vocal appeal and heart-melting songs that Patsy Cline (1932-1963) achieved legendary status in the relatively short six-year period she recorded. Her first hit, “Walking After Midnight,” came in 1957 and was followed by such standards-in-embryo as “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” and “She’s Got You.”
She was killed in a plane crash in 1963, along with fellow stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, while returning to Nashville from a benefit concert. Her life was depicted in the 1985 movie, Sweet Dreams. Cline’s singles continued to chart intermittently until 1999. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.
First lionized as a teen rock ’n’ roll star, Brenda Lee (b. 1944) put one single, “One Step at a Time,” on the country chart in 1957. But she would not return to the country rankings again until 1969, after which many hits would follow into the 1980s, such as her rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Nobody Wins.”
Little Miss Dynamite, as she was early known, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. She remains the only woman to be a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1958, Frances Preston (1934-2012) was hired to head the Nashville office of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), a major performance rights organization that collects and distributes to songwriters and publishers royalties earned from the public use of BMI-registered songs. She rose to become the most influential female executive on Music Row and then went on to head BMI in New York from 1986 until her retirement in 2004. She was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992.
Loretta Lynn (b. 1932) told her life story in her 1970 hit, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which, in turn, became a bestselling autobiography in 1976 and a critically-acclaimed movie in 1980. A vivid and forceful songwriter, Lynn composed many of her best-known songs, beginning with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” her first chart record, in 1960. Many of her songs chronicled the travails of marriage and motherhood and the problems of a straying husband (all true to Lynn’s life).
These classics include such semi-sermons as “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” and “Rated X.” She raised the hackles of radio censors — while delighting other women — with “The Pill,” a song she didn’t write but which echoed her approval of birth control pills. Lynn also had many successful duet hits, first with Ernest Tubb, and later with Conway Twitty. Just as Patsy Cline had mentored her career, Lynn did the same for her younger sister, who achieved fame as Crystal Gayle. Lynn was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.
Jo Walker-Meador (1924-2017) guided the fortunes of the Country Music Association (which was established in 1958) from 1962 until 1991. She led the fund drive for building the original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, was instrumental in creating the annual CMA Awards Show, which launched in 1967, and oversaw Fan Fair, which started in 1972 and has since morphed into the CMA Music Festival. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
Identified with “Country Sunshine,” the No. 2 single and Clio-winning Coca-Cola jingle she co-wrote, Dottie West (1932-1991) broke into the country charts in 1963 with “Let Me Off at the Corner.” Her third single, “Here Comes My Baby,” also a co-write, went to No. 10 and won a Grammy, making her the first female Grammy winner in country music history. In a long career that terminated tragically in a car accident in 1991, West charted 63 singles.
However, she didn’t reach No. 1 until 1973 when she began duetting with Kenny Rogers. Their first chart-topper was “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” followed by “All I Ever Need Is You.” In 1980, she went No. 1 on her own with “A Lesson in Leavin’” and did it again that same year with “Are You Happy Baby?” Paired again with Rogers, she topped the charts in 1981 with “What Are We Doin’ in Love.” Her daughter Shelly West followed in her mother’s footsteps as a country artist. Dottie West was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
Admired for her powerful, intense vocals, Connie Smith (b. 1941) struck gold when Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson discovered her in an Ohio talent contest. He proceeded to write her debut single, “Once a Day,” that went No. 1 in 1964. Her subsequent 47 chart singles included such Top 5 hits as “Then and Only Then,” “If I Talk to Him,” “Nobody But a Fool (Would Love You),” “Ain’t Had No Lovin’” and “The Hurtin’s All Over.” She joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965 and in 1997 married Marty Stuart. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
Heartache, thy name is Tammy Wynette (1942-1998). In the Ken Burns PBS series on country music, producer Billy Sherrill recalls how he gave Virginia Wynette Pugh the name “Tammy” and how, later on, she and her former husband and singing partner George Jones interacted like “wounded animals.” She did not, as Sherrill promised her, make history with her first single, “Apartment #9,” which was released in late 1966 and rose only to No. 44. But the blockbusters came soon after that, with “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” “My Elusive Dreams” (a duet with David Houston), and the Grammy-winning “I Don’t Wanna Play House.”
Her tear-stained voice carried so much emotional weight that three of her songs were featured in the soundtrack of the 1970 film, Five Easy Pieces. “Stand By Your Man,” the 1968 No. 1 that Wynette and Sherrill co-wrote, won a Grammy for best female vocal and was later installed into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In all, Wynette would score 20 No. 1s, including her duets with Jones, before tapering off, chartwise, in the mid-1970s. In 1993, she joined Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for the album Honky Tonk Angels. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998.
If Dolly Parton (b. 1946) isn’t already designated as country music’s official ambassador to the universe, something is terribly amiss. Uncommonly witty, ambitious and market-savvy despite having been born dirt poor, she has built an empire that embraces performing, music publishing, recording, conventional and television movies, the Dollywood theme park in her native east Tennessee and a worldwide books-to-children charity.
Parton was determined to be an entertainer from childhood and was performing on a Knoxville television show before she reached her teens. She recorded her first single (which did not chart) when she was 12. The day after graduating from high school, she moved to Nashville. Her first chart record, “Dumb Blonde,” was released in 1967 and she joined the Opry in 1969. Although she constructed her image around her often-elaborate blonde wigs and ample bosom, she has never used sexiness to sell her performances or grab headlines.
Her songs were (and are) deep, compassionate and insightful. Many of them have become as much a part of the Great American Songbook as those written by Ira Gershwin or Johnny Mercer — classics such as “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene” and “9 to 5,” the theme from her 1980 movie of the same name. She was mentored and produced for years by Porter Wagoner and starred on his syndicated TV show from 1967 to 1974. She has charted 25 No. 1 country singles, won nine Grammys, received two Oscar nominations, and in 2019 was the Recording Academy’s MusiCare’s Person of the Year. Parton was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
HITS AND HOT SHOTS
June Carter Cash: As the daughter of Maybelle Carter, one of country music’s founding mothers, the former wife of country star Carl Smith and later the wife and singing partner of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) was as close as it comes to being country music royalty. Her first chart record under her own name came in 1949 via “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which paired her with the comic duo Homer & Jethro. Her Top 5 country hits with Cash were “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Jackson,” the last-named of which won her and Cash a Grammy as best vocal duo. She appeared prominently on The Johnny Cash Show from 1969 to 1971.
Patti Page: Best known for her 1950 crossover hit, “The Tennessee Waltz,” Page (1927-2013) charted various other country singles through 1982, including the 1972 Top 20 duet with Tom T. Hall, “Hello We’re Lonely.” Her recording of “The Tennessee Waltz” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Del Wood: Wood (1920-1989) had only one chart hit — the No. 5 piano tour de force “Down Yonder” in 1951. But it was sufficient to earn her Grand Ole Opry membership in 1953, a niche she occupied until her death.
Bessie Lee Mauldin: Mauldin (1920-1983) was Bill Monroe’s bass player from 1953 to 1964 and co-wrote with him the bluegrass classic, “A Voice from on High.”
Wanda Jackson: Often dubbed the Queen of Rockabilly, Jackson (b. 1937) charted country songs from 1964 to 1974, generally in the lower regions. Her most famous singles are “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache.”
Skeeter Davis: Davis (1931-2004) first came to public notice in 1953 as half of the Davis Sisters (although she and Betty Jack Davis were not related). Their “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” reached No. 1 and stayed there for a remarkable eight weeks. Betty Jack was killed in a car wreck that same year, after which Skeeter moved on as a solo act. Her chart debut came in 1958 with “Lost to a Geisha Girl.” She would chart 40 more singles, including her 1962 crossover hit, “The End of the World.” as well as “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” and “I Can’t Stay Mad at You.” She was married to disc jockey Ralph Emery from 1960 to 1964 and to Joey Spampinato of the rock band NRBQ from 1983 to 1996.
Jeannie Seely: A gifted singer and songwriter, Seely (b. 1940) won a Grammy for her very first single, “Don’t Touch Me,” released in 1966 and written by Hank Cochran, whom she would later marry. She also has the distinction of having been the first Grand Ole Opry member to wear a miniskirt on stage — although not without some grumbling from Opry management. Seely scored a hit “Wish I Didn’t Have to Miss You” with fellow Opry member Jack Greene in 1969 and a solo hit “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” in 1973. Seely remains one of the Opry’s most applauded performers.
Bobbie Gentry: Smoky-voiced Gentry (b. 1944) is most famous for writing two quirky hits, the puzzling “Ode to Billy Joe,” her recording of which now resides in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the explicit “Fancy” (“Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy/and they’ll be nice to you.”). She placed six singles on the country charts between 1967 and 1970, three of them duets with Glen Campbell, and co-hosted the first CMA Awards show with Sonny James.
Jeannie C. Riley: Riley (b. 1945) sang Tom T. Hall’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” to No. 1 on both the country and pop charts in 1968 and won a Grammy in the process. The chatter surrounding the song — including Riley being forced to wear a miniskirt when accepting her CMA award for single of the year — dimmed the fact that she scored several Top 10s after her glittery debut. Among these were “The Girl Most Likely,” “There Never Was a Time,” “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.”
As prominent as women were during this fruiful period, better days were still to come.
Read about the first generation of female country artists, including Maybelle Carter, Minnie Pearl, and songwriter Cindy Walker.
Pictured (L-R): Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton