Get out your rhinestone suit, your bolo tie, and your cowboy boots, it’s time for a hoedown of facts! From Kitty Wells to Carrie Underwood, country music has captivated America since its inception. Country songs often express true stories of hard drinking, cheatin’ hearts, and lonesome blues. Because of their authenticity and honesty, their music now resonates with millions. Singing cowboys, Texas twangs, Dollywood—it’s all here, in our list of Honky Tonk Facts about Country Music Legends!
Country Music Legends Facts
1. She Started It All
Country queen Kitty Wells broke barriers in country music when she became the first woman to top the country charts with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in 1952.The song responded to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” which described loose women luring married men into cheating. Wells’ song claps back by laying the blame on married men who prey on lonely single girls.
Even though Kitty Wells’ song was popular—it sold over a million records—she wasn’t allowed to perform it on TV, the radio, and even the Grand Ole Opry either. The song was considered too inflammatory! Some have even called her the first feminist in country music.
3. Where It All Began
Country music began to take shape in the 1920s. The songs came from Appalachians, Southerners, and Texans who lived hardscrabble lives. They sang about unrequited romances and the hopeless feeling of being poor, and their songs often discussed poverty, sadness, lost love, and entrapment.
4. When Did Country Become Country?
It’s difficult to chart the moment when country music truly became its own genre. Country grew out of folk music traditions and gradually gained its signature twang over time. The name, however, is a different story. The genre began life as “hillbilly music”, but by the 1940s that term fell out of favor. Soon enough, when people talked about the music of rural folk, they called it “country music.”
5. A Genre Apart
While “country” songs were written about everyday people, “folk” music became more political. In 1952, Pete Seeger, then the lead singer of The Weavers, testified in front of senate hearings lead by Senator Joe McCarthy about his “Communist leanings”. After that, the industry switched entirely from “folk” to “country and Western” to distance itself from any whiff of Communist politics.
6. Country Pioneer
The first country artist to sell a million records was Jimmie Rodgers, with his song “Blue Yodel” in 1928. Rodgers combined the Appalachian folk music with musical techniques from African-American blues music. “Blue Yodel” also made yodelling a famous and popular feature of early country music, especially when performers like Hank Williams and Roy Rogers adopted it with style.
7. Humble Beginnings
Dolly Rebecca Parton was born to a poor family in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. The young girl lived in a one-room house with her parents and her eleven siblings. Parton often sang about her impoverished roots, writing tunes like “Coat of Many Colors,” “Little Sparrow,” and “In The Good Old Days, When Times Were Bad.”
8. A Moving Tribute
Dolly Parton’s family was so poor that when she was born, her father paid the doctor by giving him a bag of oatmeal. Dolly later paid homage to the country doctor by writing a song named “Doctor Robert F. Thomas” after him. The song appears on her 1972 album, My Tennessee Mountain Home. The chapel at her theme park, Dollywood, also bears his name.
9. Stage Name
If you think that Johnny Cash had a name that’s too good to be real, you’re right. However, while many artists opt for a more stage-worthy last name, “Cash” is in fact the real part! He was born J.R. Cash—and no, the J.R. doesn’t actually stand for anything. The “R” was a compromise—his mother’s maiden name was Rivers and his father’s name was Ray. Cash changed his name to John R. Cash to enlist (they wouldn’t accept a first name that was only initials), then began performing as “Johnny Cash.”
10. In Real Life
George Jones was known as a hard-drinkin’ country singer who lived out his songs. He even reportedly rode his lawn mower to a bar in the middle of the night! Jones didn’t try to romanticize his alcoholism. He once said, “Sooner or later, you’re gonna drink too many and make a butt out of yourself or lose a friend or something… It’s just a shame that it took me so damn long to understand that I wasn’t getting a damn thing by it.”
11. Third Time’s The Charm
In 1966, George Jones tried to start a country music theme park in Vidor, Texas. He called it “George Jones Rhythm Ranch” and opened the venture with a live performance. However, things went off the rails when Jones went on a bender and disappeared for a month. After that failure, he opened a concert venue with then-wife Tammy Wynette. He called this park “Ol Plantation Theme Park” and later on, he opened “The Jones Country Theme Park” with his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado. This man loved drinking and theme parks, what can I say?
Move over, George. The most successful country music theme park has got to be Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Parton opened the theme park in 1986 as a way to contribute to her roots in the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee. The park now sees more than two million visitors a year and provides 3,000 jobs to resident’s of Sevierville. In fact, Dollywood is Sevier County’s largest employer!
13. What’s In A Name?
Country music fans are sometimes stereotyped as uneducated bumpkins, but country songs are often pretty darn clever. Songs often use puns and turns of phrase that would make Noel Coward proud. For example, “Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth ‘Cause I’m Kissing You Goodbye” by John Denver, “You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly” by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” by Gary Stewart, and “I’ve Been Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart” by Johnny Cash. Okay, maybe that last one isn’t that clever…
14. Smart Cookie
It’s true, some of country’s biggest stars became famous even though they lacked more than a grade school education. But did you know that Kris Kristofferson, outlaw country legend and singer of “The Silver-Tongued Devil and Me,” was a Rhodes Scholar? Kristofferson received a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature at Oxford University before joining the troops. He gave up a teaching position to try his hand at country music stardom.
15. Breast Investment
Dolly Parton is famous for her 40DD knockers. Besides her incredible voice, songwriting talent, and winning personality, they’re one of her most valuable assets! The pair, which she has nicknamed “Shock” and “Awe” are insured for $600,000. That’s $300,000 each!
16. Singing Cowboy
If you’re a Baby Boomer, you might remember crooning cowboys from your childhood. Stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers played heroes of Western movies, complete with a round-the-campfire song strummed on an acoustic guitar. The trope began in 1923 with Ken Maynard, the silver screen’s first singing cowboy. Many others would follow in his footsteps, though the genre understandably got a lot more popular after the advent of movies with sound.
17. Award Winner
Tex Ritter elevated the “singing cowboy” trope when he received an Academy Award in 1953 for the song “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling.” It was the title track for the Western High Noon (1952).
18. Changing Stereotypes
Western movies often exploited the Cowboys-and-Indians theme. Some films, when viewed today, can seem controversial or even prejudiced. However, Roy Rogers, one of the most famous singing cowboys in Hollywood, had Indigenous heritage! Rogers’ maternal great-grandmother was Choctaw. Interestingly, Rogers never appeared in a movie where he fought Indigenous people.
In his movies, they were always friends with his character.
Some of country music’s best song are duets between stars who are huge in their own right. Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers had a mega-hit with “Islands In The Stream.” Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty released 11 albums together between 1971-1988. The country music powerhouse trio of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt recorded two albums called Trio and Trio II. Both are popular to this day and, hot tip, have recently been reissued on vinyl.
20. True Love
Of course, there’s nothing like a love song sung by people who are in love. George Jones and Tammy Wynette were King and Queen of country in 1971 when they recorded “We Go Together.” That ditty was followed by eight other albums (including four after they divorced!). Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge also duetted on three albums while they were married. Johnny Cash frequently sang duets with his wife, June Carter. In modern country, you need only look at Faith Hill and Tim McGraw to see husband and wife working together to make beautiful music!
21. Roller Coaster Romance
The hard-partying, drinking, and womanizing that often goes with country music stardom can make marriage hard. So it’s no wonder that some country stars have tied the knot multiple times! George Jones wed four times, including once to fellow country superstar Tammy Wynette. Kenny Rogers, meanwhile, walked down the aisle an astonishing five times.
22. Staying Grounded
Dolly Parton has always eschewed life in the fast lane, even though she loves glitz and glamour. She married Carl Dean in 1966, before sh landed her first record contract. She keeps her personal life with Dean out of the spotlight; despite the couple’s wealth, he had a lifelong asphalt road paving business. The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016.
23. Dodging The Reaper
Waylon Jennings might be an outlaw country icon, but he appreciated Rock & Roll and was close friends with Buddy Holly. In fact, Jennings planned to take a flight with Buddy Holly in 1959, but gave up his seat to fellow musician The Big Bopper (aka J.P. Richardson), because he had the flu. Sadly, the plane crashed, ending the lives of everyone on board. The tragedy, and his close brush with the abyss, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.
Country songs can deal with intense subjects like heartbreak and sadness, but the genre often shies away from explicit material (unlike, say, rock & roll), so it’s no wonder that many country legends got their start as children. Tanya Tucker was only 13 years old when she had her first hit, “Delta Dawn,” in 1972. The record label tried to conceal her age, which only drew more attention to it. Eventually, she shed her identity as a wholesome teen star in 1978 with the album TNT. It featured a sexy new public image and a crossover to Rock & Roll.
25. The Boy In Black
Country music is full of sad stories, and Johnny Cash’s life is no exception. At age 12, Cash’s older brother Jack was pulled into a table saw while cutting wood to help feed the family. He later passed of his injuries. The loss affected Johnny profoundly. Decades later he spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in heaven. Johnny reportedly even helped dig his brother’s grave. Perhaps his later habit of dressing all in black was partly out of mourning.
26. The Horse Thief
Kenny Chesney came to fame decades after “outlaw country” became a genre. Perhaps he was swayed by stories of old-time cowboys when Chesney crossed the law with his own offence: Attempting to steal a policeman’s horse. While performing at a festival in Buffalo, NY, Chesney received permission to sit atop an officer’s horse. When he tried to ride away, a scuffle ensued. The resulting brawl injured two deputies. The whole shebang saw charges laid against Chesney and fellow musician Tim McGraw, who stepped in to intervene.
27. The Original Hank
Few Country stars will ever reach the fame and influence of Hank Williams. Born Hiram Williams in 1923, Williams captivated the nation with hit songs such as “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Lovesick Blues.” Williams was among the very first inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961, with fellow country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.
Hank Williams also spawned one of country music’s first dynasties. His son, Randall Hank Williams, known as Hank Williams Jr., became a Country star in his own right. His song “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” became the opening song for Monday Night Football. His son, Sheldon Hank Williams, known as Hank Williams III, spent his youth drumming in punk bands before making a name for himself in outlaw country.
29. Dressing The Part
Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohn, became famous for clothing some of country’s biggest stars. Cohn embellished his famous “Nudie Suits” with embroidery, beading, sequins, and rhinestones. Some of his creations include the $10,000 gold lamé suit worn on the cover of Elvis Presley’s 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong album and Hank Williams’ white suit, decorated with musical notation on the arms. Porter Wagoner owned 52 Nudie Suits, each costing between $11,000 and $18,000. A Nudie shirt owned by Johnny Cash sold for $25,000 at auction in 2010.
30. Nashville Sound
In the 1950s, a subgenre of country music emerged among Nashville producers. It was called “Nashville Sound.” Distinct from the raucous “honky tonk” Country songs of the 1940s and ‘50s, the Nashville Sound style featured “smooth strings and choruses,” “sophisticated background vocals,” and “smooth tempos.” In other words, the music of Patsy Cline, Lynn Anderson, and Brenda Lee.
31. Like A Rhinestone Cowboy
Nudie Cohn’s studded and embroidered western wear became synonymous with the image of the “Rhinestone Cowboy.” This was a new breed of country star that eschewed the plaid-shirt-and-denim look in favor of flashy glamor. The look inspired the hit song “Rhinestone Cowboy” made famous by Glen Campbell in 1975, and the 1984 musical comedy Rhinestone, starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone.
Not everyone embraced the “Rhinestone Cowboy” look. In fact, many country artists hated the glitz and glamour that became popular in Nashville. In the 1970s and ‘80s, artists from the “outlaw movement” developed a raw, more “authentic” sound. Artists like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark paid homage to honky tonk with their long hair, threadbare jeans, and leather jackets.
Waylon Jennings criticized the ostentatious displays of wealth and glitz with a song. In his 1973 outlaw country anthem, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” he suggests that true country musicians weren’t about glamour.
33. Country On Film
The documentary film Heartworn Highways, which was filmed in 1975, but not released until 1981, features some of the best documentation of the outlaw country movement. The film contains incredible footage of performances by Townes van Zandt, David Allen Coe, Guy Clark, and Gamble Rogers, as well as rare behind-the-scenes footage—plus a living room sing-along appearance by the outlaw country legend Steve Earle, who had yet to release his first album. The film, which was notoriously hard to find, was re-edited and re-released in 2015.
34. Behind Bars
Many of country music’s biggest stars grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and used their hard lives to infuse their music with authenticity. Crime and imprisonment became common themes in country music—especially in Johnny Cash’s 1956 song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” He performed the song for inmates in person in two famous concerts at Folsom State Prison, in 1966 and again in 1968. The latter concert was recorded and released as the album, At Folsom Prison.
35. The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy
Outlaw country singer David Allen Coe paid tribute to Cash’s prison albums with his debut album, Penitentiary Blues, in 1970. Coe, who released over 50 albums himself, achieved even more success as a songwriter, as covers of his songs (such as “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” covered by Tanya Tucker in 1973, and “Take This Job And Shove It,” covered by Johnny Paycheck in 1977) were more famous than his own releases.
Coe was known for his flamboyant performances—he once rode on stage on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Entrenched in the “Outlaw Country” style, Coe often wore rhinestone suits himself, coyly critiquing the hypocrisy of glitz by adopting it.
36. Cowboys On Screen
Bob Dylan is known for his folk hits and protest songs of the 1960s, but in the 1970’s, he composed one of country’s most beloved hits. His song, “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” became the theme of Sam Peckinpah’s western film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973). It starred Kris Kristofferson and featured a cameo by Dylan himself.
37. Beautiful Tribute
Many people know “I Will Always Love You” as a Whitney Houston pop ballad. However, Dolly Parton wrote and recorded the ditty in in 1974. Parton penned the hit as a tribute to her mentor and partner Porter Wagoner, following her decision to leave his TV show and embark on her own solo career. The song reached #1 in June 1974, then again in October 1972, when it was re-recorded for the soundtrack of her film, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas.
38. The Wagonmaster
Porter Wagoner might not be a recognizable name among non-country fans today, but the singer and TV show host was a country legend. His songs, which include “A Satisfied Mind” (1955) and “Green, Green Grass of Home” (1965) charted 81 times. He also won three Grammy awards for his gospel recordings. From 1960-1981, Porter hosted The Porter Wagoner Show, a variety show that launched Dolly Parton’s career.
39. Like Mother, Like Daughter
Musical duo The Judds, composed of Naomi Judd and her daughter, Wynonna Judd, dominated the country music scene of the 1980s with their big hair and big personalities. The duo had more than 20 Top 10 hits between 1983 and 1991—14 of which hit #1! The pair remain the biggest-selling female country music duo of all time. After disbanding in 1991, when Naomi had to retire for health reasons, the pair reunited in 2011 for The Judds, a reality show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network. The show gave fans a glimpse into their lives as touring musicians and their bond as mother and daughter.
40. Gambling Man
Few of us have ever made it through a night at karaoke without hearing someone perform, “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers’ 1978 country hit. The song, written by Don Schlitz, made Rogers a star, and even inspired three made-for-TV western movies. Rogers was voted the “Favourite Singer of All Time” in a joint poll of readers of USA Today and People in 1986.
41. A Night At The Opry
No country music career is complete without a performance at The Grand Ole Opry. Founded in 1925 as a one-hour radio “barn dance,” the Nashville music stage has seen the likes of legends Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Reba McIntyre, Garth Brooks, as well as contemporary country stars like Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood. While many Opry performances have been televised throughout the years, the show has been broadcast over radio weekly since 1925. That’s almost a century!
42. Hee Haw
Musical variety shows were as numerous and popular in the 1960s and 1970s as reality TV shows in the 1990s and 2000s. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In inspired fare like The Lawrence Welk Show, which targeted older audiences and featured schmaltzy, orchestral music and ballroom dancers, and Soul Train, with soul and R&B performances aimed at Black audiences.
Country music was no exception. Hee Haw debuted in 1969, featuring hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark, a barnful of voluptuous “farmer’s daughter” type ladies in plaid frilled minidresses, and overall-clad yokels cracking corn pone jokes. With its down-home irreverence and self-parody, Hee Haw was popular with both country fans and mainstream audiences. The variety show ran for 25 years.
Megastars Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette made dozens of guest appearances, and Garth Brooks appeared on the show four times. Elvis Presley reportedly was a fan, and would have appeared on its stage, if not for the disapproval of his manager.