Top 25 Greatest Country Groups
Putting together a “top” or “best” list of anything is always a challenge, and there’s so much really good country music out there that making a list of country groups is downright intimidating. This list is based on critical standing, influence and the sales of country music’s essential group performers. Greater weight has been accorded to those acts who have stood the test of time.
The Carter Family
Essential Album: “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”
All country artists owe a debt to the Carter Family —their songbook popularized traditional folk songs and sister Maybell’s finger-picking influenced future guitarists.
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
Essential Album: “The Very Best of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys”
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. Any group pairing mandolins and banjos owes him a tip of the hat anot to mention his band, Bluegrass Boys.
Essential Album: “Bob Wills Anthology“
With his combination of jazz, hillbilly fiddling, and dance-hall swing music, Bob Wills is the granddaddy of Western swing. He influenced … well, everybody. He showed that country music could absorb nearly every genre it touched. His upbeat mix kept people entertained during the Depression.
Flatt & Scruggs
Essential Album: “The Essential Flatt & Scruggs: ‘Tis Sweet to Be Remembered”
Monroe may have created bluegrass, but his students Flatts & Scruggs popularized it with virtuosic banjo playing and high lonesome vocals. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt both played in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys before forming their own outfit and they eventually epitomized bluegrass in the 1950s and 1960s.
Essential Album: “50 Years of Hits”
Alabama escaped the urban cowboy curse to become one of the most successful acts of the 1980s and 1990s. Their rich harmonies resulted in chart-topping hits like “Dixieland Delight” and “Love in the First Degree.”
The Louvin Brothers
Essential Album: “When I Stop Dreaming“
Ira and Charlie Louvin created magic on wax with their religious songs and high harmonies that resulted in the cult gospel album “Satan Is Real” and left a heavy influence on the Everly Brothers.
Charlie Daniels Band
Essential Album: “The Essential Charlie Daniels Band“
Fiddle-player Charlie Daniels helped invent country-rock with this off-the-rails band. It formed in the early 1970s and made headway with the Mason-Dixon rocker, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Essential Album: “Gilded Palace of Sin“
The Byrds were more popular, but The Flying Burrito Brothers gained a cult following that outlasted them. Founded by Gram Parsons, the group provided the country-rock blueprint to subsequent genre-benders.
The Stanley Brothers
Essential Album: “The Complete Mercury Recordings”
Performing from the 1940s through the 1960s, Carter and Ralph Stanley were heavily indebted to Bill Monroe for their traditional sound. Yet their versions of “Little Maggie” and “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow” remain an invigorating bridge between mountain music and bluegrass.
Essential Album: “Wide Open Spaces“
The Dixie Chicks re-engineered bluegrass for a stadium crowd in the late 1990s. Their debut Wide Open Spaces became one of the biggest-selling country albums of all time, but controversy cast a shadow on the group’s later years.
Essential Album: “Greatest Hits”
This mother-and-daughter act ruled the 1980s country charts with their traditional sound and a raft of hits, including “Mama He’s Crazy” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days),” made them one of the most visible country acts of the decade.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Essential Album: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band created music that could be appreciated by fans of folk, rock, and bluegrass. They borrowed from each, making roots music that left its imprint on both The Eagles and Alabama.
The Bellamy Brothers
Essential Album: “The Best of the Bellamy Brothers”
David and Howard Bellamy’s breezy hit “Let Your Love Flow” struck the pop charts with gale-force velocity in 1976. They cemented their country credentials with “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me,” which became a No. 1 country hit.
Essential Album: “Lonestar”
The silky harmonies of Dean Sams, John Rich, and Richie McDonald vaulted this country group to superstar status in the mid-1990s. Their ballads “Amazed” and “Tequila Talkin'” remain inescapable.
Brooks & Dunn
Essential Album: “Brand New Man”
“Boot-Scootin’ Boogie” did a lot to popularize line-dancing. Brooks & Dunn are at their most laid-back with the tunes “Neon Moon” and “My Maria.” In addition to their work as performers, the two were also highly productive songwriters.
Johnnie & Jack
Essential Album: “For Old Times Sake”
They weren’t really brothers, but Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin left their own stamp on the famed close-harmony duos of acts such as The Louvin Brothers. They didn’t mind adding Latin flavor in songs such as “Ashes of Love.” The group ended when Jack Anglin died in a car crash in 1963.
The Statler Brothers
Essential Album: “Flowers on the Wall: The Essential Statler Brothers”
This gospel quintet earned a secular hit with “Flower on the Wall” in 1965. Since then, the not-quite brothers have kept toes in both the religious and secular worlds.
The Oak Ridge Boys
Essential Album: “Gold”
The Oak Ridge Boys began singing their take on gospel tunes in the late 1940s. They gained their biggest success in the ’70s and ’80s and continued to be active into the 2000s. Their secular hit, “Elvira,” won a Grammy in 1981.
Essential Album: “What a Crying Shame”
As their name suggests, The Mavericks are hard to pin down. Western swing, ’60s pop, and Latin soul are all fair game when it comes to building their intoxicating sound. They hit pay dirt with 1994’s multi-platinum “What a Crying Shame”.after paying their dues for many years.
Zac Brown Band
Essential Album: “You Get What You Give”
The Zac Brown Band formed in 2000 and gained favor with their eclectic repertoire and summer songs like “Toes.” Their wide range of influences brought the group followers from outside the usual pool of country listeners, helping to reinvigorate the format.
Big & Rich
Essential Album: “Horse of a Different Color”
John Rich and Big Kenny released their brand of hard-edged country in 2004. Rich was formerly in Lonestar. They started writing hits before coming into their own with the chart-toppers “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Lost in This Moment.”
Essential Album: “Love on the Inside”
Sugarland made a big dent on the country charts with their soulful vocal numbers and high-octane shows. The group’s “steampunk” album, “The Incredible Machine”, divided fans over its bold rock sound. The duo continues to keep critics interested.
Essential Album: “Some People Change“
Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry joined forces in 1999 and took country music in exciting new directions. Their hard-boiled tunes sound pure country even when they borrow the sounds of Southern rock and hip-hop.
Essential Album: “Need You Now”
Lady Antebellum’s self-titled debut yielded the #1 country single “I Run to You.” Its successor, “Need You Now”, escorted the trio onto the pop charts. Their silky emulsion of Pat Benetar pop and roots music makes the threesome a commercial force to reckoned with.
Essential Album: “Highwayman”
This outlaw supergroup pooled the talents of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They released three albums, resulting in posse renditions of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” and Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”