Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Taylor Swift, and more head up our list of the best female country singers who have shaped the genre.
While we love our male artists, country music history also features some of the best female country singers trailblazing by reshaping the genre and defying convention. From traditional country music's early roots, artists like Patsy Montana and Kitty Wells broke ground; they paved the way for future generations.
In the 1960s and 1970s, icons like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette emerged. During the 1980s and 1990s, a new wave of female powerhouses like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire arrived. At the turn of century, there was a rise of modern trailblazers like Shania Twain and Faith Hill; they ushered in a contemporary era where female vocalists explored diverse sounds and themes.
Today, the legacy continues with a vibrant array of talents, from Miranda Lambert to Kacey Musgraves, ensuring that the narrative of female singers remains an integral and evolving chapter in country music.
A Look at Some of the Best Female Country Singers
Despite being outperformed by their male counterparts from a radio and charting perspective, the women of country music have had just as much, if not more, influence on shaping the genre, pushing boundaries with their storytelling and reaching new fans in the process.
To commemorate this, we’ve rounded up our 20 most influential and trailblazing artists from Tanya Tucker to Taylor Swift below.
Although she self-identifies as part of Americana’s vibrant family more than she does country, there’s no denying Brandi Carlile’s impact on the genre over the past two decades. Since her breakthrough in 2007 with The Story, the artist has netted an impressive nine Grammy Awards (with four more nominations recently announced for 2024) in addition to launching the female-fronted festival “Girls Just Wanna Weekend” in 2018 and being a persistent advocate for marginalized artists in music.
Despite being effectively blacklisted by the genre in 2003, The Chicks’ influence on country music can never be erased. Songs like “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye Earl” captivated audiences in the late ’90s and early 2000s and more recent hits like “Gaslighter” have helped to introduce the trio to a new generation, cementing their legacy for decades to come.
It’s not often an artist can say they helped popularize a song written and recorded by Willie Nelson, but Patsy Cline did just that when she covered “Crazy” in 1961. She died tragically in a plane crash less than two years later, but her iconic voice and crossover success into pop with songs like “I Fall To Pieces” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” ensure that her memory will never be forgotten.
Often referred to as the First Lady of Outlaw Country, Jessi Colter is best known for her chart-topping hit “I’m Not Lisa” and collaborations with husband Waylon Jennings like “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes.” Her legacy continues to live on with Colter releasing Edge Of Forever — her first album since 2017’s The Psalms — in October as well as through modern day outlaws like Nikki Lane and Margo Price, the latter of whom produced her latest project.
Much more than just the sister of Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle was a driving force behind the country-pop movement in the ’70s with No. 1 hits like “Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “I’ll Get Over You.” That crossover success continued in the decades since with 18 No. 1 songs, collaborations with Tom Waits and Gary Morris, a foray into gospel music, and more, making her one of the most accomplished women in all of country music.
The Judds were a force throughout the ’80s and early ’90s thanks to songs like “Love Can Build A Bridge,” “Girl’s Night Out,” “Mama He’s Crazy,” and nearly a dozen other No. 1 hits. The mother-daughter duo’s influence remains immeasurable to this day, as exhibited by the outpouring of support for Wynonna following her mother Naomi’s death and recent tribute album featuring many of the women joining her on this list.
With a distinctive voice distilled straight from Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, Patty Loveless had country music aficionados eating out of the palm of her hand in the late ’80s and ’90s with three certified platinum albums and hits ranging from upbeat ditties like “Timber, I'm Falling in Love,” “I Try To Think About Elvis,” and “Blame It on Your Heart,” to ballads like “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”
Everyone’s favorite “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Loretta Lynn made it out of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to become one of the most successful, beloved and influential country music artists of all time. A sweet southern belle, Lynn was also never afraid to speak her mind on everything from abortion (“The Pill”) to women who pursued her husband while she was touring (“Fist City”), the stigma of divorce (“Rated X”), and more.
With five No. 1 singles on country radio between 1995 and 2001 alone, Martina McBride was one of country’s biggest crossover stars alongside Faith Hill and Shania Twain — heading into the 21st century thanks to songs like “Independence Day,” “A Broken Wing,” and “I Love You.”
Breaking out in 2016 with “My Church,” (same year she won Best New Artist), Maren Morris has been one of country music’s most outspoken champions — and critics — in recent years, in part helping to put more attention on the genre than ever before. Despite recent calls for her to leave the genre, “The Bones” singer instead plans to stay and continue being the change she wants to see, intentions she lays out in her most recent single “Get The Hell Out Of Here.”
We’ve got another modern day country-pop superstar. From the onset, Kacey Musgraves was a star, netting a Grammy award for Best Country Album in 2014 for her debut Same Trailer Different Park. That mainstream success has continued with subsequent releases Pageant Material, Golden Hour, and Star-Crossed, and recent collaboration with Zach Bryan (“I Remember Anything”) despite her songs lacking a presence on country radio due to her not wanting to play into the station’s games.
The first Black woman to chart a country song since Dona Mason in 1987 with 2007’s “Country Girl,” Rissi Palmer’s resiliency and compassion shine through in everything she does. Songs like “Seeds” speak of spreading positivity through your everyday actions, something Palmer puts to practice with Color Me Country Radio, a program on Apple Music that uplifts Black, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous, and other marginalized artists in country music, helping to build a more equitable future in the genre.
What’s there to say about Dolly Parton that hasn’t already been said? The iconic female country singer has and continues to be a pop culture icon who shows no signs of slowing down. The “9 To 5,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Jolene” artist is now breaking into new territory as well with Rockstar, her 49th studio album — but first rock’n roll record — that came to be after being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in October.
Revered by everyone from George Jones to Elvis Presley, Connie Smith was on top of the country music world throughout the ’60s and ’70s with 20 Top Ten hits from “Once A Day” to “Ain’t Had No Lovin’” and “Just One Time.” Often referred to as the heiress to Patsy Cline’s throne, Smith was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012 and is widely regarded as one of music’s best vocalists.
Before she was the world’s biggest pop star, Taylor Swift was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter playing Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, wowing crowds with songs from “Tim McGraw” to “Our Song” and “Love Story.” Although she has evolved a lot since those early acoustic days, the artist’s influence on modern day country music and the current crop of women breaking through in the genre is enormous.
After breaking out as a teenager in the early ’70s with “Delta Dawn,” Tanya Tucker went on to be a mainstay in country music for the next 20 years with songs like “What’s Your Mama’s Name?” and “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane.” She’s regained considerable mainstream acclaim in recent years following the release of 2019’s While I’m Livin’, a Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings-produced project that contained her first new original material since 2002, culminating in Grammy wins for Best Country Album and Song (“Bring My Flowers Now”) the following year.
Even taking a hiatus at arguably the zenith of her career couldn’t slow down Shania Twain, who followed up the ’90s and early 2000s success of hits like “You’re Still The One,” “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” and “I’m Gonna Getcha Good” with multiple Las Vegas residencies, a Netflix documentary, her first album in 15 years, and much more in the years since. Safe to say that her massive influence shows no signs of waning.
Since winning the fourth season of American Idol in 2005, Carrie Underwood has gone on to become on of country music’s most successful women of the 21st century, earning the title of most awarded country music artist of all-time with over 85 million albums sold and 16 No. 1 hits to her name, such as “Before He Cheats,” “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” and “Cowboy Casanova.” Although not an original, she’s also well known for her role with NBC’s Sunday Night Football, singing the intro song since 2013.
The first ever female country singer to top the U.S. country charts with 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Kitty Wells recorded 29 Top Ten singles and was named country’s top female artist 14 consecutive years between 1952 and 1965. The queen of country music went on to serve as inspiration for Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, and others in the ’60s and continues to do so to this day, over a decade after her passing in 2012.
Known for hits like “Single White Female” and “Shut Up And Drive” just as much as for her activism, Chely Wright’s musical journey is one of success and sacrifice. For years, the artist was in the closet, something that took an emotional toll as she moved more into the mainstream. However, the artist’s openness since coming out in 2010 has been an inspiration to other queer artists, inspiring them to be their authentic selves and still find success.
And we can't leave out Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Kelsea Ballerini, and any other female vocalist leaving their mark.
While winning Country Music Association Award or some other honor is well-deserved, it really is all about how the music connects with you - the fan. The contributions of extraordinary female artists weave a narrative of resilience, passion, and undeniable talent. From the timeless grace of Patsy Cline to the contemporary fire of Miranda Lambert, these women have left an indelible mark on the genre. While our tribute here highlights some of the best, such as the powerhouse vocals of Reba McEntire, the iconic Shania Twain, and the rising star Lainey Wilson, it's essential to acknowledge that this list is by no means exhaustive. The world of country music continues to be blessed with an abundance of incredible female voices, each with their own unique stories and melodies, proving that the legacy of remarkable women in country music is both enduring and ever-evolving.