Country music is amazing. The emotion and feeling that goes into the songs are outstanding. I do feel that the 80s was something of a high point for the musical genre, and that made it tough trying to narrow down a list of the best country music artists from that decade. However, I think I managed to do it, and I’m sure a number of the names appearing here will be familiar to so many people.
1. Reba McEntire
Reba McEntire is an absolute country superstar. She has sold more than 75 million records during her career, and that’s huge. She has been active since 1975, and she still performs to this day with no real sign of slowing down.
When it comes to awards, then she has won the second most number for a female country artist, and it’s easy to see why. Her songs cover so many different aspects of life with some real personal touches thrown in for good measure. With more than 100 hit singles having charted over her career, it’s difficult to narrow down which track is the best thanks to having produced so many hits.
2. Randy Travis
It’s sad that Randy Travis had to stop performing in 2013 after a stroke as he had been a constant performer since he emerged on the country scene back in 1978. During his career, he recorded a total of 20 albums and had over 50 songs appear on the country charts. His big breakthrough was in the 80s thanks to his album Storms Of Life, which led to him being viewed as one of the next big things. That album then sold four million copies, which was impressive.
Known for his baritone voice, his tracks were viewed as being far more traditional in their approach and sound when compared to other artists that were active during the decade.
They were superstars during the decade, and I understand why as soon as I throw on some of their music. They were actually formed back in 1969 but changed their name to Alabama in 1977, and that’s when they really took off. During the decade, they had seven successful albums and over 25 hit singles, which shows how busy they were in producing their music.
It all started off with the single Tennessee River, which actually triggered an impressive run of number-one singles on the country charts. I just love the vibrancy in their music; do pay attention to their lyrics as they tend to be heartfelt.
4. Rosanne Cash
The eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash has had more than her fair share of hits during her career. I see her as slightly different as she does move between genres and combines several together such as country and blues.
A Grammy winner with also a number of other nominations, she may not have had the success of her famous father, but I feel she has managed to achieve enough in her career during the decade to make it on this list. Also, listen to as much of her as you can to see if you can identify the different musical genres.
5. Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Yoakam burst onto the country music scene in 1986, and his debut album managed to make it all the way to number one. This was then followed by two more, reaching the same position. A Grammy winner, one of the things that stand out is the fact he has more of a tenor voice rather than anything else.
Responsible for writing most of his own songs, he went on to have even bigger success in the 90s, but it was the second half of the previous decade that really laid down the foundation for what would then follow. If you want to listen to a country singer full of confidence in his art, then he is one person you need to listen to.
6. Keith Whitley
The sad thing about Keith Whitley was his early death in 1989, and he only ever released two albums during his career. However, he made such an impact that there’s no way I could not put him on this list. He actually started off in bluegrass before moving over to country music, and I’m glad that he did. His take on the genre was classed as neotraditional, and some of his main songs to listen to include When You Say Nothing At All and Miami, My Amy to give you a sense of how this guy was such a good songwriter.
7. The Judds
This country music duo was a mother-and-daughter team, and they were signed up to a record label back in 1983. They went on to have a string of hits throughout the decade, and this included six studio albums up until 1991. During the 80s, they were one of the most successful duos around and significantly helped push the idea of the female country singer out to a whole new audience. They would reunite at times over the next few decades, but sadly the mother, Naomi Judd, took her own life in 2022.
8. Dolly Parton
What can I say about Dolly Parton? She is one of the most well-known country singers of all time, and also one of the best. The 80s was just another decade where she excelled, and delighted fans of all ages with hit after hit. This powerhouse knows how to deliver songs like nobody else, and she is still doing it up to this very day. If you want to get a sense of some amazing country music and how strong a message it can put across, then she is the person I think you should listen to. I know that’s the reason why I put her on from time to time.
9. Earl Thomas Conley
Throughout his career, Earl Thomas Conley released a total of ten studio albums, but his initial emergence onto the country scene happened back in 1980. He also had a total of 18 number-one hits during his career and had a love for the real classical approach to country music. That became apparent in his own music, and there’s no doubt he was loved throughout the decade with the third-highest number of songs to reach number one.
10. Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson was massive in the 80s, and he still is even today. When it comes to country artists that even non-lovers of the genre know about, then he is one of those names that has crossed boundaries. Known for his heartfelt lyrics, I’ve included him because of his ability to really tell a story in his songs. You can feel everything he sings, and that’s quite a special talent and explains why he has been such a popular artist.
11. The Oak Ridge Boys
This quartet has appeared with a host of members since the original group was founded decades ago. Known for a country and gospel blend of music, they went on stage in the 80s where they were exceptionally popular. As a group, they have won countless awards, and you will know why as soon as you listen to any of their songs. They grab you and hold on until the track is finished, and that’s why I feel they deserve to be on this list.
12. Garth Brooks
If you looked up the definition of a country singer superstar, then there’s a good chance Garth Brooks would be the result. He has crossed over various music genres and achieved success on every corner of the globe. It’s hard to think of a country singer who has managed to do as much as him, and he’s still going strong today.
In total, he has sold over 170 million records, and his songs cover every subject you can imagine. I just love how he can change his musical style depending on the feeling he wishes to portray, and I also appreciate the fact his music is timeless.
13. Charlie Pride
Charlie Pride had more than 50 singles break into the Top 50 of the country charts during the heyday of his recording career, which took him up to the late 80s. He was one of the first major black country singers to really hit the big time, but his voice comes across as unique, which is why I’ve included him here. If you want to listen to country music with a twist, then you should play some of his tracks.
14. Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers sold over 100 million albums, which means he ranks as one of the biggest country stars of all time. Of course, it wasn’t just in the 80s when he was huge as it lasted through his entire career, and even up to his death in 2020. He wasn’t always just a country star though. Instead, he crossed over various music genres, but it was his strong lyrics and soothing voice that made him stand out from the rest, and that’s why he’s on this list.
15. The Statler Brothers
The Statler Brothers actually started out way back in 1955 and were a support act for Johnny Cash. However, they did go on to have their own success as their career progressed. They cover not only country, but also gospel music, but they aren’t alone in doing that as country stars. Their music leans heavily on the idea of melodies from gospel music, and it does give their country songs a slightly different sound compared to most. I think you need to check them out to see if you too can spot the difference.
16. Kathy Mattea
Kathy Mattea is both a country and bluegrass singer, and her voice is outstanding. She launched her career in 1984 and quickly became a firm favorite. She has released a total of 14 studio albums and had countless hits. What I love about her music is that she takes influences from not only her bluegrass roots but also Celtic music with a unique infusion that makes her music stand out from the crowd. This is something she has done since the start of her career, and I feel her music is just out of this world.
17. Juice Newton
This Grammy winner has crossed between country and pop music on several occasions, but I’ve had to include her in this list of country singers just because she is so talented at producing those classic country songs. During the 80s, she had more than ten top hits in the country charts, and she was viewed as one of the best female singers around. That’s an award that I cannot dispute, and when you listen to her music, then you will understand why she was viewed so highly.
18. Deborah Allen
This country star had one of the biggest country hits of the decade in 1983 with the song Baby I Lied, but it was bigger in crossover charts rather than just the country charts. However, Deborah Allen did go on to have a stunning decade with a string of hits that cemented her place as one of the main country stars of that time. She took her inspiration from artists ranging from Dolly Parton to The Beatles and brought them all into her music resulting in a different form of country music.
19. Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard was an amazing performer, and there’s no doubting his talent as a country singer. He spent some time in jail during his youth but even used those experiences to produce some memorable songs and albums. A multi-award winner, he focused on producing tracks all about the struggles of the working class while he wasn’t afraid to introduce some politics into the equation as well. Sadly he died on his 79th birthday, bringing one amazing career to an end.
20. John Denver
John Denver was one of those classic country names that even people with little interest in country music would know about. He started off as a folk singer but had so much talent that he was able to cross over into various genres—one of them was country. Sadly, he died in a plane crash in 1997 at the young age of 53.
21. Crystal Gayle
The younger sister of Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle managed to have a number of major hits on her own. Okay, so her biggest hit was from the 1970s, but she was still one of the key names in the country music industry throughout the following decade. Also famous for her seriously long hair, she was famous for hits such as You And I in the 80s.
22. Don Williams
The cool thing about Don Williams is the way he was able to inspire and influence so many other major country stars. That shows his overall appeal, and how he was loved by the industry. He had a long list of top hits during the 80s and toured extensively. Known for his clean lyrics, his music is the type that will easily put a smile on your face when you’re feeling down.
23. Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings was the real founder of what became known as the Outlaw Movement within country music. That meant he fought for more freedom over what he could produce away from Nashville, and that fight and tenacity also appeared in his music. With influences from the blues, he produced the first country album to go platinum, so it’s surprising that not enough people know about his music and the way he managed to really change the face of the country genre.
24. George Strait
You have George Strait to thank for the explosion of what became the neotraditional country movement in the 80s. That meant he went big on the classic country sound to avoid the more modern interpretation. I see him as bringing that real authentic sound back to the fore, and if you want to get an impression of what country music would have been like decades ago, check him out.
25. Tanya Tucker
Tanya Tucker actually had her first hit when she was only 13, but she was able to continue to be a star as she became an adult. By the time she got into the 80s, she was really finding herself as an artist and continued to have a streak of hits including the 1988 hit, Strong Enough To Bend, which really helped propel her to a new level. Her strong vocals and desire to deliver some singalong classics have helped her stay relevant even today.
26. Clint Black
Signed in 1989, Clint Black only just makes it into this list but he got off to such a strong start in his career with four straight number-one singles that he still deserves his place. His clever songwriting and clear messages in his music helped him stand out, and his music is something that makes you sit there and really listen to what it is that he has to say. That’s why I have included him, thanks to the way he gets your brain working.
27. Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt covers both blues and country music, and she is still performing strong decades after emerging onto the music scene. However, it was her 1989 album Nick Of Time that really pushed her to new heights, which was amazing considering it was already her tenth album. Famous for various ballads, her voice keeps you entertained and holding on to every word she sings, which is a real talent for any vocalist to have. I’m sure you will feel the same enchantment as you listen to her music.
28. Bobby Bare
Bobby Bare is an absolute country legend and was one of the outlaw musicians alongside Willie Nelson. Known for songs such as Detroit City and 500 Miles Away From Home, he didn’t have the easiest start to his career. In fact, he struggled for the first few years to even sell any singles, but since then he has gone on to sell a huge number of albums over the decades.
29. Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter blends folk music with country, so expect songs with a real story behind them along with a lot of emotion and feeling in her voice. I can assure you that she will not let you down with that, and her music is the type of thing that pulls you in and leaves you feeling very content you took the time to listen. Her real breakthrough happened in 1989 with State Of The Heart, and it’s certainly a track you need to check out to get a sense of just how good a vocalist she is and the way she can control a song.
30. Barbara Mandrell
Barbara Mandrell is viewed as one of the most successful country music stars of all time, and that should come as no surprise when you check out her ability to sing her heart out in her tracks. Her voice really pulls you into the lyrics, and you feel as if you are right there with her in the song. Check out her tracks such as Fast Lanes And Country Roads to get a sense of her talent. She can really hold a note and will take you along for the ride with her music. But you better hold on because she has a string of hits to entertain you with.
31. K.T. Oslin
K.T. Oslin didn’t have a major record deal until she was 45, but that still gave her time to produce a list of hit singles that made a major mark in the world of country music. She was a Grammy winner, and also made it into the Nashville Hall of Fame but she is perhaps best known for her 1988 hit This Woman, which made it into the Billboard charts. Sadly, she died in 2020 while she still had so much more music to offer to the world.
Barry has worked as a freelance writer for over a decade and has developed an eye for detail when it comes to unearthing cool and interesting facts.
His love of music stems from his student days checking out up and coming bands playing in the darkest corners of bars and clubs in Edinburgh.
The love of uncovering something new also remains with him. With an appreciation for music that’s best described as eclectic, his musical tastes range from Eric Clapton to Eminem through to Snow Patrol and Incubus. The memories that music can bring back to the fore is something he tries to portray in his writing.
For him, the voyage of discovery and unearthing something new is what makes this task of writing for MusicGrotto.com so interesting.