Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade A

If you look at mainstream country artists from the perspective of mainstream country music news outlets, every artist is great in their own way. None of them can do no wrong and it’s just like watching a giant ass kissing convention. If you look at mainstream country artists from the Country Perspective, not every artist is great. There are some good artists, some average ones and some really bad artists that should never make any kind of music. In other words we tell it like it is and deliver you honesty. To me it’s not a very difficult thing to do. I never hesitate nor does Derek when writing reviews to say what is exactly on our minds. So today I thought it would be a good time to start sorting out the good and bad artists in mainstream country music in case you’re an independent country music fan who has thoughts about checking out mainstream country music or you’re just getting into country music period.

Keep in mind these rankings were entirely compiled by yours truly. It’s only my opinion. The only artists I’m considering in these rankings is mainstream country artists that are on major labels and/or still get radio time. I’m also including legends and acts that are too big to be considered independent artists. The way I determine these rankings is by looking at the overall body of work of the artist, as well as taking into account the most recent offerings from them. So bro country artists that have been churning out hit after hit will be lower on the list. If an artist made bad music in the past, but is now putting out better music lately that will help them. But that bad music won’t be forgotten either. One more thing: attitude and respect for the genre will be considered. The rankings will be determined by grade. First we’ll take a look at who I consider the best of the genre.

Grade A

The best of the best in mainstream only make grade A. These artists have consistently churned out great country music over their careers. Their work has benefitted the genre and really saved it some face in recent years. They’re the most country ones left and each of them have a place in my music library. These artists also approach their music and the genre with respect to the roots of it and it’s storied history. Some of them are the biggest names ever in country music. Speaking of that…

WillieWillie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Billy Joe Shaver, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Reba – The legends of country music that are still making great music after all of these years. They’re icons that have done more than enough to be considered grade A for the rest of their careers. Cherish their music as much as you can. Any country fan worth a lick knows these artists, so there’s no need for me to explain why each are legends.

Kacey Musgraves – The current queen of country music. She’s racked up Grammys, CMA awards, ACM awards and other numerous accolades in a short amount of time. You may not agree with her messages in some of her songs, but you can’t deny she’s talented and most importantly respects the roots of the genre. Musgraves has only released one album so far and she’s already playing alongside the likes of a legend like Willie Nelson and a pop icon like Katy Perry. I believe we haven’t even seen the best from Musgraves yet either. I expect her to improve with each album and be a staple of country music for years to come.


Zac Brown Band – Country music purists will immediately cry foul, but to them I say blow it out your ass. “But what about “Chicken Fried” and those beach songs, Josh? You’re just going to forget them?” This argument is so damn old and I won’t stand for it anymore. I’ve listened to every single album that the band has released and I can tell you the majority of their music is not beach related. They have some damn fine album cuts. I’m guessing the people who are beating the dead horse with the island songs have only listened to his radio stuff. Even by just looking at his radio singles, only 2 of their 11 singles in the last five years are island/beach songs. Those songs aren’t terrible either. If Alan Jackson, Dave Grohl, Vince Gill, The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers and Elton John are willing to make music with him, you should respect him. Also never forget this quote.

Dierks Bentley – Despite a few duds over the years, *cough* “Drunk on a Plane” *cough* Bentley has produced some of the best albums and radio singles in country music. His new album Riser is arguably the best mainstream country album of 2014. He also produced a fantastic bluegrass album a few years ago. Just remember when he’s singing a dud on radio or an awards show that he’s only playing the game so he can make great music for the rest of his albums.

Ashley Monroe & Angaleena Presley – Since the Pistol Annies aren’t a full-time group, I decided to rank the trio individually. These two are just beginning their solo careers and have only released one album each. Both albums were pretty damn good. It’s only the beginning for these two and I can’t wait to hear more.

The Mavericks – These guys aren’t mainstream, but they are signed to Valory Music Group, an imprint of Big Machine Records. There’s a reason Scott Borchetta is a wealthy man. He wisely saw money in this talented group and although they will never be on radio again, they can make whatever music they want. This is great news for country music fans. Their 2013 comeback album In Time was one of the best of that year. They’re releasing a new album in February 2015. Be sure to mark it on your calendar.

Lee Ann Womack – She is signed to independent label Sugar Hill Records, but with NASH Icon stations popping up and playing music from her great new album, I consider her mainstream enough for these rankings. Other than her big hit “I Hope You Dance,” Womack has been underrated her entire career. She’s not only put out good music, but a variety of good music from contemporary to gospel to traditional.

Gary Allan

Gary Allan & Josh Turner – Two under-heralded artists who fly under the radar and consistently put out solid country albums. Mainstream country fans will never fully appreciate them, but there are plenty of traditional country fans who do. Turner had been on hiatus recently, but he’s releasing a new album in 2015. Allan hasn’t released an album since 2013, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t release a new album next year too.

Jamey Johnson – “What happened to Jamey Johnson?” I see this in every single comments section on iTunes where someone is complaining about the newest pile of crap from a bro country artist. Well to those people: I didn’t know either until recently. Thanks to some digging by Trigger at Saving Country Music, he found out Johnson was having troubles with his publisher. Then out of nowhere Johnson put a giant banner across his newly designed site that says “New Music Coming Soon.” So we continue to wait and see. Maybe 2015 will be the long-awaited return of Jamey Johnson to country music. 

Brandy Clark – I can’t believe I almost forgot Clark! Thanks to reader Noah for pointing this out! Since she was nominated for 2014 CMA New Artist of the Year Award, that’s enough qualification for her to be considered mainstream. She’s not only penned numerous great hits for the likes of Kacey Musgraves, but her debut album last year was a solid listen.

That’s all for part one! Check back soon for part two of my rankings!

18 thoughts on “Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade A

  1. Cobra November 19, 2014 / 12:39 pm

    Nice group of A-Listers, Josh. I’ll be interested to see where you put David Nail on the list. Personally, I’d probably include him as a Grade A, because despite “Whatever She’s Got” (and I didn’t even think that song was THAT horrible, even with some of the clichés and bro-country motifs in it), he’s put out three solid albums (and I’ve even managed to find most of the songs from his original unreleased album, which is also very strong). Along with Dierks’ “Riser,” I thought “I’m a Fire” was one of the best mainstream albums of 2014.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh Schott November 19, 2014 / 12:43 pm

      Thanks Cobra! I have not yet listened to David Nail’s album this year and I hope I’m able to do so soon. I’ve heard good things about it. It’s on my to do list.


  2. Zack November 19, 2014 / 2:09 pm

    Thank you so much for this Josh! Major props for mentioning Gary Allan, highly underrated artist IMO


  3. NoahHibiscusEaton November 19, 2014 / 5:49 pm

    Great list! =D

    I would add: Sturgill Simpson (where the heck is he?), Brandy Clark (she has been around almost as long as Musgraves has), Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Jason Eady, First Aid Kit, Matt Woods and Kurt Vile to the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh Schott November 19, 2014 / 5:57 pm

      Only mainstream artists are on this list. I don’t consider any of these artists to be mainstream, even Clark who is known more as a mainstream writer over mainstream artist.


      • NoahHibiscusEaton November 19, 2014 / 6:03 pm

        I can overall understand your point.

        Brandy Clark, however, earned a Best New Artist nomination at a major country awards show. That, to me, is tantamount to breaking through to mainstream recognition.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Josh Schott November 19, 2014 / 6:23 pm

        Okay I can see where you’re coming from with Clark and I’ve decided you’re right about adding her. Take a look at the article now 🙂


    • Applejack November 20, 2014 / 10:57 pm


      Kurt Vile is country???



  4. NoahHibiscusEaton November 19, 2014 / 6:51 pm

    One more correction (hate to be nit-picky, but necessary! ^__^ )

    It’s Ashley Monroe, not Ashley Morgan! =)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. selliotbrandis November 22, 2014 / 8:09 am

    I think Eric Church should be here. Sure, he pushes the boundaries of what’s country… but no more than Zac Brown (who I also enjoy).

    Agree with Dierks and Kasey. Glad to see Josh Turner get a mention, too. I think all three of the Pistol Annie’s should have been mentioned.


  6. Kevin Davis December 3, 2014 / 4:06 pm

    Glad to see Dierks on here. ‘Riser’ is a very fine album. I am even willing to forgive (and even enjoy) a song like, “Drunk on a Plane,” which at least has a narrative. And the video is fun. Also glad to see Gary Allan and Josh Turner on here.

    I agree with both your A and B lists (even if not all of your C list!).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. scottinnj December 25, 2014 / 8:42 am

    For total body of work, I think Lyle Lovett would be an A-lister as well.


  8. Curley November 13, 2015 / 10:18 pm

    Sorry to dig up a year-old post, but after reading the whole ranking series, I have to ask: where does Dwight Yoakam come in? Seems he was overlooked.

    I’ve been reading the blog for about 6 months, and enjoy it immensely. Keep up the good work!


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