The only thing I hate more than lists is the reactions to lists. I started this list some 2 1/2 years ago and then shelved it from concerns of the reactions and criticisms that come with posting a list of this type. But inspired by Rolling Stone‘s recent list of the “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time” (and disappointed there wasn’t more country music representation), I decided to finish this list and publish it.
The names selected were accumulated and ranked according to a proprietary and completely subjective formula based off of not just commercial success, popularity, or chart performance, but also off of influence, creativity, peer respect, and other factors. If a songwriter also performed their own songs, this was weighted to their benefit, but many behind-the-scenes songwriters were also given top consideration for distinction based off of the strength of their contributions to country music.
GROUND RULES: PLEASE READ
***This is not an exercise for you to rummage through the names quickly, looking for omissions, and complain about who is not here and who deserves to be. The point of this list, just like any list, is to hopefully fill holes in your knowledge base, and turn you on to music, artists, (or in this case, songwriters) who you may have never heard of before, or may have forgotten.
NO – “This list is illegitimate because so and so is NOT on it.” Every list is going to be subject to the perspective of the author. That is why it is called “Saving Country Music’s 85 Greatest Country Songwriters” and in no way claims itself as the be all, end all list that is 100% bulletproof. We are all products of our own perspectives, and this is simply one person’s opinion.
NO- “This list is illegitimate because so and so IS on it.” I don’t care if Earl Thomas Conley once stiffed your brother’s girlfriend for an autograph after a show in 1986. Just because someone’s name that you personally don’t like is here doesn’t mean the entire list is completely bogus.
NO – “This list is illegitimate because so and so is AHEAD or BEHIND so and so.” Again, this is just one person’s opinion. Get over it, and use the list as a resource to hopefully discover new music, not complain because it doesn’t reinforce your already-formulated opinions about music.
PLEASE feel free to share YOUR opinions about your favorite songwriters of all time, your opinions on who should be in which positions, who should be ahead or behind others, or who should have been included or omitted by sharing your thoughts in the comment section below, and in a manner that helps to aid in the discovery process as opposed to impugning others for their opinions. And remember, music is not a competition, and nobody is right or wrong.
Saving Country Music’s 85 Greatest Country Songwriters of All Time
85. Kacey Musgraves – In the future Musgraves might find herself in the Top 25, and maybe her long-term prospects will be hurt by the fact that many of her big songs rely on co-writers. But when talking about important country songwriters, her name deserves to be here.
84. Hank Williams III – The songwriting found on Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ and Straight to Hell alone ensure that three generations of Hank make this list.
83. Billy Don Burns – A songwriter lost in time, Billy Don Burns once produced a record for Johnny Paycheck, and had Willie Nelson record one of his songs. Though you may have never heard of him, his songwriting is top caliber, and promises to hold up over time like the work of all great songwriters. Burns was once engaged to Lorrie Morgan.
81. Willy “Tea” Taylor – Underground songwriter from Oakdale, CA, frontman for the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, and called by Saving Country Music as one of the greatest songwriters of this generation.
80. Curly Putnam – Wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with Bobby Braddock, as well as “Green Green Grass of Home,” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
79. Kostas – Greek-born songwriter for Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Travis Tritt, The Dixie Chicks, Marty Stuart, and many more.
78. Sturgill Simpson – It’s been a combination of style and songwriting in Sturgill Simpson’s short, but storied career so far. He keeps it up, and he’ll be much closer to the bottom of lists like this in the coming years.
77. Gretchen Peters – The woman behind so many great songs, including singles from Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Martina McBride, George Strait, and many more. She won the CMA for Song of the Year for “Independence Day” in 1995.
76. Jimmy Webb – Songwriter for “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston,” “MacArthur Park,” and many more, including many non country songs for artists such as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, and R.E.M. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990.
75. Ray Wylie Hubbard – You can’t talk about songwriters without talking about Ray Wylie Hubbard. Even though his career has mostly been on the periphery of country music, his influence within the genre has been grand. “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” is a country music cult classic.
74. Roger Alan Wade – A great late career songwriter whose acoustic albums are songwriting treasure troves. He also wrote the hit “Country State of Mind” with Hank Williams Jr.
73. Faron Young – You just get the sense if Faron had lived longer, his career would have been so much more significantly celebrated.
72. Jason Isbell – An artist whose legacy will certainly put him closer to the front of the list as time marches on, but an artist might be held back just slightly on a country list because he’s more Americana. However country should be proud to claim Jason Isbell as its own.
71. Sonny Throckmorton – Wrote more than 1,000 songs that were recorded by artists, including songs for Merle Haggard, The Oak Ridge Boys, John Conlee, and others. Sonny was named Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1978, 1979, and 1980.
70. Max D. Barnes – Writer of “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “Drinkin’ & Dreamin” (Waylon), “Look At Us” (Vince Gill), and many more. He won a total of 42 songwriter awards during his decorated career.
69. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – The King of Juke Joint Swing had superior influence in starting the neotraditionalist revolution in the late 90’s with artists such as BR549 and Hank Williams III. His unique voice and stellar songwriting have some calling him the Hank Williams of our time.
68. Chris Stapleton – For himself, for others, and with the Steeldrivers, Chris Stapleton’s songwriters has been one of the beacons of light in country music in the 2010’s—a few missteps with commercial hits notwithstanding.
67. Chris Knight – Not much cuts like a Chris Knight song. He’s also had his songs recorded by the likes of Randy Travis and Lee Ann Womack.
66. John Hartford – The King of Newgrass had one masterful pen and put a lot of humor into the country music realm, while also penning blockbusters like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind.”
65. Jamey Johnson – It’s a rarity that a country music traditionalist of today can say he’s won two separate CMA Awards for Song of the Year. Jamey has accomplished plenty to not allow “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to hold him back for history.
64. Bob Childers -The father of Red Dirt, in certain circles in Oklahoma and Texas, Bob Childers is considered as influential as Dylan.
63. Tammy Wynette – Not as prolific as other performers of her stature, but her songwriting work on iconic songs such as “Stand By Your Man” make her worthy of inclusion.
62. Webb Pierce – When Hank Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry, it was Webb who was hired to take his place. Webb went on to be one of the biggest country stars of the next half decade. Though not nearly the songwriter as Hank, Webb did write some of his own #1 hits including “Slowly” and “I Don’t Care.”
60. Marty Stuart – Don’t think of Marty Stuart as much of a songwriter? Go listen to his concept album The Pilgrim.
59. Paul Overstreet – Writer of “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “When You Say Nothing At All” with Don Schlitz, and performer/writer of “Daddy’s Come Around.” Discounted slightly because he’s also the writer of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and other unfortunate hits, but still a significant country music songwriter in history.
58. John D. Loudermilk – Writer of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” “Break My Mind,” “Indian Reservation,” and so many more. An early collaborator with George Hamilton IV, John had many hits in country, rock, and pop, and is one of the most revered songwriters in all of music.
57. Rosanne Cash – The apple didn’t fall too far from the Johnny Cash tree. In fact the argument could be made from an Americana perspective that the pupil rose to surpass the master when it came to songwriting. Johnny definitely had a greater impact on country music, but some of Rosanne’s compositions are some of the best songwriting you can find.
56. Billy Sherrill – Producer extraordinaire whose songwriting credits include many of Tammy Wynette’s biggest hits including “Stand By Your Man” and “Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.”
55. Don Schlitz – Writer of “The Gambler,” “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “When You Say Nothing At All,” and many more.
54. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant – When you wrote many of the big hits for the Everly Brothers, and then turn around and write an iconic country tune like “Rocky Top,” your place in the pantheon of great songwriters is cemented.
53. Hank Williams Jr. – Anyone overlooking Hank Jr.’s songwriting contributions is not paying proper attention. Bocephus isn’t just a big time performer, he wrote some of his biggest songs over his significant career.
52. Mickey Newbury – A songwriter’s songwriter, he was a bit too fey for the mainstream, but his influence over other artists as far ranging as Waylon Jennings to Elvis Presley is undeniable. Though he didn’t officially write the separate parts of “An American Trilogy,” Newbury’s vision for creating legendary moments through music was unmatched.
51. “Cowboy” Jack Clement – The cosmic country music wizard is known mostly for his producer work, but as the writer of “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way” and many more, he deserves recognition in the realm of songwriting greats.
50. Bobby Braddock – “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” ‘Nuff said.
49. Larry Cordle – The writer of “Against The Grain,” “Highway 40 Blues,” and hits for George Strait, Kathy Mattea, and Trisha Yearwood. But Larry Cordle really made his mark when he penned “Murder on Music Row” with Larry Shell. The song went on to be the 2001 CMA Song of the Year.
48. Dean Dillon – Towering contributions from this mostly behind-the-scenes songwriter, especially contributions to George Strait which include “The Chair,” “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” “It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” and others. He also wrote “Tennessee Whiskey.”
47. Rodney Crowell – Rodney had a string of five #1 songs off of his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, and he wrote or co-wrote four of them. His songwriting for others has also resulted in some stellar country music output.
46. Vince Gill – Like a good wine, Vince Gill’s music just keeps getting better over time—songwriting included. “One More Last Chance,” “Go Rest High On a Mountain,” “Tryin’ To Get Over You,” and so many more of his hits were solo writes.
45. Shel Silverstein – That’s right, he didn’t just write A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. He also wrote “A Boy Named Sue” and other strong country offerings, making Shel one of the quintessential behind-the-scenes songwriting stars.
44. John Prine – Not the commercial powerhouse compared to others on this list, but as respected by his peers as Guy Clark. Like so many great songwriters, Prine has a style of writing all his own. You can say, “That’s a John Prine song,” and it immediately denotes quality.
42. Don Gibson – “Oh Lonesome Me,” “Blue Blue Day,” and dozens others make Don Gibson one of the greatest ever.
41. Lyle Lovett – “If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. And if I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.”
40. Chris LeDoux – Country music’s first independent superstar, if it wasn’t for his songs and success, there may have never been a “Class of ’89” in country music.
39. Dwight Yoakam – It wasn’t just the voice, the tight pants, and the cowboy hat turned down over his eyes. As the songwriter for singles like “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “It Won’t Hurt,” “I Got You” and others, Yoakam showed he was a student of classic country not just in style, but in words and sentiment.
38. Waylon Jennings – Not known as a songwriter first, but some of his biggest hits like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” were penned by his own hand. Quantity may put him at a disadvantage to some names, but the quality is unquestionable.
37. Alan Jackson – Never has a songwriter been so successful with his own compositions in the modern era. A commercial superstar who still brought substance to his music, Alan Jackson has the commercial success and the street cred to be considered a superstar no matter who you speak to.
36. Earl Thomas Conley – Between late 1982 and early 1989, Earl Thomas Conley released 19 singles. Out of those 19 singles, 17 went #1. The other two went to #2. Earl Thomas Conley wrote many of them, some with collaborator Randy Scruggs.
35. Johnny Cash – It may be more relevant to explain why Johnny Cash sits so far up on this list as opposed to why he’s included. Though an amazing songwriter in his own right, especially early on, Cash knew how to rely on others to help build his iconic career. When Cash did pick up his pen though, magic happened, and his songwriting contributions can’t be overlooked.
33. Lucinda Williams – Exhibit #1: “Passionate Kisses.” Exhibit #2: The album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—possibly one of the best-written albums ever.
32. Jerry Jeff Walker – When you write a song like “Mr. Bojangles” that goes on to be covered by Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, you know you’re worthy of top songwriting distinction. But Walker’s career post “Bojangles” in Texas proved he was much more than a one hit songwriting wonder. He also deserves kudos for giving exposure to others songwriters after the success of “Mr. Bojangles,” including to Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark, and Gary P. Nunn on his album Viva Terlingua.
31. Gram Parsons – Scoff all you want at Gram being a rocker turned country star, but his songwriting contributions, specifically in the California country rock scene, turned an entire generation on to the beauty of country music.
30. Cindy Walker – The quintessential unknown songwriter, Cindy Walker swore off the limelight as she penned some of the most iconic songs in country music history, including “Sugar Moon” and “Bubbles In My Beer” for Bob Wills, Webb Pierce’s “I Don’t Care,” and “Blue Canadian Rockies.” Walker was an inaugural inductee of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
29. Bill Monroe – Think of what a different musical world it would be without Bill Monroe. Though a lot of his magic consisted of taking tunes from the past and paying them forward, Bill Monroe’s songwriting also helped form the subgenre of bluegrass where there was no such subgenre before.
28. Johnny Paycheck – His checkered past and super hit with a David Allan Coe song shade the fact that Johnny Paycheck was a master songwriter, and a prolific one at that.
27. Bill Anderson – “Mama Sang A Song,” “Still,” “I Get The Fever,” and Bill is still writing songs today and as prolific as ever. There’s few living songwriters as well-respected as Bill Anderson.
26. Loretta Lynn – Sometimes it’s hard for us to think of iconic singers and performers as songwriters too, but if there was ever a performer who deserves her own kudos for penning songs, it’s Loretta Lynn. “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’,” “Fist City,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and so many of her other signature tunes were self-penned.
25. Harlan Howard – Writer of “Heartaches By The Number,” “I Fall To Pieces,” “Life Turned Her That Way,” “Streets of Baltimore,” and so many more. One of the truly great behind-the-scenes country songwriters of all time.
24. Jerry Reed – Jerry Reed could do it all, and did do it all, including writing some of the most iconic songs in country music history. You know that feeling that comes over you when you first hear “East Bound and Down” after you haven’t heard it in a while? Jerry Reed made country funky and cool, and his wordplay put him in an elite company of country songwriters.
23. Hank Cochran – This Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter once had Jamey Johnson record an entire album of his songs—the ultimate compliment from one songwriter to another. Cochran’s career was relevant for an incredible span of time. He wrote songs for Patsy Cline and Ray Price, and later for George Strait and Lee Ann Womack. You will be hard pressed to find another songwriter as respected as Hank Cochran.
22. Fred Rose – The often-unheralded co-songwriter behind so many of Hank Williams’ biggest songs, and the songs of other early country stars, Fred’s pen was one of the forces that made country music into a major American music genre. His work behind-the-scenes to make sure songwriters get paid their due through Acuff/Rose was also a significant contribution to the songwriting realm.
21. Marty Robbins – With a songwriting arsenal that includes “El Paso,” “White Sport Coat,” and “Big Iron,” Marty Robbins deserves to be considered as a member of the top class of country music scribes.
20. Billy Joe Shaver – Few songwriters can gloat that Waylon Jennings once recorded an entire album of his songs (Honky Ton Heroes). Billy Joe Shaver embodies the timeless songwriter whose biggest hits are known through performers of another name.
19. David Allan Coe – The gruff exterior, the crude language found in some of his songs might make some think there was never any substance to Coe or that he’s not worth any recognition. But there are few that were as prolific, and as potent as David Alan Coe in his prime.
18. Roger Miller – What would country music be without the songwriting of Roger Miller? A little less fun and a lot less cool. From a creativity standpoint, it can be argued he’s one of the greatest of all time.
17. Tom T. Hall – The name “Tom T. Hall ” is synonymous with master songwriting. They didn’t call him “The Storyteller” for nothing. “Country Is,” “I Care,” “I Love,” “Faster Horses,” and so many other were attributed to Tom T. Hall. He also authored several books on songwriting.
15. Buck Owens – Would there even be a thing called “The Bakersfield Sound” if it wasn’t for Buck Owens? And it wasn’t just the loud Telecasters and thumping bass drums that went into the sound. It was the words of Buck and frequent collaborator Harlan Howard that defined the hard times and honky-tonk moods that made Bakersfield such a different flavor from Nashville, and a style that still resonates in the hearts of country music fans today.
14. Jimmie Rodgers – As the father of country music, without the songwriting of Jimmie Rodgers and the recording equipment of Ralph Peer, country music may have never come into being as a commercial enterprise.
13. The Carter Family – Without the Carter Family, there arguably is no such thing as country music. Their primitive country songs were the bridge between country music’s back porch past and its commercial present, and the influence of their songwriting can still be heard in traditional country, folk, bluegrass, and Americana today.
12. Hank Snow – Whenever someone tells you that a Canadian can’t write country music, you just mention these two words: Hank Snow. Sometimes overshadowed by the other Hank’s of the genre, Hank Snow had a huge impact on country music with his songwriting and other contributions, including giving hands up to Hank Williams and Elvis during his storied career.
11. Bob Wills – The King of Western Swing was responsible for creating his own subgenre and inspiring countless others to carry on the legacy that is still alive today. Songs like “New San Antonio Rose” are just as valuable to the country songbook as they are to the landscape of all American music. Few left as wide a footprint as Bob Wills.
Always seeming to be overshadowed in his era by Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell gives up nothing to his contemporaries, and his credits are some of the most important compositions in the history of country music. What would country music be without “If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time)”?
Some people think the king of country music is Hank Williams. Others believe the king of country music is George Strait. Still others believe it is A.P. Carter, or Jimmie Rodgers. In truth, it was Roy Acuff, or so he called himself. And with the impressive songwriting catalog he amassed over his legendary career, and his work with Acuff/Rose to make sure songwriters got their due in the recording process, his career was one of the pillars the country music songwriting industry was built upon.
Appreciate that Dolly Parton’s name is officially attributed to over 3,000 songs. Now think for a second about some of the songs she’s responsible for; songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” that have become some of the most beloved songs the world has ever heard.
There are many more popular, and there’s some more poetic. But few know how to “craft” a song like Guy Clark. Take a survey of songwriters themselves, and Guy would be at the top of nearly everyone’s list as the best ever.
The poet of the people, Merle Haggard’s songs speak to the American experience like none other, and he defined what a country song was for a generation.
There is no more revered and mythical name in songwriting than Townes Van Zandt. His life was like a song itself—so touching yet so fleeting. No other songwriter has made people feel as much emotion as Townes Van Zandt.
A Renaissance man, a military officer, an actor, a performer. But when you boil it all down, the foremost thing Kris Kristofferson may be known for is his songwriting. As influential and lasting as anyone, Kris revolutionized country music songwriting in the 70’s, and had everyone else stepping up their game to meet the high bar he set. It’s a bar that is still trying to be met by songwriters today.
3. Woody Guthrie
Though you can certainly make the case that Woody Guthrie was just as much a folk singer, without Woody, arguably the legacy of the singer/songwriter does not exist. Woody set the mold for songwriting as we know it today, and did it by championing the agrarian themes at the heart of country music.
2. Willie Nelson
For a man who has such a distinct voice and guitar tone and has spent 60+ years as an entertainer, Willie’s songwriting still remains his signature. From “selling” songs for as little as $20 to buy his young family bread, to writing hits for Faron Young and Patsy Cline, to becoming one of the songwriters on the first platinum record in country music history in Wanted: The Outlaws and arguably the greatest country record of all time in Red Headed Stranger, it is hard to top Willie Nelson, and in my book there’s only one that does.
1. Hank Williams
The Hillbilly Shakespeare
***Honorable Mention: Bob McDill, who somehow got looked over, but certainly deserves to be on this list somewhere.