After Dolly Parton, What Country Artists Are Next for Rock Hall?

Dolly Parton will be one of the next inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And despite not really having anything to do with rock and roll, initially asking for her name to be taken out of contention, and ample rock and roll artists and bands wanting to get in but not being considered, the deal with Dolly Parton at this point is done.

As Dolly Parton said, “It was just always my belief—and I think millions of other people out there too—always thought the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was just set up for the greatest people in the rock ‘n’ roll business … I found out later that it’s far more than that, obviously.”

That quote really says so much, speaking to the disconnect and dilemma the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame faces, and has exacerbated for itself by inducting Dolly Parton.

The next question is how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will consider country performers for induction moving forward. Heretofore, the thought has always been that country artists shouldn’t be considered for the Rock Hall because they have the Country Music Hall of Fame to be enshrined in. Aside from some “early influence” performers who do fairly deserve Rock Hall distinction such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, country artists have been pretty much excluded. Until now.

This moment presents a slippery slope for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where all of a sudden a huge sect of country musicians previously excluded from contention feel like they should be considered for the Rock Hall induction in the coming years, if the institution isn’t dramatically in arrears to many of country’s top performers. This is the reason that despite being a booster for country music, Saving Country Music was opposed to Dolly Parton’s Rock Hall induction, under the spirit of being respectful to our rock neighbors, and since we wouldn’t want rock artists infiltrating the Country Music Hall of Fame, unless they had significant ties to the music like Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers, who are both Country Hall members.

So to either illustrate just what a slippery slope the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now sliding down, or perhaps to advocate for country artists now that the Rock Hall’s doors have been open wide to country performers, below is a list of other country artists who under the new reality of Rock Hall eligibility illustrated by Dolly Parton’s induction should be seriously considered in the coming years.

photo: Pamela Springsteen

Willie Nelson

If there is a musical and cultural equivalent to Dolly Parton from the country music world that Dolly’s induction would make compulsory, it would be Willie Nelson. His music and persona crosses genres, he enjoyed a successful career in acting just like Dolly, he’s known worldwide as a humanitarian and a man of peace just like Dolly, and similar to Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson is beloved by all.

If anything, Willie Nelson has even more credibility for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than Dolly. When Willie Nelson launched the second phase of his career from Texas, he was considered as more of a rock-oriented country artist. Watch him perform his song “Bloody Mary Morning” on the pilot episode of Austin City Limits and try to disagree. In fact, Jan Reed’s book on the rise of the Austin, TX music scene with Willie Nelson on the front is called The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. When Willie left his label RCA, he signed with the rock label Atlantic.

And not only was Willie Nelson partly responsible for the first Platinum-selling album in country music history with the rock-infused compilation Wanted: The Outlaws from 1976, his album of rock and pop standards called Stardust from 1978 became the genre’s first album to be certified Triple Platinum, and went on to help make Willie Nelson the highest-grossing touring artist by 1984.

If we’re putting country artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Willie Nelson’s exclusion is a travesty.

Garth Brooks

It’s pretty simple: If the philosophy is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is simply a popular music hall of fame that country artists shouldn’t be excluded from, how can you leave out the biggest, most successful, most popular American-born music artist of all time in Garth Brooks? Aside from The Beatles and Elvis Presley, nobody has ever been bigger, and Garth has now even surpassed many of their established records.

The question isn’t if Garth Brooks should be put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but how many years in arrears is the Rock Hall for not making it happen sooner? Garth should have been put in a decade ago, and unlike Dolly Parton, Garth actually has a history with rock music, not just from his heavily rock-influenced arena and stadium shows, but his alter-ego rock persona Chris Gaines, whose rock album sold well over 2 million copies.

Some will writhe at the idea of putting Garth in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and specifically because of things like his Chris Gaines persona. But following the logic of the Dolly Parton induction, Garth’s induction is beyond past due.

George Strait

If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an institution for all popular music irrespective of genre, it is impossible to justify how this generation’s King of Country Music has yet to be inducted. With the most #1 singles of any artist in country music history, and as one of the highest ticket price-drawing artist in modern history, the case can be made that “King” George Strait is the most important and successful country artist ever.

Ironically, he’s also probably the most country artist that would ever be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. George Strait has absolutely no rock and roll credentials to speak of, aside from perhaps covering Tom Petty in concert upon occasion. But neither does Dolly Parton, and commercially and statistically, George Strait was significantly more successful in music than Dolly. Thus, he should have probably been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago.

Charley Pride

Racism. RACISM! If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is all about inducting popular music artists regardless of genre—which is evidenced by their Dolly Parton induction—then how can you leave the Jackie Robinson of Country Music, an unquestionable Top 10 country music legend of all time, and the owner of 29 #1 country singles out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? There’s only one conclusion that I can come to, and that is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is institutionally racist, and is excluding Charley Pride because he is Black. To erase this racist legacy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Charley Pride must be inducted immediately.

In all seriousness, if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is serious about inclusion (and remember, Dolly Parton’s induction was born from calls for more women inductees), then Charley Pride has to be considered. Think about it like this: During the heyday of RCA Records, Elvis Presley was the legendary label’s biggest artist. Who was the label’s 2nd biggest artist? It was Charley Pride. He’s clearly a much more successful and influential artist to popular music than many of the current Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

Conway Twitty

Out of all the names you could come up with from the top tier of country music performers over the decades, nobody has stronger rock and roll credentials that should make him a shoo-in for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than Conway Twitty. In fact, throughout Conway’s country music career, many of country’s purists scoffed at his inclusion in the genre because he’d commenced his career as a successful rock and roll and rockabilly performer.

First recording under his given name of Harold Lloyd Jenkins, he actually got his start at Sun Records in Memphis working with Sam Phillips, just like so many of the foundational rock and roll greats already in the Rock Hall. Though none of his singles were released via Sun, he did write the song “Rockhouse” for Sun’s Roy Orbison. After changing his name to Conway Twitty to be more memorable, he cut a couple of singles for Mercury Records before signing with MGM, and launching a successful rock and roll career.

Conway Twitty’s 1958 song “It’s Only Make Believe” didn’t just go #1 in America, it went #1 in over 21 countries, and sold over 4 million copies. It was a massive rock and roll success. Conway had two other Top 10 hits in “Danny Boy” and “Lonely Blue Boy,” and nine total Top 40 hits as a rock artist before deciding to transition to country.

In country, Conway Twitty dominated the genre for some 35 years. Nobody except George Strait amassed more #1 singles. Conway had 55 of them before all was said and done, and may have enjoyed more if it wasn’t for declining health. But the only CMA Awards Conway ever won was for his duo work with Loretta Lynn. Why? Because much of the country establishment considered Conway a rock and pop artist interloping in country music, especially since so many of his biggest songs had sexual undertones more indicative of rock than country.

The case for Conway Twitty being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might be the strongest one of all.

Buck Owens

Though he’s not as flashy of a name as some others, the influence of Buck Owens over rock and roll and popular American music from the position of a country artist is virtually unparalleled aside from the “early influence” artists such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash who are already in.

Based in Bakersfield, California as opposed to Nashville, Buck Owens and his music was right there as the West Coast emerged as one of the most important and influential proving grounds for rock and roll that ultimately influenced the rest of the entire popular music world, exemplified when The Beatles covered Buck’s “Act Naturally” on their 1965 album HELP! Buck’s heavily rhythmic style, along with hot guitar licks and harmonies served by guitarist Don Rich were essential in the formation of 60s rock and roll.

Though Buck’s “aw shucks” persona seen on Hee-Haw for decades obscures just how influential he was in rock, charting 14 straight #1 singles in country between 1962 and 1967, and another four more before the end of the decade—including multiple songs like “Tiger By The Tale” that crossed over into pop and rock—made Buck foundational not just to the mop-topped Beatles, but an entire generation of rock and rollers.

Waylon Jennings

If you put Dolly in, and Willie in, you’d have to put Waylon in. After all, he’s the man most responsible for revolutionizing country music through the Outlaw movement, and he did it directly inspired by rock and roll.

It was Waylon’s drummer and right hand man Richie Albright who said to a frustrated Waylon in the early 70s, “There’s another way of doing things, and that’s rock n’ roll.” Albright not only meant adding more of a back beat and attitude to country music, he also meant adding more freedom. In the 70s, most rock outfits were allowed to record their own songs with their own bands, while country artists were under the thumb of producers like Chet Atkins making those decisions for them. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Bobby Bare before them revolutionized that system, inspired by the rock and roll icons of the time.

But Waylon’s affiliation with rock and roll goes much deeper, all the way to one of the original founders of the rock and roll sound, and one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Waylon Jennings played bass in the band of Buddy Holly when The Crickets took a hiatus. In fact, Waylon was supposed to be on that ill-fated plane that crashed on February, 3rd, 1959 that took Buddy Holly’s life, memorialized as “The Day The Music Died.” Waylon gave his seat up to “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson.

Waylon saw and participated in rock and roll in its very infant stages, and then a decade later used its unbridled freedom to revolutionize country music. If country artists deserve to be in the rock and roll Hall of Fame, Waylon Jennings has to be at near or top of the list.

Photo: Brad Coolidge

Loretta Lynn

If more women is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wants, and you want to expand that search to the women of country music, look no further than Loretta Lynn. She may not be an internationally-recognized cultural icon like Dolly Parton is, or have a similar resume of acting and crossover success. But Loretta Lynn has meant more to country music than any other woman. Yes, arguably even more than Dolly Parton.

Loretta Lynn truly is a rock star, personifying and embodying everything that a strong country woman constitutes, putting her struggles and perils in songs that had a significant impact on American culture far beyond the country radio dial. Speaking openly about infidelity, divorce, contraception, and equal rights for women has also made her a groundbreaker in American music.

When she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone on May 5th, 1977, Lynn said, “It’s a strange deal. I’m supposed to be a country singer, writing songs about marriage and family and the way normal folks live. But mostly I’m living in motel rooms and traveling on my special bus,” underscoring just how much Loretta Lynn was a rock star during the heyday of her career.

Merle Haggard

Well of course Merle Haggard should be considered. Ask most any rock and roll artist from the 70s, and they’ll tell you Merle Haggard influenced either their sound or songwriting. Similar to Buck Owens but just a little later in the timeline, Merle Haggard being based in Bakersfield meant he was regularly being heard by the rock and rollers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and influencing their sound significantly. Similar to Buck’s guitar player Don Rich, Merle’s Roy Nichols laid down licks that ultimately make their way into rock tracks.

This is why Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, Keith Richards, and Lynyrd Skynyrd all covered Merle Haggard songs. And while being known as a songwriter revered far and wide in the music world, Merle Haggard was one of country music’s biggest superstars. Amassing 38 #1 singles over 21 years, Merle Haggard is clearly a Top 5 performer in country music history.

Maddox Brothers and Rose

One can make the case that Maddox Brothers and Rose are one of the most influential bands of all time in American music. When the Maddox Brothers began, they didn’t even call it country music yet, it was called “hillbilly music,” yet the Maddox Brothers didn’t play hillbilly music exclusively. They mixed it with boogie woogie, which would later become rock & roll. The Maddox Brothers influence also came into play in the combination of hillbilly and boogie woogie that came to be known as rockabilly.

Rose Maddox has been called anywhere from the queen, to the mother, to the grandmother of rockabilly, and brother Fred Maddox who played upright bass is given credit for developing the slap bass approach to the instrument that was foundational to rock and roll.

The Maddox Brothers and Rose—also known as “The World’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” for their bright embroidered Western suits—had significant influence on Elvis Presley both sonically and stylistically.

We were playing a show with Elvis in Beaumont, TX at the auditorium.” Don Maddox recalled in 2012. “A package show. And we had on our fancy outfits, the ones with the bell bottoms on them and all the flowers and all of that stuff. Elvis, he was just coming on the scene at that time. And they came in with their street clothes. That’s all they had at that time. It was pretty hot down in Beaumont so we took off our fancy jackets and hung them in the dressing room backstage. And when we came off stage and went back there to get our jackets, Elvis had on one of our fancy jackets and was parading backstage and he said, ‘One of these days I’m going to get a fancy outfit like this.’

George Jones

The only reason George Jones is being mentioned last here is because he would be repulsed by the idea of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and would flatly insist his name never be associated with such a distinction. In truth, many of the country artists that could be considered would probably take similar stances. After all, that’s what Dolly Parton did originally. But unquestionably, George Jones is one of the biggest, and most popular country artists of all time, and so if we’re enshrining country artists in the Rock Hall (and apparently we are), he has to be in the conversation.

In fact, early in George Jones’s career, he was convinced to cut a few rockabilly tunes after the success of Elvis, giving him at least some rock and roll cred. But Jones did so reluctantly, and under the pseudonym Thumper Jones, later saying, “I didn’t want to be shamed with it,” and tried to destroy the masters. This is an example of the dichotomy of putting country artists into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Even still, though there have been higher grossing artists in country history, perhaps more “popular” artist by arbitrary measures, or better or more prolific songwriters, as a singer, George Jones was singular, and he deserves distinction in the greater pantheon of popular music.

The Slippery Slope

If you put Dolly Parton in, and Loretta Lynn in, then you would also have to put in their contemporary of Tammy Wynette. Once Tammy’s in, you’d have to seriously consider Patsy Cline, and the true queen of country music, Kitty Wells, while Emmylou Harris‘s interfacing with the rock world via Gram Parson, Mark Knopfler, and others would also make her a worthy nominee.

If you induct Garth Brooks, you’d have to consider the rest of country music’s “Class of ’89,” which also including Alan Jackson, the Southern rock-inspired Travis Tritt, and Clint Black. These were the men that led country music into stadiums. Randy Travis set the stage for the Class of ’89. He’d have to be considered too. So would Dwight Yoakam, who came up in cowpunk, and like Merle and Buck, inspired many rock artists while based on the West Coast.

Where would an artist like Glen Campbell fit in all of this? With his huge crossover success and session work as a guitarist, he had a huge influence in rock.

And how about more modern artists? Canadian Shania Twain may be a better candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now than for the Country Hall of Fame, seeing how her big transition to pop is what sent her into the stratosphere. She’s certainly a bigger pop star than many of the Rock Hall’s other inductees. Same for Kenny Chesney, who’s been one of the most consistent stadium draws in all of popular music since the late 90s.

And looking at more modern day “country” artists, it’s unquestionable that Eric Church is just a rock artist in the country space. Same could be said for Jason Aldean, and in some respects, Chris Stapleton. Should they be considered in the coming years for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction?

And so on, and so forth, with scores of names left out here, many more that will be suggested by fans incensed they weren’t even considered here until you have 50, maybe 60 artists fans of country music and beyond will insist should be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while major prominent rock and roll outfits continue to be overshadowed by superstar names decidedly outside to the rock music genre.

But hey, Dolly Parton is in. Congratulations.

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