Every song is an immersive story, transporting listeners to a time when life was less complicated – evoking memories of significant places and people in your life. There is honesty and realness in country music, best exemplified by music stars like these who make the genre all heart. Let’s look at the journey of some of our favorite country stars and where they are now.
Dolly Parton Then
Dolly Parton was born on January 19, 1946, and grew up in a one-room cabin in East Tennessee. She performed on local radio and television programs in her hometown.
In 1967, Dolly caught the attention of musician Porter Wagoner. The two started dating and recording together. When Parton eventually left to pursue a solo career, she wrote “I Will Always Love You” about having to leave Wagoner, and the song reached No. 1 on the country charts. She came out with several country hits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Parton also won the 1978 Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Dolly Parton Now
Parton overcame poverty to become not just a musical icon but a national treasure. Apart from releasing several country hits, Parton has acted, modeled, hosted a variety show, and opened her own theme park “Dollywood.”
Over 18,000 people watched her perform “Islands In The Stream” and “Jolene” at Glastonbury in 2014 – the biggest crowd in the festival’s history for a single performer. In 2022, she was named one of the newest members of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
Luke Bryan Then
Before he began selling out stadiums, Luke Bryan played gigs at night and worked at his father's peanut farm in the day to make ends meet.
He moved to Nashville in 2001 and became a songwriter. Shortly after, a rep from Capitol Records signed Bryan to the label, and in 2007, he released his debut single, “I’ll Stay Me.” His second album, “Doin My Thing” (2009), took country music by storm - making Bryan a household name. He’s best known for hits like “Drink A Beer,” “Tomorrow Goodbye,” and “Kick The Dust Up.”
Luke Bryan Now
As one of the biggest country stars in the business today, Luke Bryan has his hands full. He’s a three-time Entertainer of the Year Award winner. In 2013, he became the first country music star to release six #1 hits in a single album.
In 2018, Bryan also joined Lionel Ritchie and Katy Perry as a judge on one of the biggest talent shows on TV – "America’s Got Talent." The multi-faceted Bryan owns a record label, “32 Bridge Entertainment.” To date, Bryan has sold over 75 million records.
Blake Shelton Then
Born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma, Blake Shelton picked up music in his early teens and started performing on the bar circuit in Oklahoma. A smitten Shelton left for Nashville right after graduation in 1994.
The budding star made several rounds of Music City publishing houses, trying to sell his music. Finally, in 2001, iconic songwriter Bobby Braddock brought Shelton’s music to the attention of Giant Records. The result was Austin” - his first single and number-one hit song. The singer soon became famous for his signature music style that combined country and rock ballads.
Blake Shelton Now
Shelton became a household name thanks to his starring role as a judge on “The Voice.” But he was a star in his own right long before the show. Many of his songs and albums had already scored big on the Billboard 200 and Country Albums Charts. He was People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2017
. Shelton is married to Gwen Stefani, his co-judge on “The Voice.” The two have also released music together. To date, Shelton has won one Billboard Music award, six Academy of Country Music Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards, 10 CMT Music Awards, and one CMT Artist of the Year award.
The Dixie Chicks Then
The Dixie Chicks comprised three sisters, Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer. The girl power team went on to become one of the biggest country acts in history.
The sisters brought life to a genre that had grown predictable. Fans loved the band for their cheeky girl power classics. The proof was in the numbers. Their album, “Wide Open Spaces,” sold more copies in 1998 than every other country artist combined. In 2003, the band shocked their largely right-wing fan base when they criticized President George Bush. Large-scale boycotts and death threats ensued.
The Chicks Now
The country music fraternity canceled The Dixie Chicks for their “radical” politics. Local radio stations refused to play their music and even led CD-burning protests – effectively halting the band’s career. In 2006, The Dixie Chicks released one more album, which would be their last one for 14 years.
In 2020, the band announced a comeback with a single fittingly called “Gaslighter.” The trio officially bid goodbye to “Dixie” and re-emerged as “The Chicks.” The change was in line with several country groups who wanted to shed problematic references to a Confederate South.
Carrie Underwood Then
The world first met Carrie Underwood in 2005 on “American Idol” – a country girl who grew up on an Oklahoma farm. She not only won the show and a million-dollar record deal, but Underwood also gained a dedicated fan base. Her debut album “Some Hearts” was released in November that year, going straight to the top of the Country Albums chart. The album featured some of her top singles: “Jesus Take The Wheel,” “Before He Cheats,” and “Wasted.”
Carrie Underwood Now
Carrie Underwood continues making history as one of the most successful American Idol winners. Since winning the competition, she stands pretty as country music's undisputed princess.
Underwood has sold over 65 million records, won seven Grammy awards, and released 14 No. 1 singles. There is no stopping this powerhouse. She released a new album, “The Savior,” in 2021. Underwood also began her wildly anticipated Las Vegas Residency called “Reflection” in December 2021, which has sold out each show since its inception. The singer is married to ice-hockey player Mike Fisher, and they have two kids.
Rascal Flatts Then
The foundations for Rascal Flatts began with second cousins Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus, who grew up and performed together. A series of events led them to Joe Don Rooney, who joined them one night as a fill-in guitarist. Magic happened when they performed together for the first time, and the trio decided to form a band.
Rascal Flatts released their self-titled debut album in 2000, and album sales soared. When their second album, “Melt” (2009), came out, there was no denying the band had arrived.
Rascal Flatts Now
Critics ridiculed the band for being country music’s equivalent of a boy band. But Rascal Flatts persevered. When they harmonized, there was no denying they were country.
The band released 16 No. 1 songs and sold over 23 million records. In 2020, the band suddenly called it quits. Nobody knows what happened for sure. But speculations are rife that Rooney decided to leave first, seemingly out of nowhere. LeVox has stated that he was “never okay” with how things ended.
Keith Urban Then
Keith Urban’s career took off in 1990 after he landed a record contract with EMI Records at home in Australia. Urban gathered a loyal fanbase and performed at numerous festivals before moving to the U.S. for his big break.
In Nashville, he sang as a support act and co-wrote songs for several legends like Toby Keith and The Raybon Brothers. In 1999, Capitol Records signed Urban as a solo artist. His 2004 album “Golden Road” put Urban on the map. His single “You’ll Think Of Me” won Urban his first Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2005.
Keith Urban Now
Keith Urban today is a country music titan with a career spanning over three decades. The megastar has released 20 No. 1 singles and sold over 15 million albums worldwide.
Let’s not forget the numerous ACM, CMA, and Grammy awards in his name! Urban has also appeared as a judge on “American Idol” and Australia’s “The Voice.” On this tremendous journey, Urban met Nicole Kidman, the love of his life. The two married in 2006 and have two kids – Sunday and Faith.
Taylor Swift Then
Success didn’t come easy for a young Taylor Swift. She faced numerous rejections before landing a deal with a country music label, Big Machine Records in 2005. Swift was 16 when she took the music world by storm with her self-titled debut album.
Her 2009 album “Fearless” marked the beginning of her crossover from country to pop. You could not go anywhere without “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” playing on the airwaves. The rest, they say, is history.
Taylor Swift Now
Taylor Swift’s versatility as a singer-songwriter is well-known. Her signature lyrical storytelling effortlessly blends various genres like alternative rock, indie-folk, pop, and electronic music.
Over the years, she’s emerged as one of the most successful artists of all time. Swift has won 11 Grammys, 34 AMAs, 29 Billboard Music Awards, and smashed about 50 Guinness World Records, among others. Her legendary concert tours are some of the highest-selling in concert history. Tay-Tay fans and foes are deeply-invested in her epic feuds – from Kanye West interrupting her at the AMAs to her alleged bad blood with Katy Perry.
Dierks Bentley Then
Dierks Bentley’s love for music began early. He grew up in Pheonix, Arizona, where he would spend hours listening to records with his father, a big country music fan. Bentley later found a day job at The Nashville Network, which further cemented his interest in a music career.
Bentley performed bluegrass music in various clubs before finding his way into the country music scene. He signed with Capitol Records and, in 2003, burst onto the country music scene with his first single, “What Was I Thinkin'.” The track soared to the top of the Billboard country charts.
Dierks Bentley Now
Since taking country music by storm in 2003, Bentley has released eight studio albums and 18 number 1 singles. The country star has also won two CMA awards, two ACM awards, two CMT awards, and was nominated for 14 Grammy awards, among others.
At 29, Bentley became one of the youngest members of the Grand Ole Opry in 2005. His music continues to combine influences from bluegrass and country – a classic Dierks Bentley sound that fans know and love.
Tim McGraw Then
In 1989, Tim McGraw dropped out of school and headed to Nashville, looking for a career break. McGraw performed in Nashville clubs for a few years, eventually landing a deal with Curb in 1992.
The talented artist found his breakthrough moment in 1994 when he released the single “Indian Outlaw.” Although criticized, the song reached the Country Top Ten. His next single, “I Like It, I Love It” (1995), catapulted McGraw to stardom. The album “All I Want” topped the country charts and even crossed over to the top of the pop charts.
Tim McGraw Now
Tim McGraw is among the most influential country musicians of all time. He’s a talented guitar player, record producer, and even an actor, to boot! Ten out of 16 of his albums have reached the No. 1 spot on the country charts.
He has a knack for producing relatable songs that transcend time or music trends. His unusual collaboration with hip-hop artist Nelly on the track “Over And Over” gave the universe the crossover it didn’t know it needed! McGraw has won three Grammy Awards, 10 American Music Awards, and three People’s Choice Awards just to name a few!
Faith Hill Then
Raised as a Baptist, Faith Hill discovered her love for music in church. When not singing gospel, Hill performed at events in and around town. She eventually found her way to Nashville, where she sang backup and worked several day jobs.
Her breakthrough moment arrived one night when a talent scout spotted her singing at the Bluebird Café. In 1993, she released her debut single, “Take Me As I Am,” and became an overnight sensation. The songstress released hit after hit, with ten of 12 singles from her first three albums topping the charts.
Faith Hill Now
Since her smashing debut in 1993, Faith Hill has been synonymous with country music. Besides her hugely successful music career, Hill recorded “There You’ll Be” for the Pearl Harbor soundtrack.
The Queen of Country has won 15 ACM awards, five Grammys, and six AMA awards. Fans will remember her as one of 30 iconic country artists who performed “Forever Country” in 2016. When she and Tim McGraw married, the pair became country music’s reigning couple, remaining unseated to date. They regularly record duets and go on massive tours together.
Darius Rucker Then
Darius Rucker formed the band Hootie & the Blowfish with three friends from college. The band exploded in popularity during the ‘90s. The band took a break in 2008, and Rucker released his country debut, “Learn to Live,” that same year.
The lead single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the country charts. It was the first time a black artist had done so since Charley Pride’s “Night Games” in 1983. Rucker released eight more No. 1 singles and several others that stayed at the top of the country charts.
Darius Rucker Now
When asked about his “conversion” from rock to country, Rucker has always maintained he is in it for the long haul. He is among the few musicians who made a successful crossover and chose to stay there.
Rucker is also one of the few African-Americans to achieve prominence in and break color barriers in the genre. Rucker may have single-handedly made country music accessible to Black communities. The three-time Grammy winner is well-known for his outstanding philanthropic work with children from underprivileged communities.
Kenny Chesney Then
Kenny Chesney first picked up a guitar only in his sophomore year at East Tennessee State when someone gifted the instrument to him. Soon, Chesney started writing and performing his own songs at restaurants and clubs around campus.
He moved to Nashville in 1991, where he parked cars during the day and performed in clubs at night. His big moment arrived in 1993 when Capricorn Records offered him a recording contract. Chesney released his debut album, “In My Wildest Dreams,” which was a critical and commercial success.
Kenny Chesney Now
The country star hasn’t looked back since his brilliant debut on the streets of Nashville in 1991. He has won 12 CMA awards, including Entertainer of the Year four times, and nominated for six Grammys.
Chesney’s music and unique vocal style are homages to old-school, true-blue country music. He is one of the most popular country music touring artists, often selling out venues months before. In 2005, Chesney married actor Renee Zellweger, but after only four months, the couple annulled their marriage.
Reba McEntire Then
In 1974, Reba McEntire was singing the national anthem at the National Rodeo Finals when she caught the attention of country star Red Steagall. Reba signed with Mercury Records a year later! In 1983, she released “I Can’t Even Get The Blues,” which reached the top of the charts.
Her second album with MCA records, “My Kind of Country” (1984), became a breakout release. Tragedy struck in 1991 when she lost eight of her band members in a plane crash. The singer poured her grief into music and released “For My Broken Heart” - her highest-selling album of all time.
Reba McEntire Now
Reba McEntire has achieved cult status in country music, equivalent to the likes of Patsy Cline. One of the reasons for her success was insisting on choosing her material. McEntire is as traditional country as she is mainstream pop and R&B.
Her powerful vocals lend themselves beautifully to any material. Besides winning numerous AMA, CMA, and Grammy awards, McEntire is among the few musicians to receive the National Artistic Achievement Award. She has also starred in the hit show “Reba.”
Shania Twain Then
Shania Twain spent most of her childhood singing and playing guitar in her hometown of Timmins, Ontario. When Twain got older she finally assembled a demo of her tunes.
She signed with Nashville Records and released her self-titled debut album in 1993. Shortly after, she met and fell in love with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. They co-wrote her second album, “The Woman In Me” (1995), which went to the top of the charts. In 1997, her third album, “Come on Over,” sold 36 million copies.
Shania Twain Now
With record sales exceeding 100 million, Shania Twain is the best-selling female artist in country music. Twain returned with her fourth studio album, “Up,” in 2002.
The album was released to great fanfare but failed to have the same impact as “Woman in Me” and “Come on Over.” The singer also wrote “Shoes” for the “Desperate Housewives” soundtrack and released a successful Greatest Hits album, but did not make new music. The “Queen of Country Pop” took a 15-year break from the industry. She returned in 2017 with her fifth studio album, “Now.”
Lady Antebellum Then
School friends Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood first met Hillary Scott at a Nashville pub in 2006. The trio hit it off immediately and soon began writing songs and performing as the band Lady Antebellum.
The band sealed a deal with Capitol Records and released their self-titled debut album. Lady Antebellum became an overnight sensation, and the album skyrocketed to Number 1. The group released their second album, “Need You Now,” in 2009, taking their career to meteoric heights.
Lady A Now
When it comes to country music bands, it doesn’t get bigger than Lady A. Ever since they stormed onto the scene in 2006, the group has sold over 18 million albums and won multiple CMA, Billboard, and Grammy awards.
The band was also inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and completed a successful Las Vegas Residency. In June 2020, the group members decided to change the band name to Lady A since the word Antebellum had undeniable negative connotations.
George Strait Then
George Strait is the “King of Country” today - but the musical legend never had it easy. Strait grew up in rural Texas and joined the military when he was 19.
He became a Corporal and joined his first country music band while at his army post. Strait left the army to resume studying at Texas State University while simultaneously singing lead for several bands. In 1981, he signed a one-song contract with MCA records. The result was his first single, “Unwound."
George Strait Now
Strait rose to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s, quickly becoming one of the best-selling music artists of all time. The music star was instrumental in reviving honky-tonk and western swing in country music.
He released more albums in the 2000s. In 2009, George Strait received the Artist of the Decade Award from the Academy of Country Music. He received the award from the previous winner, Garth Brooks - one for the history books! Strait continues to make music and has a Las Vegas Residency called “Strait To Vegas.”
Johnny Cash Then
Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas into a family of sharecroppers. He grew up in the middle of the Great Depression – a tough life that instilled a reverence for religion, family, and the earth’s blessings.
Cash worked several odd jobs and even served on the Unites States Air Force before making it big in music in 1955. He signed with Sun Records in Memphis – where some of his most iconic songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “Big River” were born.
Johnny Cash Now
Johnny Cash blazed his own path in country music. He was a legend who defied conventional ideas about genre, with his music incorporating everything – from rock and roll and blues to gospel.
Cash won multiple Grammys and CMA awards and was the youngest person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He died in 2003 due to complications from diabetes – just a few months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash.
Garth Brooks Then
Troyal Garth Brooks was born and raised in Oklahoma. Music ran in the Brooks family. It was always in his blood since his mother, Colleen, was a country singer with Capitol Records in the 1950s.
In 1989, Brooks released his self-titled debut album, and the rest is history. Within the next few years, Brooks released his third album, "Ropin’ the Wind,' which was the first country album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Garth Brooks Now
Garth Brooks has been making music for decades. From the moment he arrived on the country music scene, Brooks has made history and broken all kinds of records.
He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1990, just a year after the release of his first album - unheard of until he arrived. In 1999, Brooks pulled off a shocking 360 with the debut of his alter ego, Chris Gaines. There were no takers, unfortunately. Yet, the Gaines debacle did nothing to dent his exemplary career. The country music star retired in 2000 to focus on being a dad.
Willie Nelson Then
Willie Nelson learned to play guitar from his grandfather, performing at local dances by age 10. When he grew up he played bass for Ray Price and found enormous success with the band.
The singer moved back to Texas in the early ‘70s where he kickstarted a country music movement called outlaw music with Waylon Jennings. Their album, “Red Headed Stranger (1975), was a smashing success! Nelson’s unique sound and guttural guitar sounds stood out – catapulting his status as one of the most popular performers in country music.
Willie Nelson Now
Part of Nelson’s genius lay in never playing it safe musically. He found further success in numerous crossover albums such as “Always On My Mind” (1982) and his hit duet with Julio Iglesias, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” (1984).
The artist recorded with scores of other musicians throughout his career: including Jennings, Wynton Marsalis, and Merle Haggard. As time passed, an aging Nelson increasingly focused on recording traditional songs and covers. He is the recipient of numerous Grammy and ACM awards.
Since she blazed onto the scene in 2003, Miranda Lambert has remained a country music icon. Lambert released her first album, “Kerosene,” in 2005, and all four singles climbed to the Top 40 on the Billboard Country chart.
She then joined forces with fellow country artists Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe to form a trio called "Pistol Annies.” The trio released their debut, “Hell on Hells,” in 2001 - right after Lambert married Blake Shelton. In May 2007, her sophomore album, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” came out, which soared to No. 1 and won album of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2008.
Miranda Lambert Now
Lambert has been unstoppable since she debuted as a contestant on Nashville Star in 2003. Audiences love her diverse songwriting repertoire – from musings about domestic life to epic revenge fantasies.
The singer has released ten studio albums – some as a solo artist and others with her band, the Pistol Annies. Lambert has also released one video album and an EP. She received several Grammy awards and was the first woman to win two back-to-back Album of the Year awards from the Country Music Association Awards.
Chris Stapleton Then
Chris Stapleton was born and raised in Kentucky but moved to Nashville, Tennessee. The talented musician secured a songwriting contract with Sea Gayle Music in 2001, soon after moving to Nashville. He spent his days writing hits for country music greats such as Josh Turner, Darius Rucker, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney.
By 2015, his brilliant duet with Justin Timberlake at the CMA awards took his solo career to meteoric heights. That same year, Stapleton released his debut solo album, “Traveller,” which reached No.1 on the Billboard 200.
Chris Stapleton Now
Chris Stapleton is that veritable triple threat in music: a gifted singer, skilled guitarist, and prolific songwriter. People have likely heard a Chris Stapleton song without knowing he wrote it. For instance, some of your favorite Ed Sheeran, Adele, and Carlos Santana songs.
The legendary artist has written and co-written more than 170 songs so far. And his influences extend beyond the realm of one genre – from traditional country to mainstream pop and rock. Stapleton has won numerous awards – including ten CMA awards and five Grammys.
Luke Combs Then
Luke Combs was a gifted child who even performed at Carnegie Hall. While at college, he auditioned for “The Voice” in the hopes of securing a record deal but never made it to the live shows. Combs moved to Nashville to pursue music full-time.
In 2014, the young star made waves with his EPs “The Way She Rides” and “Can I Get An Outlaw.” He signed with Sony Nashville and released his debut single, “Hurricane,” in 2017 – and with that, Luke Combs had well and truly arrived.
Luke Combs Now
For someone relatively new to the country music scene, Luke Combs has already had some big wins. He enjoys making music that does not fit a specific genre. Combs's second debut album, “What You See Is What You Get (2018,) made it to No. 1 on the U.S. Country chart.
He’s won two Grammy Award nominations, six CMA awards, and two iHeart Radio music awards, and became a Grand Ole Opry inductee in 2019. In 2021, Combs won the coveted Entertainer of the Year Award by the Country Music Association.
Brad Paisley Then
Brad Paisley has been singing since he could walk. At age 12, the West Virginia native was a regular feature on the radio program Jamboree USA where he sang for eight years.
After graduating from college in Nashville, Paisley worked as a songwriter before releasing his debut album, “Who Needs Pictures,” in 1999. It sold over 1 million copies. Paisley’s career soared soon after with multiple appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, several No. 1 hits and albums, and a Grammy nomination. 48
Brad Paisley Now
Brad Paisley and his signature white hat have given the world some enduring country music moments. His career skyrocketed in the early 21st century, and the singer gained a massive fan following for his beautifully crafted songs, often tinged with wry humor. Paisley has released 11 studio albums and ten No.1 singles so far.
Since 1999, he has performed mainly with his band, The Drama Kings. The country superstar has also won numerous AMA, CMA, ACM, and Grammy Awards and wrote songs for the acclaimed Pixar film, “Cars” (2006).
Trisha Yearwood Then
Trisha Yearwood moved to Nashville fresh from high school. After completing a music business program at Belmont College, Yearwood sang at bars and bowling alleys – any job she could find. Her persistence paid off when MCA Nashville spotted her talent and offered a record deal.
Yearwood released her self-titled debut album in 1991, where the lead single, “She’s In Love With The Boy,” went straight to the top of the Billboard Country Charts. Following the phenomenal success of her first album, Yearwood toured with Garth Brooks and numerous platinum albums.
Trisha Yearwood Now
Trisha Yearwood is widely considered one of the greatest singers of her era across genres. The CMA named her Female Vocalist of the Year in 1997 and 1998. She won multiple Grammys and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1999. She married Garth Brooks in 2005, and the two continue taking country music by storm.
Yearwood has also built a lifestyle empire that includes an uber-successful clothing line and home décor brand. Her show, “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen,” even won a daytime Emmy award in 2013.