For every ‘King of Country Music,’ there’s also a ‘Queen of Country Music’. But unlike the King, the Queen isn’t as controversial mainly because there is one recognized queen for every generation. And just like the popular title of Miss Universe, these women pass on the crown to the next who worthily deserves it.
From the American pioneering female country music singer Kitty Wells who tore down the barriers of the genre for women in 1952 to the groundbreaker Loretta Lynn and to the trailblazers Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, let’s meet them one by one.
What does it take to be royalty in country music?
Before we dive right into the list, let’s first take a very quick look at these two questions: First, why do we have kings and queens in country music, and second, who are the ones who have legitimate claims to these thrones?
Country music has always been into keeping the lineage of the genre alive by paying special homage to singers who helped popularize the genre and reach more audiences. And these royal monikers, which have now formed a royal family in the genre, are universally recognized by the public and are also widely used.
Meet the Queens
Kitty Wells (1950)
Kitty Wells tore down the barrier of the male-dominated genre and transformed it into a space where women are welcomed and included. And more importantly, Wells proved that female country musicians deserved to be respected.
The road to becoming one of the greatest female singers in the history of country music was not an easy one. For the most part, despite being a talented singer, many did not think she had what it took to sell country records. One of those was Roy Acuff, who advised her husband Johnnie Wright not to make Wells the headliner of the show.
But things changed when she made her first recording hit in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” This success was actually unexpected for two reasons: first, Wells was on the verge of retirement when she cut the song, and she only agreed to record it for the $125 session fee, and second which truly turned things for her was the song’s accidental feminist statement. As the story went, it was actually intended to only be an answer to Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life,” but Wells’ version turned the song into a reply conveying a message that Laura Cantrell of Daily Beast described as ‘a feminine weariness about being underestimated and a thinly veiled anger at being blamed for domestic strife.’
The song’s success led her to become the first-ever female country singer to occupy the top spot of the US country charts and the first female country superstar as well. And this was just the first of a long list of chart-topping hits and awards that she received from the 1950s until the mid-1960s. But what really cemented Wells into the industry was the inherent empathy she had for the characters in her song and her high and plaintive voice that cut through the hard surface of the 1950s honky-tonk. And that consistency in the quality of music that she produced, above all things, was what kept her successful.
And with that, she proved that female country music artists could make albums, sell records, headline concerts, and can be just as successful as their male counterparts. She revolutionized the way women were seen and heard in the industry. And now female country musicians are no longer called little girl singers and are given the respect that they deserve. And for that, she deserves every bit of being called a Queen.
Loretta Lynn (1960s)
Kitty Wells broke through the barrier and set up a path for female country musicians, and one of the firsts who took on that was Loretta Lynn. But Lynn just did not walk through it; she blazed through it. She represented women through her voice and helped usher in radical social changes, all the while remaining a simple country girl from Kentucky.
Loretta Lynn’s ticket into the country music scene was one televised talent contest in Tacoma. She caught the eye of Norm Burley, who was so impressed by her that he started Zero Records solely to record her. Her distinctive style fused with twang, grit, energy, and libido earned her Top Ten hits just like “Wine, Women, and Song” and “Blue Kentucky Girl.” And these songs also helped establish Lynn’s undeniable strong female point of view.
With her later works, Lynn strengthened that style and evolved it into unprecedented women’ taking no crap’ narrations that then earned her a string of hits. In her songs “You Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind), and “Fist City,” she took on the character of a woman who is fearless and a woman who stands up for herself just like real women did. She also did not shy away from controversial topics of her time when she released “The Pill,” a song that advocated for women’s rights in reproductive choices. And in her decades’ worth of career, Loretta Lynn continued to empower women.
It’s undeniable that Loretta Lynn’s role in country music has nothing been short of groundbreaking. And just like Kitty Wells, she has also earned herself the title of ‘Queen of Country Music.’
Dolly Parton (1970s)
If there was one word to describe Dolly Parton’s career, it would be trailblazing. From the stage of “The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour” in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dolly Parton captured the “Porter Wagoner Show” and catapulted herself to the global stage. Her songs have become staples, and there’s probably no country music fan who couldn’t name a Dolly Parton song.
As the story went on Dolly Parton’s career, she was poor yet surrounded with a wealth of musical talents. She got her first gig when she was just 10, wrote her first single at 11, and released her first songs at 13. But 13 wasn’t just any age for Dolly, as it was at that time that she got to stand on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. But it wasn’t until 1967 that her career started to take off. Soon enough, she was earning hits, and it was her 13th studio album, “Jolene,” that really ascended her to the top. “Jolene,” alongside four other singles in the album – “I Will Always Love You,” “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me,” “Love is like a Butterfly,” and “The Bargain Store” – all peaked at number one.
Throughout Dolly Parton’s six-decade career, she released 91 albums, won nine Grammy awards, and earned record sales of over $160 million. But aside from being a country megastar, she is also a philanthropist who generated millions in revenue for Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, thanks to her theme park, and helped children through her ‘Imagination Library.’
Dolly Parton is definitely the most successful artist of all time, and her influence has undeniably crossed all boundaries. It was so rare to see an artist beloved by all people, and there she was amid the few. And if that isn’t Queen enough for you, what is?
Reba McEntire (1980s)
Another trailblazing artist who followed the footsteps of the strong women who came before her is Reba McEntire. Reba’s career has inspired many young female musicians by showing that despite many failures, she has risen from the challenges to become one of the greatest female country singers in history.
Reba’s title as ‘Queen of Country Music’ has been largely credited to the massive hits and awards that she earned throughout her career. But just like anything great, it took a bit of time to get where she is right now. Reba started her career at a young age, taught by her mom as she and his siblings sang and harmonized through car trips and any time possible in between. But what turned her life around happened in 1974 during National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City. Her performance led her to officially start her professional music career.
Although having that golden opportunity didn’t exactly mean that she walked a smooth road. There were still a few bumps along the way, but she did build her momentum when she cracked the Top 20 with “Three Sheets in the Wind” and her cover of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams.” After that, she slowly grew her career until she finally hit her first two number one hits with “Can’t Even Get the Blues” and “You’re The First Time I’ve Thought About Leaving.”
Then after decades of career, Reba has now sold over 75 million records worldwide and placed over 100 singles on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart with 25 chart-topping hits. And that is a feat that only a ‘Queen of Country Music’ can achieve.
Dolly Parton, kitty wells, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire