My father, who hated the rock and roll that I grew up listening to and loving, used to tell me that one day, when I was older, I would develop a love for country and western music. He also believed that I would eventually "grow out" of that noisy rock 'n' roll.
I can't say that a lot of what passes for rock music these days is to my tastes (Good Charlotte, A Simple Plan, Linkin Park, the list goes on, I can't stand 'em), but I still enjoy the rock that I grew up with, so he was wrong on that count...
But he was on the money with the prediction that I would one day appreciate and very much enjoy country music. And of course the songs and artists I love the most are the ones he was talking about, the ones he loved with a passion, the "classic country legends". There are quite a few of the newer country acts that I like, but very few hold a candle to the established C&W megastars of the 60's, 70's and 80's. And the worst of the lot, like Big and Rich and Shania Twain are worse than any of the crap rock groups on TRL.
Even though I did focus primarilly on rock until my mid-teens (when I branched out into classical and jazz), I was nevertheless exposed to LOTS of country music, because my dad listened to it exclusively all of his life. So even though I claimed to hate it all those years, I nevertheless gained a familiarity with the artists and their songs which allowed me to recognize them by their voices and styles.
I guess you could say that, by default, I have a rich background in country music, so I have decided to list here the top 5 male country singers of all time, as far as I'm concerned. These are the ones that come to mind immediately when I consider the topic. And, of course, this is entirely subjective...I realize that C&W fans more knowledgable than I would likely say that I should have included Hank Williams and/or Johnny Cash in the place of one or the other of my choices. I love Hank and Johnny, too, but to my ears, these five are the tops:
No-Show Jones was my father's absolute, hands down favourite country singer of them all, so I admit to some bias in this choice. Nevertheless, there's no denying the rich, expressive quality of the man's singing voice. I will never forget the day when my dad and I were watching an HBO concert that showcased Jones and turning around to see him in tears. I was still a teenage brat (I was only watching because Elvis Costello was featured in a duet with George and I wanted to see that), but I really gained a deep respect for George Jones and the power of his voice that day. It doesn't get much better than "He Stopped Loving Her Today"...
Another of my father's favourites (I might as well just say right now that all 5 of my choices were probably among my dad's Top 10 of all time)...Porter doesn't get the kind of radio airplay on "Pure Country" stations these days like the others in this list do, and I have no idea why not. He holds his own with the cream of the crop. And who can resist those Nudie suits that he and his band, the Wagon Masters, used to wear? Wagoner is responsible for one of the most bizarre country songs of all time, "The Rubber Room", about a hellish experience in a psych ward. For that alone I give Porter Wagoner the "thumbs up", but even a cursory listening to his body of work should convince you that he is one of the greatest. And just in case you didn't know, Dolly Parton wrote her biggest song, "I Will Always Love You" for Porter. Sometimes it gives me the creeps when I hear Whitney Houston doing that song and imagine Whitney singing it to Porter...but that's just me...
Not only one of the greatest country singers of all time, but also one of the genre's most prolific and talented songwriters. Merle was in San Quentin prison when Johnny Cash performed there and was inspired to write and perform country music when he was released. To say that he was successful in this quest would be a gross understatement. Songs like "Sing Me Back Home", "Silver Wings" and "Today I Started Loving Her Again" will forever be regarded as country standards, sung by countless honky tonk bands in dive bars. The songs are so good that you don't even have to be a good singer to get away with doing them, but Merle Haggard has the voice that puts them over the top. There's a playful quality to Hag's voice that is endearing, and it seems like it just gets better with age.
The late, great Waylon Jennings was the one singer in the "Outlaw Country" stable who sounded exactly like what you'd expect an outlaw to sound like: rough, tough, edgy, mischevious...and he didn't care what anyone thought about the fact that he "never could toe the mark, never could walk the line". He was an outlaw, fer cryin' out loud, you shouldn't EXPECT him to! The combination of his voice with Willie Nelson's was the catalyst that propelled "Outlaw Country" into the history books. Listen to "Ramblin' Man" and "Waymore's Blues" and you'll hear the sound of the country.
Strait is the "new kid on the block" of my list, even though he's been releasing pure country for well over 20 years. He's also the only one who still sells out arena concerts and has big hit songs in the charts consistantly, but that's not what qualifies him for my list. He is, plain and simple, the incarnation of practically everything about country music that I find enjoyable and entertaining. "Amarillo by Morning", "The Chair", "Cheyenne", the list of his excellent songs is a very long one, and each is infused with Strait's expressive baritone that sounds like it was honed around the campfire after a long hard day of cattle rustlin'. His only crime, as far as I can see, is that he was the one who inspired Garth Brooks to begin singing...Oh well, I don't hold that against him.