At the end of every year, we reflect on the artists who’ve made their presence impactful and sustainable in our lives. While the decades have produced some of the greatest minds and showman of music, we focus on the few that have been exceptional. The roots genre is rich with those who’ve been exceptional and defining throughout their career. A listing of these perennial icons can be endless with every artist’s accomplishments being extensive. But here we rank these pioneers based on their achievements and groundbreaking influence that manifested in one of the greatest forms of American music. Here are the top 20 roots artists of all time.
20. Steve Earle
For one who was generally disliked by country music fans, Earle became one of the most important songwriters in the Nashville scene. Since his debut in 1986, Earle gained critical and commercial success with hit singles “Guitar Town” and “Goodbye’s All We Got Left “reaching top ten status. Earle’s neo style of folk and rockabilly combined with his political views had stunned a new age of songwriters. A multi award-winning artist, Earle’s influence reached to his contemporaries and fellow legends including Johnny Cash, Bob Seger and Travis Tritt.
19. Mark Knopfler
As a guitarist, Knopfler is revered to the greatest to ever tune a Stratocaster. During a time when punk had dominated the UK market, Knopfler bended the wild forms of music with a clean approach. Holding three honorary doctorates in music, Knopfler created some of the most prolific guitar riffs in history. The rhythmic and earthy guitar sound were hailed by his fellow peers for their synthetic and smooth appeal. Critically commended for his time with the Dire Straits, Knopfler crafted the all-time hits “Sultans of Swing” and “Money for Nothing”. Knopfler’s solo career reached similar success as his roots-based sound earned himself critical acclaim for the revolutionary albums Shangri-La and All the Roadrunning.
18. Patty Griffin
Dolly Parton, The Dixie Chicks and Kelly Clarkson are just the very few who’ve been transfixed by this songwriter. After writing a small number of catchy tunes for television shows, Griffin broke out in 1996 with her debut album Living with Ghosts. Even after a brief hiatus, Griffin returned with a rapid wave of hit albums in the early to mid-2000s. Her penned hits “Top of the World” and “Long Ride Home” landed Griffin touring spots with Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Griffin expanded her repertoire into acting and scoring for several hit shows including Without a Trace.
17. Tom Petty
Tom Petty was not only an inspiration but an advocate for artists looking for creative freedom. His staunch approach as a guardian for this view reflected his music and stage persona as a true artist. The timeless hit “I Won’t Back Down” expresses his defiant nature and value for personal success versus commercial success. As a member of The Heartbreakers, Petty toured across continents with a complete of platinum records. His beliefs and paramount success with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys reached incendiary heights for the entire 1980s. Petty’s Lifetime Achievement as a composer solidifies the idiom of his craft and passion for other artists.
16. Lucinda Williams
The living embodiment of a late bloomer, Williams struggled for years trying to write a hit song in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until 1988 when she released her first full-length album to critical acclaim and a slue of awards. But her “patience is a virtue” philosophy carried into albums that would release several years apart. Each album showcased Williams improvement and commercial success as a three-time Grammy winner. Her slow and steady approach combined with repeated commercial success landed her as an artist of the decade.
15. The Band
For a group of songwriters north of the border, they not only wrote about the lifestyle of a busker; they lived it. The psychedelic era was a wave of nuanced forms of thundering rock and trippy pop vibes. Ironically, it would be a Canadian band who brought the traditionalist sound of American music. Journalists raved over the groups moving tracks and unparalleled compositions despite mixed public reactions. The Band’s stylized blend of soul and harmonious arrangements of masterful classics, including “the weight”, make them into one of the most influential groups for songwriters worldwide.
14. Emmylou Harris
Harris has shown peers and critics that she’s not just an artist, but an innovator in every sense. For years Harris has written and provided vocals for artists and groups that’ve dominated the charts. Her crossover success and calculated blend of multiple genres led her to become the most sought-after composer. As the mastermind behind hits for Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley she expanded her scope into the 2000s. Writing for other mainstream artists, including Beck and Ryan Adams, landed her to being officially recognized as the most influential female songwriter. To this day, she sits at holding 14 Grammy’s to her name including for the perennial hit “Blue Kentucky Girl”.
13. Allman Brothers Band
Recognized as not only being one of the greatest groups of their time, but also as the most influential guitarist in history. Through the prolific sliding sounds of Duan Allman, the group’s success was short lived with the former’s untimely death. But inner virtue and perseverance to keep Duane’s memory alive encouraged the group to reform with great fanfare. Their return sparked the hit singles “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica” while collecting multi-platinum sales. Despite the passing of their core members, the band’s undying sound and timeless lyrics continues to influence future generations.
12. T-Bone Burnett
A man who backed and revitalized the career of legends, Burnett helmed a legacy both as an artist and producer. Burnett’s early career as a guitarist for Bob Dylan transpired the songwriter to holding sessions with Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Roy Orbison and Imelda May. Burnett expanded his talents to hit films and television series. Composing for works such as: O Brother Where Art Thou, The Hunger Games and Nashville.
11. John Prine
There have been artists who’ve been years perfecting their craft. But then there’s John Prine who’s just born with the talent. Prine holds one of the greatest album debuts in history with the 1971 self-titled release, John Prine. Though, never achieving trailblazing commercial success he garnered the greatest compilation of critical acclaims. Known for his signature songs “Illegal Smile” and “Sam Stone”, Prine built a legacy on unfiltered lyrics and complex subjects. Among his many milestones include that of multiple Grammy’s and various hall of fame inductions.
10. John Fogerty
The singer-songwriter for one of the most prolific roots bands of the ages could land anyone into the top 10. But as a soloist, Fogerty carved out one of the monumental careers in American music. After Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ill-fated split, Fogerty continued his career to reach the spotlight once again. His 1985 hit “The Old Man Down The Road” thrusted the troubadour’s career back into the mainstream of roots. Fogerty continued his career writing critically acclaimed albums and even reworking fan favorite CCR singles back into his live performances.
9. Van Morrison
As a songwriter, Van Morrison is considered a legend. As a lyricist, he is considered a revolutionist. The transcendent poetry that made Van Morrison a star influenced a plethora of artists across all genres. His hits of “Into the Mystic” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” are hailed as one of the greatest songs ever written by Rolling Stone. From humble beginnings during the British Invasion, Van Morrison honed his craft as a songwriter and returned with greater material. The laidback instrumentation and crooning vocals are what made him distinguished from contemporaries. His list of influencers stretches from Ed Sheeran, Zac Brown Band and even the late Tom Petty.
8. Woody Guthrie
When the world seemed dark and devoid of joy during a time of great strife, one songwriter wrote a classic to uplift others. Guthrie is regaled for writing what is considered the greatest folk song to ever be recorded. “This Land Is Your Land” had been borrowed from melodies previously composed during Guthrie’s time. But his ingenious lyrics and simple instrumentation penned an instant radio classic. The nation had never come across an artist who could not only influence others artistically but also politically. His tales of The Great Depression and Dust Bowl are still revered to as essential playlists for every roots station. Others who’ve followed his artistic and political leanings are that of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Paxton and Bob Weir.
7. Bob Seger
To the blue-collar working class, Bob Seger was a hero who stood among the shoulders of giants. Credited for his work in what would be known as heartland rock, Seger sung tales of the common life. The driving force from Seger’s backing band and his powerful voice became the perfect match to elevate roots music. The genre would reach new heights on radio while Seger’s stage flare led to sold-out arenas across the world. He would remain relevant for the better part of 50 years with over 75 million albums sold worldwide.
6. Creedence Clearwater Revival
When the Vietnam War reached its height, the entire nation became fearful and confused. One band took exception to the political turmoil that fueled the war and campaigned to rally the people against it. CCR became essential icons for their social-conscious lyrics and blend of southern roots to folk music. The span of their career lasted up until the end of the war as the band parted with feelings of discord and lack of new material. But their music is considered a staple in classic radio as their breakthrough style and agenda remain relevant for every generation to understand.
5. John Mellencamp
For many years, audiences worldwide followed Mellencamp passionately as he broke waves of records throughout the 1980s to the early 90s. Creating a blend of hard rock and folk sent shovers of envy to his contemporaries as he built the status of an innovator. His usage of fiddles, accordions and harps were acclaimed as they were brought into a genre filled with sonic guitars. Mellencamp’s importance to roots is dually noted by John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen as his “spirit” and “feisty" lyrics paved the way to cult status. However, its Mellencamp’s story of early success that’s inspired future generations as he fought to establish his identity and musicianship to record labels nationally.
4. Neil Young
In any other time, it would almost be impossible for Neil Young to establish the career that he made. Early dealings with polio and short-lived stints with band members had nearly left the writer with no direction. But his enigmatic writing and backbeat driven style drew him to rival Bob Dylan’s musicality. The instant classics of “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” brought Young to be hailed as the greatest Canadian artist to ever live from numerous top publications. After nearly six decades, the artist continues to write and showcase his ability to speak from the soul for all to hear.
3. Little Feat
One of the most eclectic groups on this list, Little Feat’s career was more then unconventional for their time. Harboring a sound and production that seemed so surreal, the group became cult favorites among the roots rock community. Headed by the imaginative minds of Lowell George and Roy Estrada, Little Feat crafted hit singles of “Dixie Chicken” and “Willin” up until the former’s death. The group’s abnormal approach to songwriting and unpredictable stage performance led other contemporary artists to be interested in roading with them. These artists included The Black Crowes, The Byrds, Nazareth, and Jimmy Page.
2. Bruce Springsteen
“The Boss” didn’t just earn his nickname for the hit songs or charisma; he commanded it. The revolutionary blend of rock and folk oriented music pegged Springsteen as a real anomaly for his entire career. From energetic shows to holding one of the best-selling albums of all time (Born in the U.S.A), Springsteen defined the 1980s with his take on the struggles of working-class people. His generational relevance and commercial success have awarded Springsteen with numerous honors. Besides holding numerous Grammy’s and being the face of an entire genre, Springsteen had defied the odds as he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Even well into his 70s, Springsteen continues to work and churn out hits which forever immortalize his legacy as the top artist for all time.
1. Bob Dylan
It is said that without Bob Dylan there would be no Beatles, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and the list goes on. One of the most essential and compelling figures of the 20th century, Dylan is remarked by millions as a masterful social critic. His natural, poetic nature and game-changing instrumentation impacted not just music but society also. Academics and modernists analyze Dylan’s writing and compositions in the same way Shakespeare is researched. As the face of an entire genre, Dylan released pop defying hits that included “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin”. While drawing controversy for adding amplified electric sounds to the folk genre, Dylan transcended his music and an entire generation to new sound. His renaissance continued well after the 1960s as he continued to write critically acclaimed albums and publish books. This career and legendary run were capped off when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Written by Trenton Luber