Your Take: Top States for Country Music

Karlie Justus Marlowe | June 27th, 2009

Country singers tour them, name check them and hail from them. But which of the fifty states that make up the USA can lay claim to the “most country” of them all?

Over at the Country Standard Time, writer Mike Sudhalter has been counting down a list of the top states for country music. Last week, he announced the top ten: 10. Pennsylvania, 9. Mississippi, 8. Arkansas, 7. Missouri, 6. West Virginia, 5. Georgia, 4. Kentucky, 3. Oklahoma, 2. Tennessee and 1. Texas. You can also check out his top 11-20 and top 21-30.

The top two states are expected, but perhaps not in the order Sudhalter places them:

2.Tennessee Nashville is the center of commercial country music, and also the place where the Country Music Hall of Fame, Lower Broadway with all of its famous honky-tonks, the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium are located. The eastern half of the state – home to Dolly Parton – has Dollywood and Pigeon Forge. The Volunteer State makes an extremely strong case for the No. 1 overall state, BUT

1.Texas While country music may be a business in Tennessee, it’s a way of life in Texas. There are no other places with as many country music concerts, nightclubs, small town Opry shows and legends (George Strait, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills). And it’s also the only state to have an independent country scene apart from Nashville. Texas Country, in some circles, is more popular than the mainstream country. It has cultivated its own history and heroes (Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker).

Do you agree with Sudhalter’s rankings and reasoning? Would Texas rank on the top of your list for similar reasons, would Tennessee take the top spot or would there be a dark horse?

And while you’re at it, what’s your favorite “state song”? “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” “There Is No Arizona”? Let us know.

  1. Vicki
    June 27, 2009 at 8:53 am

    I wondered why Oklahoma was third. He mentioned Garth, Reba and Vince. But also Ronny Dunn, Blake Shelton, Keith Anderson and Carrie Underwood is from there too.

  2. Jon
    June 27, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Sudhalter’s piece is a little bizarre, since the rankings seem to be based mostly on which mainstream country artists of the past 15-20 years were born in which states. That being said, Tennessee and Texas are the obvious contenders for the top 2 slots no matter how you’re measuring. But while it’s true that Texas has an independent scene sufficiently large that some artists can take a serious stab at making a living there, Tennessee – and more precisely Nashville – is still the epicenter; if you go through the list of artists that Sudhalter mentions and take a look at where their careers are based (as opposed to where they were born), it’s not really much of a contest – especially if you add in all the Americana and bluegrass folks in the Nashville area and throughout the state.

  3. Rick
    June 27, 2009 at 11:15 am

    If this list were taking an overall historical perspective and based upon where the music originated, then California would belong in the top 5! From The Maddox Brothers and Rose, to Jean Shepherd, to Ferlin Husky, to Wynn Stewart, to Buck Owens, and of course Merle Haggard the “Bakersfield Sound” has had a big influence on the entire genre of country music. Those artists may not have been born in California, but their musical styles evolved here! As a life long Californian I just couldn’t let this go unmentioned! (lol)

  4. Kelly
    June 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I too am shocked at how low Cali is in these rankings. Not even considering the historical names that Rick has mentioned above, Los Angeles is home to many great acts and has an indie-coutry scene that should make many other major cities rather jealous, thanks to the Serbys and Stinsons of the world.

  5. Brady Vercher
    June 27, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    That list is highly subjective, but if we’re gonna play along (I may be biased), but I’d still rank Texas above Tennessee in terms of heritage and artists that come from Texas, but Nashville undoubtedly wins the business award. California and Alabama would both have to be higher than they are. Pennsylvania in the Top 10 is really bizarre and saying you don’t go to Hawaii for steel guitar is kinda funny.

  6. Jon
    June 27, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I dunno, Brady, there’s more musicians moved to Nashville from Texas than vice-versa.

  7. J.R. Journey
    June 27, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Most of the artists I’ve recently become a fan of hail from Texas. Overall, Nashville artists still have Texas artists outnumbered 10 to 1 in my music library. If I counted artists like George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, and others that were born in Texas but found success through the mainstream Nashville route, it would be more like 8 to 1.

    And historically speaking, even without Nashville, I think Tennessee would still be the #1 state thanks to one Mr. Ralph Peer who changed history that day in Bristol, Tennessee. But when you add WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, the Hall of Fame, and basically every major country record label all centered within 10 blocks or so and remember that Nashville’s population is 75% songwriters then Tennessee trumps Texas in this horse race.

    It’s apples and oranges musically IMO. Just like some people like cake and some prefer pie.

  8. Stormy
    June 27, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    But I don’t think you can underestimate the community that Texas creates to support its artists. There’s a little old bar down here called The Cheatam Street Warehouse. Back in the day when George Strait first needed a place to play, they gave him one. When he needed to get to Nashville to record some demos, he took his first trip in their van driven by the owner. Without that kind of support, would he have made it to Nashville?

  9. Paul W Dennis
    June 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I think Sudhalter got it about right. Of course , there are many criteria that could be used including differentiating what was from what is.

    FLorda has several “Oprys” that serve to keep the traditional country music alive and seems to be a hotbed for bluegrass, so it could rank higher but all told, I think he did a decent job of it

    And yes – Texas is #1 – I say that although I have never lived in Texas, although I’ve visited many times

  10. Brady Vercher
    June 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I admit I’m biased, but I don’t really think there’s any non-subjective measure that’ll work for everyone. A lot of musicians have to move to Nashville because it is the single highest concentration of musicians, songwriters, and business people that make the industry spin.

    But Texas has contributed artists such as Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Ray Price, George Strait, Ernest Tubb, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Thompson, Kenny Rogers, Larry Gatlin, Johnny Rodriguez, Roger Miller, Johnny Bush, Tanya Tucker, Gene Watson, Cindy Walker, Johnny Gimble, Bruce Robison, Lyle Lovett, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Red Steagall, and Michael Martin Murphey.

    That’s just a few. They didn’t all get famous here, but a lot of them cut their teeth in the honky tonks and developed their independent spirit. And the number of people that were born in Texas and are in the Hall of Fame is larger than the number from any other state.

    Without Nashville, a lot of them may not have made it as big due to the business side of things, but without Texas, country music wouldn’t be the same.

    Texas has and is continuing to support many musicians as their full time job. Even musicians from out of state are coming in because of the circuit.

    Again, though, it’s really subjective, but that’s what my opinion is based on. I realize the contributions other states have made and wouldn’t want to give up music from them, but if it came down to choosing just one, it’s Texas for me.

  11. idlewildsouth
    June 27, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    In my opinion, which is biased considering Ive lived in nashville all but six months of my life, Im gonna have to say that Tennessee is tops. The heritage and lifestyle of country music may be very strong in Texas, but Tennessee is where country music as a national began. WSM with its tower reaching all over the country, Ralph Peer putting the very first country artists on record. It started here, to make much of a living in it, you have to come here. Tennessee hands down. Coming from a completely unbiased , of course :)

  12. Razor X
    June 27, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Favorite state song? I guess I’ll have to go with Eddie Rabbitt’s “Jersey Boy” due to a lack of any viable alternatives. ;)

  13. Hollerin' Ben
    June 27, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve been hiding lately, but I had to make an appearance here to protest the savage hypocrisy that is California’s absence from Sudhalter’s top 10.

    I’d place Texas as the #1 spot for the music – naturally Nashville has top bragging rights for the industry – and I guess I’d put California as #3.

    Of course, if you let the bad aspects of Nashville count against it – such as its near constant efforts to sacrifice musical distinctness in an effort to chase “crossover” hits – then I’d put California right behind Texas overall. Let’s not forget that Buck, Merle, Dwight, Wynn, and Gram all made their mark here in CA, while Kris and Guy Clark both spent a lot of time here as well. Also, Mike Stinson, Dave Gleason, and David Serby are all out of California, and they are three of the best out there right now.

    Nevertheless, you can’t top Texas, not in the past, not in the present, and probably not in the future.

  14. Trailer
    June 27, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I think one and two are correct, but three oughtta be California, followed by Kentucky and Mississippi rounding out the top 5. I’m highly biased, but Mississippi should be a bit higher up the rankings because it can lay claim to birthing “The Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers and “The First Lady of Country Music” Tammy Wynette, as well as Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Faith Hill, Leeann Rimes, Mickey Gilley, Moe Bandy, Chris Ledoux, Paul Overstreet, songwriter Craig Wiseman, Hank Cochran, that guy Elvis, Randy Houser etc.

  15. Nicolas
    June 27, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I think Tennessee should be #1, in my opinion =) and I’m happy to see that Missouri made the Top 10

    For fave state songs, I like: “Missing Missouri” by Sara Evans, “What About Georgia” by Miranda Lambert, “Mississippi Girl” by Faith Hill, and “Back to Tennessee” by Billy Ray Cyrus =D

  16. Brady Vercher
    June 27, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    As for favorite state song, there are too many good ones, but I’m gonna have to be a homer again and say “Miles and Miles of Texas.” Not only is it a country music staple, but Asleep at the Wheel played it the night I proposed to my wife…and Bob Wills is still the King.

  17. Stormy
    June 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I am going to go with my Alma Mater and go with Wild Montana Skies.

  18. solongsowrong
    June 27, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    I would think that the only way for one to feel that Mike Sudhalter got it right, would be to sit down with him and discuss in more detail state for state, why he put them where he did. No one seems to be considering tours, for instance, which was mentioned at the beginning of the article. Hailing from Pennsylvania, I feel tours are the only reason it made the top ten.

    Certainly, if you look beyond Mainstream Country, it’s easy to see that Texas Country and Red Dirt Country are king in Texas and Oklahoma, so it’s a no-brainer that they would be high. Of course, Tennessee should be up there, because of so many artists working from there, and many consider it the home of Country.

    From there, it can get fuzzy though. Because of other industry dealings, and the forerunner of the AMC’s coming from there, California should be higher than it is. While visiting Alabama, and their Country music Hall of Fame, I saw a pretty impressive list of names of artists who hailed from that state. Maybe Alabama should be higher, too.

    It didn’t appear as if he did so, but add Roots genres like Bluegrass… which to me is more Country than that which is currently being performed in Mainstream… and maybe states like Virginia and North Carolina could be a tad bit higher as well.

    Overall, I think when all is said and done, Country music is well represented all over the states, and no one should feel it takes a back seat to any genre of music out there.

  19. Pierce
    June 27, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    In my trip around the country, I’ve been surprised at how well country music is represented across all of America. I bet it’s difficult being an artist and really understanding how wide-reaching your music is.

    For instance, our guide on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona talked with pride about George Strait and Sugarland playing shows there over the years. At the Navajo Times newspaper office, a reporter boasted covering Strait and Brad Paisley concerts.

    I guess the same goes for any mainstream music genre, but still… crazy to think about.

    That being said, I’d probably give it to Texas over Tennessee.

  20. Andrew Lacy
    June 27, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Wyoming should be higher on the list. Chis LeDoux is the only major singer it has produced, but there are plenty of songs about the state and Cheyenne Frontier Days is kind of a big deal that brings in a lot of big names (George Strait and Kenny Chesney are among the headliners this year).

    As for my favorite state song, I’m going to be a homer and go with “My Nebraska Homestead” by Red Steagall.

  21. Jessica
    June 28, 2009 at 3:41 am

    I would have to say Texas over Tennessee and its funny that George Strait’s “If It Wasn’t For Texas” is playing on the radio as I type this.

    I do think that Kentucky should be #3 not Oklahoma. So many roots and great country singers over the years come from Kentucky and so many songs about Kentucky and infamous venues that folks have played over the years before they got “big” nationally, like Renfro Valley (one of the earliest barn dances back in the day) who has hosted folks like Brad Paisley, Josh Turner, Keith Urban (who actually at one time only had a couple hundred at a show in an auditorium fit for 2000). Many others sing there, and then there’s Austin City Saloon in Lexington (Montgomery Gentry/John Michael Montgomery got their start here), and Tombstone Junction down near Corbin (now defunct). Lots of singers, writers, and musicians are from Kentucky that play for other bands.

    Folks from KY include The Judds, Ricky Skaggs, Montgomery Gentry, John Michael Montgomery, Dwight Yoakum, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Patty Loveless, John Conlee, Skeeter Davis, Crystal Gayle, Tom T Hall, Keith Whitley, Merle Travis, Kentucky Headhunters, “Stringbean” from the Opry, Sam Bush, Red Foley, Everly Brothers, Grandpa Jones, Exile, and sadly Mr. Hannah Montana (Billy Ray Cyrus). Many of those folks were influential to some of the artists today and have helped shape country music, as well as bluegrass music.

    State songs…Blue Moon of Kentucky, Kentucky Rain, Kentucky…

  22. Lucas
    June 28, 2009 at 7:47 am

    1. Tennessee
    2. Texas
    3. Minnesota

    Minnesota has some of the biggest festivals you’ve ever seen for country. WEFest anybody?

  23. Sabrina5000
    June 28, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Hmn, well I think Tenn, should be no. 1. the opry, WSM, and Music City USA.But I certainly do admit lots of other states have great music, although as in what order. Not sure. I guess favorite state song would be Oklahoma Rising by Vince Gill, and I did like the one Gotta Get To Okla by The Hagers, and You’re The Reason God Made Okla by David Frizell & Shelly West.

  24. Marc
    June 28, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Saying that Tenn should be first ignores the fact that Country is more than just the Nashville sound. Whatever that even is any more.

    Another thought… re: Opry… just because the rock and roll hall of fame is in Ohio.. that shouldn’t make them #1 on a Rock state list ;)

  25. Trailer
    June 28, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Yes, Kentucky Rain… definitely my favorite state song. Well, it’s at least tied with “Georgia on My Mind.” There are lots of great Texas ones as well. Not so many good Mississippi songs… in the country genre anyway. Tons of great rock and blues songs about MS.

  26. Nicolas
    June 28, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Oh and another state song I love is Trisha’s “Georgia Rain” <3

  27. KathyP
    June 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    OK. Let’s talk Ohio at 22. Take a pencil on a map a few miles south of Toledo and arc it south of Cleveland and up the lake. Erase it out. Take what’s left of OH and I’d bet it would be about #12 or #13. Yes, I know Cleveland has a big pulling country station. The Cinicnnati area alone has 4 good-pulling country stations since it’s so close to Dayton. OK, so there aren’t a lot of country musicians compared to some states (Texas/Tenn), but we have a few great music festivals every summer that draw big: Country Concert south of Toledo and Jamboree in the Hills just west of Wheeeling/ Pittsburgh. JITH, especially, has always drawn big crowds and is well known for its party-friendly atmosphere.

    Soapbox over and out.

  28. Jon
    June 28, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    KathyP’s on the money – states like Ohio are where Sudhalter’s list really shows its shortcomings. Among other things, it’s a strong bluegrass state, and when you get out to the Moose Lodges and VFW halls and the like out in the towns there is a humongous amount of country music going on.

  29. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Ha. I haven’t looked at this list, but I’m betting Maine is very near the bottom. I don’t think country music has left its mark here, except for various mentions of Bangor, Maine (George Strait’s “How About them Cowgirls”, Vince Gill’s “What the Cowgirls Do”, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”, Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere”, Travis Tritt’s “South Bound Train”…). Bangor is almost always said incorrectly, not to mention it’s most people’s idea of the farthest north anyone can imagine, which, sadly, is also incorrect.:)

  30. Brady Vercher
    June 29, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Leeann, Maine shouldn’t be last if only for giving birth to the eyepatch wearing Baron of Country Music, Dick Curless. Sundazed reissued an album and Bear Family even has a box set on him. He’s got a deep baritone perfectly suited for truckin’ songs and had some chart success back in the 60s and 70s. I think everyone should check him out, but especially you Maine folks ;)

  31. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Brady, some state has got to be last – which do you think should rank lower than Maine?

  32. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Funny. It’s last?:)

  33. Brady Vercher
    June 29, 2009 at 7:55 am

    I couldn’t rank every state or even choose which one should definitively be last, but I’d suspect a few of those smaller Northeastern states (New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut) should probably come in behind it. I just noticed it, but Washington seems to be ranked a little low at 42.

  34. Rory
    June 29, 2009 at 8:19 am

    I like Pennsylvania in the Top 10. It’s the heart of the emerging North Country sound heard there and in New York and New Jersey.

  35. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Leeann, Brady said Maine shouldn’t be last, I was just taking off from there.

    Brady, I wouldn’t presume to say which should come in last – seems to me you can name the top states without ordering the bottom ones ;-) – but what you said pretty clearly implies that claiming Dick Curless as a native son is sufficient to make Maine outrank *some* other state. I’m not at all sure that’s so; each of the ones you mentioned has played some country-related role historically. People tend to think that picking the top entries in a list like this is where all the heavy lifting gets done, but I think it’s actually the other way around.

  36. Brady Vercher
    June 29, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Oh bother!

  37. Kelly
    June 29, 2009 at 8:51 am

    I am rather excited to learn that there is room in next semester’s “Nitpicking 101″, taught by our very own Jon. I hear he’s head of that department also…

  38. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Seriously. I’m pretty sure that I read Brady’s initial comment as tongue and cheek.

  39. Brady Vercher
    June 29, 2009 at 9:05 am

    My ultimate goal was to get y’all to check out The Baron, so I was serious about that. Argghhhh!

  40. Matt B.
    June 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Considering that contemporary artists like James Otto, Blaine Larsen, Jeremy McComb, etc are from Washington, not to mention that country is the #1 or 2 rated radio format on both sides of the mountains (which has a liberal/conserviative split), Washington SHOULD be rated higher. This says nothing of the historical fact that Loretta Lynn and others started or nutured their young careers (Buck Owens?) here.

  41. Matt B.
    June 29, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Brady, shouldn’t the best song about a state be “God Blessed Texas” from Little Texas? ;)

  42. Brady Vercher
    June 29, 2009 at 10:00 am

    But that’s like singing that the sky is blue and the grass is green and the sun will rise another day ;) I do like that song, though.

  43. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Geez, I guess I need to start larding up my posts with smileyfaces and “”s.

    Curless is ok, but he’s certainly not Maine’s main claim to country fame as a birthplace. C’mon, people, dig just a little bitt deeper!

  44. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Who is then?

  45. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Clarence and Roland.

  46. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Maine was also home to one of the country’s premiere bluegrass festivals for 20 years or so at Thomas Point Beach. And the Blistered Fingers festivals are excellent, especially the second one. You ought to check them out, Leeann – http://www.blisteredfingers.com. Oh, and Maine is also home now to one of the best mandolin players in the world, Jesse Brock (Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper).

  47. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 10:42 am

    I never would have paid attention to those people you mentioned, no matter how deep I dug. I’d at least heard of Curless.

    As far as the BF festival, we’ve been to it. It was very good, but I still think Kalamazoo, MI. had better bluegrass festivals.

  48. Jon
    June 29, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Whether you pay attention to them or not, Clarence is inarguably a more important and influential figure in country music than Curless. And though his impact hasn’t been as broad and deep as Clarence’s, I’d argue that Roland’s had more of one than Curless, too.

  49. Leeann Ward
    June 29, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I’m sure you’re right.

  50. Timmy
    June 29, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hello no New York? You got Pennsylvania but no New York?

  51. Timmy
    June 29, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Im sry but NYC isnt all of New York. WNY has a huge country fan base…

  52. Ben Milam
    June 30, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    my vote goes to Puerto Rico

  53. Hutsonville
    July 2, 2009 at 2:18 am

    Things are definitely bigger in Texas especially country music so the ranking is right on.

    Texas Tornado by Tracy Lawrence is a great state song since it describes most of us Texas women.

  54. Bigred
    July 2, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I’m thinkin’ this guy isn’t in touch with country radio. Country radio isn’t in touch with reality do take that with a grain of salt.
    My home of Detroit, Michigan has 2 country stations. On the western side of the area you can pick up a third. And on the right day a fourth. As he mentioned we have Downtown Hoedown, the worlds largest FREE country concert. This year saw appearances by Willie Nelson, Zach Brown Band, Rodney Atkins, Leann Womack, Luke Bryan, and Jack Ingram, just to name a few. Outside of the big paying festivals you don’t get that kind of lineup. We have an extreme wealth of local talent including some of which has national attention. The current version of Bomshel met at a concert here. Along with Foxboro, Ford Field is the only place Kenny has sold out every year he has been doing stadiums. And despite all that Michigan is only placed in 30th. Behind NEW YORK. A place where the largest city, doesn’t have a country radio station. And well behind California, which the Bakersfield sound has gone down to the bottom of the hill.

  55. Stormy
    July 2, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    I got to see this line up for free:
    Join Musical Director Stephen Bruton, an all-star house band and a cavalcade of musicians for one unforgettable evening.
    Bonnie Raitt
    Kris Kristofferson
    Eric Johnson
    Bob Schneider
    Delbert McClinton
    Joe Ely
    Tosca String Quartet
    Raul Salinas
    Malford Milligan
    Carolyn Wonderland Ruthie Foster
    Joel Guzman & Sarah Fox
    James Hand
    The Unity Celebration Singers
    Austin Lyric Opera singer
    Bobby Whitlock & Coco Carmel
    Ian McLagan
    Lisa Hayes
    Academicos da Opera
    Stephen Bruton

  56. John
    July 24, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Wow, I am so surprised Arizona is not on the top 10. The other state I was thinking was IL. surprisingly they have alot of country music events their. Arizona is still the most surprising just because like Texas it is a way of life.

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