Stories

Country by the Decade: 1970s

How country music’s biggest artists and moments in the 1970s shaped the genre forever.

By Katie Quine

In the 1970s, an incomparable trifecta of talented women emerged on the country music scene: Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy. All three had rural upbringings and enough raw talent that their first names can stand alone.

After getting her start on The Porter Wagoner Show, Dolly Parton established herself as a virtuoso soloist with a dynamic voice that could yodel, yip, and croon with the best of them. She had nine No. 1 singles to her name in those 10 years alone, including hits such as “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” that are still regarded as some of the best songs ever recorded.

Meanwhile, Loretta Lynn was earning her share of accolades, too. Lynn had already garnered attention for her unflinching singles “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Fist City,” but it was her autobiographical “Coal Miner’s Daughter” that resonated around the globe when it was released in 1970. In 1972, she became the first woman to receive the Entertainer of the Year Award from the Country Music Association.

Like Lynn, Tammy Wynette earnestly captured the lives of women in her songs, although in a softer fashion than Lynn. After putting out hits like “D- I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand by Your Man” in the late 1960s, Wynette became a Bona Fide country music icon in the subsequent decade.

All three women were invited to become members of the Grand Ole Opry, which relocated to its new home in 1974 from the historic Ryman Auditorium. It was a bittersweet occasion that ushered in a new and exciting era for the Opry, one that would be televised on cable television as country music began to foster widespread appeal.

At the same time, a group of artists who wanted artistic freedom apart from the Nashville establishment emerged as “Outlaws.” After penning songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and recording several mid-chart hits of his own, Willie Nelson moved to Austin, Texas and away from his polished image in the 1970s. He was one-third of a rugged cohort of talented Texans that included Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

Together, they experimented with a new sound that blended folk, rock, and country while still harking back to earlier honky-tonk music on songs like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” The Outlaw movement might’ve taken root in Texas, but the subgenre gained traction among other artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Tanya Tucker to Hank Williams Jr. Even as country-pop continued to take hold in the 1980s, the legacy of the movement has endured through the stylings of various artists today, including those of Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price.