The Heroes Of Our Heroes: Who Inspired Country Greats Like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton & More

The highwaymen country music

Perhaps more than any other genre, country music artists hold heavy reverence to the ones who came before them, the ones who made a difference in their musical lives, helped shape their sound, or made them realize they wanted to be artists themselves.

The influences of today’s artists tend to overlap with each other quite heavily. Some would say there’s a bit of just saying the right thing to the cameras (which is obviously true) but also because in their lifetime, country music saw a few artists truly rise above what others before them had been able to do and create a legacy that drew the attention of everybody on Earth.

But who influenced those artists? Surely they didn’t just live under a rock until one day they decided to write a song that would change an entire genre of music… so what did they listen to growing up?

Well, it turns out there’s a bit of overlap in their influences as well, which of course can be expected. Some of the names that came up time and time again were Bob Wills, Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, and The Carter Family, which were the biggest names when they were growing up so of course they’ll be referenced a lot.

But who were some of the influences we may not be familiar with? What made each artist unique, not just a more modern version of their predecessors?

Let’s take a look…

Johnny Cash

You show me a country singer who said they haven’t been influenced at all by Johnny Cash and I’ll show you a liar.

Johnny has said he first realized he wanted to be a singer after hearing “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” which was an old railroad song popularized by Jimmie Rogers, but he found a lot of inspiration in Gospel music. These bands included The Blackwood Brothers, The Chuckwagon Gang, and The Swan Silvertones, as well as Blue artist Woody Guthrie.

He also gave credit to Winston Churchill for a speech he gave that helped him put his life in perspective and put the work in to make something of himself.

Willie Nelson

As we heard in the story of his guitar “Trigger”, Willie Nelson has the highest of praises for 1930’s & 40’s jazz guitarist Django Reinhart, going so far as to call him the greatest guitarist of all-time.

While Django fueled much of Willie’s acoustic sound, he took inspiration from Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra (who he called his favorite singer) to create one of the genre’s most unique styles.

Patsy Cline

Perhaps the most cited inspiration for female country artists outside of Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline’s powerful voice lead an insane amount of women to pursue their dreams. Growing up she was a “fervent devotee” of Kay Starr, as well as a fan of other pop stars like Helen Morgan, Patti Page and Kate Smith.

She was first drawn into country music through the Grand Old Opry radio programs, where she discovered Patsy Montana and Charline Arthur.

Waylon Jennings

The man with some of the most legendary stories of all-time, Waylon Jennings had a more traditional list of influences, which included Country trailblazers Floyd Tillman, Carl Smith and Ernest Tubb, along with one of the biggest stars the earth has ever seen, Mr. Elvis Presley.

While Waylon didn’t take the hip shaking from the King of Rock and Roll, the rock influences can be heard prominently throughout his catalogue.

Dolly Parton

In my opinion (any many others), no female artist has been more influential in country music and it’s not even close. And like most things Dolly Parton, her answer to who inspires her is unique.

While there’s no denying she was exposed to a lot of bluegrass and classic country music at home, she says no one came close to her mother and Aunt Dorthy Jo. While they weren’t professional musicians, they were constantly singing and Aunt Dorthy Jo played banjo, guitar and wrote songs.

As far as the big name influences, she called George Jones her “all-time favorite singer” and loved Kitty Wells, Rose Maddox and Roy Acuff.

Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard himself took inspiration from someone on this list when he saw Johnny Cash play one of his famous prison concerts and went on to become the face of country music for decades.

In addition to the Man in Black, The Hag was a fan of yodeler Emmett Miller, jazz musician Joe Venuti, and the voice of Christmas himself, Bing Crosby.

Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn blew up all conceptions about what women could and couldn’t say in their songs, leading to generations of insanely good music we may not have had without her blazing the trail.

She has referenced some names we’ve heard on the list before as influences (Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb) but also had some unique names, like The Wilburn Brothers, Jean Shepard and Molly O’Day.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock