Country Music has such a rich history, that many of its most gifted performers aren’t necessarily its most well known. Whether it be the wrong style at the wrong time (the “too country” syndrome), a lack of strong backing by a label, or not having that big breakout hit, so many great Country singers have fallen through the cracks of history into obscurity. Here’s my top 10 most underrated.
Keep in mind, this list is not, who’s better that whom; it’s who’s achieved the least amount of notoriety relative to their talent. So, there could be folks toward the bottom of the list, who you or I might feel are better than some folks toward the top. But how underrated were they, relative to their gift?
10. David Wills
David Wills started out hot, with his first two singles reaching the top 10 in 1975, but faded quickly, and only got into the top 20, one more time His career was comprised mostly of singles, as he only released 3 albums over a 13 year recording career.
His voice is a rich, deep baritone, and like the rest on this list, Wills was a traditionalist, stylistically and vocally, at least he started that way. After 5 years of failed singles, followed by 3 years of silence, he re-emerged in 1983 with a new look, and a new sound, much more in tune with the Pop stylings of the Urban Cowboy era(think Eddie Rabbitt). Despite this sellout, he deserves to be here based on his mid to late 70’s output, and his unique, Country voice.
His most well known, first single, and biggest hit, “There’s A Song On The Jukebox” – https://youtu.be/eqgDMqNzeQ0
Live, his second single, and second biggest hit, “From Barrooms To Bedrooms” – https://youtu.be/25LFNSU0yMk
An album cut that I’ve always loved, “I Can’t Even Drink It Away” – https://youtu.be/N2kLhUu2zgk
His only other top 20, after his reinvented image and sound, “The Eyes Of A Stranger” – https://youtu.be/AaDkktooyIo
9. Vernon Oxford
The only singer on this list, that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, is Mr. Vernon Oxford. Vernon had the unfortunate fate of being too country for Country in 1966, and not just in musical approach, but in personality, nature, and voice. He is a real hillbilly, from the Arkansas Ozarks, and is unofficially thought of as the last true hillbilly to come through Nashville. His emotionally charged, nasally voice, is reminiscent of Hank Williams, and his style is uncompromisingly Country, with not so much as a hint of Nashville-sound influence.
In the 21st century, young suburban boys are making a killing off of fake accents, fake personalities, and fake images, but in the 1960’s, Vernon Oxford was laughed at for being the real thing. Not by everyone though. The great Harlan Howard thought so much of Vernon, he insisted that Vernon be the first to record many of his compositions. Harlan also helped him get signed to RCA, where he released his debut album, “Woman Let Me Sing You A Song” in 1966. Neither the album, nor any of its singles charted though, and RCA dropped him shortly thereafter. In an interesting twist of fate, he developed a cult following in Great Britain, and RCA re-signed him in the mid-seventies to tour there. He released two more albums for RCA and charted 7 singles. Lyrically, his highest charting single, “Redneck! (The Redneck National Anthem)” could be viewed as an early prototype of Bro-“Country”. It reached #17 in 1976.
Ultimately, his voice may be too twangy and hillbilly for even some staunch traditionalists, but if you can appreciate raw emotion, Vernon Oxford is someone you should open your ears to, if you haven’t already. For the record, I have even seen him get so wrapped up in a song he was singing, that he made himself cry onstage.
A should-be a classic, that would be, had it been sung by a more famous singer, but a masterpiece nonetheless in Vernon’s hands, “Baby Sister” – https://youtu.be/KxaPFCrM-XQ
Another one in the same vein, “Little Sister Throw Your Red Shoes Away” – https://youtu.be/p29hM6UhBu4
My favorite Vernon Oxford song, “In The Shadows of My Mind”- https://youtu.be/oc0k7cN3PSk
A hungry Vernon on The Wilburn Brothers Show, singing “This Woman Is Mine” – https://youtu.be/mZqNv4aVrJs
A “Streets of Baltimore”-esque dandy, “Move To Town In The Fall” – https://youtu.be/Cu6s4bqvcHg
8. “Little” Joe Carson
He was discovered at age 16 by Hank Thompson, and sang with the Brazos Valley Boys for a time. The young man was a master of the honky-tonk vocal style, and was revered by his peers. His catalogue is Tiny though, with his biggest hit being, “Helpless”, which reached number 19 in 1963.
Here is a Hard-Country, shuffling, honky-tonking masterpiece, “Double Life” – https://youtu.be/_EiAwqzfDYk
An underrated cheating song, that should be a classic, “Forbidden Wine” – https://youtu.be/AEWAfL2Hzis
A great Jonesy tear-jerker, “I’ll Never Love No One But You” – https://youtu.be/S089Bh-J4bs
Joe’s biggest hit, “Helpless” – https://youtu.be/5lS4Jq3_wZA
7. Johnny Paycheck
The Johnny Paycheck you see in this photo, is the Johnny Paycheck that should’ve been. Young, clean-cut, slick-haired, and hungry, this is the Johnny Paycheck that a large segment of the Country music historian/journalist class, swears gave George Jones the vocal style that took him to legend status. While I’ve never believed that theory, just the fact that is exists is reason enough to consider Johnny Paycheck one of the most underrated singers of all time. I’d place him more underrated than 7th, if it weren’t for the fact that he may be the only one here that will ever make it into the Hall of Fame.
Due to his personal life, including shooting a man and going to prison for it, Johnny quite often gets inaccurately lumped in with the outlaw movement. This is despite the fact that he had possibly the least outlaw, and most mainstream of Nashville producers in the 70’s, Billy Sherrill. Together they conjured up an outlaw image to sell albums. And though it worked for a time, it overshadowed what really made Paycheck great, his magnificent voice, and brilliant songwriting ability. It’s a crying shame that those two raw abilities are not really what he’s known for.
A baby-faced Johnny singing, “A-11”, while playing bass in George Jones’ band – https://youtu.be/4Nw7jIaRDgA
Johnny singing an original composition that Ray Price took to #3, “Touch My Heart” – https://youtu.be/Pv-YpmF7j9c
6. Johnny Rodriguez
There’ s a common theme on this list. Over half the singers on it, including Johnny Rodriguez, rose to fame, or got started in, the 1970’s. But when most folks think about Country Music in the 1970’s, these aren’t the names that come to mind. That’s unfortunate, because the 70’s was full of great singers, singing traditional Country music. Mr. Rodriquez was one of those singers.
With fifteen straight, top-10 singles right out of the gate, beginning in 1973, thirteen of which were top-5, it might seem strange to call Johnny Rodriguez underrated. He was Country music’s first great Latin singer, and was basically the same age as George Strait. But by the time George Strait began his ascent in the early 80’s at age 29, Rodriguez, who started at age 21 nine years earlier, was beginning to see his success wane. And after 1980, he only landed four more singles in the top-15. I’m a George Strait fan, but to my Country Music loving ears, Johnny Rodriguez was a better singer, from a technical perspective, as well as from the perspective of more subjective attributes like tone or emotional quality. I don’t know that there is a good explanation for Johnny’s inability to sustain the success he’d achieved, despite still being very young at the time of his decline. I guess we can blame it on the Urban Cowboy era.
A great live version of the #1, “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico”- https://youtu.be/vtY9swVGE7w
Another #1, “Just Get Up and Close The Door”- https://youtu.be/vIk4Hp6hy9g
5. Stoney Edwards
The 2nd most successful Black Country singer of all time, who was as equally talented as the 1st, was Stoney Edwards. Record execs in the late 60’s were looking for “another Charley Pride”, and Capitol Records was hoping Stoney would be that for them.
Stoney had the talent, but not very many people, himself included, can begin a singing career at age 41, and achieve great success. He only released 6 albums during what could be considered the prime of his career, and his greatest single came in 1972, when he took “She’s My Rock” to number 20. George Jones would take the same song all the way to number 2, 1984.
His first single, and my favorite of his, “A Two Dollar Toy” – https://youtu.be/Jvy2hYHW2Lo
A fan favorite, “Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul” – https://youtu.be/cyH399B1NZw
His original version of, “She’s My Rock” – https://youtu.be/VizY9Qxf4F8
4. Darrell McCall
It’s hard to call Darrell McCall unique, in reference to either his singing style, or the style of music he’s been performing since the late 60’s. However, it’s very easy to call him talented, underrated, underachieving, and underappreciated. He sings in the smooth, Honky-Tonk style made famous by one of his former employers, Ray Price. And although that style has been replicated a hundred times over, nobody, with the exception of Mr. Price himself, did it better than Darrell McCall.
He arrived in Nashville at age 18, in 1958, with his childhood friend Donald Lytle(aka Johnny Paycheck), but after a failed attempt at a duo, the two parted ways musically. After that, he went on to sing harmony and play in the bands of several big names, including Faron Young, Ray Price, and a young Hank Williams Jr., in addition to the few opportunities he was given to make records of his own. His sparse recording career was comprised mostly of singles, releasing only 3 albums during his “prime”. And while I suppose you could say he had a breakout moment in 1977, when his duet with Willie Nelson, “Lily Dale” peaked at #32 on Billboard, and there’s no doubt that his album of the same name was his crowning achievement, from a recording perspective, his career just never really got off the ground from a mainstream standpoint.
Fortunately, Darrell has been able to make a living touring and recording for independent labels, throughout the 90’s and 2000’s. He, along with all the other shufflers, are wildly popular in Texas.
From 1976’s “Lily Dale”, here’s “Dreams of A Dreamer” – https://youtu.be/dSu359nW8MQ
With his old buddy Johnny Paycheck, from 1995, “Pictures Can’t Talk Back”- https://youtu.be/DuiM5KwUC30
His signature song, with Willie Nelson, “Lily Dale”- https://youtu.be/w4qpd901qQA
3. Gene Watson
It won’t surprise me one bit, if somebody sees this list and says Gene Watson should be at the top of it. I wouldn’t be able to argue with them. The fact is, a lot of Country Music people, who know what they’re talking about, will say Gene Watson is one of the 5 greatest Country singers that ever lived.
Like several other Traditionalists in the 1970’s, he did pretty darn good when you consider the atmosphere of Country Music then. You had the ever-“evolving” Nashville Sound on one hand, and the Outlaws on the other. Despite not being a part of either one of those domineering facets, he managed to log fourteen top 15 singles between 1975 and 1980, and ten more during the 1980’s. But like most traditionalists in the 1970’s, he was born at least 10 years too late to achieve the level of success that would match his talent.
Here is a great tear-jerker, “When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind”- https://youtu.be/jc1iQKy1M-A
A great live version of, “Nothing Sure Looked Good On You”- https://youtu.be/Cofc0_Mr9Lw
2. Wynn Stewart
I suppose one could argue, that without Wynn Stewart, there’d be no Merle Haggard. Hag himself has said as much. As the unofficial godfather of The Bakersfield Sound, Wynn not only was a major influence on Merle’s style, but also gave the future legend one of his first significant paying gigs, at a nightclub he co-owned in Vegas. It was during that time that Stewart wrote the song that would become Merle’s first chart hit, “Sing A Sad Song”.
He possessed a beautifully toned voice, that it’s said, “made the jaws drop” of other, more famous singers, anytime they happened to hear him sing. His reason for never achieving massive stardom is supposedly due to him lacking ambition. He was always content with where he was, and never had the drive to become a star.
Here’s Wynn singing his version of, “Sing A Sad Song”- https://youtu.be/3w19Ma8f75I
A great live version of his second biggest chart single, “Wishful Thinking”- https://youtu.be/CcfwrOCTP2M
His biggest hit, and only number 1, “It’s Such A Pretty World Today”- https://youtu.be/EDqsZh8gS9Q
1. Mel Street
Mel Street was the king of sleazy, filthy cheating songs. And I do mean filthy. He sang with so much raw emotion, that he made adultery sound like love. He was a happily married man, but you’d have never known it when listening to audio-pornography like, “Lust Affair”, “You Make Me Feel More Like A Man”, or “Lovin’ On Back Streets”. He possessed what one might call an, “everyman” tone, and his range was by no means spectacular, but he was equal to legends like George Jones and Conway Twitty in terms of feeling.
Despite being a Hard-Country singer during a time when it wasn’t really the fashion, and not landing on the charts until he was nearly 40 years old, he managed to record nineteen top 40 singles, with thirteen of those landing in the top 20, and four in the top 10; within a span of 6 years. Still, those statistics seem underwhelming for a singer this great. Who knows whether or not he would’ve eventually achieved the fame he deserved? Apparently the pressures of success were too much for him; he killed himself in 1978. His friend and idol George Jones, sang at his funeral.
Here’s a couple of live performances of him, as evidence of his ability.
“The Town Where You Live” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKNfB-OQQd4
“Borrowed Angel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-ol-FtPdz0
Here are the studio recordings of some of his other hits.
“Walk Softly On The Bridges” – https://youtu.be/txOZmzLTzCw
“Smokey Mountain Memories” – https://youtu.be/nUrnUKr4IMQ
“Lovin’ On Back Streets” – https://youtu.be/J0qaH58XnRU
“Lust Affair” – https://youtu.be/V3smR114FGw
“You Make Me Feel More Like A Man” – https://youtu.be/GDEhp_PF5yw
“Forbidden Angel” – https://youtu.be/H4qBKk2Xiu8