While country music might be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of music to come out of Arkansas you’d definitely be mistaken. The Natural State has produced a number of important musicians in genres as varied as jazz, blues, rock, and even classical musicians who all got started out there before giving their music to the world.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at the greatest and most famous musicians from Arkansas. From Johnny Cash and Louis Jordan to Glen Campbell and Al Green, these 16 artists have achieved international success and left a lasting legacy in the music industry. So if you’re looking to learn more about Arkansas’ musical history, be sure to check out this list!
Related: Famous musicians from the USA.
1. Johnny Cash
Legendary singer, musician, and songwriter The Man in Black, a.k.a Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932 and grew up in Dyess.
His family farmed cotton and played music in the evenings with Cash learning guitar, singing, and writing at the age of 12.
After a stint in the Air Force, he moved to Memphis Tennessee where he teamed up with two friends and cut some records with Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
Over the next 5 decades of his career, he recorded countless records, appeared in 8 films, won an astonishing 18 Grammy awards, and has sold over 90 million records making him one of the best-selling artists of all time.
2. Al Green
Legendary soul singer Albert Leornes Greene was born in Forrest City, Arkansas in 1946, to sharecroppers.
It wasn’t an easy upbringing and eventually, his father kicked him out of the house as a teenager for listening to secular records.
Greene soon signed on with Hi Records, shortened his name to Al Green, and began his career in earnest.
One of his biggest hits, “Let’s Stay Together,” remains a classic even to this day. He went on to win 11 Grammy Awards and is 14th in Rolling Stone’s list of greatest singers of all time.
But Green fell out of the public eye in the 1980s, recording gospel music and becoming a minister, though he’s continued to perform and record.
Famous singer, songwriter, and actor Ne-Yo was born in 1979 in Camden, Arkansas as Shaffer Chimere Smith to musician parents.
While he spent his early years in Arkansas, he moved to Las Vegas with his mother which is where he studied music and began writing songs. His skill in the songwriting field got him a break after a song he wrote for another artist scored him a record deal with Def Jam.
He released “In My Own Words,” a solo album, in 2006 and has generated a steady flow of follow-up projects.
Ne-Yo has added actor and talent judge to his resume, making his big-screen debut in 2006 in “Save the Last Dance 2.” He then went on to act in a number of T.V shows such as CSI: NY, 90210 as well as films like Battle: Los Angeles and Red Tails.
He continues writing, performing, and acting.
4. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
One of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, Sister Rosetta Tharpe paved the way for rock guitarists to come. She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915.
Her mother played the mandolin in church, and Tharpe adapted mandolin techniques in her playing, leading her to play individual notes rather than just chords. She was a noted guitarist by age six.
Tharpe posted a storied career and has been cited as a musical influence to artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Karen Carpenter, and Aretha Franklin.
She died of a stroke in 1973.
5. Justin Moore
Justin Moore’s 2009 country hit single “Small Town U.S.A.” may have been about his hometown of Poyen, Arkansas where he was born in 1984.
Since then, he’s built a following as a clean-cut, all-American country singer, scoring a fistful of Billboard Number One singles and releasing five solo albums in ten years.
He writes or co-writes most of his songs, which can be somewhat unusual in country music and is the father of four kids.
Related: See our post of all the country singers from Arkansas here.
6. Billy Bob Thornton
Hailing from Hot Springs, Arkansas, Billy Bob Thornton made his name as an actor and screenwriter, winning an Oscar for writing “Sling Blade” in 1996.
He was born in 1955, and though most people recognize him as an actor, he played drums for a cover band that caught the ear of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
He has released solo albums, recorded with Earl Scruggs, and the Boxmasters have released more than ten albums.
His acting career overshadows his music, as does his personal life, which includes obsessive-compulsive disorder and five ex-wives.
7. Pharoah Sanders
Jazz saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders was born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Ark., in 1940.
After playing drums in school, he discovered the saxophone. He left for California to become a commercial artist, but his musical leanings took over.
He sat in with John Coltrane in 1964 and was soon playing regularly with the jazz giant. The pair made great strides in free jazz.
He has appeared on dozens of recordings as both a bandleader and a sideman, though he famously hates the music recording industry.
8. Glen Campbell
Though he would become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, star in films with legends like John Wayne, and win 10 Grammys, guitarist Glen Campbell started humbly in Billstown, Arkansas in 1936.
He established himself as a studio musician in California and is remembered as a brilliant guitarist. He scored hits with songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “The Wichita Lineman,” and others.
Alzheimer’s disease slowed him down, but he toured for a while as he battled the illness until he died in 2017.
9. Florence Price
When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933, she became the first African-American female composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra.
Before that milestone, though, she was just Florence Smith from Little Rock, born in 1887.
While she made her mark as a composer, she also gained renown for her classical piano playing.
Her music was revived following a musicologist’s discovery of some of Price’s lost manuscripts in 2009.
10. Amy Lee (Evanescence)
American singer Amy Lee was born in California in 1981 to a peripatetic family that eventually settled down in Little Rock.
A classically trained pianist and harpist, Lee formed Evanescence in Arkansas with guitarist Ben Moody in the 1990s, and the band continues recording.
She made appearances on recordings by bands like Korn and Body Count, both light-years apart from her music with Evanescence.
11. Levon Helm (The Band)
Before playing drums and singing with The Band, Levon Helm was born Mark Lavon Helm near Elaine, Arkansas in 1940.
He started playing with rockabilly singer and fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins out of high school, eventually forming Levon and the Hawks from that outfit.
Helm and The Band hit it big in the late 1960s, playing with Bob Dylan and scoring hits with “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight” and toured and recorded until 1976. They took a break, and Helm released some solo projects to wide acclaim.
The Band reformed in 1983 without Robertson, and over the next 19 years, Helm was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame with The Band, toured more, and won two Grammys. He died April 19, 2012.
12. Louis Jordan
Louis Jordan is perhaps the most influential rock and roll musician many have never heard of. He started as a jazz saxophone player in Brinkley, Arkansas where he was born in 1908, and played Big Band swing.
In the 1940s, he opted for a smaller group— the Tympany Five— that played driving music known as “jump blues,” an ancestor of modern rock music.
He recorded “Beware, Brother, Beware,” one of the earliest recordings of something akin to rap music.
13. Tracy Lawrence (Raised in Arkansas)
American country singer-songwriter Tracy Lawrence was born in Atlanta, Texas but grew up in Arkansas in Foreman after his family moved there when he was four years old.
After spending his teenage years there and studying at Southern Arkansas University he eventually moved to Nashville, Tennesee where he started performing at bars.
Within a year, he was signed to label Atlantic Nashville and he released “Sticks and Stones,” which produced four Billboard singles.
But, before its release, Lawrence was shot while defending a female friend. Once he recovered, the album came out, and he was a star.
He’s garnered an armful of number one singles and a couple of Grammy nominations and recorded more than 15 solo albums.
14. Charlie Rich
Country musician Charlie Rich’s parents raised him in Colt, Arkansas with everyone in the family participating in church music.
He was born December 14, 1932, and became a country music superstar who made hits and ruffled feathers. Perhaps best known for the singles “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl.”
Sadly, Rich often got in his own way, fighting alcoholism and erratic behavior. Chief among these was at the 1975 Country Music Association awards.
Visibly impaired, he opened the Entertainer of the Year envelope, saw John Denver’s name on the card inside, and lit it on fire. He died in 1995.
15. Joe Nichols
Country guitarist and singer Joe Nichols was born in 1976, in Rogers, Arkansas, and was drawn early to the classic country his grandfather played and listened to – Merle Haggard and George Jones, to name two – and eventually struck out for Nashville before his 20th birthday.
He released his first solo album in 1996 and created 9 more over the next 21 years.
He has had his ups and downs in the industry but steadily worked to further his career.
16. Ronnie Hawkins
And finally, rock and roll vocalist Ronnie Hawkins was born in Hunstville, Arkansas in 1935.
He ran bootleg whisky as a kid for extra money before he played a major role in bringing together Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and other members of The Band when they were just teens playing with him in The Hawks.
He never hit the big time like The Band did, but he was part of rock history due to his involvement with them.
He toured until the end of the 20th century, and his most recent full-length recording was released in 2002.
Summing Up Our List of Greatest Musicians From Arkansas
The nation’s 25th state has produced rock, country, jazz, and other musical icons despite often being overlooked by folks from the Big City.
The combined record sales of Arkansas musicians number in the millions, not to mention the outsized influence a lot of the players on this list have had.