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Mentors and Influences: The People Who Shaped the Lives of Country Music Icons

Forget the dusty attics and creaky rocking chairs. Country music legends weren’t born steeped in nostalgia – they were ignited by sparks.

Maybe it was the electrifying stage presence of a childhood idol glimpsed on a flickering TV screen, or the unwavering support of a local guitar teacher who saw a star waiting to be polished.

In the world of country music, the road to fame is often paved with the footprints of mentors and influences, leaving an indelible mark on the lives and music of the genre’s biggest icons.

From legendary performers to supportive family members, these individuals have played a crucial role in shaping the careers and artistic directions of some of country music’s most beloved icons.

This article delves into the fascinating world of these behind-the-scenes heroes, exploring the unique relationships they fostered with country music royalty.

The Guiding Light: Mentors Who Shaped Careers

Willie Nelson & Ray Price

A prime example of a powerful mentor-mentee relationship exists between country music outlaws Willie Nelson and Ray Price. Price, a pioneer of honky-tonk music, took a young Nelson under his wing in the early 1960s.

In a 1977 interview with “Country Music” magazine, Nelson mentions working as a bass player for Price early in his career, crediting him for teaching him the value of hard work and dedication on the road.

Price’s smooth vocals and incorporation of elements like jazz and blues into his country music likely appealed to the young Willie Nelson, who was known for pushing boundaries himself.

He recognized Nelson’s raw talent and encouraged him to embrace his songwriting, paving the way for Nelson’s signature style that blended country with elements of blues and jazz.

It Always Will Be ~ Willie Nelson & Ray Price (Medley)

Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner

Dolly Parton’s rise to superstardom wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance of Porter Wagoner.

Wagoner, a successful country singer in the 1950s and 1960s, saw Parton’s potential and offered her a spot on his television show.

While their partnership yielded several chart-topping hits, Parton eventually felt artistically restricted. Wagoner, understanding her aspirations, ultimately released her from their contract, allowing her to pursue her solo career and become the international icon she is today.

Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton – If Teardrops Were Pennies

Garth Brooks & George Strait:

Modern country music wouldn’t be the same without the influence of Garth Brooks. However, Brooks himself credits a significant part of his success to the legendary George Strait.

Strait’s focus on strong songwriting and traditional country instrumentation resonated deeply with Brooks, influencing his own sound and stage presence.

Blake Shelton and Reba McEntire

Forget Prince Charming and Pop Princess – country music thrives on unexpected bonds. Enter Blake Shelton, the Oklahoma prankster with a microphone, and Reba McEntire, the reigning “Queen of Country.” Their unlikely friendship blossomed on the unlikeliest of stages: reality TV.

“The Voice” wasn’t exactly where you’d predict a mentorship to spark. In season one, McEntire, already a country titan, wasn’t necessarily Shelton’s initial inspiration. But fate, perhaps with a nudge from network execs, intervened.

Screenshot of instagram post
Source: NBC The Voice Instagram

The official mentor-mentee chapter began in 2011, during the inaugural season of “The Voice.” McEntire served as a Battle Advisor for Shelton’s team, offering seasoned advice and a touch of her signature wit to his aspiring artists. This marked the beginning of a fun on-screen dynamic that resonated with viewers.

Fast forward to season 23. Shelton, announcing his departure from the show, welcomed McEntire back, not as a Battle Advisor, but as the Mega Mentor, a fitting tribute to their journey together. This full-circle moment highlighted the respect and admiration that had blossomed between them over the years.

Willie NelsonRay PriceEncouraged songwriting, influenced genre-bending style
Dolly PartonPorter WagonerProvided platform, ultimately fostered independence
Garth BrooksGeorge StraitEmphasis on traditional sound and strong songwriting
Taylor SwiftShania TwainPaved the way for female pop-country crossover success
Blake SheltonReba McEntireHelped navigate the industry, fostered stage presence
Mentor-Mentee Matchmaker

Beyond the Stage: Family Influences

While mentors often come from within the industry, some of the most profound influences come from family.

Carrie Underwood & Her Parents

Carrie Underwood’s parents were incredibly supportive of her musical ambitions from a young age.

In an interview with Today, Carrie mentions her parents taking her to see musicals and encouraging her to explore her love for singing. This early exposure to music undoubtedly sparked her passion.

Carole Underwood, Carrie Underwood and Steve Underwood, CMA Music Festival Fan Fair 2007.
Carole Underwood, Carrie Underwood and Steve Underwood, CMA Music Festival Fan Fair 2007. (Tony R. Phipps/WireImage)

Small-Town Values, Big Dreams: Carrie grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a small town with a strong work ethic. Her parents, Carol, a registered nurse, and Cecil, a construction worker, instilled these values in her. In a radio interview with Kelleher & Fitz on SiriusXM:

“I am the luckiest person to have such incredible parents, and they’ve always been super supportive of me,” the “Before He Cheats” singer told SiriusXM in 2019.

Carrie talks about her parents’ work ethic being a major influence on her own dedication to her career. Carrie’s journey to stardom began on American Idol. Throughout the competition, Carol and Cecil were her biggest cheerleaders, traveling to every taping and offering unwavering support. 

Johnny Cash & His Mother

The “Man in Black” attributed much of his musical passion to his mother, Carrie Cash.

She exposed him to gospel music and traditional folk songs, laying the foundation for the storytelling and spiritual depth that became staples of his music.

Johnny Cash with his mother Carrie Cash
Johnny Cash with his mother Carrie Cash

She instilled in him a strong work ethic, empathy for the less fortunate, and fierce independence – values that became cornerstones of Johnny’s music and social activism.

Even during his struggles with addiction, Carrie remained a constant source of love and support, a powerful anchor that helped shape the man and the music that would captivate the world.

Carrie Cash’s story reminds us of the profound impact mothers can have on their children, even the ones destined for legendary status.

Kacey Musgraves & Her Grandfather

Kacey Musgraves credits her grandfather, a singer-songwriter himself, with igniting her love for music.

He encouraged her songwriting and exposed her to a diverse range of musical influences that contributed to her unique blend of country, pop, and psychedelic rock.

Perhaps the most well-known anecdote is from a 2019 interview with People: [invalid URL removed] magazine. Musgraves describes gifting her grandfather $300 for a “special Christmas present” – a buy-in for a poker game with Willie Nelson and other celebrities.

Screenshot from People
Source: People

The story highlights her playful relationship with her grandfather and his willingness to step outside his comfort zone.

Quick overview: Beyond the Stage: Family Influences

ArtistFamily InfluenceImpact
Carrie UnderwoodParents (Carol & Cecil)Musical Inspiration & Work Ethic
Carrie UnderwoodParents (Carol & Cecil)Unwavering Support
Johnny CashMother (Carrie Cash)Musical Foundation & Values
Johnny CashMother (Carrie Cash)Constant Support
Kacey MusgravesGrandfather (Singer-Songwriter)Musical Passion & Diverse Influences
Kacey MusgravesGrandfatherPlayful Relationship
Beyond the Stage: Family Influences

The Power of Inspiration: Beyond the Formal Relationship

The influence on a country music artist can extend far beyond a formal mentor-mentee relationship. Artists can be deeply inspired by the careers and music of their peers or even those who came before them.

Miranda Lambert & Loretta Lynn

Miranda Lambert’s outspoken advocacy for female empowerment in country music draws inspiration from the legendary Loretta Lynn, a pioneer who paved the way for strong female voices in the genre.

Lambert, a young singer with a fire in her soul, first encountered Lynn as a starry-eyed teenager attending Loretta Lynn concerts.

Years later, their paths crossed backstage at a show. Lambert, nervous but determined, introduced herself and expressed her admiration.

Their connection blossomed beyond backstage conversations. They collaborated on the iconic track “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for a tribute album to Lynn, showcasing the powerful synergy between their voices.

Lambert doesn’t just admire Lynn – she carries the torch of strong female voices in country music, ensuring the genre continues to celebrate female artistry and storytelling.

Brad Paisley & Chet Atkins

Brad Paisley’s virtuosic guitar playing is undoubtedly influenced by Chet Atkins, the “Mr. Guitar” of country music.

Country’s modern guitar hero, Brad Paisley, has a surprising hero: Chet Atkins, the smooth-picking legend.

As a teen, Paisley was floored by Atkins’ technique, religiously practicing it and laying the groundwork for his own mastery. But it’s deeper than that. Atkins championed innovation, and Paisley echoes that spirit, blending genres into his unique sound.

Paisley even performs with Atkins’ band and uses his iconic guitar, keeping his legacy alive. He’s not just a great player, he’s an ambassador for Atkins’ pioneering spirit, inspiring a new generation.

Chris Stapleton & Waylon Jennings

Chris Stapleton’s soulful vocals and raw emotionality evoke the spirit of Waylon Jennings, a country outlaw known for his honesty and bluesy swagger.

Chris Stapleton & Waylon Jennings
Chris Stapleton & Waylon Jennings

Stapleton isn’t just influenced by Jennings – he embodies the very essence of the “outlaw country” movement Jennings pioneered alongside Willie Nelson.

Jennings, who rose to fame in the 1970s, challenged the Nashville establishment’s polished sound with his rough vocals and themes that resonated with working-class struggles and a yearning for freedom.

Decades later, Stapleton emerged, carrying that same torch. His gravelly voice, a near echo of Jennings’, growls tales of heartbreak, resilience, and a healthy dose of defiance against the status quo.pen_spark

Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt

Harris’ powerful vocals and sophisticated harmonies perfectly complemented Ronstadt’s own dynamic voice. Performing together exposed Harris to a wider audience and honed her stage presence.

Ronstadt, already a successful rock and pop artist, began incorporating country influences into her music in the early 1970s.

This shift was partially inspired by the burgeoning Americana movement and artists like Emmylou Harris. Their collaboration on albums like “Trio” (1987) with Dolly Parton further cemented Ronstadt’s exploration of country music.

Their partnership wasn’t limited to music. Harris and Ronstadt became close friends, known for their vocal harmonies and on-stage chemistry.

Their exploration of country music with a contemporary blend of rock and pop influences paved the way for future artists like Sheryl Crow and Alison Krauss to seamlessly blend genres.

Alan Jackson & Hank Williams Sr.

Hank Williams Sr. is Considered one of the most influential figures in country music history, Hank Williams Sr.’s songs captured the essence of the American South during the Great Depression and World War II. His lyrics explored themes of love, loss, faith, and hardship, resonating deeply with audiences.

Alan Jackson & Hank Williams Sr.
Rick Diamond//Getty Images

Jackson, known for his neo-traditional country style, has consistently championed the music of Hank Williams Sr. throughout his career. He has cited Williams’ raw emotionality, storytelling lyrics, and simple yet powerful melodies as major influences on his own music.

The Power of Inspiration: Beyond the Formal Relationship (Quick overview)

Miranda LambertLoretta LynnFemale Empowerment in Country Music
Brad PaisleyChet AtkinsVirtuosic Guitar Playing & Innovation
Chris StapletonWaylon JenningsRaw Emotionality & “Outlaw Country” Spirit
Emmylou HarrisLinda RonstadtStage Presence & Exploration of Country Music
Linda RonstadtEmmylou Harris & Americana MovementExploration of Country Music
Alan JacksonHank Williams Sr.Neo-Traditional Country Style & Emotional Storytelling
The Power of Inspiration: Beyond the Formal Relationship
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Q: How do mentors typically shape country music artists?

A: Mentors can play a multifaceted role in shaping artists’ careers. Some offer guidance on:

  • Songwriting: Experienced songwriters can help hone an artist’s craft, teach them storytelling techniques, and even collaborate on songs.
  • Performance: Seasoned performers can advise on stage presence, vocal delivery, and connecting with an audience.
  • Business: Navigating the music industry can be tricky. Mentors can offer advice on record deals, touring, and managing finances.
  • Confidence & Support: The music industry can be tough. Mentors can provide encouragement, a shoulder to lean on, and valuable life lessons.

Q: Are mentors always established stars?

A: Not necessarily! Sometimes, a mentor can be a local guitar teacher, a respected producer, or even a supportive family member. What matters most is the connection and the knowledge they can share.

Q: Can mentorships turn into rivalries?

A: It’s possible, especially if there’s a competitive element. However, most mentorships are built on respect and a desire to see the artist succeed. Healthy competition can even push both parties to create their best work.

Q: How can fans support these mentor-mentee relationships?

A: Fans can show their appreciation by celebrating collaborations, attending joint tours, and respecting the artists’ boundaries regarding their personal lives.

Q: Where can I learn more about famous country music mentorships?

A: Many biographies and documentaries explore the relationships between country stars and their influences. You can also find articles and online discussions dedicated to the topic.


  • The stories of mentors and influences in country music highlight the power of guidance, inspiration, and shared passion.
  • These relationships have shaped the careers of some of the genre’s most beloved artists, ensuring the continued evolution and vitality of country music.
  • As the genre grows and adapts, the legacy of mentorship will undoubtedly continue to play a vital role in shaping the next generation of country music icons.

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