Sweet Home Alabama is the land of longleaf pines and vast fields of cotton. Though it has a reputation for being a Good Ol’ Boy Southern landmark, in recent years, the state has also gained a reputation for scientific discovery with the founding of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. What’s more, the state has a strong musical reputation, producing several best-selling music artists. For that reason, let’s meet the 10 biggest musicians from Alabama. (Learn about baby boomers still making great albums.)
To compile a list of the biggest musicians from Alabama, 24/7 Tempo consulted a range of musical and state databases including Hello Music Theory and the Encyclopedia of Alabama. From there, we picked artists from a wide spectrum of genres and periods. After that, we consulted websites like Biography and Britannica for the musician’s biographical information.
- Hometown: Mount Olive, Alabama
Born Hiram “Hank” Williams, Hank Williams was a singer-songwriter. He first rose to prominence after signing with MGM Records and releasing the hit single “Lovesick Blues,” which rocketed to the top of the Country & Western Billboard Charts. From there, Williams would record 55 singles that reached the top ten of the charts.
Though he died from heart failure at 29, Williams would become considered one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the 20th century. In fact, some of the biggest names in popular music have covered his songs at one time or another. For his success, Williams was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Learn about the music artists with the highest approval ratings.)
- Hometown: Tuskegee, Alabama
No doubt, one of the biggest musicians from Alabama is Lionel Richie. Born Lionel Brockman Richie Jr., Lionel Richie is a musician, producer, and television personality. He first rose to fame as co-singer of the band, The Commodores, penning several hit singles. After going solo, Richie would find even more success, and eventually become one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
Throughout his career, Richie has sold over 100 million records worldwide. He has also earned four Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe Award. Richie also became a judge on the hit show, “American Idol.” For his musical success, Richie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.
- Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Emmylou Harris is a singer, songwriter, and activist. She first rose to fame after being discovered by influential musician, Gram Parsons. After she scored a record contract with Reprise-Warner Brothers, Harris released her second album, “Pieces of the Sky,” to critical and commercial success.
Throughout her career, Harris has sold over 15 million records worldwide. She has also won 13 Grammy Awards. Harris is also a prominent animal activist, founding a dog rescue in Memphis, Tennessee that cares for older dogs and pairs pups up with foster kids. For her musical success, Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
- Hometown: Leighton, Alabama
Another one of the biggest musicians from Alabama was gospel and R&B singer, Percy Sledge. Born Percy Tyrone Sledge, Sledge first rose to prominence after scoring a singing audition and being signed to a record contract. Though he recorded several hit soul songs, Sledge is best known for his No. 1 hit song “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
After that, Sledge released a number of hit songs including “Take Time to Know Her,” “I’ll Be Your Everything,” and “Sunshine.” Though he died in 2015, Sledge was inducted into several halls of fame including the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Hometown: Green Hill, Alabama
Jason Isbell is a singer-songwriter and actor. He first tasted fame after joining the band Drive-By Truckers in 2001. From there, Isbell would embark on a solo career which would earn him many hit singles as well as various accolades.
Some of these include four Grammy Awards as well as nine American Music Honors & Awards. In recent years, Isbell has taken to acting. His first prominent role was on the animated TV series “Squidbillies.” From there, he would score cameos in hit shows like “Deadwood” and “Billions.” His most recent role is in Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
- Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Another one of the biggest musicians from Alabama is Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount, Sun Ra first rose to prominence as part of the Chicago Jazz scene in the 1940s. From there, Ra would develop a personal mythology whereby he claimed to be an alien from Saturn sent to Earth to promote peace, effectively starting the Afrofuturism movement.
Though he found limited commercial success in his lifetime, Ra is now considered an innovator and pioneer of experimental music. Besides his experiments in Modal Jazz and free improvisation, he also claimed early use of instruments like synthesizers. A prolific musician, Ra recorded over 100 full-length albums during the course of his career. (Click here for popular artists who’ve never had a number-one hit.)
Nat King Cole
- Hometown: Montgomery, Alabama
Born Nathaniel Adams Coles, Nat King Cole was a singer, pianist, and actor. He first rose to prominence with his band The King Cole Trio, which was a top-selling act in the 1940s. From there, Cole would release a litany of hit songs including “Unforgettable,” “Smile,” and “L.O.V.E.” In 1960, Cole released the album “The Magic of Christmas,” which would become one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time.
Besides music, Cole also was the host of his own variety show, “The Nat King Cole Show,” which was the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by an African American, Cole won a Special Achievement Golden Globe Award and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his musical success. In 2000, Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Big Mama Thornton
- Hometown: Ariton, Alabama
Born Willie Mae Thornton, Big Mama Thornton was a singer and songwriter. Thornton first rose to prominence when she was the first to record the now-classic song, “Hound Dog,” which became her biggest hit and stayed at No. 1 on the charts for seven weeks. For the rest of her career, she would continue to chart, often with reimaginings of classic soul and gospel songs.
Though in her lifetime she found some success, including being nominated for six Blues Music Awards, it was only after her death that people realized her profound influence on the then-nascent Rock and Roll genre. She was, however, portrayed in the recent Elvis Presley biopic movie, “Elvis.” (Discover 25 of the biggest hits of the ’60s according to Billboard.)
- Hometown: Bessemer, Alabama
Another one of the biggest musicians from Alabama is Gucci Mane. Born Radric Delantic Davis, Gucci Mane is a rapper and record executive. He first rose to fame after the release of his debut album “Trap House,” which featured a number of chart-topping singles.
Considered a pioneer of the trap music genre, Gucci Mane has released 16 studio albums and over 70 mixtapes throughout his career. He is also the founder of the Atlantic Records imprint, “1017 Records,” which has signed several famous musicians including Waka Flocka Flame, Young Thug, and Chief Keef.
- Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Ruben Studdard is a musician and singer. He first rose to prominence after winning the second season of “American Idol,” as well as recording the Grammy-nominated single, “Superstar.” Since then, Studdard has released a series of best-selling albums including his platinum-selling debut, “Soulful,” as well as “I Need an Angel.”
Besides music, Studdard has made forays into the world of television and stage acting. He starred as Fats Waller in the national revival of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which produced a Grammy-nominated soundtrack. Studdard also appeared on the fifteenth season of the show “The Biggest Loser.” For his musical success, Studdard has won three Billboard Music Awards, an Image Award, as well as a Teen Choice Award. (Here are 25 surprising cross-genre mashups.)