In honor of the 2020 CMT Music Awards on Oct. 21, Wonderwall.com is taking a look at some of the biggest names in country music before they became huge Nashville stars, starting with this singer-songwriter… We can't get over Maren Morris in this 2012 photo. She'd been an underground country music artist since 2005 when she was still a teen, but it wasn't until her major-label album "Hero" dropped in 2016 that Maren gained critical acclaim and found more mainstream success. Keep reading to see more of your favorite country music stars at the beginning of their careers…
Fans were blown away in 2005 by curly-haired Carrie Underwood's rich vocal talents on the fourth season of "American Idol" — a contest the Oklahoma native ultimately won. Her debut studio album, "Some Hearts," was released later that same year, marking Carrie's entrance to the ranks of country music (and, later, pop) royalty.
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We can hardly recognize New Zealand-born Keith Urban in this 1993 photo. After packing up and moving to the States in 1989, Keith became the lead singer of the band The Ranch, which released its first album in 1997. When he struck out on his own in 1999 with "Keith Urban II," he found musical success with hits like "Where the Blacktop Ends" and "Your Everything."
Like country music star LeAnn Rimes, Tanya Tucker was still a child when she found fame. She released her debut studio album, 1972's "Delta Dawn," around her 14th birthday. She's pictured here in 1975, the same year her self-titled album — her fourth overall — landed.
Billy Ray Cyrus was rocking a mullet when he made his debut on the music scene in 1992. His first album, "Some Gave All," became the best selling album in America that year and its lead single, "Achy Breaky Heart," went platinum. Billy Ray has since released 12 studio albums and 44 singles. He found himself at the top of the charts again in 2019 with "Old Town Road," an unexpected collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X.
Although her self-titled debut album was released in 2001, it wasn't until 2003 that mainstream music fans first heard the name Miranda Lambert. The talented blonde came in third place on "Nashville Star" (pictured) that year. She managed to snag a lucrative contract with Sony Records on her way out the door.
If Nashville is the fountain of youth, Luke Bryan has been taking a steady sip. Since releasing debut album "I'll Stay Me" in 2007, Luke has, quite literally, stayed the same. (Seriously — what is he drinking?!) Whether he's singing his heart out on stage or accepting another Billboard Music Award, the "American Idol" judge has perfected the art of ageless, effortless style.
Dolly Parton released her first solo studio album, "Hello, I'm Dolly" — which landed her at No. 11 on the Country Albums chart — in February 1967. Since then, this beautiful and talented star has released more than 50 albums and appeared in 13 movies and on more than 20 TV shows. She also launched a family amusement park, Dollywood, which opened in 1986.
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Kenny Rogers sure looked different in the 1970s before he started rocking an all-white beard and got plastic surgery. But looks aside, no one can mess with his success: More than 120 of the late star's singles charted and he sold more than 100 million records worldwide.
Kane Brown has been making country music since 2014. After garnering attention via social media, he released the EP "Closer" in 2015. A year later, he released his debut self-titled album, which reached No. 1 on several Billboard country charts including Top Country Albums and was certified double platinum by the RIAA.
Martina McBride was a crossover country-pop music pioneer who released her debut album, "The Time Has Come," in 1992 (when Taylor Swift was still a toddler). Even though she eventually ditched the shoulder pads, she never lost her country music appeal.
Grammy-winning country duo Dan + Shay have been making music together since 2013, which is the year they released their debut album, "Where It All Began," which features singles "19 You + Me," "Show You Off" and "Nothin' Like You."
In the fall of 2006, a cherub-cheeked, curly-haired Taylor Swift released her self-titled debut album. Just two months shy of turning 17, Taylor's third single, "Our Song," reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, launching her to superstardom long before she transitioned to pop music.
Since this picture was taken in 2015, Ryan Hurd has chopped off his long locks, upgraded his style and married country music star Maren Morris. In 2017, the songwriter-turned-singer released his first single, "We Do Us," which has racked up more than 2 million streams on Spotify.
Kelsea Ballerini has been in the country music biz since 2014. After signing with Black River Entertainment, Kelsea released her debut studio album, "The First Time," in 2015. Three of the album's singles — "Love Me Like You Mean It," "Dibs," and "Peter Pan" — all hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, making her the first up-and-coming female artist to have her first three singles top the chart.
Rascal Flatts — which consists of members Joe Don Rooney, Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox — hit the scene in 1999, dropped their debut self-titled album in 2000 and in 2020 announced plans to go their separate ways.
When "The Voice" winner Cassadee Pope hit the music scene, she wasn't a country singer-songwriter — she was the frontwoman of the pop-rock band Hey Monday. With Hey Monday, Cassadee released one studio album, "Hold On Tight," in 2008. 2012 marked the year in which Cassadee launched her solo career and released her self-titled EP. Her debut country album, "Frame by Frame," came out in 2013 and peaked in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart.
It seems like country music sensation Jason Aldean hasn't changed much since his self-titled debut album hit the airwaves back in July 2005. The album went platinum and gave Jason his first hit singles including "Why," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Not only does this guy have great music, but he obviously has amazing DNA too!
Billy Ray Cyrus wasn't the only famous country singer to rock a mullet in the '90s. Fellow country star Travis Tritt also sported the look when he made his debut in 1990. His first album, "Country Club," went platinum and Travis has since appeared more than 40 times on the Hot Country Songs charts.
Though the Dixie Chicks — who changed their name to The Chicks in 2020 — started making music in the early '90s, they didn't officially arrive until 1998, when they dropped their breakthrough album, "Wide Open Spaces." The following year, the trio of blondes rocked appropriately eye-catching, oh-so-'90s ensembles during the 34th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
These days, Willie Nelson is known for his long hair, bandanas and country-casual look, so we never would have guessed that the man pictured here is Willie at the start of his career! The legend sported a clean-cut look in the 1960s when he debuted his first album, "…And Then I Wrote." Since then, Willie's become one of the most beloved country singers ever.
Loretta Lynn was sporting a classic 1960s bouffant when she first hit the country music scene in 1961. Today, Loretta is the most awarded female country singer ever. She's sold more than 45 million albums worldwide and scored 24 No. 1 hit singles and 11 No. 1 albums!
Alison Krauss was a curly-haired brunette when she first came to fame in the late 1980s. The now-blonde singer has released 14 albums and won 27 Grammy Awards since her early days, making her the most awarded singer and the most awarded female artist in Grammy history.
Back in 1981, George Strait — who's basically a country music legend — released his debut studio album, "Strait Country," which landed him at No. 26 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. While his current look is more "salt-and-pepper cowboy," he's still a certified heartthrob.
The ever-lovely Kacey Musgraves arrived on the underground country music scene in 2002, when she released debut album "Movin' On." In 2007, the powerhouse singer-songwriter appeared as a contestant on "Nashville Star" (seen here) and although she didn't win, her career path eventually landed her multiple Grammys including album of the year in 2019.
Florida Georgia Line landed with a splash in 2012, the year they dropped their debut studio album, "Here's to the Good Times." It shot to No. 1 on the country charts — as have their follow-up albums. Their sense of style isn't the only thing that's evolved over the years: Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, who are known for their flashy red carpet looks, are both married men!
Dierks Bentley's first album, "Don't Leave Me in Love," was released in 2001, but it was so poorly received that it failed to chart. In 2003, after signing with Capitol Records, Dierks (who eventually lost the ringlets in favor of a sleeker hairstyle) released his debut major-label self-titled studio album, which included "What Was I Thinkin'" — his first hit single.
All the way back in 1986, Garth Brooks' first album, "Hungry Years," debuted. Three years later, Garth dropped his first major-label studio album, the self-titled "Garth Brooks," which reached No. 2 on the Top Country Albums chart. The sexy singer (who came out of retirement in 2016) looked like he could've totally been a movie star with that young Paul Newman-meets-Robert Redford face back in 1990. #Swoon.
Trisha Yearwood has been a Nashville star since 1991 when she arrived on the scene with her debut self-titled album and her genre-crossing hit single "She's in Love with the Boy." Three Grammys and nearly three decades later, she's still one of our favorite country music queens.
Before he was ever a hunky, stubble-flaunting country star or coach on "The Voice," Blake Shelton had a whole bad-cowboy look going (which we totally love). In 2001, he released his self-titled debut album, which went platinum and launched him to superstar status.
Faith Hill was just 26 when her first album, "Take Me As I Am," debuted in October 1993. Aside from some perfectly coiffed curls, we'd say Faith looks exactly the same.
Even in this cheesy school-portrait pose, Tim McGraw was a major hunk. In 1993, he released his self-titled debut album, which flopped. His musical fate changed in '94 with the release of his sophomore album, "Not a Moment Too Soon," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Now married to country singer Faith Hill, Tim has enjoyed an enormously successful career in both music and film.
Johnny Cash had quite the dapper look when he first began performing in the 1950s. The country music icon maintained both his looks and his talent throughout his highly successful career. Johnny sold more than 90 million records worldwide by the time of his death in 2003, making him one of the best selling artists of all time — and a true music legend.
It's been more than 50 years since Emmylou Harris released her debut studio album, "Gliding Bird," in 1969. Since then, she's racked up 13 Grammys and countless other awards. As this shot from the '70s proves, though her hair color has faded from a deep brunette to silver, her beauty and talent only grow with each year!
Jake Owen chopped off his shaggy locks on the way to country music stardom. The Florida native released his first album in 2006 (around the time this picture was taken) and has been a chart-topping singer ever since.
Since making waves with her debut self-titled album in 2005, Brandi Carlile has released five more solo albums and one album with The Highwomen, which also includes members Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. She's also won four Grammys.
She was such a baby! LeAnn Rimes was a month shy of her 14th birthday when she dropped "Blue," her debut studio album, in July 1996. Of course, she'd already released three independent albums by then!
When George Jones first entered the mainstream in the late 1950s, he sported a buzzcut and a traditional suit. He released his first No. 1 single, "White Lightning," in 1959 and went on to become one of country music's greatest singers.
Eric Church has changed a whole lot over the years. When his first album, "Sinners Like Me," dropped in 2006, this country music singer was rocking a serious hipster look. Gone are the luscious locks and blazers, but what still remains is his incredible musical talent.
Brett Eldredge has become such a huge star in country music, we sometimes forget he's only been around for a few years. Of course, in that short period of time, he's dropped two No. 1 albums and countless hit singles. The country crooner looked adorably baby-faced in this shot from 2010, three years before his debut studio album, 2013's "Bring You Back," landed.
Reba McEntire has been around the country music scene for a very long time. Her self-titled debut album hit the airwaves in 1977 but was initially considered a flop. That didn't stop big-hair and shoulder-pad-rocking Reba. In 1979, she released sophomore album "Out of a Dream," which included her first hit single, "Last Night, Ev'ry Night."
Alan Jackson looks exactly the same as he did nearly 30 years ago when he released his first album, "Here in the Real World." Today, Alan is regarded as one of the best country singers ever: He's earned two Grammy Awards, won countless CMA and ACM Awards and sold more than 80 million records.
In 1999, Brad Paisley released his debut studio album, "Who Needs Pictures," which featured his first two No. 1 singles, "He Didn't Have to Be" and "We Danced." Now, more than two decades later, Brad (who basically looks the same) is happily married to actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley and is still a successful country music artist.
Little Big Town made a not-so-little entrance onto the country music scene in 2002 with the release of their self-titled debut album (and some seriously styled hair). Members Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild soon streamlined their style and went on to win numerous awards including the Grammy for best country duo/group performance in 2013, 2016 and 2018.
Thomas Rhett (pictured here with Reba McEntire) was born into a country music family. But the son of "Don't Get Me Started" singer Rhett Akins has since become a country superstar in his own right. He ditched the floppy hair and scruffy look he rocked in 2011 and is now a slicker, hotter star with No. 1 singles!
Chris Stapleton's look hasn't changed much since he first gained recognition as the frontman of bluegrass group The Steeldrivers in 2007. One thing that has changed, however, is his level of success. Today, Chris is an acclaimed solo artist who has earned multiple Grammys, ACM Awards and still more CMA Awards.
Toby Keith might have lost the mullet, but he's still just as talented as he was in 1993, the year he released his first studio album. Today, Toby has released countless studio albums, two Christmas albums and multiple compilation albums. He's also had countless singles appear on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, including multiple No. 1 hits!
It was 1994 when Kenny Chesney, donning a full head of hair, released his debut album, "In My Wildest Dreams." Although it didn't land him at the top of the charts, it did give him his first two hit singles, "Whatever it Takes" and "The Tin Man" — the latter of which he would re-record in 2000 for his "Greatest Hits" album.
Although their hair color and style may have changed (a few times), Lady A have remained a country music powerhouse since releasing their self-titled debut album in 2008. Since then, members Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley have gone on to win numerous awards, including five Grammys.
When this 1995 photo was taken, Darius Rucker — who was once best known as the lead singer of "Hootie and the Blowfish" — wasn't recognized as a country singer. However, in 2008, after parting ways with his old band, Darius released his first country album, "Learn to Live," which went platinum and remains his best selling album to date.
Shania Twain's self-titled debut album was released in 1993 but failed to make an impact on the U.S. charts. The star didn't give up on her country music dreams, however. Just two years later, she released "The Woman in Me," which went 12-times platinum and included her first hit single, "Any Man of Mine."
Gretchen Wilson shot into the spotlight in 2004 with debut studio album "Here for the Party," which featured her hit single "Redneck Woman." A few months after the album landed, she walked the red carpet at the 2004 CMA Awards — and showed off her signature casual-cool vibe, which really hasn't changed at all over the years!
Randy Travis has been dropping hit albums since his 1986 debut, "Storms of Life." More than three decades, 20 albums and multiple health scares later, he's still rocking!
Chris Young landed his big break in the music industry after winning the singing competition "Nashville Star" in 2006. He went on to release his self-titled debut album, which included singles "Drinkin' Me Lonely" and "You're Gonna Love Me." Since then, he's released six more albums including 2011's "Neon" and 2017's "Losing Sleep."
Superstar Trace Adkins' look hasn't changed much since he released his debut album, "Dreamin' Out Loud," in 1996.
It's hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since Lauren Alaina was a contestant on the 10th season of "American Idol." The same year she made her big TV debut, Lauren (who's ditched the ombre locks, released her first studio album, "Wildflower," which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.
Luke Combs released his first EP, "The Way She Rides," in 2014. He's since put out two studio albums — 2017's "This One's for You" and 2019's "What You See Is What You Get."
After signing to Capitol Nashville, Jon Pardi released his debut studio album, "Write You a Song," in 2014. The album, which featured singles "Missin' You Crazy" and "Up All Night," peaked at No. 3 on the Top Country Albums Billboard chart.
Georgia-born singer-songwriter Sam Hunt made his debut with the 2014 studio album "Montevallo," which earned him a nomination for best country album at the Grammy Awards in 2015. Prior to kicking off his solo career, he made a name for himself writing tracks for big names like Keith Urban and Reba McEntire.
Dustin Lynch officially arrived in 2012 with his self-titled debut album. Since then, he's dropped two more albums, a 2019 EP and a handful of popular country jams. As he's grown as an artist, one thing has miraculously stayed just the same: his love of wide-brim cowboy hats!