20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection; Chris Hollo/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
One of the most hotly anticipated shows of the fall season is Fox’s Monarch, a multigenerational drama about the first family of country music, set to premiere on Sept. 11. Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, 75, and country superstar Trace Adkins, 60, star as the dynasty’s matriarch and patriarch, Dottie and Albie Roman, with Pushing Daisies actress Anna Friel and indie rocker Beth Ditto appearing as their daughters. The Romans follow in a long line of iconic country acts from TV and film, both real (Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter) and fictional (Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies). Here, our 10 greatest hits about the world of country music that you can stream before Monarch takes the stage.
The premise: Nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, Robert Altman’s beloved music-industry satire features a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Lily Tomlin, 83, as the gospel-singing mother of two deaf children; Shelley Duvall, 73, as teen groupie “L.A. Joan”; Ronee Sue Blakley, 77, as the fragile country star Barbara Jean; and Jeff Goldblum, 69, as the silent Tricycle Man. The film is widely hailed as Altman’s magnum opus, and it has been included on many rankings of the best films of all time, including from the American Film Institute (number 59) and Entertainment Weekly (number 9).
The best song: “I’m Easy,” which was written and performed by Keith Carradine, 73, and won the Academy Award for best song.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The premise: Based on Loretta Lynn’s autobiography of the same name, Coal Miner’s Daughter is perhaps the finest entry in the musical biopic genre, with Sissy Spacek, 72, truly channeling the spirit of the now-90-year-old living legend. It’s no surprise that Spacek won the best actress Oscar for her transformative role, as she charts Lynn’s rags-to-riches story from her girlhood days in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to her marriage at 15 to her reign as the First Lady of Country Music. Equally memorable are her costars, Tommy Lee Jones (75) as her husband, Doolittle Lynn; Levon Helm as her coal miner father; and Beverly D’Angelo (70) as “Crazy” singer Patsy Cline.
The best song: Spacek’s cover of the title song, which helped the soundtrack hit number 2 on the country charts and earn the CMA Award for album of the year.
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Honkytonk Man (1982)
The premise: Clint Eastwood, 92, stars alongside his real son Kyle, 54, in this bittersweet musical set during the Great Depression. The elder Eastwood — who also directed — plays country-western singer Red Stovall, who suffers from tuberculosis and drowns his sorrows in booze. When he arrives at his sister’s failing Oklahoma farm, he forms a bond with his 14-year-old nephew, and the two head across country to Nashville, where Red hopes for one last shot at stardom on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Country music lovers will recognize cameos from the likes of Porter Wagoner, Marty Robbins, Ray Price and Merle Travis.
The best song: “No Sweeter Cheater Than You,” a low-key ditty sung by Eastwood, which was nominated for a Razzie Award for worst original song but is better than critics at the time gave it credit for.
Tender Mercies (1983)
The premise: Robert Duvall, 91, won his only Oscar for this music-filled drama about country singer Mac Sledge, who battles alcohol addiction as he strikes up a relationship with a young widow (Tess Harper, 72) who manages the run-down motel and gas station where he wakes up after a night of binge drinking. Duvall prepared for the role by driving more than 600 miles around Texas, recording accents and playing in local bands. Richard Corliss of Time magazine called it “the best American movie of the new year,” thanks to “Duvall’s aging face, a road map of dead ends and dry gulches.” Indeed, the film rises above any music-film clichés thanks to a subtly beautiful, Oscar-winning screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Horton Foote.
The best song: “Over You,” which was performed by Betty Buckley (75) in the film and was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The premise: In the Coen Brothers’ loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, three convicts — played by George Clooney (61), John Turturro (65) and Tim Blake Nelson (58) — escape from a chain gang and search for buried treasure in Great Depression–era Mississippi. Along the way, they record a tune as the Soggy Bottom Boys that goes on to become an unexpectedly massive hit. The film’s soundtrack, with its mix of country, bluegrass, gospel, blues and folk music, also went on to become an unexpectedly massive hit, beating U2 and Bob Dylan to win album of the year at the Grammys.
The best song: “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a traditional folk song recorded by Dan Tyminski for the film, with Clooney lip-synching.
Walk the Line (2005)
The premise: Joaquin Phoenix gave an uncannily realistic performance as Johnny Cash, who charts a path to stardom through some very low lows (addiction, adultery, arrests) and some very high highs (a celebrated live album recorded at Folsom Prison) in this blockbuster biopic directed by James Mangold, 58. Even more impressive, Phoenix sang his own songs in the film, as did Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her crowd-pleasing turn as the feisty June Carter. At the time, it was the highest-grossing music biopic in history — though it’s since been surpassed by Bohemian Rhapsody, Straight Outta Compton and Elvis.
The best song: Phoenix’s cover of “I Walk the Line,” which helped the soundtrack hit the top 10 on the Billboard 200 album charts.
Crazy Heart (2009)
The premise: Jeff Bridges, 72, won best actor for his role as down-and-out singer-songwriter Otis “Bad” Blake, who battles alcoholism — are you sensing a pattern here? — and tries to turn his life around by starting a relationship with a young reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) doing a story on him. “Some of Mr. Bridges’ peers may have burned more intensely in their prime,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, “but very few American actors over the past 35 years have flickered and smoldered with such craft and resilience. Neither blandly likable nor operatically emotional, this actor has a sly kind of charisma and a casual intelligence.” Robert Duvall coproduced the film and — in a clever nod to his Tender Mercies days — shows up as an old friend of Blake’s who helps him get sober.
The best song: “The Weary Kind,” which was written by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett and won the Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy for best original song from a movie.
Country Strong (2011)
The premise: Critics weren’t exactly smitten with this music-filled Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, but if you get onto its old-school wavelength, you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Roger Ebert called it “a throwback, a pure, heartfelt exercise in ’50s social melodrama,” and the players include Paltrow as just-out-of-rehab country legend Kelly Canter, Tim McGraw (55) as her controlling manager/husband, Garrett Hedlund as a rehab orderly with dreams of stardom, and Leighton Meester as a former Miss Dallas-turned-country singer. Expect plenty of romantic entanglements and surprisingly solid musical numbers. “I eat this stuff up,” Ebert said. “Don’t get all on your high horse.”
The best song: “Coming Home,” which earned an Oscar nomination for best song — though the Sara Evans tune “A Little Bit Stronger,” which hit number one on the country charts, is another showstopper.
The premise: This ABC/CMT nighttime soap centers on two country stars at different points in their careers: Rayna Jaymes, played by Emmy nominee Connie Britton, 55, is the reigning queen of country, who Britton based on performers like Reba McEntire (67) and Faith Hill (54); and Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, is the Carrie Underwood–like, next-generation star nipping at her heels. The show features an ensemble almost as expansive as the Altman drama of the same name, with standouts including Lennon and Maisy Stella, who play Rayna’s daughters. But what really sets the show apart is that the original music is surprisingly solid, written by such Music City mainstays as Kacey Musgraves.
The best song: The lovely Emmy-nominated ballad “Nothing in This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again,” which Juliette performs after a personal tragedy in the action-packed Season 1 finale.
Country Comfort (2021)
The premise: Think of this Netflix sitcom as a Nashville-set answer to The Sound of Music, with American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee taking on the Maria role. After she gets dumped and kicked out of her ex-boyfriend’s band, aspiring country singer Bailey (McPhee) takes a job as a nanny for cowboy/widower Beau Haywood (Eddie Cibrian) and his five children. Cibrian’s wife, Grammy winner LeAnn Rimes, cameos in episode five and sings two of her hits, “I Need You” and “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.”
The best song: “Bless the Broken Road,” by Rascal Flatts, which Bailey performs with the Haywood kids in the Season 1 finale.
Watch it: Country Comfort, on Netflix
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.