Country music fans are possibly one of the most loyal fanbases that exist, and that devotion has certainly traveled from the radio to the big screen. Once considered a niche genre suited only for classic westerns or holiday specials, contemporary shows like Nashville have made the country music industry more widely available to audiences.
The public might be more familiar with films such as Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta — which is being adapted for the small screen — or Dolly Parton’s biographical Coat of Many Colors, but there are a plethora of other lesser-known movies that beautifully capture the essence of country music. Daryl Duke’s 1973 directorial debut Payday and the 1985 Sweet Dreams starring Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline are two such films.
However, despite the many films that could be considered for this list, there is only a select group that have been able to transcend genre and become widely acclaimed mainstream hits. Here are the best country music movies, ranked.
9 Honkytonk Man (1982)
A musical drama set in the Great Depression, Honkytonk Man is a film directed by Clint Eastwood, which he also starred in alongside his son Kyle Eastwood. The project was based on Clancy Carlile’s 1980 novel of the same name. The main character, Red Stovall, was reportedly loosely based on the life of “the Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. Within the narrative, Red is a transient musician suffering from tuberculosis who is offered a chance to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. Kyle Eastwood plays Red’s nephew Whit, who accompanies him on the adventure to Nashville and vows to tell his uncle’s story after the older man succumbs to his illness. Country music singer Marty Robbins also stars as guitarist named Smokey, in his last film role before his death.
Though Honkytonk Man had the worst box office opening of any Eastwood flick, it still became a hit with both country music fans and critics. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert said that the film “is a sweet, whimsical, low-key movie; a movie that makes you feel good without pressing you too hard.” Coming in at just over two hours, Honkytonk Man takes viewers along on a slow-paced, delightful, journey of hope and perseverance.
8 Pure Country (1992)
Pure Country is a drama film from director Christopher Cain, starring country music legend George Strait in his only acting role. Strait plays country star Wyatt “Dusty” Chandler, who becomes disillusioned by how fame has taken the focus away from his music. He takes a hiatus from performing to return to his hometown where he falls for a rancher’s daughter and even becomes a rodeo cowboy for a while. Eventually, he is convinced to return to the music business on the condition that his stage shows be toned down, and his songs take center stage. The project also became famed Western actor Rory Calhoun’s last film appearance before his death.
Though Pure Country didn’t thrive at the box office, Strait’s performance was praised by critics. A “roper” himself, the multi-platinum artist performed all of his own stunts in the film and the soundtrack became his best-selling album to date. Also, his character never kissed his love interest in the movie due to Strait’s devotion to his real-life wife Norma, whom he’s been married to since 1971. The film spawned two sequels, Pure Country 2: The Gift, released in 2010, and Pure Country: Pure Heart, released in 2017.
7 Songwriter (1984)
Starring country music icons Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, Songwriter is a 1984 satirical dramedy that is loosely based on Nelson’s own life. He plays a composer named Doc Jenkins who sneaks his way out of a contract with a dangerous Nashville gangster. Kristofferson plays Doc’s old singing partner Blackie Buck, whose career he decides to manage. Actress and singer Lesley Ann Warren plays a musician named Gilda and Tony- and Academy Award-winning actress Melinda Dillon stars as Doc’s ex-wife Honey.
Though somewhat light on plot, Songwriter is equal parts dark and hilarious and allows viewers the experience of hanging out with talented country stars and provides an inside look into the industry. The soundtrack to the film was released by Columbia Record and consists of “Doc’s side” and “Blackie’s side,” featuring eleven original tracks that are all recorded by the two leads. The record was nominated for an Oscar, though it lost out to Prince’s Purple Rain.
6 O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a 2000 dramedy that puts a satirical country spin on Homer’s classic tale, the Odyssey. Set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film follows three escaped convicts who join up with a guitar player and record a song for the radio, in exchange for payment. The lead role in the film, Ulysses Everett McGill, was portrayed by legendary actor George Clooney. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson play his fellow escapees and Chris Thomas King stars as the musician. Later in their journey, the group discovers that the song has become a surprising hit and performs it live.
Though music ended up being just a small portion of the lengthy story in the film, it garnered attention from the country music industry. The song recorded by the group in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, called “Man of Constant Sorrow,” was written and performed by the band Soggy Bottom Boys, and they won the Country Music Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. There are five variations of the song in existence: two from the film; one from the music video, and two more on the movie’s soundtrack, which also won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Additionally, the film itself was nominated for two Oscars.
5 Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Coal Miner’s Daughter is a biographical musical that details the life of country music icon Loretta Lynn as she transforms from one of eight children born to a poor Kentucky family to one of the most successful artists of her time. Lynn specifically chose renowned actress Sissy Spacek to star as her, based solely on a photograph, and the two reportedly became close friends during filming and worked together to perfect Spacek’s accent for the project. Spacek herself also performed many of Lynn’s songs that were featured in the film, at the singer’s behest.
Coal Miner’s Daughter was nominated for four seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Spacek took home the trophy for Best Actress. The film was also chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The soundtrack was the first to ever win the CMA Award for Album of the Year, followed only by O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2001.
4 Crazy Heart (2009)
Based on the 1987 Thomas Cobb novel of the same name, Crazy Heart is the 2009 directorial debut from Scott Cooper. The film stars Jeff Bridges in the lead role as country music singer-songwriter Otis “Bad” Blake, who has fallen on hard times. Despite a history of failed relationships and alcohol abuse, Bad gets involved with young journalist, Jean Craddock, played by the talented Maggie Gyllenhaal. Though their romance isn’t destined to last, it is, however, the catalyst for the despondent artist to turn his life around. Seemingly a story that’s been told again and again, Bridges brings a level of authenticity to the film that gives it a more meaningful and sentimental edge.
Crazy Heart also stars Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, both of whom sing in the film. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, and won for Best Actor (Bridges) and Best Original Song. The aforementioned song “The Weary Kind” was a significant plot point in the film and was written by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett. It was also the recipient of two Grammy Awards that year. Critics praised Bridges performance, and he earned a slew of award nominations, along with Gyllenhaal, who was also nominated for her own Oscar.
3 Walk the Line (2005)
Walk the Line is a biographical musical that tells the life story of country music legend Johnny Cash. James Mangold’s 2005 film was based on two autobiographies written by the artist himself and follows Cash from his childhood through his ascent to stardom, detailing his relationship with wife June Carter and his struggle with drug addiction. Academy Award-winning actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon star as Johnny and June, respectively. Masters of their craft, Phoenix recorded the vocals on all of the Johnny Cash songs that are heard in the film and on the soundtrack, and Witherspoon extensively studied June Carter in order to perfect her voice.
Walk the Line was a critical and commercial success, with the two leads garnering much praise for their work. The film and the actors together were nominated for a total of 62 awards, winning 32 of those. Witherspoon won the Oscar for Best Actress; Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor, and the film itself was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound Mixing. Additionally, the soundtrack received the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack or Album. Widely considered one of the best on-screen depictions of country music, Walk the Line is a must-see for any fans of the genre.
2 Tender Mercies (1983)
The prolific Robert Duvall plays the lead role of Mac Sledge in Bruce Beresford’s 1983 film Tender Mercies. The film follows Mac, a washed-up country music singer in rural Texas, as he tries to turn his life around. He meets a young widow, played by Tess Harper, and his relationship with her and her son help to put Mac back on the right track. Duvall reportedly spent a significant amount of time studying local accents and playing in country bands to prepare for the role and provided the vocals for all of his character’s songs in the film.
Despite concerns about an Australian director telling a deeply personal story about an American country music singer (as many American directors rejected the project), Tender Mercies became highly respected for the authentic portrayal of its subject matter. The film was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Song for “Over You,” written by Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart. It took home the trophy for Best Screenplay and Duvall won Best Actor. The project also won a series of awards from various critics groups and film festivals. Weaving together themes of loneliness, loss, and love, Tender Mercies is a poignant viewing option for anyone interested in a touching story of a man transformed.
1 Nashville (1975)
Nashville is a satirical musical film from director Robert Altman, featuring an indelible ensemble cast of classic stars such as Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, and many others. It tackles subjects such as politics and celebrity and celebrates themes of love, acceptance and, of course, the power of music. The plot follows a group of country and gospel music professionals in Nashville as they prepare for a gala concert in support of a populist Presidential candidate.
Critics raved about the film after its release, considering it one of the funniest on-screen depictions of America, yet serious enough to touch the hearts of viewers and make them think. It even managed to receive the coveted four out of four-star review from famed film critic Roger Ebert. New York Daily News writer Harry Haun wrote at the time, “I have seen Nashville 4 ½ times, and I’m still discovering dimensions that eluded me.”
Nashville has become known as Altman’s most quintessential work and is often considered one of the best films of all time. At the time of its release, Nashville was nominated for the highest number of Golden Globe Awards by one film, coming in at eleven. It was also nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Tomlin and Blakley. Keith Carradine’s song “I’m Easy”, which he composed for the film, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In 1992, the film was also selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry.