The country music genre has been taking the music industry by storm for many years now. The musical genre that originated in the southern part of the U.S. in the 1920s, has grown and transformed into an entire subculture and is much more diverse than it once was, including a variety of styles and subgenres.
Over the years, we have been introduced to dozens of country superstars such as Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, John Denver, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, and Faith Hill – to name a few. Although each singer has their own unique style and brings something different to the genre, they each share a common passion for country music – and each have their own reason for dedicating their lives to the industry.
Park your truck, loosen your bowler tie and kick off them boots, as we focus on some of the biggest names in country music and will dive into their past, before they were as famous as they are today – when they were just students in high school.
It is always interesting to see what celebrities were like before they reached mega-fame. More often than not, their backgrounds and upbringings tend to surprise even their most dedicated fans. Although we are used to seeing celebrities looking as glamorous as they do on stage, screen or on the red carpet – they were not always like that. It is often easy to forget, but most famous people lived a pretty normal life when they were kids, and that they aren’t so different from us after all.
In this particular list, most of the singers grew up in small southern U.S. towns, and did not grow up in the privileged lifestyle of riches and fame that they are now used to. Some on this list grew up in poverty and found solace in singing country music. Many of the soon-to-be stars got their starts singing for their town’s local rodeo shows, churches, radio stations, and nightclubs until they got their first big break.
Becoming a famous musician is not easy, and in the south especially, where there are thousands of aspiring country stars, the struggle to make it big is real. Many potential superstars move to Nashville in hopes of making it big one day, only to get turned down.
The legends on this list all had to work hard to get to where they are today, and did not always live such a glamorous life. Keep reading to see what some of your favorite country stars were like in high school, before they were famous.
Tim McGraw is certainly a legend in the country music industry. He began his career in the early ’90s and has since made his mark as one of the top country artists of our time. Tim has released fourteen studio albums, and ten of them have reached the number one spot on top country albums charts. Tim has won three Grammys, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 11 Country Music Association Awards, 10 American Music Awards, and more. He has been married to fellow country star Faith Hill since 1996 and they have three kids.
Tim McGraw – in high school
Tim grew up in Start, Louisiana where he was raised by his mother and stepfather. His biological father, Frank “Tug” McGraw Jr., was star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets. Tug refused to acknowledge Tim until he turned 18, at which point Tim began to greatly resemble him. In high school, Tim loved playing sports. After graduation, he studied at Louisiana University, on a baseball scholarship. However, after suffering a career-ending knee injury, Tim dropped out and headed to Nashville to pursue a country music career.
The New Zealand native released his debut album in 1991, which charted four singles in his home country before moving to the U.S. the next year. His first American album went Platinum, and his success continued to rise. With chart-toppers like But for the Grace of God and Somebody Like You and You’ll Think of Me, Keith quickly earned his country superstar title. Besides making hit albums, Keith was also a judge on American Idol, and has been married to actress Nicole Kidman since 2006.
Keith Urban – in high school
Keith was born in Whangarei, New Zealand, and attended high school at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara, Auckland. Throughout his school years, Keith took private guitar lessons. After graduation, he competed in local music competitions and acted in a local theater company. It wasn’t until Keith Urban’s appearance on the Australian talent show New Faces in 1983, that the 16-year-old began getting known in Australia. Not long after, his career began to take off.
Retired country singer and superstar Kenny Rogers has charted more than 120 hit singles in his lifetime. He has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists from any genre of all time. Some of Kenny’s greatest hits include The Gambler, Coward of the County and Lucille, along with many many more. Kenny’s career is one of the longest in country music history, spanning for more than six decades.
Kenny Rogers – in high school
Kenny grew up in a small house in Houston, Texas, where he was one of eight children. By the time he reached high school, he already knew that he wanted to pursue a career in country music. He saved enough money to buy a guitar and started a band called the Scholars, which garnered some local success. After he broke out on his own, he landed a record deal with a local label, and the rest is history!
Barbara Mandrell has had dozens of top-10 hits since her first number one single in 1978, Sleeping Single in a Double Bed. Many more hits followed such as I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool and (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right. The Grand Ole Opry member and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee has garnered several awards, including two Grammys, four Country Music Association Awards, and six Academy of Country Music Awards.
Barbara Mandrell – in high school
Barbara spent her childhood and teens in Houston, Texas, and knew from a young age she wanted to be a musician. As a young girl, she learned how to play the pedal steel and lap steel guitar, accordion, and several more instruments. While Barbara was attending Oceanside High School, she was singing with her family in the Mandrell Family Band. Right after graduation, she married the band’s drummer, Ken Dudney. Ken was sent overseas to serve as a Navy pilot, and Barbara moved to Nashville to start her solo career.
Dolly Parton first made her professional debut in the world of country in 1967, with her first album Hello, I’m Dolly. Since then, Dolly has been considered one of the greatest in the industry. Dolly has 41 career top 10 country albums, which is an all-time record. Her most famous songs include I Will Always Love You, Jolene, Coat of Many Colors, and 9 to 5. In 1999 Dolly was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dolly Parton – in high school
The country superstar knew she wanted to be a singer since she was a little girl. One of 12 children, Dolly picked up her love for music at the local church. She described her family as being “dirt poor” and started playing a homemade guitar when she was seven until her uncle bought her her first real guitar. While she was in high school, her classmates at Sevier County High School would often laugh at her dreams. Right after she graduated, she moved to Nashville and proved them all wrong.
Since Blake Shelton’s self-titled debut album in 2001, his career has skyrocketed. He has had 33 chart-topping singles including 24 number ones, 17 of which were consecutive. Some of Blake’s best hits are Austin, Some Beach, and She Wouldn’t Be Gone, just to name a few. Blake has also become a television personality, and has been a judge on The Voice since the first season. He was married to country music sensation Miranda Lambert, but is now dating former fellow The Voice judge and pop singer, Gwen Stefani.
Blake Shelton – in high school
Blake grew up in Ada, Oklahoma. He wrote his first song when he was only 15 years old about his high school crush titled, That Girl Made a Fool Outta Me. According to Blake, it is in the “top 10 of the worst songs ever written in history.” Weeks after his high school graduation, Blake left Oklahoma and headed straight to Nashville in hopes of pursuing a career in country music – and a star was born.
Out of Brad Paisley’s ten studio albums, he has scored 32 top 10 hits, 19 which have reached number one, such as When I Get Where I’m Going (with Dolly Parton), She’s Everything, Then, and Waitin’ On A Woman. Brad has sold over 11 million albums and has garnered plenty of awards including three Grammys, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, and 14 Country Music Association Awards. The Grand Ole Opry member also wrote several songs for Pixar’s Cars franchise.
Brad Paisley – in high school
Raised in Glen Dale, West Virginia, Brad started playing guitar and singing for the local church when he was only ten years old. After his school’s principal saw him perform, he asked him to sing at a rotary club meeting, where Brad caught the attention of a local radio station. He quickly became a regular on the station’s Saturday night show where he opened for acts like the Judds and Ricky Skaggs during his high school years.
Shania Twain is considered the best-selling female country singer of all time, and has sold over 100 million albums during her career. Some of Shania’s top hits include Any Man of Mine, You’re Still the One, From This Moment On and Man! I Feel Like a Woman! After an incredible career, Shania decided to retire in 2004, and later revealed it was due to being diagnosed with dysphonia, which affected her voice. She returned triumphantly in 2012, and released her most recent album, Now, in 2017.
Shania Twain – in high school
Shania was born Eilleen Edwards in Windsor, Ontario. After Shania’s parents split when she was a toddler, she and her mother moved to Timmons, Ontario. Shortly after, her mother married Jerry Twain, and Shania’s last name was changed. Shania had a difficult childhood; her parents had little money and they often struggled to have enough food in the house. Shania started singing at bars when she was eight in order to help pay for her family’s bills. While attending Timmins High and Vocational School, Shania sang for a cover band called Longshot.
The legendary Garth Brooks is known for integrating elements of rock n’ roll with country. His unique genre has made him one of the most popular country artists in the United States; In fact, the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee is one of the best-selling artists of all time in any genre, and has sold more than 170 million records. Some of his most successful albums have been Garth Brooks, No Fences, Ropin’ the Wind, Sevens, and Double Live, which have all gone multi-platinum.
Garth Brooks – in high school
Garth Brooks was born Troyal Garth Brooks in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While growing up in Yukon, he and his family would often sing and play guitar together. When he got to high school, he started to focus more on sports and was on the school’s football, baseball, and track and field teams. It wasn’t until after college, that Garth found his way back to music in 1985, and performed with his band in clubs all over Oklahoma.
The late John Denver was a folk singer-songwriter who started off in the late ’60s, and by the ’70s he was already one of the most popular and best-selling acoustic artists around, with songs that made their way to the top of the country charts. He recorded about 300 singles with some of his most famous being, Take Me Home, Country Roads, Annie’s Song, and Rocky Mountain High. John tragically passed away in 1997, after his personal plane that he was flying crashed.
John Denver – in high school
John Denver was actually born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. He was born in New Mexico, but because of his father’s military status, John and his family moved quite a lot. Due to his constant changing of schools, John struggled as a child and was an introvert who had trouble making friends. During his third year at Arlington Heights High School, John ran away and drove to California to pursue a career in music, his father took a plane to California and brought his son back home to finish school.
The lovely and talented Miranda Lambert made her debut with the album Kerosene in 2005, which went Platinum and produced hit songs such as Me and Charlie Talking and Bring Me Down. She had several more successful albums to follow such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Revolution, and Four the Record. Outside of her solo music, Miranda is also a member of the country group Pistol Annies with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe. Miranda was married to country superstar Blake Shelton from 2011 to 2015.
Miranda Lambert – in high school
Miranda spent most of her youth in Lindale, Texas. While she was in high school, she started focusing on a career in singing country music and was in a band called Texas Pride Band. She also was the singer of a house band at the Reo Palm Isle, a venue where legends such as Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson got their starts. After her high school graduation, Miranda auditioned for a talent contest in Nashville, which got the attention of a Sony Record executive, who convinced her to sign with them.
Natalie Maines gained popularity in 1995 when she replaced the Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, Laura Lynch. Natalie helped the band achieve great success and helped them earn several awards including ten Country Music Association Awards and 13 Grammys. In 2003, Natalie made headlines for speaking out against the Iraq War and U.S. President George W. Bush, nine days before the U.S.’s Invasion of Iraq. Natalie’s controversial statement resulted in several boycotts against the band and their albums, and the Dixie Chicks went on a touring hiatus until 2010.
Natalie Maines – in high school
The Texas native grew up in Lubbock, where she attended elementary school, junior high and high school. She eventually graduated in 1992 from Lubbock High School, where she was a member of the school’s choir. Natalie knew from a young age she was going to be a big singer one day, and her second-grade teacher once recalled being told by Natalie, “Teacher, I don’t need to learn this stuff – I’m gonna be a star.”
Reba McEntire has reached tremendous success as not only a country singer, but as a songwriter, music producer and TV, film, and Broadway star as well. Reba’s breakthrough album was in 1984 titled My Kind of Country. Since then, she has made 29 albums, which produced 40 number one singles. In the beginning of the ’90s, Reba started an acting career with her first role in the film, Tremors. Following that, she starred in her own TV series Reba for six years, and was the lead in Broadway’s revival of Annie Get Your Gun.
Reba McEntire – in high school
As a child, Reba grew up in McAlester, Oklahoma, where she learned how to sing from her schoolteacher mother, who once dreamed of being a country star herself. While Reba was studying at high school in Kiowa, she sang in the school’s band, at rodeos, and for radio shows. While she was in her second year at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Reba was discovered by country singer Red Steagall while singing the National Anthem at a rodeo show. He brought the young Reba to Nashville, where she began her career.
Trisha Yearwood became famous in the early ’90s with her hit debut song titled She’s in Love with the Boy, which quickly charted as number one. Trisha’s success continued, and she has released ten more studio albums since then, which have produced eight more number one singles and 20 top ten hits. Trisha has gone on to sell more than 15 million albums around the world, and has garnered three Grammys, three Country Music Association Awards, and two Academy of Country Music Awards – just to name a few.
Trisha Yearwood – in high school
Trisha grew up in Monticello, Georgia, where she started listening to country artists such as Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells as a child. In high school, Trisha was a straight-A student and member of the National Beta Club. After she graduated, she made the move to Nashville in order to start a career as a talent agent for aspiring musicians. It wasn’t until years later that she would meet a young Garth Brooks, who would eventually help her start a solo career in music.
Jennifer Nettles is best known as the lead singer of the duo band Sugarland, alongside Kristian Bush. Sugarland rose to fame in 2004 after releasing their first song Baby Girl from their hit debut album Twice the Speed of Life. Since then, the country duo has gone on to sell over 14 million albums and win several awards including a Grammy for their popular 2007 single, Stay. Jennifer also was featured in the country version of Bon Jovi’s 2006 song, Who Says You Can’t Go Home.
Jennifer Nettles – in high school
Before Jennifer was living the life of a big-time country star, she was just a girl living in the small town of Douglas, Georgia. She graduated from Coffee High School, where she would often perform at school assemblies. Throughout her high school years, she sang for the town’s local church and community theater, and was a member of Georgia 4-H’s Clovers & Company performing arts group. She continued her education at Agnes State College, and after graduating performed in various groups until teaming up with the group that would make her famous.
The soprano-singing country star began her career in the early ’90s with her debut single The Time Has Come. During the course of her career, Martina has developed a pop crossover sound and has had dozens of hit singles in the country charts such as I Love You, A Broken Wing, and This One’s For The Girls. Martina has recorded 13 studio albums since, has sold 14 million albums, and has won multiple awards including the Country Music Associations Female Vocalist of the Year award four times.
Martina McBride – in high school
Martina was born and raised in Sharon, Kansas. Martina’s father, a dairy farm owner and country singer, exposed Martina to country music at a young age. Throughout her childhood, Martina would spend hours singing along to the albums of her favorite artists such as Reba McEntire, Connie Smith, and Patsy Cline. When she was only nine years old, the future star began singing in her father’s band called The Schiffters. As she got older she began singing with a local rock band, and eventually founded her own band called Lotus, before moving to Nashville.
Toby Keith rose to fame in the early ’90s after releasing his debut single, Should’ve Been a Cowboy, which was the most-played country song of the 1990s. Toby’s success didn’t stop there, and his 1998 single How Do You Like Me Now? was the number one country song in 2000. So far in his career, Toby has had 61 singles chart on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, including 20 number ones and 21 top ten hits. The 11-time Academy of Country Music Awards winner is now considered one of the greatest country singers of all time.
Toby Keith – in high school
Toby grew up in Moore, Oklahoma. While attending Moore High School, Toby was on the school’s football team where he played defensive end. After graduation, he took a job in the oil fields, and at 20, he and some friends formed a band called the Easy Money Band. After the Oklahoma oil industry had a decline, Toby was without a job, so he played for the semi-pro football team the Oklahoma City Drillers, before deciding to move to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
Kellie Pickler gained fame after competing in season five of American Idol, where she finished in sixth place. The same year, she released her debut album titled Small Town Girl – which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and went gold. Her second album came in 2008, and produced four chart-topping singles. Kellie has also become a television personality, winning the 16th season of Dancing with the stars in 2013. She is now hosting a CMT daytime talk show called Pickler & Ben with comedian Ben Aaron.
Kellie Pickler – in high school
Kellie was born in Albemarle, North Carolina. Kellie did not have the easiest childhood; her mother left her when she was only two years old and her father was absent from her life. She was sent to live with her grandparents until her adulthood. While attending Stanly High School in New London, North Carolina, Kellie was a cheerleader and a beauty queen. At her 2004 high school graduation, she sang LeAnn Rimes’ On the Side of Angels – little did she know how much her life was about to change.
Billy Ray Cyrus
Billy Ray Cyrus has released 12 studio albums and 44 singles since beginning his career in 1992. His best-known number one single, Achy Breaky Heart, became the first single ever to achieve triple Platinum status in Australia. His debut album, Some Gave All, sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and made history as the best-selling solo male debut album of all time. Billy is also known for his acting career, especially for his role on Disney’s Hannah Montana, where he played alongside his real-life daughter, country-turned-pop star Miley Cyrus.
Billy Ray Cyrus – in high school
Billy grew up in Flatwoods, Kentucky, where he started singing at the young age of four. He grew up listening to bluegrass and gospel music with his family, and knew he wanted to be a singer one day. In high school, Billy was a star baseball player, and got a baseball scholarship to Georgetown College. After three years at college, Billy realized he wanted to follow his true dreams – of becoming a country music singer, causing him to drop out and move to Nashville, then Los Angeles.
Hillary Scott is the co-lead singer and co-founder of the popular country music group, Lady Antebellum, alongside members Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood. The group has released six albums to date, which have produced 16 top-charting singles such as 2009’s Need You Now and 2011’s Just a Kiss. In 2016, Hillary released the top ten album titled Love Remains, which is a collaboration with her parents, Lang Scott and Linda Davis, and her sister, Rylee Scott.
Hillary Scott – in high school
With a talented family like Hillary’s, it was no doubt that she would be going places one day as well. Her mother was a singer and her father was a musician. While Hillary was in kindergarten, she was homeschooled on the road while her parents were on tour. When she was a teenager, she joined her mom on stage during a Christmas performance, and she was convinced to follow in her parents’ footsteps and pursue a career in music. She attended Donelson Christian Academy until graduating in 2004.
Kenny Chesney has recorded 20 albums, including more than 40 top ten singles on the Billboard Hot Country charts, 29 which have been number one. The multi-award winning vocalist has been honored with the Entertainer of the Year Award by the Country Music Association four times and has collected six Academy of Country Music Awards so far. Not only is he a singer, Kenny also proved himself as a film director and producer after he co-directed and produced an ESPN documentary titled, The Boys of Fall.
Kenny Chesney – in high school
Before Kenny was a cowboy hat-wearing country star, he was a polo-wearing star athlete in Knoxville, Tennessee. While he was a student at Gibbs High School, Kenny played on the school’s football and baseball teams. As a teenager, he received his first guitar as a Christmas present, and he started to teach himself how to play. While he was studying at East Tennessee State University, he recorded a demo which sold close to 1,000 copies. After graduating, he headed to Nashville to officially start his professional music career.
Eric Church has been singing country music professionally since first signing to Capitol Nashville in 2005. His first album in 2006, Sinners Like Me, was an incredible success for the new artist, producing three top 20 hits on the country charts, Two Pink Lines, How ‘Bout You, and Guys Like Me. Eric’s career is still going strong, and he recently went on a record-setting six-month-long tour which grossed $53 million. Eric has collected his fair share of awards, including seven Academy of Country Music Awards and three Country Music Association Awards.
Eric Church – in high school
Eric grew up in Granite Falls, North Carolina. Throughout his teens, he helped work in his father’s furniture upholstery company. When he was 13, he purchased his first guitar and started writing some of his own songs. By the time he was a senior at South Caldwell High School, he started playing local gigs as bars and clubs. After graduating, he decided to continue his education at Appalachian State University, where he got a degree in marketing. Eventually, he made the big move to Nashville to start a career in singing country music.
Although Taylor Swift is now one of the world’s biggest pop stars, we can never forget her country roots! Taylor started her career as a country singer at the age of 14. Her debut self-titled album came in 2006, and produced her first hits such as Our Song, which made her the youngest artist in history to write and perform a number one hit on the Hot Country Songs chart. After a successful career in country, including ten Country Music Association Awards, Taylor moved on to the world of pop.
Taylor Swift – in high school
Taylor grew up in Reading and Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, where she attended Wyomissing Area Senior High School. Taylor started growing an interest in musical theater when she was only nine, and she would often travel to New York City in order to take acting and singing lessons. After being inspired by country superstars Shania Twain and Faith Hill, she decided to focus more on country music. Taylor learned how to play guitar at age 12, and started writing her own songs. When she was 14, the family relocated to Nashville in order for Taylor to pursue her career.
Sara Evans began her rise to fame in the late ’90s with albums Three Chords and the Truth and No Place That Far. She has had quite the impressive career with her third album, Born to Fly, going double-platinum and selling two million copies. The country star has released a total of 20 top-charting singles including the songs Suds in the Bucket, Born to Fly, A Real Fine Place to Start, and No Place That Far.
Sara Evans – in high school
Sara Evans was raised on her family’s farm in New Franklin, Missouri. She started singing at the young age of five in her family’s band. At eight years old, Sara got hit by a car in front of her house, suffering several injuries, and had to stay for months in a wheelchair. She started singing at local gigs in order to help her family pay for the medical bills. By the time she was 16, she had a regular gig at a club in Columbia, Missouri, which she continued until graduating high school.
The lovely Sunny Sweeney made her country music debut in 2006, with her first album titled Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. The album included three regional singles If I Could, Ten Years Pass, and East Texas Pines that each charted on the tops of the Texas music charts. Sunny’s last album, Trophy, which was released in March 2017, was one of the singer’s most personal albums yet, and gave her fans a glimpse at some of the more difficult moments in her life.
Sunny Sweeney – in high school
Sunny was born in Houston, Texas and spent most of her childhood in Austin. The future country star didn’t have much passion for performing as a child, and never dreamed that she would be a singer one day. It wasn’t until she decided to perform in a high school talent show for fun, that she realized that it was actually something she wanted to base her future on. After graduating from college, she started focusing more on her music and formed a band that played in local bars in Austin.
Faith Hill is one of the most successful country artists in history, and has sold more than 40 million albums. Her success began with her first album in 1993, Take Me as I Am, followed by It Matters to Me only two years later. She continued to make number one albums and singles, with some of her biggest hits being This Kiss, Breathe and The Way You Love Me. Faith married fellow country superstar, and musical partner, Tim McGraw in 1996.
Faith Hill – in high school
Before her fame, Faith grew up in the Mississippi town, Star. She performed regularly throughout her teens, singing at local churches and rodeos. While she was attending McLaurin High School, the straight-A student was also a cheerleader, basketball player, prom queen, and junior class president. As soon as she graduated, she moved to Nashville to follow her dreams of becoming a country star. After many failed auditions, including one to be a backup singer for Reba McEntire, she took a job at McDonald’s and as a secretary at a music publishing firm, where she was eventually discovered.
Carrie Underwood gained popularity after winning the season four of American Idol in 2005. Carrie’s first record, Some Hearts, came shortly after and was an instant success, with hits such as Jesus, Take the Wheel and Before He Cheats. The album became the number one best-selling female solo debut album in all country music history. Carrie’s career has continued to ascend ever since, with seven Grammys, 12 Academy of Country Music Awards, and 17 CMT Music Awards. The country star has sold more than 65 million records worldwide.
Carrie Underwood – in high school
Carrie was raised on her parents’ farm in a small town, Checotah, Oklahoma. When she was 14 years old she was nearly signed to Capitol records, but the contract was canceled after the management changed. Carrie attended Checotah High School where she was on the cheerleading, flag football, basketball, and softball teams. She “gave up on the dream of singing” after high school and college, until she finally decided to audition on a whim for American Idol in 2004.