What do Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Dwight Yoakam have in common? If you guessed they have all won multiple Grammys, Academy of Country Music Awards, and sold millions of records over the years, you’d be right. But that’s not what we’re getting at here. All three of those country music stars have also given great movie and TV performances throughout the respective careers, stealing the show in films like Steel Magnolias, Thief, and Sling Blade. But these three Nashville legends aren’t the only country singers to successfully make the jump from the world of music to the world of film and television. In fact, there are so many names we can’t even fit them all on this list…
There are few country singers or American icons as recognizable as Dolly Parton. The singer-songwriter, author, businesswoman, and philanthropist is mostly known for songs like “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene,” but Parton has also given some of the great film and TV performances for more than 40 years now.
Following a stretch of musical performances and interviews on morning news shows, variety shows, and awards ceremonies throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Dolly Parton made the jump to the acting world with the groundbreaking workplace comedy 9 to 5, in which she acted alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three fed up women in the workplace who seek revenge against their tyrannical boss. Parton would receive several Golden Globe nominations for her performance and the hit song “9 to 5” which also netted her an Academy Award nomination. The success would continue with other hit movies The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Steel Magnolias, all while continuing her successful multi-faceted career in show business.
Kris Kristofferson, the first of three members of the country music supergroup The Highwaymen on this list (Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are both on the way; Waylon Jennings never made the jump to acting unfortunately). Arguably the country singer with the most robust and celebrated film career of all time, Kristofferson has shown off his acting talents in scores of movies, TV shows, and even video games throughout his career, and even took home a Golden Globe for his portrayal of troubled musician John Norman Howard in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born. Early on in his acting career, Kristofferson had lead roles in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and later shared the screen with Jane Fonda in the 1981 political thriller Rollover.
Following a string of movies, TV shows, and chart-topping albums throughout the final decades of the 20th Century, Kris Kristofferson took on one of the biggest roles of his career when he portrayed Abraham Whistler in the successful Blade trilogy alongside Wesley Snipes as the titular “daywalker” vampire hunter.
Outlaw country singer and all-around American legend Willie Nelson will forever go down as one of the most prominent names in the music industry, having accumulated a total of 10 Grammys throughout his career that goes all the way back to 1956. The “Red Headed Stranger” would make the jump to the acting world following two decades of success in the music industry, making his on-screen debut in Sydney Pollack’s 1979 western The Electric Horseman alongside Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Valerie Perrine. In 1981, Nelson gave a heart-wrenching performance as terminally-ill jailbird David “Okla” Bertinneau in Michael Mann’s noir action thriller Thief alongside James Caan, Tuesday Weld, and Robert Prosky.
Willie Nelson has also appeared on several TV shows throughout his acting career, including a 1986 episode of Miami Vice where he played retired Texas Ranger Jake Pierson who makes a mess of an undercover drug operation. And like many other country singers from Texas, Nelson voiced a cartoon version of himself on the Fox animated series King of the Hill.
Reba McEntire, known to many as “The Queen of Country,” has sold millions upon millions of albums and taken home just about every type of award someone in the music industry can win throughout her career. McEntire was already a country music megastar by the time she took on the role of the eccentric survivalist with an arsenal of high-powered weaponry in the 1990 horror comedy Tremors, but her first film role showed that she could do more than sing chart-topping country songs.
In the years that followed, Reba McEntire appeared in movies like The Little Rascals and One Night at McCool’s before becoming an even bigger star with her venture into the world of sitcoms with the long-running series Reba. McEntire followed up the success of that series with various other film and television appearances throughout the following decades, and most recently portrayed Trish, aka, one of the funniest moments in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.
There are few country music singers from the final two decades of the 20th Century who were as popular or successful as Dwight Yoakam. With classics like “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” and “Streets of Bakersfield,” Yoakam established himself in the 1980s as one of the most unique and brash artists of his time. And with a history of acting in his high school days, it was only a matter of time before Yoakam tried his hand at acting professionally, and it’s safe to say it has been a rather successful venture.
One of Dwight Yoakam’s most memorable performances is that of the drunk and abusive Doyle Hargraves in Billy Bob Thornton’s Academy Award-winning 1996 drama Sling Blade. Add in a terrifying turn in David Fincher’s Panic Room and various other film appearances over the years and you have the makings of a great career.
The third and final member of The Highway Men to have a spot on this list, Johnny Cash is one of the most iconic country singers of all time and continues to sell countless records nearly 20 years after his passing. “The Man in Black” and his story were masterfully told in 2008 biopic Walk the Line, but the American music icon had a rather successful career in film and television even before Joaquin Phoenix portrayed him on the big screen.
Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Johnny Cash showed up in a number of western shows like Shotgun Slade, Wagon Train, The Rebel, and The Deputy, as well as movies like Five Minutes to Live which saw him take on the role of a hardened criminal at the center of a menacing plot. Cash, who had several various variety shows and specials over the years, continued to take on small roles on shows like Little House on the Prairie, Stagecoach, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Tim McGraw got into acting not long after his successful country music career got underway, and has continued to show up from time to time in various film and television projects. In 2004, McGraw, who had already accumulated multiple awards in the country music industry and sold millions of records, proved that he had some remarkable acting chops with a commanding performance in Peter Berg’s sports drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying the alcoholic and abusive Charles Billingsley, McGraw did a tremendous job of pulling off a complicated man who just couldn’t let go of his glory days in this all-time high school football classic. Five years later, he would play a much gentler role when he showed up in The Blind Side alongside Sandra Bullock.
Faith Hill, who is married to country superstar Tim McGraw, has been one of the most successful figures in the music industry since breaking out onto the scene with her 1993 debut. On top of having beloved songs on movie soundtracks like Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Hill has made quite a few film and television appearances throughout her career.
The majority of these credits are for television specials or performances on Saturday Night Live, but Faith Hill has proven she can act with the best of them. After appearing on shows like Touched by an Angel and Promised Land in the late 1990s, Hill gave a brief yet memorable performance as Sarah Sunderson in the 2005 remake of The Stepford Wives. She is also set to star in the Yellowstone prequel series 1883 alongside her husband.
George Strait, aka “The King of Country,” is best known for staples like “Amarillo By Morning,” “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” and more than 40 other chart-topping hits, but the Texas singer-songwriter has also appeared in multiple movies and TV shows when he’s not selling out massive football stadiums with his crowd-pleasing performances.
In 1992, when he was in the middle of the one of the hottest runs in the history of country music, George Strait landed a starring role in the western drama Pure Country, in which he played Wyatt “Dusty” Chandler, a successful musicians who attempts to leave the limelight to live a simpler life on a ranch. He would later play a version of himself in the 2010 sequel Pure Country 2: The Gift. And then we can’t forget his one-off appearance on King of the Hill.
And then there is Randy Travis, the singer who became an international sensation with his new spin on the classic style of country in the 1980s. In addition to recording 20 albums and releasing countless chart-topping singles throughout his musical career, Travis had a steady stream of acting gigs starting in the early 1990s. His film credits include the 1998 Kurt Russell-led action thriller Black Dog, westerns like The Shooter, and multiple television shows like Matlock, Frasier, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. One of Travis’ best performances can be heard in a 1998 episode of Hey Arnold! in which he provided the singing voice for the character Mr. Hyunh as he starts his country music career.
This is just a small sampling of the great country music singers who have gone on to give outstanding performances on the silver screen and television sets around the world. There are classic country singers like Glen Campbell, Marty Robbins, and Jerry Reed, as well as more modern voices like LeAnn Rimes, Sturgill Simpson, and Taylor Swift. And who knows, maybe we’ll see a country star or two in some of the upcoming 2021 movie releases.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.