By Joshua Friedberg, Contributing Writer
There’s nothing that draws me to a song like a beautiful voice, and there’s no emotion that draws me to a song like vulnerability. These five voices are and were experts in beauty and vulnerability, and whether or not they’re singing love songs, these singers sure know how to make this gay man swoon.
There is a sizable number of deep-voiced male singers in country going back further than Floyd Tillman and Lefty Frizzell, and a few make this list, but my personal favorite voice out of all of them might be Randy Travis. Emerging as a new traditionalist country star in the ‘80s, his soothing baritone helped distinguish love songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “Deeper than the Holler,” as well as tearjerkers like “He Walked on Water” and “I Told You So.” Make no mistake: even if Randy Travis didn’t have the same level of long lasting commercial success as George Strait, Travis might have had the greatest country voice of his generation. That mellifluous croon has given me chills for many years, and I feel it no matter how many times I listen to his records.
Talk about chills: the greatest, most pure-sounding voice in the history of country? I’m not saying Alison Krauss is a better singer than George Jones or Patsy Cline, but no one can touch her voice. Starting out as a teenage bluegrass fiddle prodigy and wowing audiences with one of the sweetest voices ever, Alison Krauss hit her mainstream country breakthrough in the mid-‘90s with tracks like “When You Say Nothing at All,” to my ears one of the most stunningly gorgeous covers or reworkings of a song in any genre. Later working on the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and other films, this winner of 27 Grammy awards should make everyone’s wedding playlists with songs like “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Looking in the Eyes of Love.” If I ever get married, I will slow dance to one of her songs with my husband at our wedding.
For all the tremendous talent that came out of the 1980s country scenes—everyone from Dwight Yoakam to Reba McEntire to the Judds emerged as country powerhouses—I doubt anyone made a better, more haunting country record that decade than Keith Whitley did with “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” That understated voice with just enough inflection of heartbreak could make people of all genders and sexualities swoon, and it was truly a tragedy when Whitley died in 1989. Other hits, especially “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” have stood the test of time with their reliably old-school country sound, but “Tell Lorrie I Love Her,” released after his death, is one of the most moving love songs ever and can make anyone feel the depth of his love for his wife, fellow country singer Lorrie Morgan. Even if I can’t sing the lyrics as “And if I leave this old world, tell her she’s the only girl for me,” Whitley’s song and performance touch my heart and, yes, make me swoon.
From the piercing soprano on early hits like “Boulder to Birmingham” and “Too Far Gone” to the deeper-voiced alt.country/Americana matriarch of “Goodbye” and “Red Dirt Girl,” Emmylou Harris’s voice and vision have created one of the most enduring bodies of work in country. And that’s not even mentioning her status as one of the great harmonizers in American music, working with everyone from Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to Patty Griffin – to the point where singer Lynn Anderson once said of Harris, “She can blend with a road hog!” At any point in her career, that voice is beyond swoon-worthy: a gorgeous, haunting instrument with a keen awareness of loss and longing.
Though I know Chris Young’s work by far the least well of any of the singers here, that subtly melismatic and smooth, nasal baritone most definitely deserves a spot here. There may be no more universal feeling than grief, and when he sings “Drowning,” I feel every word. When he sings “The Man I Want to Be,” I think about who I want to be. That’s to say that there’s an unusual level of credibility in his singing, and when he sang Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” at the Grand Ole Opry (on YouTube), I believed his conviction more than I did other singers who have covered it, including Alan Jackson. Of the current crop of country stars, Chris Young may have one of the most distinctive voices around.