Some of the first beards to appear in country music grew up from the outlaw movement, which gained steam in the ’70s and involved artists rebelling not just against a slick, socially acceptable, clean-shaven appearance, but also against the restrictions of the mainstream pop-country labels that had collectively come to be known as the Nashville Sound.
Scroll through the history of the Grand Ole Opry and you’ll see zero bearded faces before the ’60s, and in fact very few after that – perhaps because the outlaw movement was also busily rebelling against establishments like the Grand Ole Opry itself.
It was a time when “the ragged-and-rough was bumping heads with conservative country,” and that seems like a pretty good time for us to dive right into the Rugged Rebels top 10 beards of country.
10. Waylon Jennings
“Son, that beard and mustache sure looks like a bunch of piss-ants going to a funeral.” The new world of outlaw country had only just been discovered and Waylon Jennings’ mom was already trying to ruin it. It seems that during a fight with hepatitis Jennings had let his facial hair grow out. His manager, Neil Reshen, took one look at the singer’s I-survived-the-hospital mug and immediately knew it would be just the scruffy image for the up-and-coming outlaw crowd. And so, despite Waylon’s mom’s thoughts on the matter, the beard stayed.
Jennings was only 12 when he started his first band. Not long after that he was working as a disc jockey at a local radio station, which is where he met Buddy Holly. Soon enough he was playing bass with The Crickets, Holly’s backup band. Jennings was supposed to be on board that tragic flight on the day the music died. As fate would have it, he’d offered his seat to J.P. Richardson. The accident shook him up pretty bad. The fact that he traded places with The Big Bopper, plus his offhanded “I hope your ol’ plane crashes” comment, would torment him for the rest of his life.
Later, after a string of solo efforts in the outlaw country genre, Jennings joined forces with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson to form a mostly bearded supergroup called The Highwaymen. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, but he didn’t show up to accept the award. Some say that was just his old rebel attitude still flipping off the world. However, in all fairness it was most likely due to his painful struggle with diabetes, the disease that would take his life the next year. Although, if we’re being realistic, there’s a good chance a healthy Jennings would have snubbed the ceremony, too, just like he did with many other award shows in his life.
9. Willie Nelson
Like Jennings, Willie Nelson also got a really young start. He was also a successful artist long before the Nashville Sound’s anti-creative shenanigans backfired and accidentally gave us a bunch of crass outlaws.
Then in the early ’70s, after moving to Austin and experimenting with retirement, he caught wind of outlaw country. He grew a beard and the rest is a long history of awesomeness that continues to this day. Sure, Nelson’s hair and beard are white now, but his image is still as magnificent as always. More precisely, it’s probably fair to say that like his well-worn guitar, Trigger – which sports a gaping hole from years of strumming – Nelson, his music, and his facial hair have all just gotten better and better with age.
Shotgun Willie is an outspoken supporter of marijuana. “I have a huge tolerance for pot,” Nelson told GQ in a 2015 interview. “I can probably smoke with anybody anywhere. Me and Snoop Dogg had a smoke-off in Amsterdam and he crawled away”. This is the dude who supposedly smoked a joint on top of the White House … with Jimmy Carter’s boy, James Earl “Chip” Carter III. Yep, for real.
Humorously, Nelson was the subject of a death hoax in 2015. But he is definitely not dead, and it’s probably smart to avoid trying to make him dead – or steal his pot, either – because he’s highly trained in at least two martial arts. Nelson got his second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do at the age of 78, and then his fifth-degree black belt in Gong Kwon Yu Sul at 81.
8. Shel Silverstein
Wait, what’s Shel Silverstein doing on a list about country music beards? Didn’t that guy just write best-selling picture books for kids with clever poems about things like shaking cows and getting eaten by snakes? Well yes, he did that. Believe it or not this man also has to his credit a very long list of cartoons, poetry, and music. Ranging from jazz to folk to country all created for adults. The kid stuff was a suggestion from his friend Tomi Ungerer, and Shel’s editor.
Silverstein was the mastermind behind some of country music’s funniest and most memorable tunes. You know those darkly humorous Johnny Cash songs “A Boy Named Sue” and “25 Minutes to Go”? Shel wrote ’em both. “Put Another Log on the Fire” by Tompall Glaser (a very nicely bearded outlaw country musician)? Also Shel. He wrote for Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, plus a bunch of other rock and folk artists. He drew cartoons for Playboy, too.
7. David Allan Coe
Probably as good a way as any to introduce David Allan Coe is with his song “I’d Like To Kick The Shit Out Of You.” Coe, a lifelong unrepentant vagabond whose beard stands out pretty well what with all those beads, just never really gave a crap about what anyone thought. He grew up at odds with the law, spent time in reform schools and prisons, and at one point was on death row for killing another inmate. Granted, said inmate had made unwanted sexual advances, but still.
While in prison Coe ran across his own foster father – also a convicted murderer – and the two began playing songs together. After his release, he aimed straight for the Nashville music scene and drove around town in a red Cadillac hearse. Which he reportedly would park and sleep in at the Grand Ole Opry. He started wearing a rhinestone suit and Lone Ranger mask during his unpredictable and profane performances. He enjoyed moderate success until his big break came in 1977 when Johnny Paycheck recorded his song “Take This Job and Shove It.”
Coe’s life has always been rife with controversy, but apparently that’s how he likes it, with the possible exception of that one time he ran a red light and got T-boned by a semi truck. Somehow, he survived.
6. Charlie Daniels
Charlie Daniels is well-known for wearing a great white beard and cowboy hat like a real Southern gentleman. He got his start in bluegrass with the Misty Mountain Boys in North Carolina. It wasn’t long before he went solo and then arranged his own group, the Charlie Daniels Band. Probably his most memorable song is the Grammy Award-winning “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which recasts the old deal-with-the-devil theme as a fiddle contest. It also made the soundtrack in the 1980 John Travolta flick Urban Cowboy.
Daniels, a 2016 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, is a patriot who’s been honored with “the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service for his support of military personnel.” He’s also enough of an NRA supporter to be cool with appearing in one of its ads, which was later parodied by Stephen Colbert:
5. Charles Kelley and David Haywood
Two-thirds of Lady Antebellum usually perform with conservatively trimmed beards; the other third is female, and so far no tabloids have revealed that she secretly shaves her face. All three members lend their voices to Lady A songs, and they harmonize really well together. Charles and David’s beards harmonize well with their faces, too, in clear examples of the Dave Grohl Effect.
Lady A has multiple awards to its name as well as several No. 1 hits, including “Need You Now,” a mournful song about a clean-shaven man just who wants his beard back. The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame 2014. In 2015, Kelley and Haywood returned to their alma mater, University of Georgia Terry College of Business, for a Terry Leadership Series talk. When asked about their secret to success, Kelley said it all came down to commitment. The same thing you need to grow a great beard. “Honestly, there are a lot of people in Nashville a lot more deserving of success than we are,” he said. “There are people who are more talented. But we just outworked them.” (And grew better beards.)
4. Cody Jinks
Cody Jinks has been around the music scene for quite a while now, but not always within the country genre. The long-haired, fully black-bearded, and tattooed singer/songwriter “who looks like he eats gravel for breakast” was once the frontman for a thrash-metal band called Unchecked Aggression. He’s been doing what most would call Texas country since the mid-aughts.
But Jinks doesn’t feel that label’s fair. Sure, he hails from Texas, but the Texas country scene is something different from what he does. “The greatest compliment I can get is when someone tells me their Grandmother loves my stuff even though she doesn’t like any current country music,” he says. “When I hear that, I feel like I’m doing my job.” His latest album, “I’m Not the Devil,” is certainly lovable by just about anyone, especially after you learn that he and his friend Ward Davis bashed out the title track at the very end of the recording session. In just half an hour. While drunk, apparently.
Jinks’ reason for wearing a beard: “[F]olks sporting an awesome face bush are like folks that wear Chuck Taylors. There’s a chance they may not be cool, but I doubt it.”
3. Kenny Rogers
Kenny Rogers is a legend of country who’s been playing music since at least 1956. This guy started his first band (“The Scholars”) while he was still in high school. From there he just kept right on going. Enjoying a long, successful career with multiple awards and honors, Rogers has three Grammys and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. USA Today and People readers voted him the Favorite Singer of All Time in a joint poll. Half a century of work – and he’s had a beard for most of it.
Not to be outdone by Colonel Sanders, Rogers co-founded his own fast food chicken chain called Kenny Rogers Roasters. He once ate at a KRR franchise in Greece, where the manager didn’t believe him when he said “I’m Kenny Rogers” – and made him pay for the meal.
Before we move on, take a minute to enjoy the song “Gray Beard”.
2. Johnny Paycheck
Johnny Paycheck was a talented country musician. However, his career was a roller coaster of ups and downs, hits and flops, poverty and wealth. Born Donald Lytle, he lived a rambunctious life that involved run-ins with the law and plenty of good old-fashioned drug and alcohol abuse. His interest in music surfaced at an early age. The New York Times in its 2003 obituary tells us that he was just 9 when he started playing in shows and clubs. At 15, he decided to hop a few freight trains and travel the country, and later he joined the Navy, where he spent time in the brig for assaulting a superior.
Lytle got started backing up other singers, including honky-tonker George Jones, but he eventually went solo. He officially made his name change legal in 1963 and became the Johnny Paycheck most of us know. The man who got a lot of attention by recording David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” He even played himself in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.
And then, in 1985, the guy who soulfully sang “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill” shot a man in a bar in Hillsboro, Ohio. Paycheck eventually went to prison for attacking the man (who was only grazed in the head by the bullet), “but not before becoming a born-again Christian and quitting alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.” The governor later commuted his sentence, and Paycheck lived out the rest of his days mostly under the radar.
1. William Lee Golden
William Lee Golden’s beard is long, but not as long as his career. He started singing at the age of 7, well before facial hair had entered the picture, and he’s still going strong today.
Golden, a baritone, joined The Oak Ridge Boys in 1965 back when they were still a gospel group. He was still with them in 1977 when they began crossing over into country. This turned out to be a problem for a couple reasons. First, the band wanted to avoid alienating its fans, which meant taking its good and wholesome gospel image right over to country music without getting too coarse. Second, Golden was rocking a rebellious mountain man look that the other Boys didn’t feel represented them well. So, in 1987, Golden packed up his beard, left the band, and went solo with two of his sons backing him up.
He would later return to The Oak Ridge Boys with his beard and integrity intact.
Congratulations, you have reached the end of the Rugged Rebels top 10 beards of country music. There aren’t any prizes for making it this far, but we hope you’ll at least stroke your beard in contemplation. Or someone else’s beard if you don’t happen to have one on you.
If there are other country music men you admire and think should have been on this list – whether they’re outlaws or not – let us know in the comments. And have yourself a Grand Ole day!