Best Newcomer: Christian Lopez
Christian Lopez didn't have much to work with — just a short slot on midday Friday at the United Artists showcase — but this 19-year-old West Virginian who sings like a pop-coated Cory Branan and looks like a spruced-up character from The Outsiders packed so much kinetic energy into his set, and sliced so many strings, that he had to finish on a borrowed guitar. While his debut LP, Onward, is a plucky and occasionally subdued showcase of his Appalachian roots, Lopez brings way more youthful twang to his live performances. There may be some serious influences in there (mountain bluegrass, old gospel) and a serious producer (Dave Cobb) but, at his best, he's a maker of smart and slick country that holds a whole lot of promise and age-appropriate fun without pandering to any radio trends. M.M.