The fall edition of Rolling Stone Country's guide to new artists hints at a return to more traditional sounds. There's an instrumental duo that mixes Bakersfield twang with James Bond soundtrack spyjinks, a pair of traditionalists who evoke Loretta and Hank, and a more mainstream artist dedicated to making his audience feel not a fleeting party high, but lasting human emotion. Here's 10 of the genre's most captivating newcomers and why you should be paying attention.
Sounds Like: A country Runaways; Cheap Trick fronted by Loretta Lynn
For Fans Of: Nikki Lane, Lydia Loveless, Eighties punk-rockabilly like Social Distortion
Why You Should Pay Attention: Willie Nelson's granddaughter isn't afraid to make her family blush. With lyrics like "we should getta room/before we get arrested," she and her band of garage-rock converts push out tracks that are a country-rock clash of three power chords and the truth. Raised on devotionals and "Papa's" classics, Nelson changed her tune when she met Jonathan Bright, a veteran of the underground scene. Paired with Nelson's cheeky twang that can hit on both Loretta and Liz Phair, the result is a quirky continuation of the California cowpunk tradition.
She Says: "At first, I was nervous to say I was Willie's granddaughter," admits Nelson. "I'm very proud of him, but I didn't want to be compared to him because I'm not a great player. But when I sent him our music he was ecstatic, saying, 'Let's get it out there!' Before I do anything, I text him — and he'll send me a big smiley face. He's so supportive."
Hear for Yourself: The Ramones-esque vamp of "Getta Room" —Marissa R. Moss
Sounds like: The Keith Urbans; Little Big Town — minus the ladies
For Fans Of: Sam Hunt, Parmalee, Alabama's "I'm in a Hurry"
Why You Should Pay Attention: This Nashville five-piece has been a backstage force on Music Row for years — penning songs for the likes of the Band Perry and Luke Bryan. Now, on the heels of a tour with Chase Rice and a bubbling hit, "Shut Me Up," Old Dominion are seeking to claim new territory. They're building on the country-band blueprint set by the likes of Alabama and adding some fuzzy guitars, catchy licks and even a little rap that shoots for stadiums, not saloons.
They Say: "It's amazing to hear another songwriter sing your song," says leader Matthew Ramsey, "but when you can stand on that stage as both writer and artist it's a deeper, bigger meaning. The ultimate validation for a songwriter is to be able to sing the songs that I write."
Hear for Yourself: The twangy arena -rock of "Shut Me Up" —Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: John Mayer meets Keith Urban meets Jake Owen
For Fans Of: Pristine vocals singing lyrics about relationships; college parties
Why You Should Pay Attention: Crouse has opened for an odd cross-section of the Who's Who of country, including Taylor Swift, the Band Perry, Darius Rucker and even the Goo Goo Dolls. The 22-year-old played the Opry the night his debut album, Even the River Runs, was released. The Show Dog-Universal debut is comprised of songs largely penned when Crouse was under 18, many of which were co-written with some of Nashville's most-respected songwriters.
He Says: "For the longest time, I thought everyone who sang wrote their own songs. I was 16 or 17 before I realized they didn't. But if I am an artist, I want to be in control of what I say. When I first got to Nashville, I would write in a room from 10 to 4 to get better. Because there were all these others songwriters who were better than me."
Hear for Yourself: Crouse's personal favorite "Ruby Puts Her Red Dress On." — Margaret Littman
Sounds Like: Left-leaning roots music that owes more to the rhythmic whiplash of Memphis' Sun Records than the poppy, polished twang of Nashville's Music Row.
For Fans Of: Warren Zevon, Bobby Bare Jr.
Why You Should Pay Attention: With a rough-hewn voice that sounds as though it's fighting off a lingering hangover, Branan sings country songs about love gone bad, girls gone missing and a modern world gone to hell. He gets by with a little help from his friends on this year's The No-Hit Wonder, which features guest vocals (and the occasional Faces-worthy guitar riff) from fellow envelope-pushers like Caitlin Rose, Jason Isbell, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn and axman Audley Freed.
He Says: "There's always been a strangeness to music made in Memphis. It's looser, wilder, jankier than music from other places. For The No-Hit Wonder, we got great players but didn't practice anything. It was the best of both cities — the Memphis spontaneity with the Nashville precision."
Hear For Yourself: Branan's Stones-y tribute to his wife, "You Make Me." —Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: The poster girl for a new wave of hook-heavy, forward-thinking females who are ready to reclaim the crown from the bros of country.
For Fans Of: Sara Evans, Cassadee Pope, Amy Grant's crossover singles
Why You Should Pay Attention: On her upcoming album for EMI, Bannen teams up with co-writers like Jaren Johnston and musicians like drummer Fred Eltringham, creating a left-of-center sound rooted in both sides of the country-pop divide. She's also the only female artist joining Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Dustin Lynch and Cole Swindell at the upcoming "Crash My Playa" concert in Mexico, proof that good tunes can get you anywhere… even into the innermost circle of country's boys' club.
She Says: "When I sit down in somebody's living room, I don't want my surroundings to be so clean and perfect that I'm worried about breaking something. You need some clutter, some messiness," Bannen says. "I try to take the same approach to my music."
Hear For Yourself: "You Are What You Love," the bouncing, breakneck, Bible Belt cousin to Julie Andrews' "My Favorite Things." —Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: Old school, sad-bastard outlaw country for a new generation of excited country fans
For Fans Of: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane
Why You Should Pay Attention: Whether it's a reaction to the bro-country boom of the day, or merely as a family growing from a seed planted in more artistically creative soil, right now there's vital movement of fresh-faced new traditionalists the likes of Hayes Carll, Caitlin Rose, Sturgill Simpson, Jonny Fritz and others bringing classic country sounds to the modern world. Joining such ranks is Cale Tyson: A precocious 23-year-old Red Dirt balladeer who, almost by osmosis, learned the craft of crooning yearning weepers fit for slow dances at lonely roadhouses in his native Fort Worth, Texas, during his late teens, and has spent the last four years cutting his teeth among fierce competition in Nashville clubs.
He Says: "I gravitate towards sad songs," Tyson says. "I'm not really a sad guy. I'd say I'm more self-deprecating in, I consider, a comedic way, just because you have to laugh at yourself now and then. Nobody really has their shit together, and you kind of have to be able to say: ‘Yeah, I don't have my shit together, but I’m working on it.'
"There’s a huge throwback revival going on," he continues. "We're obviously not playing what's on the radio, it's clear. If we wanted to play what's on the radio, then we'd do that. But we're inspired by other things and write a certain way, and if that becomes cool then that's awesome. We're not trying to copy what's already been done, but we're drawing influence from it and trying to make it creative in a modern way."
Hear for Yourself: "Old Time Blues," from Tyson’s 2013 EP High On Lonesome —Adam Gold
Sounds Like: Tammy Wynette and Elliott Smith's lovechild
For Fans Of: Justin Townes Earle, Jack White-produced Loretta Lynn
Why You Should Pay Attention: A vintage-adorned mainstay of the East Nashville scene, Margo Price had been trucking along as the frontwoman of local rock outfit Buffalo Clover until things got stale. So she reconnected with her latent country roots — her great-uncle was a songwriter for the likes of Conway Twitty — picked up the acoustic guitar and dove into deeply personal and painstakingly crafted tunes, evoking the weeping willow vibe of Hank Sr. but pairing it with the realities of modern life. "I killed the angel on the shoulder with a handle of tequila," she sings in "Since You Put Me Down," her voice hitting haunting high notes with weariness and reverence.
She Says: "It can be easy to tread around in the same crowd and play the same bills," says Price, who is working on her debut LP with the Price Tags. "While it's good to be very connected, it's also good to not be out constantly. There's only so far you can go with networking in East Nashville, and being out all the time can kind of take away from the mystery of who you are."
Hear for Yourself: The aching ballad "Since You Put Me Down," recently premiered on Rolling Stone Country —Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: The eclectic, instrumental score for a cinematic road trip through the dustbowl via time machine
For Fans Of: Duane Eddy, Don Ho, Santo and Johnny, Ennio Morricone, Caitlin Rose and Kraftwerk
Why You Should Pay Attention: Sidemen, long the unsung heroes of country music. Such is the case (quite literally) with instrumental group Steelism, made up of the dynamic duo of ace guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal-steel maestro Spencer Cullum Jr. — a Midwesterner and an Englishman, respectively. The pair long provided the melodic backbone of Caitlin Rose's touring band, while Cullum most recently moonlighted as pedal-steel player on Miranda Lambert's Platinum Tour, a gig he got after the singer's bandleader watched him masterfully wail on a talk box in a video on YouTube. In the spotlight, however, Fetzer and Cullum find common sonic ground channeling romantic visions of classic country sounds and Southern-steeped Americana aesthetics. Their ensemble genre-jumps from string-section-boasting spaghetti-western soundtrack inclinations to gorgeously playful slack-key stylings. They even throw in a Kraut-rock-inspired tune on their latest, 615 to FAME, which they recorded partly in their hometown Nashville and partly at Muscle Shoals' legendary FAME Studios with Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner, their co-producer.
They Say: "We love the initial confusion that our set causes to a new crowd, where it's like, there's no singer, the spokesman for the group has a cockney accent and it's led by pedal-steel and guitar," Fetzer tells Rolling Stone Country. "With instrumental music, it's not as serious as 'songwriter' music," Cullum adds. "With lyrics, you're kind of being told how to think, or how to feel. With instrumental music you can just have your own interpretation of a feeling. It's very relaxed."
Hear for Yourself: "Cat's Eye Ring," from 615 to FAME. —Adam Gold
Sounds Like: Modern-day Buddy Holly plus Dwight Yoakam divided by the Mavericks
For Fans Of: Think-y, soulful lyrics paired with a beat you can dance to
Why You Should Pay Attention: The band, which was named (tongue in cheek) for everything representative of the country music front man Ward Hayden was listening to, is on the road 250 days a year, bringing its Boston-bred Americana sound across the globe. Hayden cites his discovery of Hank Williams' music as a turning point for his own songwriting. "I had never heard something that had hit me on such a deep level." Fittingly, in February, GGG will release a Hank Williams tribute album.
They Say: "When I am going through the process of something, I don't do any writing," Hayden says. "But when I come out on the other side, that's when I can make it rhyme." Hayden thought about the story behind "Centralia," a fire-ravaged Pennsylvania mining town, for two years before he sat down to write. Once he did, the lyrics came in about 20 minutes.
Hear for Yourself: The yearning "All the Way Up to Heaven" from the new album Good Luck.
— Margaret Littman
Sounds Like: A kinder, gentler Jason Aldean
For Fans Of: Keith Urban's Fuse album and Smith's musical hero, Dierks Bentley
Why You Should Pay Attention: Because Smith is a three-tool artist: He sings, plays guitar and drums, and, most importantly, writes, which in the world of contemporary country can be a rare combination. The Virginia native has also paid his dues, humping it around clubs with just a guitar on his back. As such, he's had his share of amazing journeys to inspire him and, he hopes, those willing to listen.
He Says: "I'm not a big fan of bubblegum," Smith says of disposable songwriting. "I hate when people say their music, 'makes you want to roll down the windows and turn it up in the sunshine.' Music should make you feel a human emotion. If that makes you want to turn it up, great. And if it makes you want to punch the radio because it brings up an old memory, then that's great too."
Hear for Yourself: The metaphor-rich "Love You Like That," which Smith calls a "man's man" take on a love song. — Joseph Hudak