The summer edition of Rolling Stone Country's guide to brand-new artists proves just how wide country music's doors have opened. We talked to 10 of the genre's hottest newcomers, who range from classic-country aficionados to hard-rocking hell-raisers. This quarter, we introduce you to the new queen of the Outlaws, three kings of country grunge and a guitar-shredding princess.
Sounds Like: Bruce Springsteen meets Zac Brown Band, with an affinity for pop hooks and a case of the moody blues.
For Fans Of: Black Crowes, Kacey Musgraves, Pistol Annies
Why You Should Pay Attention: The fact that these Maryland-born, Nashville-based brothers (John's got the beard, T.J.'s clean-shaven) play music under a name that's an inversion of classic Seventies bluegrass duo the Osborne Brothers could just be a coincidence, but it's also a nice metaphor for their sound, which flips the genre line entirely on its head. For their debut LP (out this fall) they mix unabashedly catchy choruses and soulful, washboard grooves built on Bruce, Bob Seger and Buck Owens with folky slow burners, capitalizing on a diverse instrumental repertoire – dirty Delta bass lines, keys dancing on hot coals and even a rhythm banged out on the arm of a cheap futon. Oh, and plenty of cowbell.
They Say: "When we write, we don't have to speak. We know exactly what we want and we're very honest. We used to fight when we were little kids, and we carried that to verbal attacks when we're co-writing," says John Osborne. Adds T.J. Osborne, "It can make for some arguing, but it moves the process along faster. We also have a tendency to get into our own mumbling slang. Other cowriters have said they need an interpreter because they can't understand a darn thing we're saying."
Hear for Yourself: The blue-collar summer anthem "Rum." By Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: The Rated-X confessions of Loretta Lynn's hell-raising, pot-smoking granddaughter, who's more than happy to wear her sins on her sleeve.
For Fans Of: Lucinda Williams, Lydia Loveless, Jessica Lea Mayfield
Why You Should Pay Attention: A Bible Belt bombshell who croons and cusses like an outlaw, Nikki Lane teamed up with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach for her newest release, All or Nothin'. Laced with B-3 organ, surf guitar, psychedelic pedal steel and arrangements that reference everything from girl-group pop tunes to spaghetti-western soundtracks, this is wide-ranging Americana at its most confessional, aimed at a generation of over-sharers who grew up reading their friends' darkest secrets on LiveJournal. "Aesthetically, I like things that are pretty masculine," she admits. "I like things that are beautiful, too, but they need to have some grit and some grunge."
She Says: "At my shows, I'll say something like, 'This song's about fucking people you don't know yet,' and the crowd will look terrified. Then I'll ask, 'Has anyone ever done that?' and they'll go silent. And it's like, 'Come on! You guys are at a rock show!' People are less comfortable with their reality than they should be, but that's how I validate this crazy job: by doing what I want… and pushing the envelope."
Hear for Yourself: The lyrically and sonically bold "Right Time." By Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: Genre-mashing roots music with an Appalachian anchor.
For Fans Of: the everybodyfields, Little Feat, a male-fronted Alison Krauss & Union Station
Why You Should Pay Attention: No independent band has played the Grand Ole Opry more often than the Black Lillies, a co-ed, ragtag group of Knoxville-based pickers whose songs bridge the gap between Appalachian folk, California folk-rock, bluegrass and jazz. "The blessing and the curse of this band," says leader Cruz Contreras, "is the fact that we don’t like to repeat ourselves. I'll write a soul tune, then a rock tune, then a country tune. Every day, people ask us what kind of music we play, and we still don't have a one-word answer for them." That hasn't stopped the group from sending its last album, Runaway Freeway Blues, into the upper half of the Billboard Country Albums chart — even without the assistance of a record label.
They Say: "One thing you can't evade is your voice," Cruz Contreras says. "I grew up singing country and bluegrass in Eastern Tennessee, and my voice is steeped in this region. Even if I envision a song as a rock song, I still sound like myself, which brings it back to the country world. I think that's a unifying thread."
Hear for Yourself: The song with the video they deem Raising Arizona-meets-Smokey and the Bandit, "Smokestack Lady." By Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: Tammy Wynette on a trip to Whiskeytown, as unafraid of heavy twang and spitfire pedal steel as coffeehouse confessionals.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Waldon came to Nashville from Monkey's Eyebrow, Kentucky – a town that can count its residents on fingers and toes – to attend Belmont University, with a backpack full of Guy Clark records and denim to match. But the swiftest education came on the stages of local dive bars, where she found that people listened best when she sang honestly about the realities of her dirt-road upbringing. On her debut LP, The Goldmine, Waldon makes music like someone raised on both "White Lightnin'" and Wilco, tackling troubled pasts, cheatin' hearts and what happens when we don't all worship the same American dreams. "My daddy's gone to rehab/I'm just trying not to do the same," she sings before a rollercoaster Telecaster riff.
She Says: "I moved from a small town in Kentucky to this place where everyone is just like me," she says. "They all moved from their little place, too, and we live in this beautiful utopia. We're all country music freaks – nerds, really. But sometimes in Nashville it can be so easy to let other things get in the way. You have to try really hard to not get spoiled."
Hear for Yourself: The honky-tonk heartbreak of "One Time Again," where her voice gets raunchy and the tempo's even wilder than the boy who's done her wrong. By Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: A great American road trip from the beaches of Southern California to the bayous of Arkansas.
For Fans Of: Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek, the Everly Brothers
Why You Should Pay Attention: The title of fraternal duo PawnShop Kings' folky, redemption-yearning foot-stomper "I Wanna Love Like Jesus" (off their stellar 2014 PSk EP) might come off as audaciously bold, but Joel and Scott Owen are just a humble band of brothers with a grand ambition — to refashion traditional songwriting styles with modern, moody atmospherics. Musically, the pair wear a broad range of roots, country, rock, pop, folk, gospel, blues and bluegrass influences on their (no doubt) rolled-up sleeves, but their sonics are as much inspired by personal experience and a sense of place. Products of their upbringing, the Owen brothers were born in Texas, grew up in Southern California and spent formative years on a family farm in Arkansas, assimilating all the American sounds in between. "We were raised on the storytelling of country music," Joel Owen says. "Our dad wouldn't let us listen to anything else." But as a contemporary country act, even when the Owen brothers are singing about Southern living, they're still a million miles away from the red Solo cups, painted-on blue jeans, backyard bonfires and bro-country tropes of the day. PSk heartstring-tugger "Fall Apart" is a powerhouse of a folk-pop consolation prize for the millions still lamenting the Civil Wars breakup, with a monster chorus as devastating as any ballad on country radio.
They Say: "We have tons of influences, the Beatles being a big one — they were taking from the blues and they were taking from American music and Elvis; all things that they were inspired by, but then they were bringing in the Indian stuff, the sitar; they were taking stuff that they were hearing from other places," Joel Owen says. "We do the same thing," Scott Owen chimes in, finishing his brother's thought. "We're inspired by those guys and what they did and what [Bob] Marley did — all these different artists that we've loved from the past — but we're also inspired by stuff that's going on today, like Bon Iver and all the atmospheric stuff that [Justin Vernon] does."
Hear for Yourself: The meditative, pining "Fall Apart." By Adam Gold
Sounds Like: Loggins and Messina meets Eli Young Band, with a helping of hippie hand percussion, Appalachian folk and a love for Lil Wayne.
For Fans Of: John Mellencamp, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Kentucky bourbon
Why You Should Pay Attention: As a nightly ritual, onstage this Lexington, Kentucky, acoustic-guitar-and-cajon-drum-wielding duo does a countrified medley of junk-pop covers that runs the gamut from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" and Lil Wayne's "Mrs. Officer," to Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" and Deanna Carter's "Strawberry Wine." Solder those sounds — along with some Seger and Petty worship — and you've got Sundy Best. That eclectic Americana amalgam, coupled with singers Nick Jamerson and Kris Bentley's Eagles-worthy vocal blend and earnest lyrics, power stellar sleeper singles like the wistful "Home" and the driving "These Days." An anthemic blast of wide-screened, road-trip-ready heartland rock, the latter is as well-suited for the Seventies AM airwaves as it is for modern pop-country radio. And that's not all that sets the band apart from their country contemporaries. In true DIY fashion, the duo spent three years blowing club crowds away with self-booked shows; by selling their own homemade merch by mail order from their living room; and, most importantly, writing their own songs.
They Say: "We'll throw on Nineties Pandora when we're driving down the road," Bentley says. "It keeps us sane. If we're playing in a bar setting and everybody's drinking, we'll turn it into a power hour game."
Hear for Yourself: The nonconformist love song "Until I Met You." By Adam Gold
Sounds Like: A redneck Don Henley (Janson's favorite singer).
For Fans Of: Eric Church, Jerry Lee Lewis, overcaffeinated harmonica players
Why You Should Pay Attention: Upon moving to Nashville, the Missouri multi-instrumentalist — best known for his mad harmonica skills — slept in his truck in a parking lot just off Lower Broadway, and calls upon such life experiences in his autobiographical songs, especially the raucous "Back in My Drinkin' Days" and the empowering "Hang On." A regular invited performer at the Grand Ole Opry, he has earned his share of standing ovations, thanks to a mesmerizing stage presence that most arena-headlining artists would kill for.
He Says: "I make music. It's an art. So some days serious twang comes out, and other days the so-called 'bro' music happens," says Janson, who has written with Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin of Guns N' Roses. "At the end of day it's all music, and I'm proud to be in it."
Hear for Yourself: Janson goes full-on preacher in this magnetic performance of "Hold On" from his home away from home, the Opry. By Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: John Mayer with a little bit of country; Shania Twain with a little bit of rock & roll.
For Fans Of: Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban and Canada
Why You Should Pay Attention: Coming out of Nashville by way of the Great White North, Lindsay Ell grew up idolizing fellow Canadian ex-pat Shania Twain, and it shows on sunny toe-tappers like the love-struck 2013 single "Trippin' on Us" and breakup ballads like the reflective "Not Another Me." But anyone who thinks Ell is merely a candidate for the crown of country music's next North American sweetheart is selling her short. A self-proclaimed "female Keith Urban" who was discovered in her early teens by BTO bro Randy Bachman, this precocious Canuck's got an ace up her sleeve that only a handful of her pop-country contemporaries can claim — serious, serious guitar chops and a penchant for finger-tapping like Eddie Van Halen… or wailing like Buddy Guy, who in the past has invited Ell onstage to trade blues licks.
She Says: "Moving to Nashville was a whole experience and change for me," Ell explains. "I'd never lived in a town with so many musicians in it. For once I didn't need to feel like the black sheep of the bunch who just wanted to geek out on guitar pedals and amps. Being a girl guitar player, it's definitely out of the norm. It's always baffled my mind why more girls don't play guitar, specifically lead guitar, especially in country music — you just don't see it a lot. And so I've always been in arenas and different places where I'm kind of the odd man out, or the odd woman out."
Hear for Yourself: The sassy, empowering "Trippin' on Us." By Adam Gold
Sounds Like: Breezy hick-hop for a hot August night.
For Fans Of: Zac Brown Band, Jake Owen, Jack Johnson, Matt Kearney and football
Why You Should Pay Attention: If you haven't heard Sam Hunt sing yet, you've probably heard a few of his tunes. Kenny Chesney's "Come Over," Billy Currington's "We Are Tonight" and Keith Urban's "Cop Car" are among the cuts the 29-year-old whippersnapper songsmith has penned for the country superstars whose ranks he could soon join. Not bad for a small-town Georgia boy who, just over a decade ago, left his fledgling career as a free-agent quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs and set out for Nashville to take a stab at a songwriting career. Now Hunt's stepping into the spotlight as a singer in his own right. Take a listen to the airy acoustic jangle, tight-locked groove and smooth lyrical flow of his debut single, "Leave the Night On," and it's no surprise the singer's soft spot for Clinton-era country is rivaled only by an affinity for hip-hop production and R&B crooners. A modern country mechanic with an ear for contemporary Top 40 aesthetics and a business savvy to match, it's also little surprise Hunt says he prefers crafting his cuts to programmed beats rather than on acoustic guitar, or that he got viral groundswell going by giving away acoustic mixtapes online.
He Says: "Within the songwriting community there are these unwritten rules for the way that a song should be written in country music, and I think that those rules are constantly being broken over the years, and the molds change and the process is evolving. So coming in not knowing those rules really helped me a lot to do what I felt was honest and right."
Hear for Yourself: The infectious, feel-good, "Leave the Night On." By Adam Gold
Sounds Like: The house band at a beer-soaked monster truck rally.
For Fans Of: Molly Hatchet, Dierks Bentley, ZZ Top
Why You Should Pay Attention: Firing twin barrels of hillbilly punk and Southern-rock buckshot, the Cadillac Three are the sort of long-haired, skirt-chasing gang you'd keep far away from your daughter… before cranking up their debut album after she goes to bed. The guys are Nashville natives, too — a rarity in a town that imports its population from across the globe — and wear their Southern pride on their musical sleeves, stomping and slurring their way through songs that celebrate the South’s swampy, skuzzy charm. "My dad played drums for the Grand Ole Opry," says lead singer Jaren Johnston, who writes chart-topping hits for Keith Urban and Tim McGraw during his downtime. "Growing up, I'd go there on Friday and Saturday nights, and I'd see all the different sides of country music. It hooked me. You don't get storytelling like that in other genres."
They Say: "For our first tour, we spent all summer with ZZ Top and Skynyrd, then did some shows with Eric Church and Dierks Bentley. In country music right now, there's a big hole for us to fill, where Eric Church and Skynyrd meet," says Jaren Johnston. "I enjoy the country crowds just as much as the rock crowds. It's a lot of the same people."
Hear for Yourself: "The South," a modern-day "Dixieland Delight," featuring Dierks Bentley, Mike Eli and Florida Georgia Line. By Andrew Leahey