A wandering songwriter unafraid to make you uncomfortable, an Illinois band that mixes bluegrass with hip-hop cadences and a Texas troubadour who specializes in stark, old-school country are among the artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: 21st-century string music, delivered by a vocalist with the nasal affectation of Dylan
For Fans of: The Avett Brothers, Infamous Stringdusters, time signature changes
Why You Should Pay Attention: Hailing from Peoria, Illinois, the Way Down Wanderers are taking bluegrass in a wild new direction. While banjo, mandolin and fiddle are all over the group’s songs, their intricate, hypnotic rhythms call to mind “Bittersweet Symphony” more than bluegrass traditional. Already committed road warriors, the band has toured with Infamous Stringdusters and are gaining traction on the Americana Radio Chart with their new album Illusions.
They Say: “Traditional Bluegrass fans definitely don’t consider us a bluegrass band. We’re really more about the songwriting and the song itself,” says singer Austin Krause-Thompson. “When we write a tune, we let the music and the instruments move our melodic ideas and lyrics forward and lift them up. So you’ve got some pop, some Americana, some bluegrass, and even a bit of spoken word as well.”
Hear for Yourself: The propulsive “All My Words” — the high-concept video for which is premiering today on Rolling Stone — is “about the pressures to create,” Krause-Thompson says. “With the video, we wanted to use alternative forms of expressions to us, like sign language and dance specifically.” The result is mesmerizing. J.H.
Sounds Like: Depression-era roots music filtered through the harmonized voices, collaborative songwriting and guitar heroics of a British folk-blues duo
For Fans of: The White Stripes’ acoustic recordings; the Civil Wars’ vocal interplay; guitar fireworks that don’t outshine the song itself
Why You Should Pay Attention: Less than a decade ago, Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean were the temporary toast of the British indie-rock scene, earning praise from tastemakers like NME with their previous band, Kill It Kid. They’ve since relocated to Nashville and reformed as Ida Mae, a duo whose stomping swirl of blues and guitar-heavy Americana is still noisy enough to earn opening gigs with Greta Van Fleet and the Marcus King Band. The band’s close vocal harmonies are close for a reason — Turnpin and Jean tied the knot in 2016 — and Turpin’s guitar playing is uniquely striking, modeled in part after fingerstyle shredders like Lightnin’ Hopkins.
They Say: “I think we surprise people,” says Turpin, who recalls the duo’s recent “baptism by fire” in Detroit, where they played for 15,000 Greta Van Fleet fans over three consecutive nights. “They don’t expect such aggression and push from a smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed couple.” Indeed, unpredictability has become one of the band’s biggest assets. “We’re able to adapt to the audience,” Turpin adds. “If it’s a boozy Friday night in Mobile, Alabama, we’ll play roots blues and rock & roll songs. If it’s a rainy Wednesday in Seattle, we can whisper our ballads like sweet nothings. We never have to play a song the same way twice, and we improvise constantly. I’d never considered it, but we are non-traditional in the way we approach being an acoustic duo.”
Hear for Yourself: Produced by Ethan Johns, “If You Don’t Love Me” is a bluesy ballad for late nights and early mornings. R.C.
Sounds Like: The Head and the Heart, country-pop edition (The Head and the Heartland?)
For Fans of: Eagles, Dixie Chicks, thee-part harmonies
Why You Should Pay Attention: Fairground Saints — the trio of Megan McAllister, Mason Van Valin and Elijah Edwards — may possess a knack for preternatural harmonies, but they came together thanks to some healthy modern technology. Living in California and working as a bus boy, Van Valin found Edwards through an ad on Facebook. “The only person who answered it was [Elijah],” Van Valin recalls. “At first I was bummed, because he was the younger brother of a friend and I was like, ‘ugh, now I have to be nice to this kid.’ Turned out, he was a super genius.” A year later, they took to Craigslist to complete their sound, adding McAllister to the mix. After making the move to Nashville, they were quickly snatched up by Sony and have toured their luscious, Laurel Canyon-country songs alongside Kip Moore and Drake White.
They Say: “I think you look at the canary in the goldmine, Kacey Musgraves, and success like that, it’s something that feels really near and dear to us musically,” says Van Valin of the more adventurous direction country music may be headed. “Especially as a band who feels just a little bit left of center. Adds McAllister, “the genre is opening up to more adventurous ways of songwriting and storytelling. It’s opening up to more styles, and we think that’s awesome. “
Hear for Yourself: On “California,” Fairground Saints carry the spirit of the song’s namesake with breezy melodies worthy of the Golden State’s rich sonic tradition, with a Nashville pop punch: it’s Dawes meets Music Row. M.M.
Sounds Like: Confidence — Fulcher has swag for days, and it shows in the effortless way he delivers a lyric
For Fans of: Luke Combs, Chris Janson, Nineties country nostalgia
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Georgia native already has a Number One song to his credit: Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours.” Fulcher co-wrote eight of the songs on Combs’ debut This One’s for You and will open for the Grammy nominee on the Beer Never Broke My Heart Tour this summer. Expect to hear his upcoming single “Anything Like You Dance,” which Fulcher says does a great job of representing who he is as an artist via its melody, instrumentation and overall feel.
He Says: “I worked a part-time job when I first moved to Nashville that sometimes took me to the Grand Ole Opry during the day when the seats were empty. I snuck away from the job I was doing once to go stand in the circle and take a picture and got told to leave the stage — but I got to go back and stand in the circle in May of 2018 when I played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.”
Hear for Yourself: “Anything Like You Dance” is a guitar-driven, summer-ready jam, with Fulcher’s easygoing red-clay accent complementing the equally breezy production. J.H.
Sounds Like: Genre nonconformist folk-rock with a hearty sense of humor and a fearless take on human sexuality
For Fans of: Amanda Shires, John Prine, Courtney Barnett
Why You Should Pay Attention: Carsie Blanton hasn’t lived her life like the most of us — and because of it, she sees the world in ways we probably all should. “Unschooled” at home on a Virginia farm that sometimes doubled as a retreat center, she moved out at 16, spent time in Oregon Dumpster-diving, busking and playing music, eventually finding her way to New Orleans, where she has a writing studio in her backyard called “The Watermelon.” A self-declared socialist, all of this “unconventional” living (at least according to capitalist structures, as she often points out) has led to an equally unconventional approach in her music, where she tackles gender expectations, genre norms, societal expectations and sex through songs that are as smart and funny as they are well-constructed. Her new album, Buck Up, “is about two different kinds of edginess: a sexual one and political edginess. It’s an expression of the fact that I don’t give as much of a damn about making people comfortable as I used to.”
She Says: “I think [the concept of] genre represents the triumph of marketing over other areas of art,” Blanton says. “It’s not for artists, and not for listeners. All of my favorite music doesn’t fit in one genre neatly. Chuck Berry is rock & roll because that’s what they called him. It’s not like it occurred to him to write a rock & roll song.”
Hear for Yourself: Based around one killer pun, Blanton brings some bluesy New Orleans-style skat to “Jacket,” a song about a topic women are almost never supposed to bring up in a song, let alone in public: masturbation. M.M.
Sounds Like: Your lovable, wiseass redneck cousin who hit the big time
For Fans of: Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock, Morgan Wallen
Why You Should Pay Attention: Initially making his mark as a songwriter in Nashville, Mississippi native Hardy (the artistic guise of Michael Hardy) scored with hits like Florida Georgia Line’s “Simple” and Morgan Wallen’s “Up Down.” He’s been welcomed into the same creative enclave that includes those performers and released a pair of Joey Moi-produced EPs since 2018, This Ole Boy and 2019’s Where to Find Me, that put his own witty, wordy spin on maxed-out country-rock. Currently opening shows on Wallen’s If I Know Me Tour, Hardy is set to support select dates of FGL’s Can’t Say I Ain’t Country Tour this summer.
He Says: “We wrote [“Rednecker”] in Colorado — me, Andy Albert and Jordan Schmidt — at 3 or 4 in the morning with no music at all. We wrote it like a Dr. Seuss poem. The three of us were sitting in a corner, giggling about something, because, you know, Colorado, and Andy just said, ‘Well, I’m rednecker than you.’ At the time it was funny. We knew it was good, but we didn’t know how good it was until you put that tough music with it.”
Hear for Yourself: “Rednecker,” a half-serious riff on country credentials and the pissing contests they frequently inspire, is gloriously goofy and catchy as hell with boasts like, “My town’s smaller than your town/And I got a bigger buck and bass on my wall/Got a little more kick in my drawl/Y’all I got little more spit in my chaw.” J.F.
Sounds Like: Dusty Texas dancehalls, George Jones fronting Uncle Tupelo
For Fans of: Cody Jinks, Jamie Lin Wilson, Paul Cauthen
Why You Should Pay Attention: Texas native Walker released his debut album Wish You Were Here in January, announcing himself as a gifted singer-songwriter who can devastate with details or wring offbeat humor out of his work like one of his heroes, Guy Clark. He’s also opened shows for a variety of his Americana-and-country-leaning peers, including American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham and Canadian troubadour Colter Wall, whose crowds gave Walker a big boost in Oklahoma. “I had connected with a room full of strangers, and they loved the show,” he says. “That night has been very important to me moving forward.”
He Says: “If you asked someone unfamiliar with my music to listen to Wish You Were Here and guess where it was made, most would answer ‘in Texas.’ This was not by design, but I’m happy that little pieces of my home state made it into the record.”
Hear for Yourself: “Canyon,” the haunting, mostly acoustic opening track from Wish You Were Here, flatly depicts a man possessed by an unquenchable emptiness. J.F.
Sounds Like: Country-folk songs about America in all its pain and glory with the literate, Southern gothic sensibility of Flannery O’Connor
For Fans of: Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt
Why You Should Pay Attention: Having lived a true wanderer’s life in an RV for the last three years, Emily Scott Robinson has seen and studied nearly every corner of American life. She pours all that experience into Traveling Mercies, her upcoming debut with Brooklyn Basement Records, the title track for which was included in a segment of NPR’s The World on immigration and the travel ban after host Marco Werman heard her perform it at SXSW. “At the time, I didn’t have a recording of the song because I’d just written it, so I went to a friend’s home recording studio in Austin that night and we stayed up late recording the first version of ‘Traveling Mercies’ ever heard on the radio,” says Robinson.
She Says: In “The Dress,” Robinson gives a gut-wrenching account of her sexual assault, along with the self-doubt, anxiety and depression that followed in its wake. “I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t just deal with it and move on,” she says. “With ‘The Dress,’ I wanted to write a song that spoke to other victims in their aftermath. I peeled back all the layers of my own story and wrote from the visceral and dark memories of my year after assault. Healing from trauma is never a straight line — it’s a crooked path that goes slowly and often loops back on itself — but it helps to know we are not alone.”
Hear for Yourself: “The Dress” is a delicate ballad that belies its intense subject matter, delivered by Robinson in a voice that is both trembling and defiant. J.F.
Sounds Like: Carefully-crafted, traditionally-arranged acoustic folk with a distinctly contemporary songwriting sensibility
For Fans of: I’m With Her, Milk Carton Kids, socially conscious songwriting
Why You Should Pay Attention: Despite having only finished college a few years ago, the three members of the folk group Lula Wiles (named after the Carter Family standard “Lulu Walls”) have been playing music together for the better part of a decade. Mali Obomsawin, Isa Burke and Eleanor Buckland all met as teenagers attending a summer camp for traditional fiddle music in Maine, where they bonded over their love of modern New England roots groups like Crooked Still and Della Mae. After convening in Boston during college and officially forming as a group in 2014, Lula Wiles have spent the last several years becoming an integral part of the New England folk community. Their brand-new second album, What Will We Do, is a triumphant collection of originals that establishes the trio as a confident, vital young voice in roots music.
They Say: “Every type of traditional music that comes through Maine we’ve played together in some capacity,” says Burke, who explains how the group moved past their traditional roots on their latest record. “We’ve grown a lot of as people, we’ve seen more shit, we’ve gone through a couple heartbreaks since the last album. Our songs developed more of a political consciousness. The things we’re focusing on in our songs is changing, and our ability to write about things that maybe felt inaccessible to us before, that’s changing too.”
Hear for Yourself: That progression can be heard most plainly on the standout “Good Old American Values,” a biting send-up of cowboy nostalgia written by Obomsawin after the singer began studying up on the troubling history of indigenous representation in folk music. J.B.
Sounds Like: Bluesy, lived-in country music that, thanks to Langston’s smart songwriting, freshens up country-lyric tropes
For Fans of: Luke Bryan, Thomas Rhett, the Peach Pickers
Why You Should Pay Attention: The latest in a long line of Georgia exports, Langston is opening for Luke Bryan on his Sunset Repeat Tour. On the strength of his song “When It Comes to Loving You,” the artist has already made an impact on the charts by spending a full weekend atop iTunes’ all-genre songs. His songwriting isn’t your run-of-the-mill stuff either. He credits hit songwriter Rhett Akins for that — the Peach Picker took him under his wing and even let him live with him upon moving to town.
He Says: “The inspiration behind ‘When It Comes to Loving You’ was a bluesy guitar riff that my co-writer, Dan Isbell, always played when we were sitting around. One day, I came up with a tile that fit that vibe,” he says of writing his burgeoning single. “As an artist, it shows my soulful side and things I love about life, like ‘watching college football with my granddad.'”
Hear for Yourself: “When It Comes to Loving You” is that rare type of ballad that bristles with energy, just waiting to escape when Langston’s deep voice hits the chorus. J.H.