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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: April 2017

From a Texas songbird with a sly sense of humor to a Tennessee singer proud of his drawl

A Texas chanteuse inspired by Selena and mariachi music, a Tennessee songwriter damn proud of the way he talks and a Brooklyn artist influenced by Cypress Hill and Gram Parsons who expertly marries hip-hop and string music make up this month’s installment of new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.

Nikita Karmen

Sounds Like: A singer-songwriter twist on Natasha Bedingfield or Ellie Goulding with a Southern accent – from Down Under, not the Delta

For Fans of: Ed Sheeran; Caitlyn Smith; when Maren Morris parks her Eighties Mercedes and takes things nice and slow

Why You Should Pay Attention: Though she may have gotten her start as the opening act for Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots – a gig she auditioned for over Skype – Australian-born Nikita Karmen’s songs are far from comic fodder. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Karmen wasn’t raised with country music, but that all changed around the time she caught Carrie Underwood covering a Rascal Flatts song on American Idol. From there, she became obsessed with the genre: the stories, in particular, which appealed to the budding poet she’d been since her early teens. Karmen moved to Nashville after a month in the city hitting writers’ rounds religiously, showcasing her clean, breathy vocals and witty turns-of-phrase like those on “First,” from her self-titled EP. “She’s wearing that trendy Tom Petty T-shirt,” she sings on the track about spotting your ex with another. “I’ll stop being petty about your American girl.” It’s a sweet burn in a sonic sweet spot.

She Says: “I feel like a lot of the time people start out wanting to be an artist, and decide they prefer to be a songwriter. For me, it was the opposite. I thought I wanted to be a songwriter, but then I said, ‘I really love [performing] as well.’ But I definitely think I wouldn’t want to be an artist unless I was writing and performing my own songs. And sometimes I feel like I’m a narcissist when I go into a writing session, because I want to write about things I am feeling.”

Hear for Yourself: Built on spare acoustic plucks and Karmen’s unique take on gauzy country-pop, “First” targets the sort of jealousy that lingers in the age of Instagram – and how sinfully good it can feel to be a little petty sometimes. M.M.

Sharon Alagna

Rench

Sounds Like: Stone cold proof that country and rap can get along just fine

For Fans of: Jay Z, Old Crow Medicine Show, bluegrass-meets-hip-hop

Why You Should Pay Attention: The Brooklyn-based artist and leader of the band Gangstagrass – known for the Emmy-nominated theme to FX’s Justified, “Long Hard Times to Come” – has discovered the sweet spot where string music and MC beats coexist. The 15 tracks on Them’s the Breaks, his excellent new solo album, marry the progressive-country vibe of Gram Parsons with the gritty street sense of Jay Z. Influenced equally by George Jones and Cypress Hill, Rench – real name Oscar Owens – often uses his music to effect societal change. New single “Mugshot” is about standing up, even if it means getting shut down by the man: Rench was recently arrested during a healthcare protest at the White House.

He Says: “I was in third grade and recess for me was putting down cardboard to do your back spins to the Beat Street soundtrack and Run-D.M.C. That was huge for me and all my friends in grade school. But my dad is from Oklahoma and exposed me to a lot of honky-tonk music, especially George Jones and Gram Parsons,” says the Santa Barbara, California, native. “Later, I was producing for hip-hop MCs and I’d say, ‘Oh, it’d be cool if we had a pedal steel guitar on this,’ but it never went over well. So the sound in my head was only going to get out in the world if I did it myself.”

Hear for Yourself: The rock-solid “Mugshot” has beats and bravado to burn, as Rench boasts he “looks good in a mugshot” over a muscular, speaker-rattling arrangement. J.H.

Alyssa Micaela

Sounds Like: Texas attitude, charmingly delivered by an artist who remains true to her roots – even if she’s glad she left her small-town life behind

For Fans of: Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Lone Star State country music

Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in the West Texas oil town of Odessa, Alyssa Micaela grew up around music (her uncle was in a mariachi band) and idolizing Selena. To this day, she performs bilingual covers of Roy Orbison and Freddy Fender. But Micaela is above all a country girl, weaned on Loretta Lynn, Dixie Chicks and Miranda Lambert. When she was a teenager, she met Grammy-winning songwriter Liz Rose, who became a mentor, inspired her to move to Nashville and co-wrote half the songs on her new EP, Cowboys Like That. Produced by Corey Crowder, it includes the 2016 single “Getaway Car,” which garnered 3 million plays on Spotify in less than a month. Since then, she’s opened for Cam and Sam Hunt and played several shows with one of her idols, Willie Nelson.

She Says: “I can really be myself [in my music]. Because I am kind of a sassy person and my sense of humor is definitely there in ‘Getaway Car.’ I think people like Miranda, they kind of show artists like myself that it’s ok to just be yourself, be who you are and say what you want to say. I watch YouTube videos all the time of interviews that [Selena] has done, because her personality and the way she talked to people, people really connected with her. I think it’s so cool and it’s something a lot of artists can learn from.”

Hear for Yourself:Well, I heard you’re getting married / How far along is she?” Micaela sings in the opening line of “Getaway Car,” a raucous, end-all kiss-off to life in a dead-end town where “everybody is barefoot and pregnant.” J.G.

Morgan Wallen

Sounds Like: Pop-country that emphasizes a heavy drawl: those vowels may be broken, but the big, sticky hooks sure ain’t

For Fans of: Tucker Beathard; Jon Pardi; Florida Georgia Line focusing on the backroads, not the Backstreet Boys

Why You Should Pay Attention: Tennessee-born Wallen started singing the way many Southern kids do – in church. But he got his first national platform in a slightly more left-of-center fashion: as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice, chosen not by Blake Shelton, but Usher. The coach picked up on Wallen’s more gravelly qualities, which he honed upon moving to Nashville to be a songwriter, ultimately scoring a deal with Big Loud records. His debut single “The Way I Talk” opens with a simple but infectious vamp and lets Wallen put his drawl on full blast. And though he might name Keith Whitley as his favorite country artist, Wallen has no interest in sounding vintage. He does, however, want to claim his roots, one “y’all” and “ma’am” at a time.

He Says: “I love country, and I want to keep that traditional sound and alive, but I also want to keep the modern lyrics. There is a lot of traditional country out there with traditional lyrics, but mostly it’s like, ‘What are you talking about? Waylon would have said that back in the Eighties.’ I want to put out lyrics that relate to today’s audience. If you want to act like the world is still the same as the Seventies, go ahead, but I’m going to stay true to myself.”

Hear for Yourself: A chart-topper on Sirius XM’s the Highway, “The Way I Talk,” from his Joey Moi-produced EP, carries an unapologetic Southern spirit that would make Alabama proud. M.M.


Shawn Lacy

Sounds Like: Summertime soul and Southern pop/rock from a country bar singer who kicked off his career in Nashville’s honky-tonks

For Fans of: Zac Brown Band, Amos Lee, Darius Rucker

Why You Should Pay Attention: A Nashville transplant, Lacy moved to town as the frontman of a Pittsburgh-based rock band, spending his first three years playing cover songs and originals at Music City outposts like the Second Fiddle. For Lacy, those shows were crash courses in country culture. The rest of the band eventually called it quits, but Lacy was permanently hooked, unable to shake the country-rock hybrid he’d stumbled into. Now operating as a solo artist, he mixes the raw-throated rasp of Bob Seger with the crossover country appeal of Zac Brown Band, whose namesake tapped Lacy to perform during two dates of the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival.

He Says: “Festivals like Southern Ground really fit my musical style,” says Lacy, who promises more wide-ranging, genre-jumping music on future releases. “Anytime John Fogerty, Amos Lee and Willie Nelson are all playing, I’m happy.”

Hear for Yourself: Lacy heads for sunnier environs on “Flipside,” a bluesy tribute to ignoring haters and welcoming a change of pace. R.C.

Rorshak/Courtesy of Kenny Foster

Kenny Foster

Sounds Like: Meat-and-potatoes songs about small-town roots and making sacrifices, sung by a guy who’s taken a few licks and kept on ticking

For Fans of: Rodney Crowell, John Mayer, Charlie Worsham

Why You Should Pay Attention: Joplin, Missouri, native Foster has been kicking around Nashville’s music scene for some time, having co-founded the rock band Philos before venturing out on his own. After a tornado destroyed many parts of Joplin in 2011, Foster wrote and independently released the song “Hometown,” gaining some viral fame and raising money for the devastated community in the process. Foster’s new full-length Deep Cuts (out April 17th) was produced by Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay) and collects 12 songs he wrote over a very prolific couple of years – he amassed around 450 songs in that stretch – that local publishers, for whatever reason, couldn’t imagine another artist singing. He decided to sing them himself, which was a smart move: these are his stories, told without conceding to commercial demands but not scared to employ a polished hook. “All of my favorite records, the song that made me fall in love with the artist were track 12, 13, 14,” he says of his open-to-interpretation album title. “I felt like that’s when you really got to know who the artist was.”

He Says: “I wanted to make great art. I wanted to make something that could move somebody – not because it would work for an industry. I tell people I’m a long-form man in a soundbite world. Everybody needs the elevator pitch or the single, and I feel like I’ve figured out this way to put real life into three-and-a-half minutes. I think that’s what I do.”

Hear for Yourself: Album opener “Stand,” which transforms from a deliberate, acoustic meditation to a soaring anthem, is about fighting the good fight and getting back up when you get knocked down. J.F.

Michael Tyler

Sounds Like: Mainstream country hits-to-be, written and sung by the same Millennial who penned Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach”

For Fans of: Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, the poppy side of the country-pop divide

Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in the slow-moving railroad town of Thayer, Missouri, Tyler was discovered at 13 years old by Michael Knox, Jason Aldean’s producer. What began as a long-distance mentorship turned into a proper partnership five years later, when Knox signed his protégé to a publishing deal with Peermusic. Tyler’s been a busy man since then, co-writing tunes for Bentley, Aldean, LoCash and Kelsea Ballerini. With this spring’s 317, he steps out of the writing room and into the spotlight, making his solo debut with 11 songs rooted in the modern trends of country radio. Knox produced the project, beefing up Tyler’s sound with hard-rock guitars, vocoders and other mainstream moves.

He Says: “My first concert was Poison and Cinderella. I’ve always loved Eighties rock, and it’s had a big influence on what I do, because Knox likes those big drums and big guitars. I grew up listening to John Mayer too, and you can hear that influence on ‘They Can’t See.’ I didn’t want all the songs to sound like they came from the same record. I wanted them to be different, because that’s what I’m going after in the writers’ room. I write a different song every time.”

Hear for Yourself: A close cousin of Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” “They Can’t See” is a laid-back, lovesick salute to a woman whose real beauty lies far beneath the skin. R.C.

Paul Moore

Szlachetka

Sounds Like: A continental spin on 1970s California folk-rock, fronted by a songwriter whose guitar chops match his storytelling skills

For Fans of: Jackson Browne, Dawes, Gold-era Ryan Adams

Why You Should Pay Attention: Although technically a Nashville resident, Matthew Szlachetka doesn’t spend much time at home, logging upwards of 200 shows a year. Those travels play a central role on this summer’s Heart of My Hometown, a collection of road-dog roots-rockers and Americana ballads inspired by the people (and places) he’s left behind in the rearview mirror. A soundtrack for both the highway and the heartland, the album features tasteful production from David Bianco – the Grammy-winning studio hand behind records by Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams – and plenty of six-string swagger from Szlachetka, who handles all of the project’s guitar leads.

He Says: “If this album came out in the Seventies, you’d say it was a rock & roll record. These days, you’d probably call it Americana. We didn’t want to use a lot of guitar pedals on Heart of My Hometown. We didn’t clutter up the sound. The idea was to keep ourselves in check, so these songs could really speak for themselves.”

Hear for Yourself: Co-written with Jamie Kent, Heart of my Hometown‘s title track finds the singer bidding farewell to his birthplace and striking out for someplace new. R.C.

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