Power singer Rachel Wammack, the rock-forward Kyle Daniel and Memphis soul badass Liz Brasher highlight this month’s list of the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: Soulful, arena-friendly country-rock with one foot in the honky-tonk and another in church, Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning hanging in the balance
For Fans of: Jason Isbell, Parker Millsap, Ryan Bingham, plain-spoken blue-collar wisdom
Why You Should Pay Attention: Five years after taking up residence in Nashville, this 33-year-old Texan is looking to make major moves with his excellent full-length debut album, Still Feel Lucky, an impeccable collection of songs as emotionally thorny as they are catchy. In advance of the album’s September release, this summer will take Danaher to Europe for the first time as a solo aritst on dates including June’s Black Deer Festival in England with Jason Isbell and Iron & Wine. Still Feel Lucky makes for a terrific calling card, showing off Danaher’s primal yowl on songs that came out of trying circumstances – most notably his brother’s murder and father’s death from cancer. He funded it by taking extra bartender shifts to pay for the recording, after he himself had quit drinking.
He Says: “Working in a bar was a daily reminder of how unpleasant you can get with your life. I’d see people every day who were just complete wrecks. I had also gotten to the point where I did not like who I was. After going through some really heavy family stuff, I just never had the chance to catch up emotionally. I’d kind of chosen that as my identity, gotten to be the sad guy. Then I went to live with my 94-year-old grandmother for three months. She’d lived through World War II, lost all her friends – and she’d still talk about how lucky she’d been. It was remarkable. That’s where ‘Still Feel Lucky’ came from.”
Hear for Yourself: Still Feel Lucky leads off with “Hell or Highwater,” a song that kicks like a gathering storm, with a stripped-down semi-acoustic video that’s just as powerful, thanks to producer Michael Webb’s foreboding keyboards. D.M.
Sounds Like: Memphis soul meets garage rock, marinated in gospel and the vocal fury of Florence Welch
For Fans of: Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Big Star
Why You Should Pay Attention: Far from you average retro act, Liz Brasher’s classic soul sound comes from a hard-earned place as a mixed-ethnicity kid growing up in the South. With a devout mother from the Dominican Republic (her father was Italian and stepfather Jamaican), Brasher first started singing in her Spanish-speaking Baptist church in North Carolina, while harboring a love for the Beatles that was at times frowned upon. As a college student in Chicago, she was turned on to American music history — all the way back to Stephen Foster — by a studied bandmate. Further travels took her to Atlanta and finally Memphis, in the process honing her dual roles as a booming, big-voiced R&B belter and equally fiery lead guitarist fronting a lean, mean power trio. Brasher’s debut EP, Outcast, drops April 27th via Fat Possum, with her first full-length due to be released later this year.
She Says: “Between the secular and sacred, being this combined, huge mix of ethnicities that I can’t explain in a short conversation, and growing up in the South feeling things like racism and being my mom’s translator because she couldn’t speak English — all these things made me a really different person. I never fit into one place and that was OK with me because I could float around and find commonalities with a lot of other people … But it became very evident that I needed to live in the South again and I have a new perspective on the history of music, that it came primarily from a place of suffering. When I moved back, it was honestly shocking to me because I saw more segregation in Chicago than I ever had living in the South.”
Hear for Yourself: Lead single “Body of Mine” is a slinky, ghoulish ode to self-possession and the spiritual limitations of our corporeal beings. J.G.
Sounds Like: A deep-voiced crooner with a crack band and stories for days
For Fans of: Merle Haggard, Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Fisher’s The Sessions at Aura Lea is truly a labor of love – in order to record the album, he and his band literally built a recording studio from the ground up. You can hear that love in each of the album’s 11 tracks, from the hardscrabble twang of opening track “Solvin’ All the Problems” all the way to closer “Caroline,” a tender ballad about love during wartime. The Civil War, specifically, is fodder for inspiration for Fisher, who named his Aura Lea studio after the traditional wartime ballad of the same name, and from which Elvis Presley would eventually crib the melody for “Love Me Tender.”
He Says: “In order to create this record with full control of our sound, my drummer/producer/engineer Cody Leppo and I had to build our own studio. We call it Aura Lea. The studio was started in 2013, as a haven for a few close friends and I to write and record the tunes played in our heads with no time constraints or rules. For years, every penny we saved went into making Aura Lea sound and perform at its highest possible capacity. We needed to make sure the quality of the room and gear were there to capture the true A-team of musicians I have been fortunate enough to play with for some years now.”
Hear for Yourself: “Losers Like Me” is foot-stomping celebration of the underdog, with Fisher’s booming vocals delivering a unifying message: “We’re all winners in the end.” B.M.
Sounds like: A time-lapse recording of the weather-beaten New England coast – sometimes cold and deadly, other times refreshing and full of life
For Fans of: Anais Mitchell, Amanda Shires, flannel-lined L.L. Bean jeans
Why You Should Pay Attention: A New Englander with a thoughtful disposition and delicate vocal presence, Hayley Sabella’s folk-tinted Americana captures the duality of the natural world. Just as devastating storms make room for new growth, her Spartan tunes leave space for the imagination to flower. The daughter of music-teaching missionaries, Sabella grew up partly in Nicaragua, and that displacement molded her into an expert observer of people and their fractured relationship with Mother Earth. After returning stateside in middle school, Sabella found her place as a farmer, setting her artistic journey in motion and leading to her second album, Forgive the Birds (out April 27th).
She Says: “[Nature] became a part of my identity in my early 20s. I was a farmer in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and it was two miles from the house I grew up in. It was a way for me to feel connected to the place that I should be from, even though I had a disjointed feeling about it. Going away for pivotal years in my childhood made me feel like I wasn’t really from here, even though I was – it was that ‘Where do I belong?’ thing. So connecting to the actual ground was extremely fulfilling and satisfying. Farm work is quiet work and a lot of times I’d be working by myself, and there’s just so much to observe in terms of life cycle and seasonal changes.”
Hear for Yourself: Featuring gentle vocals that seem to float on the breeze, “Turn Around” feels both weary and hopeful, calling on the gods of winter to loosen their grip and bring hasten spring’s return to Massachusetts. C.P.
Sounds Like: Smart roots-rock that celebrates paying the dues of a working-class musician
For Fans of: Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams
Why You Should Pay Attention: Singer, songwriter, music journalist and in-demand sideman, you can’t throw a stone within Nashville’s city limits without hitting Andrew Leahey. Weaned on a mix of classical music and Eighties heartland rock anthems, Leahey once moonlighted with the Julliard Chorale and worked as a staff writer for Allmusic. (He’s a regular contributor to Rolling Stone Country.) After undergoing brain surgery to remove a tumor, Leahey threw himself more wholeheartedly into his music career, releasing Skyline in Central Time via Thirty Tigers in 2016, picking up a gig as lead guitarist for Elizabeth Cook, jamming with Rodney Crowell and collaborating with fellow heartland-rock acolyte Jon Latham. His upcoming LP, We Came Here to Run, is a celebratory mix of sharp storytelling and fist-pumping rock & roll swagger. Produced by Paul Ebersold, Leahey recorded with the Steelism rhythm section and Jason Isbell’s guitarist Sadler Vaden.
He Says: “Getting sick and being face-to-face with the likelihood, or even probability, that I couldn’t continue making music and touring the way I wanted to, that was what I needed to stop fucking around. It was like, alright, become whatever version of a guitar god you can become and write better songs and actually go and do this thing,” Leahey says of his brain surgery. Writing about music has helped further refine that focus. “It’s made me my own worst critic, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m fully aware when I’m writing something when it’s not good. If something is not good, I can’t go forward with it. I scrap it and start over. For better or worse, it’s really sharpened my idea of what a good song is and increased the hold and expectation I have on myself.”
Hear for Yourself: “Start the Dance,” the first single from We Came Here to Run, is a rowdy show-starter with an oversized guitar riff and just the right amount of handclaps. J.G.
Sounds Like: Roots-inspired soul-pop that finds the heavenly middle ground between Music Row and Mariah Carey
For Fans of: Maren Morris, Ruby Amanfu, Daydream-era Mariah Carey
Why You Should Pay Attention: A cursory listen to any of Renea’s singles should be proof enough, but the Los Angeles-based artist has the rare combination of stellar musicianship, creative vision and natural chops that make for a truly singular artist. She wrote and recorded her forthcoming album Coloured (due out June 22nd via Thirty Tigers) in Nashville with some of the city’s most prominent songwriting talent, including Kevin Kadish, Brett James, Ashley Gorley and Emily Shackleton. In addition to being a formidable songwriter, she’s also a multi-instrumentalist, not to mention, of course, that she can belt with the best of them.
She Says: “I taught myself to play guitar because I didn’t want to read music. Growing up my parents forced piano lessons on me. I was always in some sort of choir or chorale in school. My mom was always singing in the house… oldies and R&B, some country artists, too. My dad practiced his trumpet three, four times a week, and I used to play with it when he wasn’t around. He would play jazz music – Miles Davis, John Coltrane – and lyrical rap – Nas, Q-Tip. Living in my house, around my family, it was rarely quiet, especially on my Big Momma’s three-acre farm. The rooster would crow us up around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m., and then it was chaos: all the grandkids running around outside, climbing trees, me and my cousin Quinn rapping Eminem and Juvenile, my aunts and uncles outside barbecuing with the music blasting from their cars with the windows down. This was pretty much everyday: family, food, music.”
Hear for Yourself: Renea eschewed video conventions for “Gentle Hands” / “Heavenly,” a single clip that combines two beautifully shot videos for two equally compelling singles. B.M.
Sounds Like: Country’s answer to the inspirational pop of Rachel Platten, with a dose of soul and monster choruses
For Fans of: Adele, Sara Bareilles, Faith Hill
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up in the land of the singing river – i.e. Muscle Shoals, Alabama – music was a way of life for Rachel Wammack, whose house was often filled with Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and whatever had been recorded down the road at the legendary local studios. Equally inspired by Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride, a middle-school-age Wammack would stay up late writing songs secretly in her bedroom after curfew, playing them on the piano before her parents got home from work and eventually gigging regularly around town. One day senior year, Wammack was performing at a local hotel, and an executive from Sony Music happened to be in the audience. Taken by Wammack’s introspective songwriting and powerful vocals, he gave her his card. Wammack wasn’t ready to move to Nashville – she wanted a degree and to study poetry – but after graduation, at the urging of that same executive, she made the move. Nine months later, she had an official record deal, a publishing contract and, eventually, a four-song Dan Huff-produced EP that’s a unique combination of soul, gospel and power pop.
She Says: “I feel like it’s in my DNA,” Wammack says of Muscle Shoals. “My music now has a lot of soul in it, so I feel like Muscle Shoals has really impacted me for the long run in my career, which I didn’t even realize was going to happen. My parents and my grandparents all sang in the choir at church, and I just loved music that I felt moved me, and that has a lot to do with Muscle Shoals: soul music, gospel and blues. [Those genres] just have a lot of moving tones and qualities to them.”
Hear for Yourself: Centered on an emotive piano riff, “My Boyfriend Doesn’t Speak for Me Anymore” is a bold, brazen and goose bump-inducing reminder to women everywhere who are sick of being told to stay quiet. M.M.
Sounds like: The gravely twang of Steve Earle with Chris Stapleton’s range, plus bigger hooks
For Fans of: Stapleton, Will Hoge, anything from Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound
Why You Should Pay Attention: Daniel’s parents always knew they had a musical kid on their hands, even before he came out of the womb: when his banjo-playing dad would strum for his pregnant wife, Daniel would kick up a storm. True to his Kentucky roots, Daniel would make the rounds with his father to local bluegrass festivals and picking parties, taking up the guitar at 13 years old after first trying the saxophone, drums and keys. “When I felt all the notes underneath me, it felt so natural and clicked almost instantly,” he says. “I never looked back.” Daniel moved to Nashville a decade ago and roomed with buddy Anderson East, spending time in bands (like RS Country New Artist alum Jericho Woods) and supporting Clare Dunn on the road. It may have taken years to get his solo work front and center, but his rich, melodic breed of baritone country is perfect for a moment that finally embraces the Stapletons and the Sturgill Simpsons of the world.
He Says: “It’s given artists like us an opportunity to be heard,” Daniel says about the current state of country. “People are catching the curve ball, and going, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ It’s different than what people are getting fed by the mainstream. For true music lovers, it’s a great thing. These different looks, throwback sounds, live-to-tape versus digital machine-produced content. People are hungry for it.”
Hear for Yourself: Single “Hangover Town” is a rocking bit of Stones swagger, with the dusty sing-along quality of Hayes Carll’s “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” M.M.
Sounds Like: Buoyant, sometimes playful folk songwriting with a deep well of social consciousness
For Fans of: Josh Ritter, Joshua Radin, Wilco
Why You Should Pay Attention: Calling Clarence Bucaro a new artist is a bit misleading, as the Ohio-born songwriter has released a dozen albums over the last 15 years. His most recent, Passionate Kind, has been something of a rebirth for Bucaro, though, thanks in no small part to its willingness to engage with the current moment. Single “Where Do I Go?” is a plea for direction in confusing times, which Bucaro wrote in the wake of the 2016 election. Other tracks on Passionate Kind, like the prescient “Sleepwalker,” take similar stock of today’s particular brand of social ills.
He Says: “Songwriting to me is a deeply personal thing. How does one take one’s most intimate feelings and experiences and turn them into songs without them seeming like diary entries? On this album, I tried to connect with feelings I have had and imagine them through a different prism while still maintaining the truth or essence of them. I wanted this album to feel distinct from my others. I challenged myself lyrically. I absorbed anything I could over the past year. I watched opera. I read classics. I studied art and listened to tons of music from Beethoven to Duke Ellington to Kris Kristofferson. These elements helped to inform the album as well. At the top of my writing notebook, I wrote, ‘Is this interesting? Is this honest?’ and I tried to keep these two questions in mind with every song I wrote for Passionate Kind.”
Hear for Yourself: “Sleepwalker” is a gently soulful admonition to someone who can’t open his eyes to the vast, colorful world around him. B.M.
Sounds Like: The soundtrack to making moonshine; a dancefloor playlist for Jesco White
For Fans of: Justin Moore, Hank Williams Jr., the Southern-rocking side of Kid Rock
Why You Should Pay Attention: Made up of singer-guitarist brothers Chris and Donnie Davisson, bassist Rus Repert and drummer Aaron Regester, the Davisson Brothers Band credit influences as far flung as Dickey Betts, Del McCoury, Garth Brooks and Willie Nelson with shaping their sound, a mix of country and rock with a heavy dose of their native Appalachia. The group became fast friends with Chris Janson, who’s had the band open many of his shows, helping them break out of what Chris Davisson calls the “animal circuit: the Eagles, Elks and Moose Lodges.” With a new album produced by Keith Stegall on the way, the band is gaining traction with lead single “Po’ Boyz,” which marries the Davissons’ live energy with a dab of country gloss.
They Say: “We take a lot of pride in making music that is true to us, where we come from and our life on the road,” says Chris. “We’re just country boys who like to have fun with what we do … we’re hard-working folks who live a bit of a ‘rock & roll lifestyle’ writing and performing music for the everyday working folks.
Hear for Yourself: The snaking “Po’ Boyz” puts a new spin on country-cred songs, highlighting not some polished version of the rural life, but the grit and toil of growing up in the West Virginia hills. J.H.