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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: August 2017

From a singer-songwriter who mixes girl-group harmonies with Countrypolitan strings to a disciple of Keith Urban who loves the loop pedal

Guitar heroes, astute songwriters and bluegrass experimentalists all appear on this month’s list. The sideman for John Prine ventures out on his own; an observant nomad mines her travel experiences in her songs; and a one-time headbanger turns his attention to string instruments. Here are the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now. 

Brandon Lay

Sounds Like: A country-rock version of Bruce Springsteen tinged with twang, summing up small-town existence in songs made for a bonfire party

For Fans of: Dierks Bentley, Travis Tritt, Eli Young Band, nostalgic alt-country

Why You Should Pay Attention: Initially rising in the college scene, Jackson, Tennessee, native Brandon Lay is finding his footing, thanks to his penchant for catchy lyrics and reminiscing on his glory days. Lay got his first publishing deal in 2013 with Warner/Chappell and went on to be signed by UMG Nashville. With the release of a two-song EP titled Speakers, his anthemic new single “Speakers, Bleachers and Preachers” quickly found an audience, hitting 600,000 streams on the Spotify U.S. Viral Chart. Even this early in his career, he’s already had the opportunity to open for A-listers like Hank Williams Jr., Dierks Bentley and Old Dominion. While fans won’t see a full-length album until 2018, Lay has another two-pack EP coming later this year called Bleachers. And, you guessed it, Preachers won’t be far behind.

He Says: Lay felt like his first single had to be autobiographical. “Life pretty much revolved around going to school, playing sports and going to church,” the up-and-comer says of “Speakers, Bleachers and Preachers.” “It just occurred to me that my life lessons came to me from a speaker, bleacher or preacher. I moved to Nashville seven years ago, and I remember the first night I pulled into town I went straight to the Bluebird Cafe and I waited outside around the building to play one song for an hour. I just remember thinking that night this might be my big break and there might be a record exec sitting in the back ready to sign me. I was in for a rude awakening. It’s been more of a slow burn for me.”

Hear for Yourself: The ebullient “Speakers, Bleachers and Preachers,” dedicated to three of his first loves, boasts an infectious chorus and laser-focused lyrics. I.K.

Carson McHone

Sounds Like: The bridge between Texas twang and Tennessee country, occupied by a road warrior who’s spent plenty of time in both states

For Fans of: Amanda Shires, Tift Merritt, Elizabeth Cook

Why You Should Pay Attention: In a city full of transplants, McHone is a rare Austin native, having first hit the barroom stages of her hometown at 16 years old. “People call us unicorns,” she says of her local roots. On her still-untitled follow-up to 2015’s Goodluck Man, though, McHone looks beyond the Lone Star State, taking inspiration from the road – where she plays more than 150 shows a year – as well as the Tennessee capital. Recorded in Nashville with longtime Spoon producer Mike McCarthy, the new album promises to be fuller and fresher-sounding, leaving throwback honky-tonk music to McHone’s contemporaries and, instead, fully embracing the modern.

She Says: McHone has a mutual appreciation for the old-school titans of Texas country, with Ray Wylie Hubbard recruiting her as a duet partner for his song “Chick Singer Badass Rockin” in 2015. Even so, she’s ready to create her own legend. “I’m pushing beyond the acoustic-guitar-songwriter world,” she says of her upcoming album. “That’s where I started, and I’ve definitely gone through my throwback honky-tonk phrase, back when I wanted to be George Jones. But my interests are growing. My style is changing. And with it, my sound is becoming a bit removed from the alt-roots bar scene.”

Hear for Yourself: “How ‘Bout It” is a piano-ballad heartbreaker that highlights McHone’s winsome voice. R.C.

Carson McHone | How 'Bout It from Project ATX6 on Vimeo.

Jason Wilber

Sounds Like: Guitar-forward modern alt-country with thoughtful lyrics, plaintive vocals and a tastefully executed penchant for Bakersfield flourishes

For Fans of: the Jayhawks, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Steelism

Why You Should Pay Attention: Jason Wilber has a pretty killer day job playing guitar and producing records for none other than John Prine. When he’s not playing with Prine (or other luminaries like Willie Nelson), he’s working on his own music, which finds the little-trod common ground between Nineties-influenced alt-country and modern Americana. His new album Reaction Time lives in that space, which offers Wilber plenty of room to show off his knack for unorthodox arrangements and, of course, his guitar chops.

He Says: “When music is really doing its job, it provides a context in which you can let your emotions and memories kind of roam free for a time. So when you listen to Reaction Time, I hope it gives you that space to roam. Much of our lives are dominated now by logical things like computers and schedules and rules and plans. I think music provides some relief from that.” Of working with Prine, Wilber adds, “John Prine is an enigma. I don’t think you could just do what he does or act like him and expect to achieve similar results. He is just being himself, but he’s a very unusual person. The paradox is that while John is a brilliant, one-of-a-kind artist, he’s also someone you can just go have a beer and shoot pool with. Maybe he’ll tell you all about a fishing trip he just took, and it will probably be the best fishing trip story you’ll ever hear.”

Hear for Yourself: “Heaven” features songwriter and Prine collaborator Iris DeMent, and shows off Wilber’s easy way with an old-school country duet. B.M.

Kristy Benjamin

Tristen

Sounds Like: Left-of-center pop/rock and cinematic Americana, glued together by one of Tennessee’s best exports

For Fans of: Nicole Atkins, St. Vincent, Neko Case

Why You Should Pay Attention: A Nashville staple for nearly a decade, Tristen had already released two nationally-acclaimed records – including 2013’s Caves, one of the best synth-pop albums this side of the Reagan presidency – before joining Jenny Lewis’ touring band in 2015. Two years later, she hits a career high with Sneaker Waves, a homemade album that reaches far beyond Nashville’s borders for inspiration. From girl-group harmonies and Countrypolitan strings to the left-field, Nilsson-worthy power balladry of “Psychic Vampire,” Sneaker Waves ebbs and flows, showing the full range of Tristen’s strength as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer.

She Says: “I grew up on oldies radio, and my favorite songwriters are a lot of those Fifties and Sixties people, like the Everly Brothers and the Beatles. But I’m also really into Dolly Parton and the storytelling tradition of country and folk music. Rock & roll is formed where folk meets the blues, and that’s what I’m doing. It’s not about distortion – it’s about these sounds coming together.”

Hear for Yourself: Even a harmony-singing
Jenny Lewis can’t steal the spotlight from Tristen during “Glass
Jar,” whose synthesizers and ringing guitars evoke an indie-folk, 21st
century Byrds. R.C. 

Morgan Evans

Sounds Like: A disciple of Keith Urban, who can work a set of loop pedals – and a hooky pop melody – like Ed Sheeran

For Fans of: Urban, Little Big Town, Jake Owen

Why You Should Pay Attention: Morgan Evans is an Aussie who follows in the sonic footsteps of his homeland’s main country export – Keith Urban. But he’s also a savvy performer with strong songwriting chops of his own, who moved to Nashville two years ago with a taste for contemporary melodies drunk on both love and bourbon. Already a star in Australia, Evans grew up in Newcastle, was raised on a steady diet of Garth Brooks and Led Zeppelin, and cut his teeth in bands locally for years, even opening for Taylor Swift. Now signed with Warner stateside, Evans is working with songwriter-producer Chris DeStefano on his forthcoming American debut, lead by the buoyant single “Kiss Somebody,” a refreshingly realistic look at the foibles and promises of romance. Playing the tunes live with just a stack of loop pedals, Evans can command a stage solo, with plenty of charm and a showman’s flair that would make Urban proud.

He Says: “I just got engaged, so there are a lot of love songs,” says Evans, who is set to wed Kelsea Ballerini, of his new material. “A lot of songs about a girl, about leaving your hometown and building a new life. And there are definitely a couple songs about drinking, since I feel like I have really learned to do that here in Nashville. And just when I thought I was getting a handle on that back home.”

Hear for Yourself: With a snappy vamp and Evan’s velvety voice rasping in all the right places, “Kiss Somebody” is as vulnerable as it is fun. M.M.

Jillian Cardarelli

Sounds Like: Faith Hill’s voice singing a Top 20 Billboard country hit from last week

For Fans of: Shania Twain, Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Swift

Why You Should Pay Attention: Cardarelli, a choir-singing Boston Catholic, might have pursued a pop career if it wasn’t for a grandfather who fell in love with country music while stationed in Georgia during World War II. But the 24-year-old grew up witnessing the decade’s shattered glass ceiling by a host of women whose music captivated well outside of the genre borders – specifically Shania Twain. Cardarelli’s recordings blend the heritage and the modern, with her upcoming EP’s tracks cut via old-school full-band takes at a non-Music Row studio. This summer she’s opening for artists from Jake Owen to Lonestar.

She Says: “Shania Twain’s Come On Over was my anthem album. I burned that CD out in my boom box as a child. Shania, who really broke a lot of barriers with what she wore and how she sounded, opened the door for women to push the envelope. You can look back on that like, if she can do it, there’s surely someone else to break those walls.”

Hear for Yourself: Her latest single, the Maren Morris-penned “Rerun,” is the epitome of the something old/something new dichotomy Cardarelli brings to her music. J. Gugala

Billy Strings

Sounds Like: The head-banging speed of a thrash metal band channeled through flat-picked guitar and mandolin, with a touch of end-of-the-world psychedelia

For Fans of: Greensky Bluegrass, Ralph Stanley, String Cheese Incident

Why You Should Pay Attention: Born William Apostol in small town Michigan, Billy Strings idolized his father, Terry Barber, an amateur bluegrass picker who bought him his first guitar when he was 4 years old. Raised on his father’s music, Strings played in a metal band in middle school called To Once Darkened Skies, but by the time he was in high school he found himself in a “dark” place, surrounded by drug abuse. While taking his mom’s car for a joyride one day, he rediscovered his love for bluegrass, and once he’d finally graduated high school (after dropping out twice) he headed to Traverse City and found a mentor in veteran player Don Julin. The pair performed as a team until Strings struck out on his own in early 2016 and headed to Nashville. His debut LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, produced by Greensky Bluegrass’ Glenn Brown, is due September 22nd, and even features a cameo from his father.

He Says: “There’s a similarity [between metal and bluegrass], not so much as far as the actual licks you’re playing but just the sound of it. Fast banjo music, you could compare that to Slayer. It’s just fast and hard and driving like that; it makes your heart race. I took some stuff with me from the metal band I was in and I couldn’t let go of a few things. We jumped all over the stage and kicked each other and spit on people in the audience. I don’t do that at my shows now, but I almost can’t help but move around like that. There’s so much energy there. When you go to a metal show and everyone’s jumping around and jumping off stage – man, there’s something really special going on there.”

Hear for Yourself: “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” the title track from Strings’ upcoming debut, is a dark, spiraling jam that showcases the interplay between Strings’ guitar work and his mandolin player, Drew Matulich. J.G.

Cavendish

Makayla Lynn

Sounds Like: Relaxed pop-country that’s heavier on the twang than the synths; think Colbie Caillat singing Sara Evans

For Fans of: Maddie & Tae, RaeLynn, the more innocent side of Kacey Musgraves

Why You Should Pay Attention: Still juggling high-school classes and frequent commutes to Nashville from her home in Nova Scotia, 16-year-old Makayla Lynn has been writing and performing since the ripe old age of eight, opening for artists like Carrie Underwood and Alabama and playing over 100 shows a year. As much informed by Alison Krauss as Maren Morris, Lynn – who co-wrote all but one of the songs on her sophomore LP, On a Dare and Prayer – straddles a refreshing line between modern pop-country and a style that evokes the nineties one-name queens (Faith, Shania, Trisha). Balancing the innocence of youth with snappy bursts of lyrical wit (“a good man is so hard to train” she quips on “That’s Why I Love You”), Lynn isn’t old school, but she’s not new wave either – leave it to a teenager to find a sweet spot in the middle.

She Says: “I always say that my age is my best friend and my worst enemy. Sometimes it’s a great thing, and I’m really lucky that I am 16 and I’m able to go around town and do this, and other times it can be difficult for people to take you seriously at a young age. People always ask, ‘Do you have to make time to be a kid?’ And I say, ‘This is me being a kid. I get to stay in resorts with huge pools and do something I love, while growing up.'”

Hear for Yourself: On “Joyride,” Lynn uses some infectious syncopation and versatile vocal inflections to surrender to the freedom of youth, while always remembering that every joyride has to end somewhere. M.M.

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