10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: February 2016 - Rolling Stone
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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: February 2016

From a singer-songwriter with a panoramic approach to country, to a Loretta Lynn for the Instagram generation

Ryan Hurd, Tara Thompson

Ryan Hurd and Tara Thompson are among 10 New Country Artists you need to know

Kate York; Amanda Van Sandt

The latest installment of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know includes a power pop-country band with a name as unconventional as their sound; a country traditionalist schooled on Keith Whitley; and a sibling duo with Everly Brothers harmonies. Here's 10 acts who've been impacting our office playlists.

Ryan Hurd

Kate York

Ryan Hurd

Sounds Like: A raspier Dierks Bentley with the attitude (and hair) of the Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston 

For Fans of: Brothers Osborne, Jake Owen's "Real Life," modern artists like Maren Morris who think less about genre and more about generating unique hits

Why You Should Pay Attention: He's already written one of Blake Shelton's best singles, the Ashley Monroe duet "Lonely Tonight." As a relatively new songwriter in Nashville from the rather un-country Kalamazoo, Michigan, Hurd is sought after for his diversity, something that comes through loud and clear on his debut four-song EP Panorama — which was supposed to have a fifth, until Bentley decided to cut it instead. From the title track, which blends a Bastille-esque chug with straightforward, sing-talk vocals, to the cheeky "Drunk People," Hurd uses the sampler to show he's as diverse of a performer as he is a writer. "It might seem difficult to separate my artist and my writing career," he says, "but for me, it's just music."

He Says: "It's a really broad take on country music and that is something we kind of went for," says Hurd about Panorama. "The common thread is my voice through the whole thing. Everything has weight, but not necessarily the same thing over and over. People are given the freedom to make their own space these days. Everyone is forging their own identity, and it seems like Nashville is really excited about it. It feels like we woke up the day after [the CMA Awards] and everything flipped on its head. It gives us the freedom to be the artists we want to be."

Hear for Yourself: "Good As You Think I Am," which doubles as a sly swipe at the expectations of cutthroat Music Row. M.M.

Steve Moakler

Spencer Combs

Steve Moakler

Sounds Like: Thoughtful singer-songwriter fare in the blue-collar vein of Springsteen, with an Americana bent

For Fans of: Rhett Miller, Will Hoge and Josh Ritter, artists who combine country, pop and roots-rock sensibilities

Why You Should Pay Attention: If you have been listening to Dierks Bentley and Ashley Monroe, you're already hip to Moakler's songs: he co-wrote the uplifting title track to Bentley's Riser album with Travis Meadows and "If Love Was Fair" on Monroe's The Blade, with Monroe and Jessi Alexander.  Smart, funny and literate, Moakler's three independent albums to date show an artist growing with each release.

He Says: "After meeting people like Travis, I accidentally fell into the country music songwriting community and it's been one of the best things that's ever happened to me as a songwriter. It's influenced my sound," says Moakler, a Pittsburgh native who hopes to have a self-titled release out this spring. It also influenced his mood. "['Riser'] one of my favorite songs I've ever been a part of. As a songwriter there's a part of you that wants to really say something and that doesn't always happen with songs on the radio, so I feel spoiled that the first one I got through was a song like that."

Hear for Yourself: The wistful ballad "Damn, Do I Think About You." S.R.

Laney Jones

Darin Back

Laney Jones

Sounds Like: Sara Watkins covering Feist's "I Feel It All," fiddle and all

For Fans of: Nickel Creek, Laura Marling, all the brothers' bands: Avett, Punch and Felice

Why You Should Pay Attention: Things could have gone a lot differently for Laney Jones — the native Floridian was on her way toward a degree in international business when she realized she favored singing and banjo strumming over trades and currencies, heading instead to Berklee College of Music to study songwriting under former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi. It proved to be a good investment: a few years later, she was playing her quirky breed of folk-pop alongside Alison Krauss, who because an instant fan. There's a sheen to the tracks on her third self-titled album and strings of penetrating hooks — those DioGuardi classes paid off big time — paired with rootsy instrumentation and Seventies-era flourishes that keeps it from ever ringing too twee. She's the kind of Americana artist who can work equally well on the indie stage of a bluegrass festival as in an iTunes commercial.

She Says: "I gained so much from talking songwriting with Kara," Jones says about her early mentor. "About looking at your lyrics and reading them down on the page, asking, 'Does it say something, is it effective?'" As for the sonic palate, she's focused on blending that pop sensibility with a wide variety of influences, from country to classic rock. "I love seventies Bob Dylan, The Band. There are soul elements, too. It doesn't feel like we are coloring inside the lines. We're trying to be thoughtful with our arrangements and flush them out in different ways. I don't shy away from bluegrass, either. I still play banjo."

Hear for Yourself: The bright and plucky "Allston (Dance Around)" from Laney Jones, due March 11th. M.M.

Mount Moriah

Mount Moriah

Lissa Gotwals

Mount Moriah

Sounds Like: Earthy country-soul with overtones of gospel, plus edges sharp enough to cut — the result of singer Heather McEntire, guitarist Jenks Miller and bassist Casey Toll's respective backgrounds in punk, metal and experimental jazz bands.

For Fans of: Emmylou Harris, Amy Ray, Kacey Musgraves, a parallel-universe cowpunk Dolly Parton

Why You Should Pay Attention: The trio's willingness to tackle any topic. McEntire spent her formative years in the mountainous wilds of western North Carolina, raised on country radio, Bruce Springsteen and the Southern Baptist religion of her parents (who worked as volunteers in preacher Billy Graham's tele-ministry). That's a difficult environment for growing up gay, which McEntire has grappled with on Mount Moriah songs like 2011's "Reckoning" — about coming out to her mother: "If this love's the devil's curse/I don't want your cure." Mount Moriah's third and most accomplished album to date, How to Dance, arrives February 26th.

They Say: "I'd been surrounding myself with distortion and feedback, burying my vocals in punk," McEntire explains. "Not that I was hiding, but there was part of me I hadn't yet discovered. That's why this band is so important to me, peeling back all those layers to hear my own voice very clearly in a way I never had before."

Hear for Yourself: The stately track "Calvander," elevated by McEntire's anguished vocal. D.M.

Dori Freeman

Kristin Horton

Dori Freeman

Sounds Like: An Appalachian Kacey Musgraves, crafting dreamily melodic tunes and pairing them with sharp, gutsy lyrics

For Fans of: Iris DeMent, Brandy Clark, Alison Krauss

Why You Should Pay Attention: Hailing from Galax, Virginia, where old-time music remains one of that tiny town's most plentiful resources, Freeman's sound is fully rooted in the mountains, but her leisurely expressive vocals, and some of her more poppy material, also suggests an affinity for Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline and Sixties girl groups. Produced by Englishman Teddy Thompson, the son of folk-rock royalty (Richard and Linda Thompson) and a purveyor of crispy delivered country-folk music himself, Freeman's debut is refreshingly sincere and entirely captivating.

She Says: "I just wanted to make an honest record of songs written from a real and relatable place," Freeman notes of the LP, which was recorded in New York City in what she says was an "exhausting but thrilling" three-day period. "I like to write from experience and build on that with things I've read or seen or heard secondhand. The songs that have had the greatest effect on me have been the most human and personal ones and I hope I've been able to convey that same thing in some little way with this record."

Hear for Yourself: Part lilting romantic ballad and part painful contemplation of a troubling love, the hauntingly beautiful "Any Wonder" mesmerizes. S.B.

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