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.
Sounds Like: Country's Imagine Dragons, full of arena-ready pop hooks and chant-along choruses
For Fans of: Kenny Chesney's coming-of-age anthems, the Killers' spit and polish, floor toms
Why You Should Pay Attention: The five guys who make up LANco — singer-lyricist Brandon Lancaster, bassist Chandler Baldwin, multi-instrumentalist Jared Hampton, drummer Tripp Howell and guitarist Eric Steedly — all bring their own unique influences to the table, resulting in a rich mash-up of contemporary country and gleaming pop. No less than Jay Joyce (Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood) jumped at the chance to produce them, putting the focus on anthems, the band's specialty. This is shout-till-you're-hoarse music, brought to life by a group with a performing style as unconventional for country music as their name (LANco is short for Lancaster & Company). "When we're in front of a crowd, we're aware that everyone has the whole world in their pocket, on their cell phone. You're competing against a cat video when you're up there onstage playing music," says Lancaster. "So I want to jump in the crowd and be up close and personal with people."
They Say: "A lot of different genres are fantasy-oriented. . . 'in the club popping bottles' or whatever. But country music is about finding people where they're at right now: working a 9-to-5, going through hard times, questioning life," Lancaster says. "Yes, our music is huge, and our show is energetic and we're all over the place, but there is a message that people understand. . . We're all experiencing this night together."
Hear for Yourself: Supercharged debut single "Long Live Tonight." J.H.
Sounds Like: He was raised in isolation on a steady diet of Keith Whitley and George Strait
For Fans of: Both classic and neo-traditional artists from George Jones to Travis Tritt
Why You Should Pay Attention: Morgan has perked up some heavy-hitting ears. As a teen he was discovered playing the famed Louisiana Hayride. He moved to Nashville at 18 and signed with Warner Brothers shortly thereafter and is now recording his debut release, due out later this year, with producer Scott Hendricks (Alan Jackson, Faith Hill) and songwriter-producer Jimmy Ritchey (Jake Owen, George Strait). His first single, "I Met a Girl," was written by the power trio of Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally and Trevor Rosen.
He Says: "I grew up listening to Whitley and Haggard and Jones and Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Cash and Johnny Rodriguez, just to name a couple of Johnnys," says the 22-year-old Mississippi native of the education he received from his parents' record collection, which also included classic rock and Nineties R&B. "Everybody's saying, 'Man, you're playing the real country music,'" he says. "I'm just trying to make the music that I grew up on, that I love. If you want to categorize it as country then, by God, categorize it as country. But we're all on one big highway heading to the same destination, whether it's Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Mo Pitney or myself. Some of us may be in the left lane, some of us may be in the right lane, but we're all getting off on the same exit."
Hear for Yourself: The laid-back ode to the joy of romantic discovery "I Met a Girl." S.R.
Sounds Like: Dusty country-rock with a sensitive side, equally fitting for a night of shenanigans or hiding out at home
For Fans of: Tom Petty's Wildflowers, Whiskeytown's Pneumonia, Son Volt's Trace
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in a small town Texas and based in Austin, Crow has spent more than a decade wearing it out on the vibrant live circuit in Texas and Oklahoma. In 2015, he released his album The Parade and his single "Life Comes at You Fast" — inspired by the revelation that his wife was having twins — was the year's most played song on the Texas Music Chart. The impressively inked Crow also made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 2015, proof that his honest and optimistic style of songwriting has a reach far beyond the Lone Star State's borders.
He Says: "We've run and gunned on pennies and empty rooms for so long that it can only go up. When you see these things happening it's interesting, because on paper it's beautiful and I'm so proud and my dad's proud and my wife's proud and it's an awesome thing. But it's like, I'm still cut from that road-warrior cloth that. . . I'll be even more proud when everywhere we play, there's a line out the door."
Hear for Yourself: Crow's ebullient new single "Dear Music," — which will undoubtedly make copy editors insane with its included comma — an endearingly sweet, handclap-assisted love note to a lifelong companion. J.F.
Sounds Like: Loretta Lynn for the Instagram generation
For Fans of: Kacey Musgraves, Nikki Lane, Miranda Lambert
Why You Should Pay Attention: Thompson grew up studying one of her country idols from backstage. Lynn is her third cousin and a major influence on Thompson's songs rooted in true stories. ("Pregnant at the Prom" was inspired by her own mother.) At 18, this "hillbilly from East Tennessee" peeled out of her tiny hometown of Sevierville (birthplace of Dolly Parton) for Nashville, where she cut her teeth at the iconic honky-tonk Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Her tenacity paid off: Scott Borchetta recently signed Thompson to his Big Machine Label Group, whose Valory Music Co. imprint will release Thompson's debut album later this year. She's currently on the road with Jennifer Nettles and Brandy Clark as part of CMT's Next Women of Country Tour.
She Says: "When I first started writing with other people, I'd go in and say, 'All right, here's the deal: It's gotta be really country, no pop, and there can't be no man-bashing. Because if anyone is cheating, it's gonna be me, by God. And no love songs.' I actually got fired from Tootsie's because my set was just too old-school. I saw Loretta the other day and told her that I finally got a record deal, and she said, 'It's about damn time!'"
Hear for Yourself: Feisty new single "Someone to Take Your Place," with the killer line "I'll have two Coronas/one for me/one for the hot girl I just turned in to." J.R.
Sounds Like: The Everly Brothers meet a country Buddy Holly
For Fans of: Pokey Lafarge, First Aid Kit, The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits
Why You Should Pay Attention: Brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum didn't grow up with the plan of playing music together — it took until they were in their late teenage years to start learning the guitar and realizing the endless bounds of their voices, particularly in unison. It was then that they started listening to Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and other old country and blues greats, gigging around their hometown of Minneapolis and gaining a following for their vintage-leaning, pristine harmonies and ability to make time-warped but vibrant music. It was enough to catch the eye (or ear) of fellow retro-revivalist JD McPherson, who offered to produce their debut LP You're Dreaming — a slick and satisfying throwback to an era where concise melodies and tight vocals were far more praised than studio trickery.
They Say: "I know being brothers helped because we finish each other's sentences sometimes," says Torrey about their uncanny harmonies, "and that can't hurt when it comes to singing together, but I think mostly it's about timing." Burkham agrees. "I think the rhythm is actually the biggest thing that we share. Our sense of rhythm from being brothers is maybe more important when it comes to singing together," he says. "If you have two good singers who aren’t related, they can both hit beautiful notes together, but if their timing is different or the way they breathe is different, it will have a harder time linking up."
Hear for Yourself: The irresistible charm of "Stoplight Kisses," that's like a cherry malted spiked with whiskey. M.M.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.