This month’s must-hear artists list is populated by a number of distinct duos: the power balladry of Haley & Michaels; the somber folk of Dead Horses; the easygoing country-pop of Brown & Gray; and the Red Dirt vibe of Shotgun Rider. But there’s also some solo artists staking their claim with both traditional and avant-garde sounds.
Sounds Like: The human embodiment of that Adele/Dolly Parton duet everyone is clamoring for
For Fans of: Caitlyn Smith, Maren Morris, Chris Stapleton at his most gravelly
Why You Should Pay Attention: Kassi Ashton is born of duality – raised by divorced parents in California, Missouri, she split her time between a mother that drove her to beauty pageants, ballet and jazz class, and a father that had her riding bikes, building furniture and hunting. When it came time to develop her own musical identity, it never occurred to her that you couldn’t be two things at once. And for Ashton, who moved to Nashville after high school to attend Belmont University, those two things were country and soul. With a voice that can belt and break with the bluesy propulsion of Adele, emote like Beyoncé and capture the heartbreak of Patsy Cline, she’s breaking the mold of what it means to work within the Nashville system. Probably because she’s not – she’ll release her debut as part of a joint venture between Universal Nashville (home of Stapleton and George Strait) and Interscope (home of Eminem and Lady Gaga), a testament to how diverse her appeal will be.
She Says: “At the time I was in college, clean pop-country was kind of a thing. I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. I don’t sound like that.’ Then sophomore year I saw a video of Chris Stapleton singing in the back room of a radio station, and I took it to my teacher. I said, ‘Look, he has so much soul. The only reason he’s a country singer is because he has a cowboy hat on.’ We started taking country songs and putting a soul twist on there or taking soul songs and putting on a country twist. Give me Amy Winehouse melodies with a Tammy Wynette twist and a Drake beat, and I’ll listen to that shit all day long.”
Hear for Yourself: A song about being the black sheep in a field of white lambs that was her hometown, Ashton’s co-written debut “California, Missouri” mixes a dusty country palette with a soul-stirring vocal delivery. M.M.
Sounds Like: Hardscrabble Texas country informed by the state’s deep musical roots and even deeper cultural mythology
For Fans of: Brent Cobb, Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll
Why You Should Pay Attention: Lubbock-based singer-songwriter Red Shahan first grabbed listeners’ attention with his debut album Men & Coyotes, a collection of gritty portraits of small-town life. On March 30th he’ll follow up that effort with his sophomore album Culberson County. Recorded with producer Elijah Ford, the LP features writing contributions from Brent Cobb and Aaron Raitiere, with guest spots from Bonnie Bishop and Charlie Shafter. Thematically, the album doubles down on Shahan’s fascination with the West Texas landscape and culture – the title itself nods to a small, sparsely populated Texas county just east of El Paso.
He Says: “I could write from anywhere in the world and I could attempt to paint a vague picture of my surroundings, but I wouldn’t know its structure like I do here in Texas. I know the culture, I know the neighboring culture, and when we throw all that in the wash, out comes people. So in relatable terms, I at least hope that folks can point their imagination in a familiar direction while listening to my records. Texas is home and what better way to acknowledge my roots than that of putting those people, places and scenarios in song.”
Hear for Yourself: New single “Culberson County,” a slow-burning ballad about heading west, may be the only song in existence to pair spacey, Pink Floyd-esque slide guitar with a truly Texas pronunciation of the word “coyote.” B.M.
Sounds Like: A Florida native’s physical (and musical) relocation to Nashville, combining the sounds of his home turf — shoreline swagger, summery pop hooks, the amped-up guitars of Southern rock — with Tennessee mojo.
For Fans of: Uncle Kracker’s country makeover, Florida Georgia Line’s beachy bounce, Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” played at half-speed
Why You Should Pay Attention: Carey kicked off his career in Jacksonville, Florida, opening up for traveling headliners like Frankie Ballard and Thomas Rhett. Hungry for bigger opportunities, he moved to Nashville in 2014, where a daytime gig as a demo singer eventually brought him face-to-face with the Cadillac Three’s Neil Mason. Bound by a shared appreciation for bold, envelope-pushing country-pop, the two became fast friends. They join forces on “Summer Cool,” Carey’s kickoff single. Written by Mason and anchored by a beat-heavy sound that’s not far afield from hip-hop, the track has already become a viral hit on Spotify, with more than 100,000 streams during its first of release. A proper full-length is in the works.
He Says: “We’ve got some beach-influenced tunes and some darker, rock-driven songs, which is a huge part of my history back in Jacksonville. I’m learning it’s OK for an artist to not just be ‘the beach guy’ or ‘the leather-jacket rock guy,’ because you can be both. That’s Jacksonville. You’ve got the gritty downtown, the riverside and the beach, then you drive 20 minutes and you’re in the country. That’s the sound of where I’m from, and it’s a reflection of me.”
Hear for Yourself: “Summer Cool” brews up its own recipe for warmer weather: equal parts drum-machine percussion, banjo-fueled groove and Carey’s laid-back vocal. R.C.
Sounds Like: Smoky vocals, cinematic lyrics and rustic instrumentation that draws on bluegrass, gospel, country, folk and Americana
For Fans of: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; early Bob Dylan; the earthy sense of place conjured up by writers like John Steinbeck and Walt Whitman
Why You Should Pay Attention: My Mother the Moon, the forthcoming album from folk duo Dead Horses, is a beautifully uncluttered collection of songs that lives somewhere between the church, the field, the back porch and the library. Lead singer and principle songwriter Sarah Vos grew up a pastor’s kid but was handed a harsh reality when her family was expelled from the church because her siblings were struggling with mental illness. As a songwriter, Vos has taken her individual experiences and tried to convey the universality of it all. “While a lot of our new songs are combinations of empathy for myself or my memory of myself from childhood, they all acknowledge some of the most basic human emotions like love, compassion, and loss,” she says. My Mother the Moon was recorded live in Nashville and was produced by Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo), who also produced the band’s previous album, Cartoon Moon. Dead Horses have toured with Trampled by Turtles and Mandolin Orange, but will be kicking off their own headlining run at the end of March, just prior to the April release of their LP.
They Say: “When I started writing this new record, I found that many of the lyrics I had been journaling were partially political in nature and touched on empathy for the current modern climate of people,” says Vos. “The themes that emerged were informed by our travels and experiencing different cultures and communities firsthand. I feel fortunate to have gotten to travel to a lot of rural places because there’s so much to be learned there. A lot of My Mother The Moon is a love song to the people who shared their stories with us. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to folk music – it’s geared towards communities singing together and not necessarily about the nuance of every individual note. Once a song is formed, it can be reborn in every performance.”
Hear for Yourself: Partially inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” “Swinger in the Trees” balances somber elements against a spirit-lifting finger-picked guitar. W.H.
Sounds Like: Taking the world on, one country power ballad at a time, with your musical and real-life ride-or-die
For Fans of: Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Fleetwood Mac
Why You Should Pay Attention: Shannon Haley and Ryan Michaels grew up a few miles away from each other in Northern California, but they didn’t meet until 2012 when their bassist – who played in both their solo projects – introduced them in Nashville. Though Haley had taken her cue from pop singers like Sheryl Crow and Michaels led a classic-rock band, they bonded over a shared love of country music. Joining creative forces as Haley & Michaels, the pair’s collaboration soon turned romantic (“Somewhere in the middle of writing a breakup song,” Haley says with a laugh), and in 2015 they were married. Having released a handful of power ballad-worthy singles that landed them gigs with Sam Hunt and Brett Eldredge and on NBC’s Today show, they garnered a fresh buzz last fall with their topical anthem “Me Too.” Newly signed to Sony, their debut LP is due out this summer.
They Say: “Our marriage and relationship has brought out the positive side of love in our songwriting. Sad songs have always been our favorite, but for something like our wedding song, that definitely wouldn’t have come out of us if we hadn’t been engaged. It doesn’t ever feel like work to us because this is both of our dreams and we’re so fortunate to share that together,” Haley says. Adds Michaels, “We have a really open conversation as artists that has enabled us to go deep and write about real life. We’re best friends, and when you’re best friends you can have real conversations and write about real things.”
Hear for Yourself: “All Out,” Haley & Michaels’ latest single, is a pop-forward, stadium-sized blast of positivity that encapsulates the couple’s dialogue-in-harmony duet style. J.G.
Sounds Like: If Ryan Adams recorded songs like “Why Do They Leave?” with Whiskeytown, a lot less anxiety and some cowboy cred
For Fans of: Sam Outlaw, Andrew Combs, Chris LeDoux’s rodeo dreams
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ross Cooper has the kind of background that would make country’s authenticity police drool: the native Texan was once a professional bareback bronc rider, breaking bones and accumulating stitches, so he’s earned the right to sport a cowboy hat. But the best surprise about the now Nashville-based Cooper is how he seems more interested in using his life to shape his lyrical narrative but not impose sets of strict rules. In other words, his forthcoming LP, the Eric Masse-produced I Rode the Wild Horses (out March 9th), is no collection of spur-stomping rodeo songs. Instead, it’s full of gentle, story-driven alt-country accented by pedal steel, standing on the quality of the tales he conjures. Because as much as he’s a Lone Star kid, growing up on the Mavericks, he also dug into Adams, Tom Waits and even Dashboard Confessional. “I am a rodeo kid who grew up on indie music,” Cooper says.
He Says: “They are equally as challenging, but when everything goes right, they’re literally both the best feelings in the world,” he says, comparing bronc riding to songwriting. “When you go from rodeos to playing music, you can be a glutton for physical punishment and mental punishment. They are equally hard in their own ways, but the reason you do either is for that feeling where everything goes right. You know when you make a great ride, and a great song.”
Hear for Yourself: There’s a subtle melodic nod to Modest Mouse in the twangy traveling anthem “Lady of the Highway” that mediates on any touring artists’ first love: the road. M.M.
Sounds Like: Red Dirt country with a new haircut and leather jacket
For Fans of: Eli Young Band, Josh Abbott Band, Imagine Dragons
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up on a steady diet of emo, alt-rock, pop-punk and Texas country, Shotgun Rider claim George Strait and Kings of Leon as their biggest influences. But that unconventional combination doesn’t sound so strange to the duo’s Anthony Enriquez and Logan Samford. “A lot of it is just the generation we come from,” Enriquez says. “We had access to everything. Logan would tell me when they were getting ready for football games they’d be jamming Breaking Benjamin, and then after the game they’d be drinking beers on tailgates on the backroads, listening to country music.” Working with a combustible mix of high-flying vocals and textured electric guitars, the West Texas natives have graduated from three-hour cover sets to the celebrated Red Dirt club circuit. Following a handful of self-produced EPs, they’re set for the March 30th release of their full-length album debut, Palo Duro, which trends toward the windblown and wide-open sound their home in the Texas panhandle inspires.
They Say: “When we were in high school all we wanted to do was get the hell out of here,” says Enriquez. “But now we’re living in the city, traveling all the time, and we miss it. You can see for like 30 miles and there’s nothing but a windmill here and some cows over there. It’s kind of lonely, but it’s also peaceful and it keeps you creative, because your head isn’t so cluttered. As a writer, I don’t feel any boundaries out here because we’re so far removed from everything.”
Hear for Yourself: “Me and a Memory” sets the tone for Palo Duro, a nostalgic country-rock anthem built on electronic foundations and take-me-home vocals. C.P.
Sounds Like: Propulsive, pop-leaning country from both sides of the Atlantic
For Fans of: Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris’ “Craving You”; Luke Bryan and Karen Fairchild’s “Home Alone Tonight”; culture clash
Why You Should Pay Attention: A chart-topping songwriter from the U.K., Sam Gray kicked off his career penning hits for European DJs and pop singers. After emerging from a co-writing session in England with a country song called “Top Down,” he reached out to Kaci Brown — a native Texan who started her own songwriting career at 11 years old, when she signed with a publishing company run by Roy Orbison’s wife — to add her vocals to the track. “Top Down” turned into a duet between the two singers, paving the way for a sound rooted in country storytelling, pop hooks and progressive production. With more than 1.2 million Spotify streams in the U.S. and a Top 10 position on the U.K. iTunes Country Single chart, the song is already a cross-Atlantic hit, paving the way for the band’s full length album – produced by their mentor and frequent co-writer, Brad Crisler – later this year.
They Say: “We both come from strong songwriting backgrounds,” says Gray, who’ll join Brown this spring for the duo’s Stagecoach Festival debut. “Kaci grew up in Texas and Nashville, with pop and country in her heart. I grew up with those sounds, too, as well as a lot of soul. We’re mixing different genres, but at the center of it, we just love to write great songs. We want to push the boundaries with our production. It just sounds like us. It’s country, it’s pop and it’s all everything you’ll find in the middle.”
Hear for Yourself: Driven forward by a percussive pulse, “Top Down” is a tribute to raising the roof – literally – and hitting the highway. R.C.
Sounds Like: Gritty AM-country gold spinning on a truck-stop jukebox
For Fans of: Dale Watson, Cody Jinks, Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues”
Why You Should Pay Attention: Pat Reedy knows a few things about an honest day’s work. At 36, the self-professed jack-of-all-trades doesn’t balance his music dreams with a flexible service-industry gig like many other artists. Instead he prefers construction, sweating and swearing on the high-rises going up all around Nashville. Before that he was an oil-drilling roughneck and a surface miner, among other adventures, and that blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth approach shows up big time in his music. Drawling, a little rough around the edges, and delivered with a booming baritone that could be heard over a bulldozer, Reedy’s tunes are simple and sincere throwbacks to the straight-talking country of the 1970s and before. “I like the shit Waylon Jennings rebelled against, and I like the shit he did,” Reedy says. On the 12 tracks that make up That’s All There Is (out April 6th), Reedy calls it like he sees it, celebrating calloused hands and quitting time in a way that’s rare in today’s mainstream.
He Says: “The stuff that’s out there now is just so plastic. If you listen to the lyrics it’s like they’re all written by 13-year-old girls, and it seems like there’s zero creativity allowed. It’s all about buzz words. I mean, I drive an old F-150. I enjoy hunting and fishing and giggin’ frogs. I like sweet tea and I love turnip greens, but I don’t write about that. And it used to be that country music had a sense of humor about itself. Like David Allan Coe writing about prison, trains and mama – that was funny. But now it’s like that’s the extent of the intellect that is acceptable.”
Hear for Yourself: Dripping with steel guitar, a road-weary rhythm and Reedy’s lonesome, low-down vocals, “Bloodshot Heart” is a tribute to doing things the hard way – and paying the price. C.P.
Sounds Like: Dreamy, guitar-driven melancholia with a Southern twist
For Fans of: Big Star, the Byrds, Wilco, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Why You Should Pay Attention: Hailing from Alabama’s Muscle Shoals area, Belle Adair – Matthew Green, Adam Morrow, Reed Watson and Hayden Crawford – recently released their second album Tuscumbia on Single Lock Records, the indie label founded by singer-songwriter John Paul White, Alabama Shakes member Ben Tanner and Will Trapp. Nodding to the area’s extraordinary musical history, Belle Adair recorded Tuscumbia at Fame Studios under the guidance of Wilco producer/engineer Tom Schick. And while the band’s members have played behind performers like White and singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc, their own recordings don’t fit so neatly within the confines of Americana or country, nodding toward the jangling, idiosyncratic pop tendencies of fellow Southerners Alex Chilton and Tom Petty.
They Say: “There’s some certain things we do like vocal harmonies and the use of a 12-string [guitar] and things like that, that distinguish the band melodically,” says leader Matthew Green. “I don’t want to say ‘power pop,’ but [it is] maybe somewhere getting into that realm, rather than straight up Americana or folk or country. But three of the guys in the band, we’re John Paul’s backing band, so we definitely know that world and we definitely spend time in it and play music that falls under that umbrella. Somehow, someway it’s gotta sneak its head in there.”
Hear for Yourself: The blissful “Get Away,” with its brightly ringing guitars and unhurried groove, mixes Britpop and California country-rock cool. J.F.