A country chanteuse with a past as colorful as her songs; a Texas songwriter with a storyteller bloodline; and the daughter of one of country music's most award-winning vocalists make up this month's installment of new country and Americana artists you need to hear.
Sounds Like: Vintage California country that's equal parts humor and humility, with a few middle fingers thrown in for good measure
For Fans of: Margo Price, Elizabeth Cook, outlaw country artists who have actually served time
Why You Should Pay Attention: Los Angeles country singer Jaime Wyatt has seen a thing or two – after getting her first record deal at 17, she developed a drug problem, robbed her dealer and landed in the county jail for eight months. She never stopped writing, though, and her new album Felony Blues offers a fresh, thoughtful take on prison songs from someone who knows firsthand about being on the wrong side of the law.
She Says: "I'm just stoked I'm not in jail or rehab right now. And I'm very proud of this record. It was easier to make this record than it was to live it … Other folks have had it way harder than me as far as oppression and injustice, but I still had to do eight months in county for robbing a dealer, so I was pretty pissed. Still, if you have the attitude towards the court and the cops of 'You can't keep me down. I'm living it up on easy street here in jail, getting three free meals a day and a chauffeur to court. And thanks for getting my mail,' it sort of makes things easier."
Hear for Yourself: "Stone Hotel" is a rollicking indictment of The Man, delivered with Wyatt's smoky, unrepentant vocals. B.M.
Sounds Like: A progressive honky-tonk hero arriving at just the right time in Trump's America
For Fans of: Pokey LaFarge, Lavender Country, Merle Haggard, DIY punk
Why You Should Pay Attention: A honky-tonk dance floor probably isn't the first place one would look for progressive politics, but St. Louis' Jack Grelle is challenging that notion with his overtly political, two-stepping tunes. Having cut his teeth on the local DIY scene, Grelle – who also toured as part of the most recent incarnation of gay-country pioneers Lavender Country – blends the social awareness of punk with country twang to thought-provoking results.
He Says: "This past year I have had the pleasure to be part of Missouri's chapter of Lavender Country. The Country Music Hall of Fame has recognized [front man] Patrick Haggerty's 1973 self-titled debut as the first openly gay country album. Haggerty's lyrics and storytelling are both relentlessly political and deeply personal. I have drawn much inspiration from my time in that band and found the motivation to write songs that touch on the struggles of the times we live in."
Hear for Yourself: "Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down," the title track of Grelle's 2016 studio album, is a hardscrabble heartbreak song told from the perspective of a woman, a refreshing, subversive challenge to traditional gender norms that's also tailor-made for dancing. B.M.
Sounds Like: Carly Rae Jepsen with a twang: "Call Me Maybe, Y'all."
For Fans of: Taylor Swift, when she was still country; a Sam Hunt "House Party" where the kegs are filled with cola, not Coors
Why You Should Pay Attention: Hailing from coastal Washington State, 18-year-old Bailey Bryan got her start singing in front of the local taco stand and using songwriting as an extension of her own teenage diary. She signed a publishing deal at only 15, moving to Nashville a few years later, though her breakthrough hit, "Own It," was born back in high school, when she was recovering from spinal surgery and wanted a reminder to embrace her quirks and imperfections. Although she shouts out Patsy Cline in the tune, she's as far from throwback as can be: this is country for the Snapchat generation, so lonesome they could [sadface emoji]. Luckily, Bryan's a whip-smart lyricist with a good grasp on how to capture emotion both melodically and online – enough so that Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott nominated her as a Grammy Artist of Tomorrow.
She Says: As a young female artist in Nashville with pop sensibilities, you're bound to be compared to Taylor Swift. Bryan's fine with that. "It's definitely one of those things, like, 'Are you are saying that because I am an 18-year-old and I write songs?' But she is totally an influence of mine, and it's one of the best people you can be compared to," she says. "But I am also really passionate about hip-hop – Chance the Rapper and Drake are some of my biggest influences. I appreciate hip-hop because it's another genre where really honest storytelling happens."
Hear for Yourself: "I break things like hearts and iPhones," she sings on "Own It," her earworm of a debut single that's as motivational as it is zeitgeisty, with a music video filmed vertically – perfect for viewing on mobile platforms. M.M.
Sounds Like: A magical mixture of good genes, hard work and the discovery of one's own voice
For Fans of: Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi
Why You Should Pay Attention: While Gill certainly comes from great sonic stock – her father is Vince Gill and her mother is Janis Oliver (Sweethearts of the Rodeo) – she has been adamant about letting her own music do the talking instead of relying on name recognition. Even while touring as a background vocalist with her stepmother Amy Grant, Gill has focused hard on crafting her own talents and writing her own songs. She recently released The House Sessions, her debut EP that blends a variety of styles – Americana, jazz-tinged pop-country, swampy blues – into a personal collection of songs. Gill credits her vocal abilities to watching Grant nightly and the years of inspiration provided by Raitt. "Bonnie is such an effortless kind of singer," Gill says. "I'm impressed by vocalists who sing with a lot of power and can do all those vocal gymnastics, but Bonnie doesn't just impress me, she moves me."
She Says: "I've battled with confidence my whole life because the fear of being constantly compared to my successful parents kept me from going for it. The final motivational push to actually get my music out there definitely came from my son. The pride I feel for my parents, I want him to feel that way about me. I'm extremely proud of this project."
Hear for Yourself: "Your Shadow" tells Gill's story of pursuing her own dreams and finding her own musical identity outside of her famous father's shine. W.H.
Sounds Like: Warm, radio-ready Texas country that transcends the Lone Star State
For Fans of: Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw, heartland rock
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ryan's most recent album Bad Reputation has earned the smooth-voiced singer three Number One singles on the Texas Music Chart and a New Male Vocalist of the Year title at the Texas Regional Radio Awards. He and his band have headlined shows at historic venues like the renowned Billy Bob's Texas nightclub and Cain's Ballroom, often selling out wherever they play. Ryan is also a songwriter and has co-writes with Brandy Clark, Chris DuBois and Brent Anderson. He gives credit to his grandfather, who directed the Texas National Guard Band for more than 30 years, for forming his relationship with music. "Gramps was my first musical inspiration for sure, although I didn't learn about how to play as much as I learned why to play. His love for music was infectious."
He Says: Currently in the process of recording his next record, Ryan is working with Brent Anderson as the project's producer and looks to both rock and country kings like Don Henley and George Strait for motivation. "I've gathered inspiration by catching as many legendary performers in concert as possible. These iconic artists have made history and have performed for decades, yet they still get out onstage and sing and play their ass off every night."
Hear for Yourself: "New Hometown" is an emotional ode to heartbreak and wanderlust, powered by country-ballad instrumentation and an earnest "anywhere but here" attitude. W.H.
Sounds Like: Belle and Sebastian's "Sleep the Clock Around" recorded not in Glasgow but Laurel Canyon; if Sara Watkins made a duets album with Ben Gibbard, produced by Josh Ritter
For Fans of: The Head and the Heart, Johnnyswim, Buckingham Nicks fan fiction
Why You Should Pay Attention: Courtney Jaye, a onetime Island Records signee and singer-songwriter with vocals as powerful as they are sweet, and Zach Rogue, of San Francisco's Rogue Wave, came together during a session in Nashville, where Jaye lived before relocating to Los Angeles. Three years later, they made a record – Pent Up, to be released this year – that matches Jaye's Southern tenure with Rogue's penchant for lo-fi northwest vibes, dipped in the Technicolor gloss of Hollywood dreams. But unlike most roots-influenced duos reaching for Civil Wars gold (or old-timey burnished bronze, more accurately), this drifts away from dreary desperation and draws more on unique influences. Seventies rock, British folk and even Hawaiian music, a reference of Jaye's since she spent time living in Kauai, are all referenced. Jaye even has a gospel album in the works, if that shows just how broad her palette is.
They Say: "I have been steeped in pop music, but this [record] inherently has a rootsy quality overall," says Jaye, who still feels connected to Music City despite her new coastal address. "That's where it was born from; from two people sitting in a room playing the guitar, and that is also inherently my sense and my style. I think what we didn't want to do was overproduce it. We wanted it to be very simple and just people performing and playing music. That to me is very Nashville, and that's what I love."
Hear for Yourself: The gorgeous, glistening call and response of "Forces of Decay," layered with delicate percussion, is close to pop-Americana perfection. M.M.
Sounds Like: Barbed late-night ruminations on wicked crimes of the heart, sung with a sly smile
For Fans of: Lyle Lovett, Leonard Cohen, unapologetic Americana
Why You Should Pay Attention: The 26-year-old Texan has impeccable bonafides – he's the son of arguably America's greatest slice-of-life songwriter James McMurtry, and was mentored and championed by the late great Guy Clark. But the songs on McMurtry's new album The Hornet's Nest might actually take more inspiration from his novelist-screenwriter grandfather Larry McMurtry: They're cinematic vignettes, with elegantly atmospheric arrangements featuring Diana Burgess' cello and Nathan Calzada's trumpet. McMurtry croons pointed poison-pen letters, in which his first-person narrators are unafraid to let their bad-guy flags fly. Not that any of these 13 songs actually played out in his real life.
He Says: "If all my songs were straight autobiographical stuff that's happened to me, that would be really boring. So I make a lot of stuff up. I definitely think of characters in songs as parts that I play, and it's fun to play horrible people onstage – especially villains. They always get the best monologues."
Hear for Yourself: "Wrong Inflection" finds McMurtry and Burgess icily bantering blame for a cooling romance like it was a tennis match, punctuated by trumpet lines from Calzada that sound like sneers rendered as music. D.M.
Sounds Like: A Berklee-trained musician with an affinity for power country, idiosyncratic Seventies singer-songwriter fare and indie rock
For Fans of: Tom Petty, Lee Brice, Randy Rogers
Why You Should Pay Attention: Cartwright is based in Nashville, but he came out of the Texas music scene, where "your tour calendar is like your badge of honor." Which gave him ample time to road-test his songs, including the five ringers on his new Don't Fade EP, in front of a live crowd. "I like that feedback loop," Cartwright says. "Even now, I think maybe my experience is different from a lot of guys who write in Nashville, 'cause I'm still going out every weekend to play. I might write a song on Tuesday or Wednesday and try it out that weekend." Only strong tracks will survive that level of scrutiny, and latest single "Busted" is one of them, accumulating more than a quarter million streams on Spotify. In 2017, Cartwright hits the road with Granger Smith, another Texan who successfully made the jump from a regional to a national audience.
He Says: "I didn't like country music at all. When I started driving, my buddy left Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker in my car on a burnt CD. About a week afterwards, he was like, 'Hey, can I have those CDs back?' I said, 'No way, this is the best thing I've ever heard.' That started my obsession with songwriting in general. As I got further along in my career, I realized that if you can write songs, you can make a living and have a home in country music. I wake up every day and think about writing songs."
Hear for Yourself: The fraught core of Cartwright's EP is "Nobody But You," where the rugged singer burrows into his romantic distress with help from panoramic bass lines and a hook made for hoarse sing-alongs. E.L.
Sounds Like: Coffeehouse folk without pretension; spare acoustic essays on political disillusion, an earth in peril and … Mavis Staples
For Fans of: Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Yusuf Islam
Why You Should Pay Attention: One of Nashville's most skilled musicians – and songwriters – Mac McAnally gives Crockett an endorsing thumb's up, regularly visiting Crockett's Blue Rock Studio in Texas to record and collaborate. But what really makes Crockett such an interesting listen is his own unique sense of self-identity. With his new album Rabbit Hole, he's pulled off the most difficult of transformations: leaving behind a successful but sometimes creatively stultifying career in Christian music to follow a more secular muse.
He Says: "It's really a thrill for me to get to address some new subjects now. I use a vocabulary that is broad and general and it's a conversation I've been wanting to have all my life," says Crockett, who, like his surname suggests, is a distant relative of Alamo hero Davy Crockett. "The Texas storyteller is in me, and I aspire to be one."
Hear for Yourself: Rabbit Hole standout "Mavis" is a buoyant nod to the famous soul singer, whom Crockett says has a "profound and growing sense of gravitas." J.H.
Sounds Like: An ambitious, entrepreneurial guitar heroine primed to bring back the pop-country glory of the Nineties
For Fans of: Keith Urban, Pink, Lindsay Ell
Why You Should Pay Attention: When Jones decided it was time to make a new record, she called up producer Ric Wake (Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey) and offered him a simple sales pitch: "If I could make any record, I would make a country-pop record, I would play all the instruments, I would produce it with you, and we would go to Nashville and do it." An audacious move, but not when you consider Jones' background: she's honed her multi-instrumental talents performing for an estimated 200,000 high-schoolers over the course of five years as part of her Heart Is Smart Initiative, which mixes concerts with music-business workshops. She also picked up helpful songwriting tips while hosting her own radio program on Sirius XM. It seems to have paid off: Jones' single "Tough Guys" has already amassed more than 400,000 views on YouTube in less than a month.
She Says: "I had an opportunity in Nashville when I was younger to get signed and go down that track. I was 17 or 18 at this point – I knew that I hadn't really found my voice as an artist. I wanted to learn to produce my own records, play lead guitar, write by myself. For a few years I really did my own thing: I booked my own tours, I managed myself, I produced my own records. I've always wanted to be a producer and a lead guitar player and these titles that mostly men have."
Hear for Yourself: "Tough Guys," with powerful drums, Jones' dirty guitar and a hint of Mariah Carey, skips the clubs and heads straight for arenas. E.L.