10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: January 2017 – Rolling Stone
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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: January 2017

From a country-pop singer for the Snapchat generation to a heartland rocker with Texas cred

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.

Curtis McMurtry

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.

Jamey Ice

Troy Cartwright

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.

Rodney Bursiel

Billy Crockett

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.

Caroline Jones

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.  

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