A former contestant on The Voice who’s poised for more than just reality-TV success; a socially conscious singer-songwriter with an unconventional style of playing guitar; and a corrections officer who brings his own experiences to outlaw country. Here are the 10 new country and Americana voices you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: A gnarly, but vulnerable, country-blues singer with the introspective songwriting chops Nashville thankfully continues to reward
For Fans of: Chris Stapleton, Zac Brown, a more mainstream John Moreland
Why You Should Pay Attention: Austin Jenckes wouldn’t blame you if you know him from Season 5 of The Voice in 2013 –his fiery version of “Simple Man” was all weathered soul and grizzly growl. But Jenckes has lived a lifetime since then. In the ensuing years, the Seattle native has both become a family man and built his reputation as a trusted songwriter: Lee Brice recently cut the Jenckes-penned “American Nights” for his 2017 self-titled LP. But honing his songwriting chops only solidified Jenckes’ desire to strike out on his own. “I finally found a roadmap for what it is I’m trying to do,” says the seasoned performer, who aims to release his debut album later this year and is being managed and mentored by the Cadillac Three’s Neil Mason. Most notably, Jenckes has watched his sticky sweet single “Same Beer Different Day,” released in August, climb the charts and amass more than a million streams on Spotify.
He Says: “I went through a lot of ups and downs. For a minute there after the hype from The Voice had died down I was like, ‘I’m just going to write songs and get cuts.’ This past year my wife and I had a baby, but leading up to that I was really like, ‘I don’t know if I want to be on the road.’ But as soon as we had the baby, it hit me that I still love playing live music and that’s my first love. It’s a little bit of a conflict of interest. It changes your perspective a lot on what time is worth and what your priorities are.”
Hear for Yourself: On the dusty, haunting “Same Beer Different Day,” Jenckes does the near impossible task of taking cliché topics like small-town living and big-beer chugging and making them feel vital. D.H.
Sounds Like: Inviting yet melancholy siren songs made up of hard-earned blues, confessional folk and an emotional realism usually reserved for punk and hip-hop
For Fans of: Gillian Welch; Valerie June; the triple-threat combo of honeyed vocals, weighty lyrics and inventive acoustic guitar work
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born Sydney Lyndella Ward in Nashville, Sunny War spent her childhood as a wanderer, logging time in Denver, Detroit and Los Angeles, which exposed her to a wealth of musical styles – by her teens, she was fully in love with Bob Dylan, Bad Brains and Public Enemy. However, it was a later period of homelessness, train-hopping and substance abuse that led her to the music she’s currently making. “Blues and folk music was the only music gentle enough to comfort me,” she says, and both styles, along with country, inform her third album With the Sun (out February 2nd). It’s an enchanting hybrid that’s augmented by War’s unique finger-style guitar playing, involving the thumb and index finger of her right hand. While With the Sun is mostly a solo affair, War called on her friends in psych-rock band Insects vs Robots (which includes Willie Nelson’s son Micah Nelson) to add sparse ornamental touches to some of the tracks. To mark the album’s release, she’ll be hitting the road with roots-music star Valerie June.
She Says: “The songs on With the Sun are a little sad, but I’ve dressed them up in melodic chord progressions to hit that sweet spot of melancholy. While I was writing these songs, there was a lot going on: I was in an abusive relationship, Bowie died, Prince died, police were killing unarmed black people daily, and Trump was elected. I was feeling a lot of things and so that’s what I wrote about. But believe it or not, I would even consider two of the 13 songs to be happy songs.”
Hear for Yourself: “If It Wasn’t Broken” is a plaintive silver-lining reminder that heartbreak is evidence of still being able to feel – a point that’s instrumentally underscored by a lone violin’s flirtatious interplay with War’s finger-picked guitar. W.H.
Sounds Like: Rust Belt folk from a Pittsburgh native who realized he’s better suited for singing blue-collar anthems than climbing the corporate ladder
For Fans of: Langhorne Slim, Cory Branan, Shakey Graves
Why You Should Pay Attention: Paul Luc was on the fast track to corporate-executive status when according to him, he woke up one day and said, “Screw it, I’m out.” Ever since he’s been honing a straight-talking knack for killer, deep-thinking turns of phrase like “Spitting into the wind, it’s risky / I treat fate like I drink good whiskey / It doesn’t need any fussin’ or fixin’ / I just leave it the hell alone.” For his third album, Bad Seed (out February 9th), Luc booked a Nashville studio, gathered a group of then strangers, including former Sturgill Simpson band members Jefferson Crow and Laur Joamets, and hit “record” without rehearsing a single note. The resulting sound is just as raw and punchy as Luc’s words, which in this case find him taking a hard look in the mirror. He questions everything from his own battles with anxiety to the root of his deepest desires – basically asking, “Am I a good guy, or a bad seed?”
He Says: “I didn’t set out with any theme, but it just sort of surfaces with whatever state of mind you’re in. On any kind of curve or spectrum you’ve got outliers of people who are just saintly, and people who are truly psychotic, but the rest of us are somewhere in the middle of this mix of good and bad things that make us up. For me, Bad Seed was a number of songs that take a look at myself and where I’ve been, people I’ve been with, and asking whether or not I carried myself the right way.”
Hear for Yourself: Slightly off-kilter and supremely unsettled, “Restless Mind” opens the album with a testament to how anxiety can sabotage a relationship, propelled by acoustic guitar, whirring B3 organ and bluesy steel. C.P.
Sounds Like: Outlaw country as told by a guy who’s spent time in the pen – though not necessarily on the wrong side of the bars
For Fans of: Jamey Johnson, Merle Haggard, Cody Jinks
Why You Should Pay Attention: A correctional worker for the state of Rhode Island, Mickey Lamantia has lived the flip side of “Folsom Prison Blues” for the past 20 years. Though he played in his uncle’s country band as a teenager and even opened gigs for Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker in his early twenties, music took a back seat to Lamantia’s dream of being a police officer (which was cut short by a back injury) and later starting a family. In 2015, he wrote “The Dash,” a song about his grandfather, and decided to pursue songwriting. Since then, he’s hosted a weekly series on Facebook called “Whiskey Wednesdays” that boasts as many as 20,000 views per episode. Lamantia’s new album Every Bad Habit – now available for pre-order – was produced by Bill McDermott and features Robby Turner’s masterful pedal steel playing.
He Says: “Prison is a lonely place. There’s four gray walls and nothing but time to think about things. That goes for if you’re living there or working there. So if I have a problem at home and I get in a fight with my wife, I go to work for an eight or 16-hour day and nothing takes my mind off that fight. You take your problems to work, and sometimes you take your work home. The lifespan of a correctional officer is five years after you retire,” Lamantia says about his day job, which has had an influence on his songwriting. “Being an outlaw is doing your own kind of music. It’s not about drinking, it’s not about guns, it’s not about any of that kind of stuff. Is every song 100 percent about me and what I’ve done in life? Ninety-eight percent of it is who I am.”
Hear for Yourself: “How Do I Say Goodbye,” a tender farewell to Lamantia’s aunt written from his cousin’s perspective, is a plainspoken acoustic ballad that showcases his barrel-aged singing. J.G.
Sounds Like: Smooth pop-country performed by an artist with a natural gift for instantly winning over listeners
For Fans of: Dustin Lynch, Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jimmie Allen first grabbed fans’ attention with “Blue Jean Baby,” a breezy, nostalgic love song with the kind of sing-along chorus that would sound right at home on current country airwaves. That tune, which has racked up close to 900,000 streams on Spotify, is part of Allen’s self-titled debut EP, which the Delaware-born country upstart released in October 2017. While “Blue Jean Baby” alone shows Allen ready for commercial success, the EP’s remaining four tracks cement the young songwriter as one of pop country’s most exciting new voices.
He Says: “When making the EP, I wanted to have the melody lead the way for an authentic lyrical story. It had to have a natural groove but be a reflection of who I am, which is why I made sure to write and record songs that were inspired by real life experiences and wasn’t afraid to expose my heart and soul. I think people respond to music that they can relate to and is sincere. For the first time, I was able to just be myself on these songs, make something I loved and let people get to know me – I’m hoping that is what people connect with. ‘Best Shot’ was inspired by a few words of wisdom from my grandmother. She always told me that women just want to know that we care and that we’re trying. I wanted to write a self-reflective song that honored that.”
Hear for Yourself: “Best Shot” is that rare honest love song, with a catchy, melodic chorus that flirts with pop-rock power balladry. B.M.
Sounds Like: The 14-year-old girl next door with the vocal chops of a potential pop-country wunderkind
For Fans of: Kelsea Ballerini, RaeLynn, Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” era
Why You Should Pay Attention: A native of Flint, Michigan, Tegan Marie earned her first major label deal before she was eligible for a driver’s permit. Gifted with a commanding voice, a natural stage presence and a sunny disposition, she learned to sing on her dad’s karaoke machine. At 7 years old her videos were garnering millions of views online, and by 12 she made her debut in front of Warner Music Nashville executives. They signed her at 13, making Marie the youngest major-label country artist since Tanya Tucker in 1972. Now she’s writing and recording with co-producers Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton) and Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), and seems poised to connect with a new generation of pop country fans. A full album is in the works and her debut single, “Keep It Lit,” is out now. Still, Marie is most at home onstage. She’s already breezed past milestone appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and on Good Morning America, shared the spotlight with Smokey Robinson and nailed the national anthem at a Detroit Lions game.
She Says: “I started singing when I was three years old – and I think even before that; that was just the first video my dad posted online – and I haven’t put down the microphone since. Pretty much it just comes natural, and it doesn’t make a difference how many people are in the crowd. It could be 10 people in a garage or 60,000 for the national anthem. I just give it my all and I love seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces, and knowing that I’m making them happy.”
Hear for Yourself: “Keep It Lit” captures the golden innocence of youth with effortless vocals, acoustic guitars and fiddle. C.P.
Sounds Like: Literate, introspective folk-rock from the Deep South
For Fans of: Hiss Golden Messenger, Neil Young, Fleet Foxes
Why You Should Pay Attention: Stewart,
a native of Alabama, spent a couple years making music in Nashville
– playing with bands such as Timber and Willie and the Giant – before
returning to his home state in 2016. His forthcoming album County Seat, due out April 6th, finds him trading some of his indie
rock proclivities for more rootsy swells of pedal steel and fingerpicked
acoustic guitar. The move back home also found its way into Stewart’s lyrics, which
are peppered with references to unique places and phenomena to form a
“love letter to Alabama,” as he describes it. The LP arrives just as
he’s beginning to get some national attention for his work: In March, he’s set
to make his SXSW debut and in July, he’ll be playing to a hometown crowd at the
just-announced Sloss Music and Arts Festival in Birmingham.
He Says: “I just feel really strongly if someone wants to write a song – if they’re in a band or if they’re a songwriter – they should say whatever comes out. If it’s a good song, stick with it. But at the same time, the older I get, the more I appreciate finding a cohesive sound and honing in on it. That’s where I am right now. I feel like if I’m gonna put out an album it can’t just be this mish-mash of random songs and sounds.”
Hear for Yourself: The
jangling album opener “Sipsey” evokes the unspoiled Alabama
wilderness, contrasted against Stewart’s desire to maintain a sense of wonder
as he grows older. J.F.
Sounds like: California classic rock like Little Feat mixed with Texas honkytonk for a new breed of SoCal melting pot country
For fans of: Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson’s “Brace For Impact,” Band of Heathens
Why You Should Pay Attention: Though LA’s country scene isn’t packed to the gills, it does boast a small but talented group of new artists making good on the state’s Bakersfield history. Alongside Sam Outlaw, Jade Jackson and Jaime Wyatt, Houston-born Sam Morrow started putting out bluesy, boot-stompingly traditional records a few years back. His newest, Concrete and Mud, finds him merging classic rock, southern soul and funk in there, too (in fact, a friend of Morrow’s dubbed it “countrified funk”). Making use of a vintage Neve 8068 console, Morrow recorded the LP, out March 30th, largely live and ventured to replicate the intimate intensity of catching him in concert. Morrow, who is now sober, has overcome some major hardships and Concrete and Mud is less about the sunny side of his home state and more about those wandering the streets with a past that lingers like a faded tattoo. “I’ve been through concrete and I have been through mud,” he says, “but all these experiences make me what I am.”
He says: “LA has a small scene that is beginning to blossom to the national stage,” Morrow says. “It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of. It’s exciting to see so many bands popping up and they don’t have the feeling that they have to move to Nashville to do what they want to do. People forget about how rich the Southern California country scene has been in the past, and this is a revival of sorts.”
Hear for yourself: With an opening groove that conjures up The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Quick Fix” is Morrow growling through this swanky ode to instant gratification. M.M.
Sounds Like: Thoughtfully constructed alt-folk with just the right amount of twang
For Fans of: Amanda Shires, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins
Why You Should Pay Attention: Caitlin Canty’s 2015 album Reckless Skyline made the Nashville transplant something of a critical darling, landing on several “best of” lists and laying the groundwork for a couple of years that would see Canty spending a lot of time on the road. On March 30th, she’ll release a new album, Motel Bouquet, which draws from her experiences – both personal and musical – during that fruitful time. Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers fame) produced the album, which also features special contributions from Aoife O’Donovan and Stuart Duncan. Dreamy and daring, it’s the perfect LP for ushering in the first hazy days of spring.
She Says: “Since releasing my last record, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the country playing live shows, and that experience has given me a surer footing as a singer and a songwriter. In 2015, I moved from a life spent in the Northeast to a fresh start in Nashville. I wrote the songs that became Motel Bouquet in the ashes of one life and in the soil and seeds of another. I’ve been trying to get out of the way of the songs while writing them and let them be what they want to be. And I’ve been writing on an old Kalamazoo that I play, tuned down a full step. Sorrow and songs just pour out of that guitar.”
Hear for Yourself: The hypnotic “Take Me for a Ride” is a spellbinding introduction to Canty’s new music, in which poetic lyrics and haunting melodies abound. B.M.
Sounds Like: A no-holds-barred, confessional singer-songwriter who excels at relatable tales of twentysomething angst
For Fans of: John Mayer, Jason Isbell, a super-talented version of that shaggy-haired guy who always busts out the acoustic guitar at a house party
Why You Should Pay Attention: He’s been a fixture on the Texas live-music circuit since releasing his cult-favorite debut, 2013’s The Limestone Kid, but with last November’s Probably Wrong, the Austin-based McCollum proved his staying power. “The word ‘honesty’ is what sticks out,” he says of the difference-maker with his new album. Crafted in the wake of a devastating breakup, the album features a steady stream of gut-wrenching songs including “Hell of a Year” and “I Can’t Breathe.” As McCollum hops between rowdy college-bar gigs and more formal theaters, he’s noticed fans embracing more of his deep cuts. “That’s when I’m like, ‘OK, this is connecting.'”
He Says: “I sound like a broken record, but I really am just trying to be as real as I possibly can be with my music … I recently started writing a new song and I felt myself go right back to that place I was in when I wrote [Probably Wrong]. I couldn’t take it. So I put it on hold. I was like, ‘No way can I go back into that hole right now.'”
Hear for Yourself: On “Hell of a Year,” written late one night in his truck in a Whataburger parking lot, McCollum recounts the painstaking process of breaking it off with his longtime girlfriend. D.H.