As the country music umbrella grows ever wider, rural-minded artists who work in rock and hip-hop invariably have a place to land. This installment of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know includes a number of country outliers, from a polarizing Internet sensation and a British import to a wild gang of Southern-rockers.
Sounds Like: Sugarland 2.0, subbing in Keith Urban and Jana Kramer for Bush and Nettles, but with a little more smoothness than sass
For Fans of: Thompson Square, Lady Antebellum before they took off on a 747, a theoretical Dustin Lynch duets LP
Why You Should Pay Attention: The concept of a duo is a beloved country institution — from the early days with Flatt & Scruggs to the wallet chain of friendship linking Florida Georgia Line — though it's also faded over time as the solo megastar has become the genre's most important currency. But SmithField, Texas twosome Trey Smith and Jennifer Fiedler, who have known each other since the preteen years, find their strength in what multiple voices can bring to the table, especially when you add in the allure of a little "are they or aren't they?" sexual tension. Their current single "Nothing But the Night," about skinny-dipping under the moonlight, certainly showcases that chemistry — whether we're talking about harmonies or hormones. "Nothing But the Night" is already in steady rotation on SiriusXM's the Highway, and has earned the band their Grand Ole Opry debut.
They Say: "When we first started singing together, that was when the Civil Wars were at their peak," says Fiedler. "Watching them and hearing just how tight they were, and Lady Antebellum too, there was something special there. You can have two great singers, but they aren't always great together. Our blend is what sets us apart."
Hear for Yourself: The banjo-plucked, mid-tempo "Nothing But the Night" makes a birthday-suit-only swim sound so sweet your grandmother might consider joining in — until she realizes that the steam rising from the water isn't a summer fog. Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: Folk music raised on New Jersey grit with a playful, progressive sonic palette — inspired by everything from Britpop to, yes, Bruce Springsteen
For Fans of: Conor Oberst's Upside Down Mountain; Josh Ritter; Americana artists who aren't embarrassed to admit — and sound like — they actually exist in 2016 not 1966
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jersey boy D'Amato once studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, so it would be natural to anticipate a studied precision when it comes to his incarnation of modern roots music. But as serious as his subject matter gets — Donald Trump, distorted realities or both — there's levity in his tone and quirky constructions that keeps his work approachably smart, not over-intellectualized. Producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) brings to the table an ambitious take on instrumentals (here, two drum sets are better than one) and an introduction to some pedigreed friends, many of whom appear on Cold Snap, D'Amato's new LP. Oberst is one of them, who both sings on two tracks and holds a steady influence over a set of songs that find their footing in acoustic traditions but feel much fresher than flea-market finds.
He Says: "The songs that were my favorite, they all kind of dealt with perception," says D'Amato of Cold Snap's overarching theme, "and reality, and projections made onto other people, and different versions of ourselves we wanted people to see. A lot of the songs take place in the moments when the lines start to blur."
Hear for Yourself: The locomotive rush of "I Don't Know About You," which is loaded with infectious melodies and unique metaphors made even stronger by an appearance from Oberst on vocals. M.M.
Sounds Like: A natural country-pop star coming soon to a radio station near you
For Fans of: Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band, Maren Morris
Why You Should Pay Attention: At 24, Lauren Jenkins' life already sounds like a country song. When she was 8, Jenkins told her mother she was ready to chase her dreams, and then did exactly that at 15. The Texas native bought a car and an acoustic guitar and left for Memphis, playing in bars with a fake ID. ("Breaking a lot of laws, but I don’t know if you should print that," she says, laughing.) She gigged solo around New York City for a few years, where she also studied acting, and finally caught a break when Big Machine Label Group signed her in 2013. In May, Jenkins released her debut EP, Lauren Jenkins: The Nashville Sessions, via Spotify. It's a six-song introduction that captures her love of country, Southern rock and Americana. (It also features two unlikely covers: Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and Mötley Crüe's "Looks That Kill.") With a full-length album in the works, Jenkins is opening shows for Lady Antebellum and LeAnn Rimes this summer.
She Says: "I just jump into something and figure it out later. It feels like this has been a long time in the making. But you keep enough hours in the studio, staying up until 6 a.m. with enough whiskey, and things progress a lot quicker. It's pretty rock & roll."
Hear for Yourself: "My Bar," off the Nashville Sessions EP, is a punchy, radio-ready earworm co-written with heavy hitters Liz Rose and Matt Dragstrem. James Reed
Sounds Like: A natural-born punk in love with the brutal honesty of classic country
For Fans of: Nikki Lane, Lydia Loveless, Hank III
Why You Should Pay Attention: Sarah Shook's band the Disarmers basically forced her to record their first album Sidelong — before that, she was happy to just play shows for a dedicated fan base around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Now that the word is out, however, there's no going back. Her sound is a sneering fusion of punk-rock autonomy and say-it-like-it-is country from the classic era, paired with a timeless vocal warble and tons of attitude. Honest to a fault and as foul-mouthed as a drunken sailor, she's a nonconforming spitfire who's proud of not fitting in with mainstream country music. Nor does Shook hold back when writing about whiskey and hard living, screwing up and failed romance (with guys and girls) — whether in her songs or her combative social-media posts.
She Says: "I think that the truth needs to be out there, and the other thing that is really important to me is having a very diverse audience. This genre of music attracts a certain kind of person sometimes who is very close-minded and I want to tell those people, 'Look, you're welcome to be a fan. But full disclosure, I'm a fucking civil rights activist, and I'm a bisexual, and I'm an atheist, and I'm a vegan,' you know what I mean? That's a whole lot of non-redneck shit right there."
Hear for Yourself: With a woozy-but-determined drum beat, pissed-off guitars and whiskey-bent vocals, "Heal Me" (the video for which is premiering below) is like Shook's hard-drinking antihero origin story. Chris Parton
Sounds Like: Ry Cooder playing Kraftwerk (part country twang, part mechanical European rhythms), yielding driving music perfect for passing through ghost towns
For Fans of: Bill Frisell, John Fahey, Buddy Miller
Why You Should Pay Attention: In 2013, Lambchop guitarist Tyler had just started touring for his solo album Impossible Truth when he had a sudden attack of agoraphobia in regards to the U.S. highways system. The only way he could continue was to avoid interstates and travel the back roads. So Tyler, who was picked by Jack White to open his 2015 Nashville arena gig, spent the next few years exploring America's bypassed and dying small towns, while also reading books like George Packer's decline-of-empire narrative The Unwinding. Tyler's musical response was his new album Modern Country, a collection of beautiful instrumentals that evokes the stark desolation of this new invisible dustbowl. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and members of Hiss Golden Messenger are among the contributing players.
He Says: "Detouring through these weird little small towns, I started seeing this thing I tried to put my finger on: What is changing about our country during this slow fade? There's this box culture of cities and interstates and suburbs we live in, but it has also destroyed small-town commerce and left those people with nothing. I started thinking about it from a nostalgic, socialist angle. That's what I wanted this record to be about."
Hear for Yourself: Modern Country's "Gone Clear" balances clattering electronic effects with a modal folk-rock riff that recalls classic Richard Thompson. David Menconi
Sounds Like: A fiery Brit, raised for a time in New Zealand, whose musical American road trip makes pop-fueled pit stops in Nashville, Memphis and Motown
For Fans of: Brandi Carlile, Sara Bareilles, Jamie Floyd
Why You Should Pay Attention: Silvas wraps her gutsy, smoldering vocals around razor-sharp lyrics and sparkling melodies. Highlighted by the punchy title cut, the powerful, elegant country-pop ballad "Unbreakable Us," and the bubbly "How to Lose It All," Letters to Ghosts covers a lot of ground. Silvas has done the same, having toured with Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton, as well as Elton John and Jamie Cullum. Making trips to Nashville since 2007, she moved to Music City permanently in 2012 and, last year, married Brothers Osborne guitar player John Osborne, who co-produced Silvas's album.
She Says: "I always felt like the music that I made didn't necessarily fit in anywhere," Silvas says of her genre-defying tunes. "Even in the U.K. there were charts full of songs that certainly weren't a girl sitting at a piano playing ballads. I remember coming to Nashville thinking that people just love songs here. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done or what you haven't done. People just get up there and play their songs and it feels like such an emotional connection."
Hear for Yourself: The percussive "Letters to Ghosts" finds a vulernable Silvas admitting she's powerless to let go of the past. Stephen L. Betts
Sounds Like: Country's own Justin Bieber, complete with tattoos and piercings
For Fans of: Chris Young, Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line
Why You Should Pay Attention: Like the Biebs before him, Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, native Kane Brown rocketed from virtual obscurity to viral sensation by posting videos of himself singing popular (mostly country) songs. Fans were still eager for more when Brown released his independent EP Closer and he was quickly snatched up by Sony Music Nashville. His major-label debut single "Used to Love You Sober" proved he was no fluke, selling over 250,000 units and showcasing his rich baritone. This summer, he's got a primo opening spot on Florida Georgia Line's Dig Your Roots Tour.
He Says: "[Social media is] kind of like my own little radio. Any other artist, I don't think [the label] would let them do it. But since that's how I got started and Sony sees that, they're very lenient on letting me do what I want to do. They've never had anybody like me so they don't want to mess anything up. Because it's working. Why try fixing something that ain't broke?"
Hear for Yourself: Brown just released the summer anthem "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," an assemblage of stuttering drum loops and gleaming guitars that should make any office drone daydream about miles of white sand and tank tops as acceptable public attire. Jon Freeman
Sounds Like: ZZ Top with louder guitars, gnarlier riffs and dirtier beards
For Fans of: Kid Rock, ZZ Top, the Cadillac Three
Why You Should Pay Attention: Upon meeting ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, head Shredneck Tim Montana found his spirit animal — and wrote a cult favorite with Gibbons in "This Beard Came Here to Party," co-opted by the Boston Red Sox for their 2013 post-season run. The band — fleshed out by guitarist Kyle Rife, drummer Brian Wolff and bass player Bryce Paul — recently wrapped up a tour with ZZ Top and are opening for Kid Rock on dates this summer. Following another cut with Gibbons, the outrageous "Weed & Whiskey," Montana and his gang are in the studio collaborating with Rock and working on a new album.
He Says: "My earliest musical memory was I found this Marlboro Country mixtape with songs by Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Milsap — that my mom smoked a lot of cigarettes to earn. Then a week later, I found a Guns N' Roses tape. I chuckle now, but our sound is the perfect combo of those first two tapes," says Montana, who is actually from the state that bears his name and plays there often on tour. "We're going to markets and seeing people who have seen us in other places and we're building this on our own. We're laying a brick foundation."
Hear for Yourself: Montana is currently experimenting with rapid-fire rap deliveries and drum loops in the studio, but "Weed and Whiskey" leans on harmonies and a devilish chorus. Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: Nineties-country sensitivity welded to modern tailgate jams by a blowtorch of a voice
For Fans of: Jason Aldean, Eli Young Band, Vince Gill
Why You Should Pay Attention: After years of writing songs for other artists — and even scoring a Top 5 hit with Parmalee's "Close Your Eyes" — Adam Craig's self-titled EP signals the arrival of an artist with a slightly different take on modern country. Born and raised in the post-grunge Pacific Northwest, his approach is more about connecting through raw emotion than us-against-them identity politics or boastful machismo, and his secret weapon is a soul-piercing, high-flying voice. Drawing inspiration from open-hearted heroes like Tim McGraw and Travis Tritt, Craig sings his young-love party rockers like a nice-guy who'll be respectful to your daughter and make sure she gets home on time. But his forte lies in revealing the messiness of his own broken heart — something nice guys are all too familiar with.
He Says: "There might not be a lot of emotion [on the radio] lately, but the thing I love about a breakup song or a cheating song — and it's never me cheating; I'm always the one getting cheated on — is it can take you there and you get to that raw emotion. You get pissed."
Hear for Yourself: Craig's first single "Reckon" captures the careening sense of confusion that follows a bad breakup, full of flip-flopping mental gymnastics and howl-at-the-moon vocals. Chris Parton
Sounds Like: An old-soul folkie making sense of the modern world, bending the traditions of his heroes — Dust Bowl songwriters, train hoppers, Delta bluesmen — to suit the 21st century
For Fans of: Post-jail Steve Earle, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska
Why You Should Pay Attention: Split between acoustic folksongs, revved-up roots-rockers and Americana ballads, Eberle's indie debut Matter & Time finds the Pittsburgh-born songwriter nodding to the fingerpickers who came before him. He's no revivalist, though. Songs like "Ashes (Trayvon Martin Blues)" take a hard look at America's growth — or lack thereof — since the glory days of Guthrie, and members of Nashville's world-pop buzz band ELEL make up the rhythm section, pointing Matter & Time toward the less explored wing of folk music.
He Says: "There's a difference between trying to sound old and trying to sound timeless," notes Eberle, who teamed up with co-producer Dave Coleman to capture the album in a series of live takes. "Look at Sturgill Simpson's last album. You've got this dude singing about alien reptiles over a country band. It draws you in. It's not a throwback act."
Hear for Yourself: "Ashes (Trayvon Martin Blues)" is a haunting bit of social commentary, driven by Eberle's old-timey arrangement. Andrew Leahey