10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: July 2017
It’s easy to hear the influence of firebrands like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson in this month’s list. There are bluesy belters, reverberating country baritones and rock-weaned troubadours. But there’s also some awfully delicate textures as well, thanks to a pair of artists from the U.K. Here are the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: An East Nashville salute to the glory days of California country-rock, shot through with Seventies swoon and swagger
For Fans of: Bobbie Gentry’s string arrangements, Steve Nicks’ vibrato, Erin Rae’s crooning calm
Why You Should Pay Attention: Before heading to Nashville, Sampson logged three years aboard a luxury cruise ship, singing her way through nightly sets of Sixties and Seventies folk covers. “You’re pulled out of real life,” she says of the gig, which took her across much of the globe. “I got home and I didn’t know any new music or movies.” That out-of-time feeling resurfaces with this summer’s Wild Heart, a debut album filled with vintage strings, B3 organ, Telecaster twang and big-voiced ballads worthy of Linda Ronstadt. Joined by several members of Steelism, Sampson recorded the album in two days, carving out a sound that smooths and softens the neon-bright polish of Top 40 country to a warm, analog glow.
She Says: “You’ve got to really live before you can write songs,” says the songwriter, who spent her childhood moving between Hong Kong, Connecticut and Las Vegas. “I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve done a lot of self-work along the way. The songs on Wild Heart are about knowing who you are, and knowing your own self-worth, no matter what life throws at you.”
Hear for Yourself: The bluesy, blustery “Never Give Up” finds Sampson walking the fine line between resilience and reluctance. R.C.
Sounds Like: Somewhere between Jennings and Jones; also, Jamey Johnson’s “Between Jennings and Jones”
For Fans of: Cody Jinks, Chris Stapleton, classic country baritones
Why You Should Pay Attention: Indiana-born Alex Williams quit school at 18 for a gig on Nashville’s lower Broadway, playing traditional country at tourist draw Tootsie’s. Looking back, he knows that probably wasn’t the smartest move. “I was like, ‘fuck, man,'” he says. “At 18 you make stupid decisions, like thinking the key to success is Tootsie’s?” Indeed, not many dreams these days are realized at the local honky-tonks, but Williams kept going, playing Waylon and Willie while writing his own material. A few years later, he left his band behind and caught the attention of Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, who signed him to a deal. His debut LP, Better Than Myself, will be out August 11th: produced by Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell), it’s a bit of classic country candy for the purists feeling lost in a sea of pop influences.
He Says: “I knew that I wanted to make a really Seventies-influenced, but with a modern twist, country album. Though keeping in mind that we’re not in the Seventies anymore. It turned out really cool – I’ve always loved the quirky Seventies Austin, Texas, vibe. Some of my family lives down in Texas and I have a passion for that culture and the music and everything about it. I wanted to channel the spacey, laid-back country approach.”
Hear for Yourself: “Old Tattoo,” a song written for Williams’ grandfather after he passed away, fills a much-needed void in the venue of tender but tough country ballads. M.M.
Ferris & Sylvester
Sounds Like: Dreamy, deceptively lovely folk-pop that tickles the ear and softens you up for the thornier sentiments contained therein
For Fans of: The Civil Wars, the Swell Season, hard truths set to song
Why You Should Pay Attention: Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester were playing London’s gig grind separately before joining together last year in a duo that spotlights Ferris’ gorgeously dusky singing voice and their immaculate harmonies. They quickly gained attention – and a high-profile collaborator in Martin “Youth” Glover, the Killing Joke bassist turned producer whose credits include Art of Noise and U2. Youth produced Ferris & Sylvester’s new four-song EP, The Yellow Line (named after the danger line to stay behind on train-station platforms, referenced in the song “This Is What You Get”), concocting a rich and fully realized sound that leaves one pining for a full-length. And these are songs that don’t shy away from harsh truths, as shown by the money-shot line in the chorus of opening song “Save Yourself”: “Break my heart, before I break yours.“
They Say: “That line comes from the awkward part of a relationship,” says Sylvester, “where you both know it’s going to end, you’re not sure you want it to, you’re trying to muster up the courage to do something about it and you’re hoping they’ll do it first.” Adds Ferris, “Whether we’re writing alone or together, it always has to come from a place of truth. We never make anything up. It’s all honest and true, and that line is something we’ve both felt at times.”
Hear for Yourself: “Berlin,” the EP’s single, is pretty as a California sunset even as it describes a downward spiral the singer battles with “these pills that I’m taking.” D.M.
Sounds Like: The roots-music community’s newest Renaissance man, splitting his time between a country-rock solo career, a bluegrass side project and high-profile gigs as a singer-for-hire
For Fans of: Chris Stapleton, Randy Houser, a more mainstream-leaning Jamey Johnson
Why You Should Pay Attention: “I just miss rock & roll,” says Wakefield, whose self-titled EP balances Nashville twang with amplified bang. “No one’s turning their guitars up to 11 anymore. All these guys are buying great gear, then they go play a show and don’t turn it past 3! I’m like, ‘Don’t you wanna just hit a note and see how loud it can go?'” Wakefield brings the noise with “Blame It on Me,” a new single that finds neutral territory between Top 40 country radio and what he calls “the NPR route.” His ability to woo both crowds brings to mind another bluesy belter, Chris Stapleton, whose version of “Tennessee Whiskey” served as Wakefield’s audition song on The Voice in early 2016. [He joined the show’s cast, ultimately finishing second.] A year and a half after his Voice finale, he’s still making high-profile fans, with the Steeldrivers – Stapleton’s former bluegrass band – hiring him to pinch-hit for their absent frontman, Gary Nichols, during a recent tour.
He Says: “The music we’re doing is a bit rough around the edges. It’s not your typical modern country sound. We probably win over less fans than the guys who are willing to play ball, but the ones we do win over are really loyal and engaged. I think having a bigger impact on a smaller audience is a good thing.” That said, Wakefield isn’t limiting himself to one specific crowd. Once his self-titled EP arrives July 21st, he’ll begin working on a new release with his bluegrass group, the Copperheads. “What I’d love to do,” he adds, “is go out on the weekends, play my country stuff, then come back to town during the week and play with my bluegrass band at the Station Inn or something, sort of like [Vince Gill and the Western swing group] the Time Jumpers. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire.”
Hear for Yourself: “Blame It on Me” is a slow-burning ballad that builds to an explosive chorus. R.C.
Sounds like: A raw look at the darker regions of modern-day Appalachia, where bluegrass is in the soul, but cocaine is in the blood
For Fans of: Sturgill Simpson, Dave Rawlings Machine, Jason Isbell – if he swapped the 400 Unit for Old Crow Medicine Show
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up in East Kentucky, Childers spent his youth and young adulthood learning the blue collar trades. He de-nailed boards for hardwood flooring; he worked odd landscaping jobs; he tried college, though it didn’t stick. But music – shaped from a childhood spent listening to both Drive-By Truckers and Southern gospel – held the strongest gravitational pull. Childers built a solid fan base in his home state for his songs that melded a forlorn, Appalachian howl with more modern folk diarists, driven by the stories that surrounded him. It was enough to lure Simpson into producing his new LP, Purgatory, alongside Johnny Cash engineer David Ferguson, and the result is a stirring collection anchored by Childers’ one-of-a-kind voice that’s as crisp as a child’s but breaks with the pain and knowledge of a weathered man.
He Says: “It’s that bluegrass sound, but with a little bit more edge to it. It’s something I’d want to listen to, sound-wise, growing up in this area. The Appalachian culture and the way the people in this region talk, the sayings they have, it all lends itself to good songs. Everything they say is a song line.”
Hear ror Yourself: On “Whitehouse Road,” Childers shoots a twangy groove deep in the pocket to tell a story about the hard life, where boredom is more dangerous than drugs and salvation’s in a kiss, not a church sacrament. M.M.
Sounds Like: A young Londoner’s spin on modern Americana and stripped-down soul, driven forward by killer pipes and an acoustic guitar
For Fans of: Laura Marling, First Aid Kit, Alanis Morissette’s MTV Unplugged
Why You Should Pay Attention: Still too young to order a pint in the U.S., Jade Bird is already flying high overseas, where the British songwriter kicked off the year opening for Brent Cobb and recently graduated to the U.K. festival circuit. She headed to upstate New York to record her debut release, working alongside producer Simone Felice – whom she affectionately calls “a hippie with a really cool vibe” – on the five-song EP Something American. Inspired by Loretta Lynn and Patti Smith, the record finds Bird singing about weddings and heartbreak in a voice that’s raw and robust, without any heavily layered arrangements or larger-than-necessary backing bands getting in the way.
She Says: “I’m really passionate about bringing good, traditional songwriting back. Your production should never overshadow that. You can make the mistake of trying to make yourself sound too much like someone else, and then you just become an amalgamation of your influences. I love country music, but I love Patti Smith too, and I almost wanted to take a punky approach to the whole thing. Something American has this country sound, but it also has this strong, female, bluesy element.”
Hear for Yourself: A child of divorce, Bird wails about broken vows on “Cathedral,” steadily building the song into something taut and towering. R.C.
Sounds Like: An Americana-pop hybrid shaped by the rootsiness and history of West Virginia
For Fans of: John Denver, Jackson Browne, James Taylor
Why You Should Pay Attention: Christian Lopez has only made two albums (his second, Red Arrow, comes out September 22nd), but the West Virginia tunesmith has already worked with two of the most respected roots producers in the business – first Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) and now Marshall Altman (Will Hoge, Frankie Ballard’s El Rio). Only 21, he’s crossed the 1 million Spotify streams threshold with “Will I See You Again,” and by mixing joyful country and folk-rock with an upbeat pop sensibility on Red Arrow, he’s poised for his breakout moment.
He Says: “I think it’s been hard for me to categorize myself and I’m kind of proud of that, but at the same time I’m happy that Americana is becoming a home for the genre misfits out there. I don’t think I would fit into what today’s country is, but there was no mindset going into this record of what to be. It just sort of happens and you go with it, and that’s what’s gonna be most true to myself.”
Hear for Yourself: “Swim the River,” the opening track to Red Arrow, is a bounding, headfirst dive into young adulthood guided by a swollen heart and backed by fiddle ace Stuart Duncan. C.P.
Sounds Like: That middle-aged epiphany where one realizes that chasing dreams is still a noble pursuit
For Fans of: Travis Tritt, Gary Allan, latter-day Bruce Springsteen
Why You Should Pay Attention: James LeBlanc is hardly a “new” artist, but his latest turn as an on-his-own singer is very much a new chapter. The 46-year-old from Louisiana, who’s been based in the Muscle Shoals area for a decade and a half, has sold more than 25 million records throughout his career as a songwriter. “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde,” his most famous, was a hit for Travis Tritt, and Jason Aldean, Gary Allan, Rascal Flatts and Martina McBride have all turned his other compositions into hits. But LeBlanc’s itch to record hasn’t go away, and last year he and producer Jimmy Nutt, hot off a Grammy win with the SteelDrivers, cut Nature of the Beast, an album of LeBlanc’s favorite unreleased songs, with the help of partner Angela Hacker, son Dylan (himself a Rolling Stone Country New Artist You Need to Know) and legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood.
He Says: “I was thinking, ‘What can a songwriter do when people stop recording their songs?’ Why don’t I just make a record that I can really be proud of and I consider authentic and genuine and just see if anything happens with it. I have to write a ton of crappy songs before I get to one I like, and what I consider something I like is something that feels pretty true to me, and then go and perform it live. I know lots of songwriters who can write their asses off, but one of the things I’m fortunate to be able to do is to write songs for folks and go out there and do them live.”
Hear for Yourself: “I Ain’t Easy to Love” is a gentle, familiar-feeling duet between LeBlanc and Hacker. J.G.
Sounds Like: The Mississippi Delta communion of Flaming Red-era Patty Griffin, Joss Stone and Susan Tedeschi
For Fans of: Ballsy, bluesy rockers with a dash of Southern sweetness
Why You Should Pay Attention: After Sony’s release of her outstanding LP, Ride, in 2005, this native of Clinton, Mississippi (whose high-school show choir also featured future ‘N Sync member Lance Bass), hit the road with Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw. More recently, she has sung backup on tour with Martina McBride and plumbed the murky depths of the indie-artist journey, emerging with the exuberant, Mississippi-mud-encrusted Buffalo, featuring trenchant co-writes with, among others, Travis Meadows, Lisa Carver and co-producers Jeremy Lister and Carey Ott. Highlights include the heart-piercing ballad “House on Fire,” the yearning “Mississippi Turnpike” and “Damn Good Lover,” on which the out-and-proud lesbian pours gasoline on an already raging musical inferno.
She Says: “When I moved out of Mississippi I was college age and just sort of discovering how important it was to reach across the lines of race relations, sexuality, all these different things. I was from a town and a place where there’s so much hurt and there’s still so much that’s backwards and stuck in the past. I was denying a lot. Once you break things down, it’s just fear that people experience and they put that on other people. But I love where I’m from because they are some of the richest people in their souls, of every kind of background. Even though there’s a lot of sorrow and pain that’s happened there, that’s been caused by generation after generation, out of that has come so much beauty and art.”
Hear for Yourself: “Mississippi Turnpike” is a wistful yet rollicking road trip on which Fairchild channels equal parts Delbert McClinton and Miranda Lambert. S.L.B.
Sounds Like: Earnest, melodic story songs written and sung by a guy who knows his way around an electric guitar
For Fans of: Tom Petty’s hooks, Little Feat’s grooves, the rock and soul wing of Americana
Why You Should Pay Attention: Marietta, Georgia, native Ron Pope has spent at least a decade cultivating a highly successful DIY operation, racking up literally hundreds of millions of streams on Pandora and Spotify, landing high-profile TV placements for his music and selling out concert venues around the world without a traditional record deal. His forthcoming album Work, out August 18th, expertly balances raucous, horn-accented tales of misbehaving like “Bad for Your Health” and “Let’s Get Stoned” with quiet, contemplative numbers. On the hushed title track, Pope sings of defeating the odds and proving everyone wrong, including a teacher who warned his mother that he’d probably end up “a long-term guest of the state.” “Anytime I’ve ever done anything good in my life, my mother has wanted to send this woman notes on it,” says Pope. “I’m like, ‘Ma, you gotta let this go.'”
He Says: “We’re kind of representative of this emerging middle class in the music business,” says the Nashville-based performer, who operates his own Brooklyn Basement Records with his wife. “We aren’t making Mick Jagger money, but I don’t have to make people lattes.”
Hear for Yourself: The tart kiss-off track “Can’t Stay Here,” premiering below, gets an assist from singer-songwriter Katie Schecter and evokes the sweet-and-sour power pop of Fleetwood Mac. J.F.