This month’s list includes two harmony-heavy bands, one working in modern-country, the other inspired by the Grateful Dead. There’s also a pop-minded vocalist who was reared on R&B and rock, and a piano-ballad chanteuse. Here are the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: A scruffier-voiced Ryan Adams obsessed with both Merle and the Misfits
For Fans of: Josh Ritter, Elliott Smith, roots-rock that still actually bothers to rock, like Old 97’s
Why You Should Pay Attention: Kelly is just as adept at making catchy country grooves – Tim McGraw and Josh Abbott Band have cut his tracks –as he is capturing life’s darkest, most introspective moments. The songwriter’s debut EP, the Mike Mogis-produced Halloween, is a solemn meditation on the inevitable end of things, and the spirits that tend to haunt us. Kelly came to Tennessee as a last-minute decision after attending high school in Belgium (he jokes that his father might have been a spy). Once he landed in town, he held tenure in the jam band Elmwood and battled addiction, writing songs on Music Row while exploring his demons on Halloween and his forthcoming full-length. Current single “Black Magic” shows a powerful grasp on storytelling gleaned from his love of the Carter Family and Townes Van Zandt, but also a more ragged rock & roll soul: it’s Americana, if your Americana is Bruce Springsteen with an acoustic guitar, sung by someone who spins a little heavy metal too. “Sometimes I wear both a cowboy hat and a Slayer T-shirt, just to throw people off,” Kelly says.
He Says: “Suffering is a road to better things,” Kelly says about the sometimes-somber content of Halloween. “Suffering is a progressive element in human beings, to discover more about themselves so they can be taller and stronger. And somebody has to sing about that. I just feel especially drawn to that, and I don’t think that will ever change.”
Hear for Yourself: “Black Magic” is a crescendoing rocker that ponders the bewitching pull of romance –and how it can easily disappear in a cloud of smoke. M.M.
Sounds Like: Beach-friendly country and roots rock from south of the border – way, way south of the border
For Fans of: Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Dixie Chicks
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in El Salvador, surf-loving Angie Keilhauer was reared on her American-born mother’s affinity for Dolly Parton and an immigrant’s love affair with “Coat of Many Colors.” When her family relocated to Georgia at the age of 11, she got to nurture her country music dreams up close and personal. Initially a musician in her spare time, Keilhauer quit her job working in an auto-salvage yard to perform on cruise ships, but the rigorous schedule led to vocal polyps that required surgery. Bouncing back, she competed on The Voice in 2016 and, despite only appearing on three episodes, gained a devoted following back home in El Salvador, where her bilingual records have all gone to Number One. Keilhauer’s unique voice has to do more with her lyrics than her ease with Spanish; she writes all of her songs herself.
She Says: “I’ve never understood people who just live in Nashville or New York because the only way I figure out how to make money is to play. The last four years, I’ve averaged 17 to 21 shows in a month. I don’t have the resources to be in one place and co-write. But not having that has forced me to be better. Having that kind of motivation just makes you unstoppable, despite any kind of hardship.”
Hear for Yourself: “Born to Drive,” a crunchy country-rocker, is the tough-talking credo of an El Camino-driving road warrior who has no trouble hanging with the boys — and knows more about fixing their cars than they do. J.G.
Sounds Like: Gavin DeGraw throwing a Sam Hunt-style “House Party”
For Fans of: Hunt, Old Dominion, canned drums with real banjos
Why You Should Pay Attention: Though Davis grew up around music (uncle Stan Paul Davis wrote two Number One songs for Tracy Lawrence), the Louisiana native initially chose to pursue environmental conservation in college before ditching the books for Nashville. His goal: melding the songcraft of artists like John Prine and Jim Croce with the genre’s pop progressives. It might be a little off-putting for some to hear Davis, who could spar with Chris Stapleton in the battle of the mighty beards, mention Prine in the same sentence as Sam Hunt, but he’s dead-set on naturally fusing both worlds on his forthcoming debut. First out of the gate is “Singles You Up,” which puts his knack for hooks and R&B runs on full display in the antithesis of “Single Ladies,” about hoping no one puts a ring on it.
He Says: “Having such a deep-rooted songwriting background, the actual lyric and the story is up front in every song of mine,” says Davis, whose brother Jacob Davis is also a country artist. “I always go back to John Prine, just because he has those songs that can tear your heart out, and these borderline funny songs that are very witty and well-written. Some days I want to hear songs like ‘Sam Stone,’ but other days I want to turn on music I don’t have to think much about and just enjoy. I wanted to do that, too.”
Hear for Yourself: “Singles You Up” is an anthem for anyone waiting for a lover to come back on the market, smartly alternating subdued, twangier verses and big pop choruses. M.M.
Sounds Like: The best of the Sixties and Seventies songwriter scenes, refracted through the singular lens of a modern day wanderer
For Fans of: Rhiannon Giddens, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris
Why You Should Pay Attention: Also known by Azniv Korkejian, Bedouine is preparing to unveil a debut album that sounds like the work of a songwriter with dozens of LPs to her name. Releasing via Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Records, Bedouine is a sparkling collection of captivating folk songs, showcasing Korkejian’s crystalline vocals, carefully refined sonic aesthetic (she did, after all, study sound design), and shrewd storytelling. Born in Aleppo, Syria, but raised across the globe, the current Los Angeles resident didn’t choose the name Bedouine lightly: her music is informed by her myriad experiences, offering a much-needed new perspective to the folk canon.
She Says: “‘Solitary Daughter’ poured out of me one night. I was fed up after I realized my relationship to someone was entirely on their terms. It’s a song about empathy. That sounds contradictory because of the solitary aspect… The way this song fits into the narrative of the album is its element of detachment. It’s a reaction I sometimes have to injustice, essentially opting out. It sounds passive but if we stopped enabling the things we don’t agree with, positive change is absolutely possible, whether it’s in romance or politics.”
Hear for Yourself: “Solitary Daughter” is a gorgeous, plainspoken folk song with a refrain many of us can relate to in this oversaturated digital age: “Leave me alone to the books and the radio snow.” B.M.
Sounds Like: The harmony-heavy, guitar-fueled house band at a Big Pink keg party in 1968
For Fans of: Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken, Dawes’ North Hills
Why You Should Pay Attention: Already cult favorites in Nashville, Cordovas have built honorary home bases across the globe, thanks to recurring shows in Todos Santos, Mexico – where ringleader Joe Firstman runs the yearly Tropic of Cancer Concert Series – and a touring schedule that recently including headlining gigs in Sweden and a stateside run alongside the Turnpike Troubadours. The band’s sound, though, is decidedly American. Caught halfway between Duane Allman’s Telecaster twang, the Dead’s hazy harmonies and the stoned swoon of California’s folk-rock heyday, Cordovas wring new life from older influences, hoisting their freak flag high on their upcoming album, That Santa Fe Channel.
They Say: “We did everything live,” Firstman says of That Santa Fe Channel, which was produced by the Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale. “Even the harmonies were recorded together, with all three of us singing. We probably did 15 takes of the first song, ‘This Town’s a Drag.’ Kenneth wanted it to sound as real and authentic as possible, and when I listen back, it gets better and better every time.”
Hear for Yourself: “I’m the One Who Needs You Tonight” is rich with harmonies and Grateful Dead inspiration. R.C.
Sounds Like: Progressive country with an indie flair, like Jenny Lewis’ twangier cousin
For Fans of: Nikki Lane, Kacey Musgraves, Aubrie Sellers
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ruby Force, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Erin McLaughlin, lives up to her vivid stage name. On her forthcoming debut album Evolutionary War, she paints colorful tales using a broad sonic palette, drawing from country, Americana, rock and indie pop for a sound that lands somewhere between Rilo Kiley and Nikki Lane. While some tracks – the single “Cowboy” – dabble in retro influences, Force’s music is, like Lane’s and Kacey Musgraves’, a glimpse at the promising direction in which left-of-center country music is headed.
She Says: “Evolutionary War is sort of a collection, like a box of photos you find from a certain period of life. It strings together like a narrative essentially, about how I love,” McLaughlin says. “If these songs can find their way into people’s hearts, not to mention playlists, I would feel like I’ve accomplished something of eternal value. It would also be wicked sweet if this record could bring something tangible back home: an audience, some discourse, that daily bread. Then I’d just do it again and again.”
Hear for Yourself: “Ode to Vic Chesnutt,” premiering below in advance of Evolutionary War‘s June 22nd release date, pays homage to the beloved late Athens songwriter and to “life spinning like a wheel” with sweet harmonies and an optimistic, driving beat. B.M.
Sounds Like: The tight harmonies and sun-soaked melodies of the Beach Boys, but from the Gulf Coast not the West Coast
For Fans of: The Eagles; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John
Why You Should Pay Attention: Levon’s origin story starts in early 2014 when Michael David Hall and Jake Singleton first met after playing in separate bands during the same night’s showcase. The following year, Ryan Holladay turned the duo into a trio and solidified Levon’a three-part harmony calling card. Between Hall’s operatic five-octave vocal range, Singleton’s multi-instrumental talents, and Holladay’s bluegrass background as a child prodigy on the mandolin, Levon is a triple-threat sonic assault that hearkens back to the halcyon Laurel Canyon days of flawless country-rock. Even their band name tips the hat to their musical lineage: it’s equally inspired by the Band’s Levon Helm and the Elton John staple. In their short time together as a band, Levon has already shared the bill with such heavyweights as Willie Nelson and Tim McGraw. They just released their Columbia Nashville/Epic Records self-titled debut EP in May.
They Say: “The first time we jammed, Ryan, Jake, and I realized that our three-part harmony was unique and it made our songs finally come alive in a way they hadn’t before. ‘Ms. Marianne’ was the first song we did together and we were all cracking up by how quickly it all came together,” Hall tells Rolling Stone Country. “When we met Willie Nelson, he told us that we sounded good and he really liked our harmonies,” Singleton adds. “That was enough inspiration for me for many years to come.”
Hear for Yourself: “Wired” is an emotionally raw yet musically polished radio track that features thick-as-thieves harmonies and an infectious chorus hook. W.H.
Sounds Like: Epic, big-hearted country anthems better suited to the stadium than the saloon
For Fans of: Darius Rucker, John Mayer’s early albums, Brett Young
Why You Should Pay Attention: A former Southern Miss baseball star who competed in the 2009 College World Series, Adam Doleac began writing songs during his junior year, encouraged by a handful of teammates who also played guitar. Years later, he’s gearing up to join the country-music big leagues, armed with a Sony/ATV publishing deal and a self-titled debut EP. Doleac’s songs are anchored not only in the trends of Top 40 radio, but also the blue-collar grit of Bob Seger and the bluesy influence of his Mississippi hometown.
He Says: “All my influences came outside of country. I’ve got a lot of grit in my voice. When I moved up to Nashville and started working with some of these writers I loved, I combined the storytelling side of country music with the sounds I grew up hearing. That’s what landed me here.”
Hear for Yourself: Co-written with Monty Criswell, “Whiskey’s Fine” puts a dramatic, driving spin on the traditional drinking song template. R.C.
Sounds Like: Piano ballads and a bottle of wine; country soul with an L.A. sheen
For Fans of: Rihanna, Sam Hunt, Faith Hill
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in Colorado, Ingrid Andress traveled the country with her father, who worked as a trainer for the Colorado Rockies and New York Mets. She seemed destined to pursue sports herself, but passed on playing volleyball in college for a vocal scholarship at Berklee College of Music. There, Andress’ songwriting caught the attention of one of her instructors, hit songwriter Kara DioGuardi, who signed her to her publishing house. The Lady Gaga fan won the Unsigned Only Music contest for her song “Footprints” and went on to score song placements with pop stars like Charli XCX and Akon. Andress’ own music, however, leans toward pop-friendly country ballads.
She Says: “Even though the stuff I do is country, because country to me is the place where I feel most fulfilled, I love stepping into L.A. and New York with all these extreme personalities and have to take them on and write for them. That’s also a part of me. I consider myself a pop songwriter, but as far as I am as a person or artist, I’m nothing like Lady Gaga. I love the stories and songs, and country really supports that, which is why I like it.”
Hear for Yourself: Debut single “Stranger” is a soulful, stripped-down ballad about remorse and yearning to make the same mistake twice. J.G.
Sounds Like: Able-voiced country-pop, performed by a mainstream-ready Millennial who grew up listening to Reba, R&B and rock & roll
For Fans of: Chris Young, Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett
Why You Should Pay Attention: Before launching his solo career with this year’s Sake of the Summer, Griffin climbed the country charts as a songwriter, penning Kelsea Ballerini’s hit single “Dibs” with his future producer, Josh Kerr. Sake of the Summer refocuses the spotlight not only on Griffin’s writing chops, but on his elastic voice, which delivers familiar storylines from the country catalog – high-school summers, young love and the guilty thrill of downing your first beer – with equal parts poppy punch and R&B swagger. This fall, he’ll hit the road with fellow newcomer Michael Tyler on a coast-to-coast tour.
He Says: “I’m the youngest of three boys, so I didn’t get to select what was on the radio while we were young and riding in my mom’s car. It was always country music, and I loved it, but then I got my own boombox in middle school and discovered Brian McKnight, Usher and K-Ci & JoJo. I used to sit in my room and mimic Brian McKnight’s vocal runs. That was where everything intersected for me – this combination of R&B and soul and country. Later, when Keith Urban came out with ‘You’ll Think of Me,’ I listened to the song and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it. I can actually do this.'”
Hear for Yourself: “Woulda Left Me Too” is a delayed confession, with Griffin crooning his apologies to a former flame long after the fire has burned out. R.C.