The latest installment of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know includes a Mellencamp-influenced heartland rocker; an Americana poet from a bygone era; a chanteuse discovered by a country legend; and Pennsylvania native with a Muscle Shoals vibe. Here's 10 acts for whom 2016 should be a banner year.
Sounds Like: Saturday-night hellbender spirits meet Sunday-morning evangelical fervor, as sung by a young man who spends his days riding the rails
For Fans of: Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, John Fullbright, Tom Waits, salvation, sin (though not necessarily in that order)
Why You Should Pay Attention: Witnessing Parker Millsap sing for the first time is a jarring experience, because the sights and sounds just don't seem to match up: the slightly built 23-year-old from Oklahoma has a bluesy, powerful rasp of a howl that sounds equally suited for juke joints or church tents. Religious and mythological themes account for the most striking moments on Millsap's new album The Very Last Day (due out March 25th), including the devilish love song "Hades Pleads" and the apocalyptic title track, a wide-eyed recast of the Louvin Brothers' "Great Atomic Power."
He Says: "My dad heard that song and said, 'I think it's funny,'" Millsap says of "The Very Last Day." "So that works for me. I grew up with gospel, and singing the way I do is something I can't help. I never really intend to sing like that, but it's just how it always comes out.”
Hear for Yourself: The new album's "Heaven Sent," a lovely and anguished tale of a man coming out to his disapproving father. D.M.
Sounds Like: Trisha Yearwood cutting an R&B record in Muscle Shoals
For Fans of: Shelby Lynne, Joan Osborne, Martina McBride's Everlasting
Why You Should Pay Attention: The woman has got some serious pipes. That's the immediate takeaway from Myles's new EP Miss Morgan Myles, a six-song taste of her soulful spin on country. Even as a kid, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter knew she had a big voice and was drawn to kindred spirits such as Janis Joplin and Mariah Carey, but especially to country's great female belters — Yearwood, McBride and LeAnn Rimes were all early influences. Originally from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Myles has been in Nashville for a decade and admits it hasn't been an easy ride. Still, she's finally making inroads in her dream career and shopping a full-length album to various labels, with the plan to release it this year.
She Says: "When I was watching the CMAs and Chris Stapleton and 'Girl Crush' were winning everything, I was in tears. It basically said that this kind of music is going to be heard and people want to hear big, soulful country voices. That's where I've been living for a long time. And I'm excited that the gate has been opened a little bit."
Hear for Yourself: New single "Whiskey Dreaming," which has the hallmarks of both country and soul, from empty bottles to sultry backup vocals. J.R.
Sounds Like: Greetings From Asbury Park, Oklahoma; a freewheeling, keys-loving disciple of the John Mellencamp School with plenty of dirt still under his nails
For Fans of: Unadorned roots-rock, Jason Isbell's "Super 8"; any song misinterpreted by political candidates as being a happy-go-lucky patriotic anthem (i.e. "Born in the U.S.A")
Why You Should Pay Attention: Heartland this, Americana that — it seems like every other band these days wants to embody a rootsy, corn-fed spirit, often without ever actually living it. Jared Deck, however, grew up in a rural Oklahoma town (population: 1,200) and spent the bulk of his early years trying to start a business, playing piano in a gospel church or just hoping to get the hell out of Dodge. And when he did load up his car and try to flee at 21, he made it exactly 17 miles until a flat tire sent him right back to where he came from — a woeful tale until you listen to the blue-collar bombast of "17 Miles," the song he later wrote inspired by the incident. Like the rest of his forthcoming self-titled debut, it deals not in some imagined, idealized version of fly-over country, but in the real life that lingers in towns much smaller than the dreams they contain — and, sometimes, constrain.
He Says: "This album is very personal for me," Deck says. "I used to always try and avoid songs about my life and background, or overly mask them so that nobody understood them except me. But I've opened up, and decided that the best way to feel better about what I am writing and singing is to be honest. It's taken me years."
Hear for Yourself: One of the most rowdy odes to failure ever written, "17 Miles." M.M.
Sounds Like: Bobbie Gentry and Joni Mitchell went on a vacation to Hawaii together
For Fans of: Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson, Maren Morris
Why You Should Pay Attention: Because Willie Nelson says so. The bluesy, soulful Meola grew up on Maui, where she met the Red Headed Stranger; their families knew each other. After Nelson heard the ingénue perform in a local café, he handed her a napkin with some song titles scribbled on it, suggestions of duets they play together. "Will You Remember Mine" from that list appears on They Say, her album out March 6th. Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah join a cast of other big names supporting the 21-year-old's debut. The Lukas-penned "L.A." is four perfect minutes of heartache, while Kris Kristofferson shows up to duet on his iconic "Me and Bobby McGee."
She Says: The island vibe is an essential part of who Meola is. "Everyone on Maui has just been so supportive. I don't know if I would still be a singer if I hadn't grown up there." But don't expect some Don Ho-style ukulele sound from this powerhouse. "I've been listening to Chris Stapleton a lot and I love how he can be soulful and country. That's where I want to be."
Hear for Yourself: The metaphoric "Bad Weather," which Meola wrote. M.L.
Sounds Like: a country Ed Sheeran; Thomas Rhett, if his Tangled Up album was influenced by Sheeran and 5 Seconds of Summer instead of Memphis and Motown
For Fans of: Clean and crisp country-pop; Keith Urban; Brett Eldredge with Justin Bieber's vocal range
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up in Nashville to a father heavily embedded in Music Row (his dad is Marcus Hummon, a Grammy-wining writer for Tim McGraw), Levi Hummon wasn't always convinced he wanted to be a musician, even escaping Tennessee altogether to study the visual arts at a Florida college. But when songwriting's in your DNA, it can't be ignored and after sophomore year, Hummon ditched the Sunshine State to come back to his hometown and focus on music for good. The gamble paid off: the tune he wrote with his pops, "Make It Love"(from the film Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro), was shortlisted for an Oscar, and cemented a relationship with the movie's writer, Desmond Child, known more for his work with Katy Perry and Bon Jovi than any country stars. As a result, the songs from Hummon's forthcoming EP, due in April, are youthful, catchy and cool.
He Says: "As a singer-songwriter, it's important for me to write songs, because it's the best way I can tell my story," says Hummon, who composed four out of five tracks on his EP. "But I also want to have the best songs. I talked to Thomas Rhett one time on the road — he spoke about the process of being both a songwriter and artist, and wanting to have the best album possible. And he said if he did choose an [outside] song, it would have to be something he could relate to and make his own, and he really sold me on that."
Hear for Yourself: Though his new material is bigger and bolder than the sweetness of "Make It Love," it's a solid introduction to the pop sheen of his point-of-view. M.M.
Sounds Like: Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett's brand of approachable soul, destined for mass appeal
For Fans of: Old Dominion, Jake Owen, Tim McGraw
Why You Should Pay Attention: A former college baseball pitcher who started songwriting as a way to pass the time after an injury, Young is not lobbing softballs when it comes to his new craft. His self-titled six-song EP was released by Big Machine Label Group's Republic Nashville last month, with a radio push coming in April. Young's team calls his sound "Caliville" — an intersection of his Southern California upbringing and his passion for Nashville.
He Says: "I have always been a super-emotional dude," Young says of his affinity for authentic, poignant lyrics. "The first country song I ever heard was Tim McGraw's 'Don't Take the Girl.' I love to be able to tell a whole story in three-and-half minutes." Young may want honesty, but he also wants it to be clean. Having first performed music while leading worship services in his youth, he strives for songs to be the type that both moms and daughters can listen to and relate. "It can be mature without being offensive. There's no reason for the content to cross those lines."
Hear for Yourself: The dreamy punch of "Sleep Without You." M.L.
Sounds Like: A country kid with an affinity for urban cool
For Fans of: Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt's blend of country, pop and rhythmic flavors
Why You Should Pay Attention: On his six-song debut EP, the Oklahoma native deploys an R&B-influenced sound that is fast becoming popular. The indie artist also has a fan in Vince Gill, with whom he co-wrote the gut-wrenching ballad "I Can't Do This" for Gill's latest album Down to My Last Bad Habit.
They Say: Brennin's influences range from Gill ("I own every record and know every nuance of his vocals and guitar playing") to Michael Jackson ("I used to sleep in the white glove") to the Eagles ("I named my son Henley") and tries to blend those styles. He's encouraged by Hunt's success at mashing up sounds, especially since they share something important: a name. "My legal first name is Samuel, so my full name is Samuel Brennin Hunt," he says with a laugh, noting they are not related. Brennin, who has also appeared on the ABC drama Nashville and on the 2011 season of X Factor, says "I'm a huge fan of his because he has opened the door for people like me — I'm not your typical country male vocalist."
Hear for Yourself: Laid-back first single "Lose My Cool" in which the GQ-suave narrator is undone by a lovely lady. S.R.
For Fans of: Carrie Underwood, Lady Gaga, Faith Hill
Why You Should Pay Attention: Big-voiced Alabama native Henderson was raised by her grandparents while her mother battled drug addiction, a rough blow that she's channeled into music and performing since childhood. During her final year of college, Henderson became a cast member on Oxygen's Glee Project 2 and though she didn't win her season, the experience on the show helped solidify the kind of singer she wanted to be. Henderson's single "Hell or Highwater" speaks to the scars that small towns can leave and (as the creepy video demonstrates) the ghosts that still haunt their quiet avenues.
She Says: "I wanted it to be something that was truly embracing of where I came from and as ugly or as beautiful as that might be — because there are pretty aspects to it too — but there is a lot of darkness in my past," she says of recording "Hell or Highwater. "So I wanted something that was completely unafraid to tell your story and where you come from, whatever it is."
Hear for Yourself: The ominous "Hell or Highwater," which wasn't written by Henderson, but perfectly encapsulates a side of small-town life that she may know all too well. "Tommy's makin' moonshine, Billy cooks meth/folks dying, getting high for the hell of it." J.F.
Sounds Like: With a touch of grainy gravitas to his voice, Dupré recalls everyone from George Strait to Gordon Lightfoot
For Fans of: The up-the-middle stylings of artists like Blake Shelton and Randy Travis
Why You Should Pay Attention: He drew high praise from all four judges during his stint on The Voice last season, with Shelton calling Dupré's performance of his song "Sure Be Cool If You Did" pitch perfect.
He Says: "Traditional country is something that I've always loved and had a passion for," says Dupré, who grew up listening to George Jones, Merle Haggard and Travis, who is a friend and adviser. "But I also I don't want to sound old." The Louisiana native is obsessed with top-shelf vocals. "I've never been interested in drums or guitars, just always voices. I grew up trying to mimic these great voices so I really have to give credit to those singers for my style."
Hear for Yourself: The throwback "Stoned to Death," in which the narrator is imprisoned by the memory of a lost love, sentenced to a "neon holding cell." S.R.
Sounds Like: A clear-as-a-bell reimagining of the Dixie Chicks, with youthful optimism to burn
For Fans of: Maren Morris, the Eagles, Baptist choirs and modern storytelling
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Mont Belvieu, Texas, trio already received Simon Cowell's blessing after a brief stint on The X Factor in 2012, as well as developed a fanbase among the satellite radio community with their Lee Brice-produced single "Faint of Heart" in 2015. Their five-song EP Demo Sessions Vol. 1 shows a keen sense of songwriting underneath their intuitively tight harmonies. And the sisters' rough-and-tumble upbringing around honky-tonks — and especially the Houston rodeo scene — provides a certain lived-in experience, infusing undeniable honesty in their brand of traditional-meets-modern country.
They Say: "Things can happen out of nowhere at any time and you might not be prepped for it, but you'd just better be prepared that that can happen. So I think [rodeos] really helped us along the way," says Cirby Manchaca, who with sisters Celbi and Carli make up the group. "Expecting the unexpected taught us all a lot. Big pressure moments, big excitement, just keeping your cool and keeping your feet on the ground along with a lot of responsibility." Celbi, a skilled barrel racer, cites a quote from her father. "My dad would always ask me before I would go on, 'Are you nervous?' I'd say, 'Yeah,' and he'd say, 'Good, that means you love it.' Going onstage, I always remember that. If you don't get butterflies, then you're not doing what you wanna do."
Hear for Yourself: "Faint of Heart," an introspective ballad to which anyone searching for their place in the world can relate. E.M.