An anonymous country shtick-kicker, the son of a late cowboy legend and the fiddle player whose latest album was produced by Jack White make up this month’s installment of new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: A crew of East Nashville rule-breakers putting a gorgeous, gay-friendly spin on their city’s Countrypolitan past via frontman Alex Caress, whose voice channels Roy Orbison’s swagger and Rufus Wainwright’s sass
For Fans of: Father John Misty, Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Stacked with piano, strings, pedal steel and gobs of female harmonies, Breakfast Alone – Little Bandit’s debut – nods to the late Fifties and Sixties, a time when country, pop and early rock & roll were just beginning to branch away from a common trunk. Don’t expect the music to lose itself to traditionalism, though. From “Scattered and Smothered” — a murder ballad about a jilted lover who disposes of his ex the same way he orders his hash browns — to “Diana,” whose titular character leaves behind her small-town boyfriend for the skeezy allure of the big city, bandleader Caress mixes heart-on-sleeve honesty with a subversive wink, both eulogizing and satirizing his genre. Deftly written and smartly played, Breakfast Alone is a balancing act: melodrama uplifted by pure melody, and humor met with honky-tonk chops.
He Says: Caress, an openly gay musician in a conservative state, doesn’t make any excuses for kissing his own boyfriend in the video for Breakfast Alone‘s “Bed of Bad Luck.” “My intention with that,” he explains, “was never to have any sort of shock value or to be some sort of token. The video was made in the interest of presenting my authentic self, and using my position to provide visibility for my community.”
Hear for Yourself: “Bed of Bad Luck” kicks off the album like a lounge singer’s lament, all spoken-word swagger and give-and-take tempos, before transforming itself into a golden-era country knockout. R.C.
Sounds Like: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’s seminal Trio album mixed with Tom Waits’ kitchen-sink instrumental aesthetic
For Fans of: The Mandrell Sisters, Dixie Chicks and Wilson Phillips (if they were all backed by adventurous alt-country players)
Why You Should Pay Attention: Since their celebrated NPR Tiny Desk Concert, well over half a million people (and counting) have viewed the Wild Reeds’ harmony-rich three-song set on YouTube. On April 7th, the multi-talented threesome of Sharon Silva, Kinsey Lee and Mackenzie Howe will release The World We Built (via Dualtone), an 11-song collection that beautifully showcases their prowess. All three songwriters bring a distinct style to the table, which creates the uniquely blended “fourth voice” that has become their calling card. The trio also switches up instruments onstage – acoustic guitars, fuzzed-out electrics, harmonium, banjo, Nord keyboard, harmonica – to create an explosive and experimental live show.
They Say: “Although we incorporate multiple instruments in our set, our voices are the most personal and powerful instrument we have. When you are writing from your core, the voice is the first thing to translate those feelings,” Kinsey Lee says. “The first time we sang together was in Kinsey’s back house when I auditioned for the band,” adds Howe. “I remember being nervous and excited at how it sounded because I had never sang in three-part harmony before. We consistently work on our blend together. Some days it comes easy and some days it doesn’t, but when we perform well, our voices become one distinct voice and it feels a bit otherworldly.”
Hear for Yourself: Buzzy, alt-folk lead single “Only Songs” from The World We Built is, according to Howe, about liberating oneself from anything that’s holding you back. W.H.
Sounds Like: The classic country of vintage AM radio fleshed out with modern-day hooks and choruses
For Fans of: John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, richly cinematic story-songs
Why You Should Pay Attention: The title of Matt Urmy’s new album Out of the Ashes (out March 31st) is not a metaphor: the record was literally salvaged from a historic fire. After a ballsy cold-call to country icon “Cowboy” Jack Clement asking if he could perform at an upcoming show, Urmy struck up a friendship with the influential songwriter and producer, who agreed to produce Urmy’s album at his Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa in Nashville. They made it all the way to the mixing stage before an electrical fire destroyed Clement’s house and studio. A year later, Urmy received a call that the raw session files had been recovered. Clement and Urmy finished the album, adding the on-the-nose new song that would become the project’s title. Clement passed away in 2013, but his spirit and voice run throughout the project.
He Says: “The week before we began the recording sessions, [Clement] asked me if I’d bring over all my home recordings so we could pick the songs we were going to do. It was the most excruciating couple hours of my musical life, just sitting there at his desk while he listened through the tracks in silence, smoking cigarettes and looking out the window. When all the songs had finished playing, he let out a sigh and said, ‘You kind of remind me of Kris Kristofferson. You can’t really sing, but your songs and lyrics are really good.'”
Hear for Yourself: Previously recorded by such country greats as Johnny Cash, Crystal Gayle and Clement himself, the Bob McDill/Allen Reynolds composition “We Must Believe in Magic” becomes a poignant duet between the upstart Urmy and the wizened Clement. W.H.
Sounds Like: What could have happened in Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s Nashville sessions, if they laced “Rainy Day Woman #12 and #35” with speedy honky-tonk guitar and gospel
For Fans of: Jonny Fritz, John Hartford, Gram Parsons’ “Ooh Las Vegas”
Why You Should Pay Attention: For the Jackson, Tennessee-based the Kernal – né Joe Garner – it all began with a red Opry suit. Unearthed while scrounging through his childhood closet, the crimson get-up carried almost mythical powers for the onetime English major. And, soon, a personality to match was born. Known to some as a bass player for Jonny Fritz and Andrew Combs (in his pedestrian clothes), the cheekily anonymous Kernal has been cranking out country that’s sweetly subversive on the sly for years, until John Paul White signed him to his Single Lock Records to release the sophomore effort Light Country. The Kernal can write songs about Taco Bell with melodies as addictive as a cheesy gordita but built from a studied, intellectual point of view, with hints of gospel and lush Seventies rock à la Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
He Says: “Whenever you are doing anything new, you try to attach yourself to something to be seen as an individual,” he says about Light Country, the album’s title that’s also a de facto genre. “I’ve always been a fan of Jonny Fritz, who did ‘dad country,’ and William Tyler, with ‘modern country.’ You see people doing that, and it interested me. I thought I would attach my [songs] to something like that. ‘Light Country’ is more a term of weight, but I thought ‘diet country’ might be a little misleading.”
Hear for Yourself: “Knock-Kneed Ballerina” rocks and rollicks hard with imagery that would give John Prine an illegal smile. M.M.
Sounds Like: Alison Krauss recording B-sides for Led Zeppelin IV
For Fans of: First Aid Kit, Son Volt and the spine-chilling fiddle (and voice to match) of Jack White’s “Temporary Ground”
Why You Should Pay Attention: Having White champing at the bit to produce your record is a problem that most people would die for, but it’s the story of how Lillie Mae (born Lillie Mae Rische) made her first solo LP, Forever and Then Some, out April 14th on Third Man. Playing fiddle since age seven – often alongside her two sisters and brother in the band Jypsi, an institution at Nashville honky-tonk Layla’s Bluegrass Inn – Rische became a member of White’s touring crew and a vocal presence on tracks like Lazaretto‘s “Alone in My Home.” One night, Mae gave White a sample of her own songs backstage, and he offered to help make her LP. On Forever, the product of that partnership, Mae ticks through evocative stories of love lost and gone wrong, viewing bluegrass and country through a melancholy, modern lens, something White and crew are masters at. Don’t call it a breakup record, though. “I was definitely going through something,” she says, “but aren’t we all?”
She Says: “It’s kind of a confusing place to be: I am a bluegrass fiddle player, but I’m also a songwriter … The transition from fiddle player to songwriter was something that came across in these songs. I love playing guitar and singing, but there’s not a whole lot of fiddle on the record. I could see myself writing some crazy fiddle stuff someday, but it isn’t the main thing on this record.”
Hear for Yourself: The haunting folk quiver of “Over the Hill and Through the Woods,” about a relationship that’s certainly no fairytale, features a “Free Bird”- style vamp. M.M.
Sounds Like: John Mayer, if he’d grown up listening to Garth Brooks and worried more about other people’s feelings
For Fans of: Hunter Hayes, Andy Grammer, drinking wine alone on a weeknight in your late 20s
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up a stone’s throw from Folsom Prison in California, Dawson was weaned on R&B, NorCal classic rock and Nineties country, but spent his post-high school years touring with metal band Shadow of the Colossus. He headed to Nashville in 2012 to study songwriting in college, before his mash-up of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Style” with Louisa Wendorff got over 30 million YouTube plays and a thumbs-up from T-Swift herself. Now signed to Warner Nashville, Dawson released a handful of songs on Spotify earlier this month from his debut full-length, due to be released later this year. The song “All on Me” got almost two million plays in its first two weeks. Dawson is currently touring in support of another songwriter-turned-solo artist: Maren Morris.
He Says: “I learned how to write songs just by listening to country music and how to set up words. The weight of the words we have in this genre is unlike anything. We have the ability to let people in on certain things. Just the culture of songwriting in country music is what I grew up analyzing without even realizing it. [My music] might have more of a soul sonic identity with a little bit of rock, but with more of the honesty and vulnerability of a country lyric. I couldn’t do what I do with any other genre because I’m such a stickler for words.”
Hear for Yourself: Dawson sets himself up as the complete package in “All on Me,” a sugar daddy with an ear to lend, and wraps it all up with a hook that gets stuck in your head by the second refrain. J.G.
Sounds Like: A modern take on classic cowboy country, performed by the son of legendary Chris LeDoux
For Fans of: Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson, Chris LeDoux
Why You Should Pay Attention: Originally a drummer, LeDoux joined his dad’s band in 1998, staying behind the kit until the elder LeDoux’s passing in 2005. More than a decade later, he reintroduces himself as a singer with Forever a Cowboy. Ned wrote four of the EP’s five songs, crediting his family’s genes – as well as the encouragement of producer Mac McAnally – with transforming him from a skin-basher into a family-friendly singer. “I’d never really written any songs before I met Mac,” he admits. “Songwriting to me was like a frozen river, and here comes Mac with a giant sledgehammer, ready to bust a big hole in that river. I’m glad he did. It’s starting to flow pretty good.”
He Says: “This apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I’m going to keep my music on the same road my dad paved. He had such a neat sound – sort of a rodeo rock & roll sound, with a romantic cowboy side. I think we’re missing a little bit of that in today’s country music.”
Hear for Yourself: Ned pays tribute to his dad’s influence with “The Hawk,” an evocative, almost spoken song that reincarnates Chris LeDoux as a high-flying bird. R.C.
Sounds Like: Eighties-era Randy Newman with an earnest James Taylor softness, but scuffed up just enough by a guy with plenty of miles on the road – and in the air (he’s a licensed pilot)
For Fans of: John Fullbright, Robert Ellis covering Paul Simon on The Lights from the Chemical Plant, Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams
Why You Should Pay Attention: Tell anyone in Oklahoma that Travis Linville is an up-and-coming artist, and they’ll balk. A sideman for Hayes Carll for almost a decade, Linville’s been releasing solo records that have transformed him into a bit of a folk legend in the Sooner State – he even taught Parker Millsap to play guitar and hosted John Fullbright in his studio – but never quite grabbed the spotlight once things crossed state lines. His newest LP, Up Ahead, hopes to change all that with songs that resound with uncomplicated authenticity – as a player in other people’s bands, you could expect some showboating from this gifted instrumentalist. Instead, subtlety and storytelling with shuffling hints of jazz are what shine through. “I take a whole lot of pride in knowing when it’s time to be out front, and when it’s not,” Linville says. It’s time.
He says: “I wrote a lot of these songs on piano. I never perform at the piano, but I wrote a lot of them that way. When you play guitar, especially when it’s your main instrument, there are a lot of obvious things you go to. If I sit down with a guitar, I know what going to happen. If I sit at a piano, I have to decide what’s going to happen.”
Hear for Yourself: The reverb-laced shuffle of “Wishes” that offers hints of Tom Petty and roots-rock that’s as mature as the lyrics. M.M.
Sounds Like: Outlaw swagger meets blue-eyed soul, with evocative, heartfelt songwriting thrown in for good measure
For Fans of: Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Ray LaMontagne
Why You Should Pay Attention: Cris Jacobs’ 2016 album Dust to Gold snuck up on everyone, quietly announcing itself as one of the best roots-soul records in a year that also produced a new album from Sturgill Simpson. It’s the second solo LP from the Baltimore-based singer and guitarist, who cut his teeth as the frontman for jam band the Bridge before striking out on his own. He earned an opening slot with Simpson himself on the strength of his 2012 debut Songs for Cats and Dogs, and, though similarities between the two artists are hard to ignore, he has a singular voice all his own, one that should have him headlining his own gigs soon enough.
He Says: “I’ve never been hung up on defining myself in terms of genre. The hardest question I’m ever asked is, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ I could answer by saying, ‘A little bit of blues, country, rock & roll, bluegrass, soul, R&B,’ but those are just the ingredients that I’ve absorbed. I’m a songwriter, a guitar player and a singer, and I try to just create music that feels good to me. If my country has a bit of funk to it, or my rock a little bluegrass, what do you call it? Who cares? When someone asks, ‘What’s for dessert?’ you don’t say, ‘A little bit of eggs, sugar, flour, cocoa, butter.’ You say, ‘Chocolate cake.’ So I guess I’m constantly serving up chocolate cake and trying to perfect my recipe.”
Hear for Yourself: “Jack the Whistle and the Hammer” has echoes of Simpon’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but the song – a grooving slice of soul-country that should have show-goers dancing in the aisles – is anything but derivative. B.M.
Sounds Like: Heartland folk with a dark edge, like Bright Eyes reimagined for the Americana set
For Fans of: Andrew Combs, Conor Oberst, Joe Purdy
Why You Should Pay Attention: Joshua James has been making thoughtful, unorthodox folk music for over a decade now. The Lincoln, Nebraska-born artist, who splits his time between his home state and American Fork, Utah, first gained attention with 2008’s The Sun Is Always Brighter, and has released a series of increasingly ambitious albums since. His forthcoming album My Spirit Sister, out later this year, is his rootsiest yet, though not without the philosophical, cerebral lyrics for which James has come to be known. It’s a record that poses a lot of questions – and more often than not, the beauty of the music is answer enough.
He Says: “Do you know that place between sanity and mindlessness? The sentiment of ‘Pretty Feather’ came from that location. ‘Pretty Feather’ is a blurry collection of feelings and frustrations amounting to a song that describes something I can hardly recall. It’s Stockholm Syndrome: when you are in a relationship where you are so entangled and indebted to the person that no matter what the other does to you, you don’t want to see them go.”
Hear for Yourself: The folky jangle of “Pretty Feather” is offset by ominous electric guitar stabs, creating a musical tension that reflects the tenuous relationship in the lyrics. B.M.