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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: March 2017

From a soulful vocalist who evokes John Mayer to the fiddle-playing protégée of Jack White

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.

Travis Linville

Blake Studdard

Travis Linville

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. 

Kat Jacob

Cris Jacobs

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.

Joshua James

Joshua James

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.