Kentucky honky-tonker Dillon Carmichael, vibey folk-pop vocalist Savannah Conley and the rowdy duo Whiskey Wolves of the West make up this month’s list of the 10 country and Americana artists you need to hear right now.
Sounds Like: What the players and songwriters for your favorite country stars do when they want to have fun making music
For Fans of: Sturgill Simpson, the Black Crowes, Wheeler Walker Jr.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Leroy Powell and Tim Jones’ previous credits are too numerous to count, with Powell a go-to session player for Dave Cobb for the past decade and Jones an equally prolific songwriter who fronted the band the Truth & Salvage Co. The two didn’t meet until they attended a party in Los Angeles, where Jones found Powell – there on a date with Winona Ryder – in a hot tub drinking Cristal from a boot. The flamboyantly named Whiskey Wolves of the West made their debut at Stagecoach Festival in 2016, channeling the psychedelic theatricality of Powell’s previous band the Messengers into a good-humored, though genuine, exercise in country fundamentals. Combining an outlaw sensibility with some astute commentary on the Music City establishment, the pair penned songs full of double entendres and allusions to the life of a working musician. Country Roots, the band’s first LP, was released March 2nd via Rock Ridge Music.
They Say: “It’s nice to be a part of so many different things. When you’re playing in a band, you’re doing the same kind of music. Then you get thrust into these other scenarios and you’re able to just play a character. You’re not really working on yourself so much, like an actor,” Powell says of his side work, which includes playing for Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Shooter Jennings. “We’ve lived so many different characters through this,” Jones adds. “We get the sense of irony, we get the sense of entertainment. The first song we wrote, ‘No. 1 (The Ballad of Dallas Davidson),’ I was like, ‘I just want to call it “No. 1″ so we can say the first song we wrote was Number One.’ So [we went] into it with that kind of humor, but then it became a really serious song about songwriting and inspiration. It’s a good mixture of both.”
Hear for Yourself: “Lay That Needle Down,” a loose sing-along jam that crosses Neil Young with Lynyrd Skynyrd, connects the act of songwriting with addiction, romance and the simple joy of dropping the needle on a turntable. J.G.
Sounds Like: A neo-traditionalist exploring the middle ground between Appalachian music and Americana
For Fans of: Sarah Jarosz, Mandolin Orange, Gillian Welch
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Leva grew up attending old-time folk festivals with her parents. “When I was in elementary school and found out that all kids didn’t spend their summers going to festivals too, I had no idea what they did with their lives,” she admits. Now partway through college, she’s pausing her studies to release this year’s Time Is Everything, a solo album filled with country waltzes, string-band workouts, honky-tonk shuffles and traditional twang. Recorded in the bluegrass community of Floyd, Virginia, Time Is Everything shines a light on the past without giving up its place in the present.
She Says: “My parents were really into old-time music, but that’s not the only thing they raised me on. I grew up listening to everything. It all influences my writing, from country to old-time to some of the newer pop stuff. My goal is to respect tradition while continuing to turn that influence into something new.”
Hear for Yourself: Co-written with bandmate Riley Calcagno, Time Is Everything‘s title track is low-key and lovely, focusing on a relationship that’s wound its way to a sad close. R.C.
Sounds Like: Sincere, literate folk-rock that doesn’t hold back on hooks
For Fans of: Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, early Elliott Smith
Why You Should Pay Attention: “New” may be a bit misleading in Woods’ case, as he’s been releasing albums for more than a decade now. The Toronto-based performer has been nominated for Canada’s Polaris Prize, along with seeing his streaming numbers outperform many major label acts and reaching Number One in his native Canada with the 2016 release “What Kind of Love Is That.” He’s also made some significant inroads in Nashville’s songwriting community, landing standout cuts by Tim McGraw (“Portland, Maine”), Charles Kelley (“Leaving Nashville”) and Charlie Worsham (“The Beginning of Things”), among others. His forthcoming album Both Ways synthesizes all those experiences, wedding his quietly moving, detail-rich narratives to expansive production and melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on FM radio.
He Says: “There’s no story of any of the artists that I am in love with where they just get known for doing a thing and just keep doing that thing forever,” Woods says, laughing. “They don’t say, ‘Well, he’s reliably been releasing similar things for 30 years. We can always count on him to do that thing he does!’ Growth is necessary and part of it and you have to challenge your limitations and move forward.”
Hear for Yourself: “Truck Full of Money,” which steers into full-on symphonic-rock territory with plaintive strings and a sustained electric guitar melody, takes a closer look at the traveling musician’s life with its sundry thrills and hardships. J.F.
Sounds Like: Soulful, laid-back twang-pop with clever lyrics and catchy hooks, all rolled up in a McConaughey-sized blunt
For Fans of: Devin Dawson, Ryan Hurd, Kip Moore
Why You Should Pay Attention: Everette’s first single “Slow Roll” is, among other things, more than likely the first country song to name-check Matthew McConaughey, paying homage to the actor’s famed Dazed & Confused line, “Alright, alright, alright.” On top of that, though, the tune has been a viral hit for the up-and-coming duo, notching over 200,000 streams on Spotify and briefly landing on the service’s influential United States Viral 50 chart. The track is one of three that the duo, made up of Brent Rupard and Anthony Olympia, has released this year since signing to BBR Music Group, home to artists like Jason Aldean and Dustin Lynch.
They Say: “Some days are just meant for blowing off your troubles, your worries, and just going with the flow ‘gently down the stream.’ That’s what ‘Slow Roll’ is all about,” Rupard says. “Like a lot of our songs, the guitar riff steered the ship, the feel and the melody,” Olympia adds. “It’s also a slight nod to a classic nursery rhyme,” says Rupard. “‘Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.'”
Hear for Yourself: “Slow Roll” has all the makings of a summer anthem: a simmering groove, breezy aesthetic and a catchy chorus hook that encourages trading your stressors for a gentle float downstream. B.M.
Sounds Like: The soundtrack to a long, epic nighttime drive through the desert
For Fans of: David Ramirez, Andrew Combs, Rayland Baxter
Why You Should Pay Attention: Josh Desure jumpstarted his career in the music business tour managing for Midland, hitting the road with the trio as they toured their debut album On the Rocks. After a last-minute opening stint for the band in Bakersfield, Desure hung up his tour-manager hat and decided to give music a real go. “Stranded Son” is his only official release, but the song is more than enough to prove Desure’s musical chops, a panoramic slice of folk rock with just enough twang.
He Says: “I’ve been playing music for years, but about this time last year after tour managing Midland, I started to take it a lot more seriously. Those guys really inspired me and made me believe I could do it on a higher level. So I started playing a lot around Southern California and getting my live sound down. Working for them taught me so much: what goes into each show, leading up to it, during, and the breakdown. Tour managing came to an end when they had a show at Buck Owens Crystal Palace and asked if I wanted to open with a few songs. Midland all told me afterward that I should be performing more and not just managing.”
Hear for Yourself: “Stranded Son” is the first piece of solo music Desure has released, and introduces him as a capable steward of both Bakersfield country and Laurel Canyon folk. B.M.
Sounds Like: A folky, more ethereal take on Cat Power’s The Greatest with a touch of Dolly Parton’s warble – and her storytelling, too
For Fans of: Cass McCombs, Brandi Carlile, anything from Laurel Canyon
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born and raised 20 minutes outside of Nashville to musical parents – her mother was a background singer and her father a guitarist – Savannah Conley has been performing since the age of seven and grew up on both the local indie-rock scene and Emmylou Harris. Now 21, Conley first eschewed the omnipresence of country in her hometown, but that all changed when she saw how artists like Jack White and the Black Keys were moving to Music City and using roots to inspire a new generation of progressive sounds. Now signed to Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound, Conley’s taken her sharp lyricism and potent vocals on the road supporting Brent Cobb, and has opened for Willie Nelson and Brandi Carlile. Her new Dave Cobb-produced EP, Twenty-Twenty, is a brief but emotionally rich collection of tracks full of moody orchestration and whip-smart lines: “Doctor says I’ve got twenty-twenty,” she sings on “Same Old Eyes,” “but I think he’s the one who’s blind.”
She Says: Conley got a call out of the blue to come play some songs for Cobb and the Elektra crew, and what happened next was like something out of a TV show. “I sat down and played a third of a song, and Dave [Cobb] stopped me,” she says. “It felt like he was Simon Cowell saying, ‘That’s enough!’ I think I vomited in my mouth a little bit. But then he said, ‘I don’t need to hear any more. I’m in. Are you in?’ It was a very wild process.'”
Hear for Yourself: “Never Be Ourselves” is equal parts British folk-pop and dreamy Southern singer-songwriter that progresses from gentle acoustic guitar through a dramatic rock-forward conclusion. M.M.
Sounds Like: Southern country-rock, sung with a honeyed croon rather than a piss-and-vinegar bark
For Fans of: Randy Travis’ baritone, Sturgill Simpson’s accent, Blackberry Smoke’s swampy stomp
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in small-town Kentucky, Carmichael cut his teeth fronting the house band at Austin City Saloon, the Lexington-area honky-tonk where his two uncles – Montgomery Gentry’s Eddie Montgomery and solo artist John Michael Montgomery – kicked off their own careers. He kept himself busy offstage, too, landing a publishing deal while still in high school and moving to Nashville shortly after graduation. Produced by Dave Cobb, his solo debut, due this summer, is stocked with songs that nod to Outlaw country while still making room for Carmichael’s stunning, standout voice.
He Says: “This album lives somewhere between outlaw country and Southern rock. I’m looking to guys like Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd and David Allan Coe. That’s the kind of music I’ll sing for the rest of my life.”
Hear for Yourself: With help from pedal-steel legend Robby Turner, Carmichael sings about life’s uncomplicated pleasures in his first single, “It’s Simple.” R.C.
Sounds Like: The best damn honky-tonk bar band ever to claim Seattle as home
For Fans of: Tyler Childers, Colter Wall, Sturgill Simpson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Thanks to the work of artists like Chris Stapleton, Brothers Osborne and Sturgill Simpson, bar bands are back in style. Western Centuries, members of which split their time between Seattle and New York, have pieced together influences they’ve accumulated playing and listening in bars and clubs across the country – including creole, Delta blues and classic George Jones – to form a sound that dips in and out of genres with ease. It’s a sound whose defining sensibility is its reverence for American roots music in all its incarnations. With three principal songwriters, things could get a little disjointed, but it’s that shared passion that makes their forthcoming album Songs From the Deluge a captivating listen from start to finish.
They Say: “Having a project that is based around three frontmen that sing their own material is such a joy to be a part of,” the band’s Ethan Lawton says. “Practically speaking, it’s a breeze. Everyone writes their own songs and with the exception of some arrangement suggestions, the songs come to the table fully formed. Having three songwriters means we are never short on material. Though we rarely collaborate on songwriting, the atmosphere around Western Centuries is such a creative platform for us to share music and bounce ideas off of each other. Our shared interests often filter into each other’s music – influencing the overall sound of Western Centuries.”
Hear for Yourself: A honky-tonk foundation underlays “Far From Home,” atop which the band adds Cajun flourishes and some classic steel guitar. B.M.
Sounds Like: Festival-ready Southern rock of the Whiskeytown persuasion
For Fans of: Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, Americana with both gentle acoustic harmonies and fuzzy, plugged-in anthems
Why You Should Pay Attention: You can’t ever say that Nashville’s Great Peacock is lacking a sense of humor: they started their band as bit of a joke. “It was right when the Fleet Foxes were getting big,” says Alabama-born frontman Andrew Nelson. “We’d always played rock, so we said, ‘Let’s do some acoustic stuff, and we’ll name our band after an animal.” They wrote a tune called “Desert Lark,” went with “Great Peacock” and put the song online: to their surprise, their friends loved it, and they did, too. Five years and hundreds of shows later, Great Peacock have expanded from a twosome of Nelson and guitarist Blount Floyd to a full band, honing a textured, roots-influenced breed of rock & roll on their newest LP, Gran Pavo Real that’s seriously good – but never too serious. Case in point: “Let’s Get Drunk Tonight,” a little bit of healing, hedonistic honky-tonk.
They Say: Growing up in a religious household, Nelson’s life changed when he first heard “Free Bird” on the radio as a teen. “We weren’t even allowed to listen to country music, because my parents said, ‘They’re just singing about cheating and whiskey,'” Nelson says. “One rainy day I went to my room and turned on the radio and heard ‘Free Bird.’ I heard the guitar solo and said, ‘I’m going to play guitar.’ That was it.” So how does he react when people scream “Free Bird” from the audience now? “Fifty percent of me wants play it, and the other fifty percent wants to say ‘fuck off.'”
Hear for Yourself: There’s a touch of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in both the sonic template and thematic messaging of “Oh Deep Water,” the first single from Gran Pavo Real (out March 30th). M.M.
Sounds Like: Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Wayne Hancock honky-tonk fused with electrified Neil Young-meets-Deer Tick alt-folk
For Fans of: Gnarled lyrics born in a greasy barroom, occasionally interrupted by a stray tear and lump-in-the-throat honesty
Why You Should Pay Attention: A favorite of Nashville lifer Chuck Mead, Taylor has been sweating it out onstage for some time now, but his third album with the Barflies explores new, tragic territory: Taylor lost his wife Kim to cancer last year, writing the lyrics of the LP’s title cut “Staggered” during her extended stay at an Orlando hospital. Set to an ungainly waltz tempo, crafted by collaborator Larry O’Brien, the song is the sonic and emotional centerpiece of an album that reflects life at its most brutally awkward and yet most restoratively elegant.
He Says: “Writing and recording Staggered was a necessity for me. Through the last couple of years of Kim’s life and the year following her death, I’d been writing songs with my good friend Larry O’Brien. These songs chronicled the pain, loss, love and beauty of life. My hope is that all that comes through in the songs we chose for the record.”
Hear for Yourself: A slinky bassline coupled with Taylor’s delectably reedy rasp add maturity and layers of intrigue to the moving “Rock Paper Scissors (With My Love).” S.B.