Once again, we find country and Americana artists both on the verge and under-the-radar who deserve a listen. This installment of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know includes a ferocious Tex-Mex-tinged band, a Southern-rock badass and a trio of women who deliver sharp lyrics with angelic harmonies.
Sounds Like: A rebooted Los Lobos with a surplus of infectious hooks, aiming its Tex-Mex fusion squarely at country radio
For Fans of: Texas Tornados, the Mavericks, Flaco Jiménez
Why You Should Pay Attention: Going back to Doug Sahm’s pioneering work with the Sir Douglas Quintet in the 1960s and later with Texas Tornados, Tejano music has cut a sly but constant presence in country music. (Think Freddy Fender's hit version of "Before the Next Teardrop Falls.") As the Last Bandoleros, a trio of young guns from Texas and New York, Jerry Fuentes, Diego Navaira (the son of Tejano superstar Emilio Navaira) and Derek James are the next generation of Tex-Mex renegades. Their music caroms wildly from rock and country to conjunto and pop, adding up to a sound that's hard to pin down — and to get out of your head. Warner Music Nashville will release the band's debut album later this year, and Sting, who popped up onstage at a Bandoleros showcase in New York recently, is an early supporter.
They Say: "It feels like country music is experiencing a broadening of its borders, which is exciting for us because we know we're not a down-the-middle country band. We have a lot of flavors," says James. "As important as our musical tastes are, it's equally important to like the people you're making music with. We're coming from a place of mutual admiration, and that was the key for us as a group."
Hear for Yourself: First single "Where Do You Go?" has a roadhouse rhythm that plays off rich harmonies — plus a breakneck accordion solo. James Reed
Sounds Like: Brightly colored roots-country with three-part harmonies and a heart of gold
For Fans of: Pistol Annies, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town
Why You Should Pay Attention: Post Monroe is a trio made up of sisters-from-different-misters Whitney Duncan, Ashley Hewitt and Shelby McLeod, and while you might recognize Duncan and Hewitt from past solo careers, this new project is very much a group effort. Produced by Lady Antebellum's Dave Haywood (no stranger in the art of blended voices), gorgeous three-part harmonies are the foundation of a sound that feels planted in rich, down-home soil, but polished enough for pop-country fans. On May 13th, they'll release their debut EP, which isn't shy about cautioning men to not half-ass love.
They Say: "I think we're all so positive," Duncan says about their optimistic musical outlook. "We are," Hewitt adds. "We don't wanna write depressing songs, and we don't want everything to be putting down dudes all the time." Sums up Duncan: "Shoot, even when we try to write a depressing song it ends up being positive. We give a warning with a smile.
Hear for Yourself: The harmony-heavy "Red Hot American Summer" officially introduces the trio to country radio as banjo-loving, good-time-toting artists. Chris Parton
Sounds Like: Southern-rock muscle country with a hint of alt-rock sneer
For Fans of: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Brad Paisley, Stone Temple Pilots
Why You Should Pay Attention: Naming your debut EP Hard One to Turn Down is pretty bold, but Baton Rouge-born guitarslinger CJ Solar can back it up. His first five-song set rocks in all the right places, fusing influences like Skynyrd, STP and Jason Aldean into a familiar-yet-modern Southern-rock sound. Solar's a 23-year-old millennial, but his style owes more to classic-rock radio than electronically-inspired Top 40. Boasting a warm, raspy voice, strong guitar chops and simple, honest songs, he’s connecting with mainstream listeners without pandering or acting like a tough guy. First single "Tall Boy" has racked up 200,000 Spotify streams in the space of a month.
He Says: "I remember being crazy about guitar and Southern rock and wearing Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts to school and having kids be like, 'What are you doing?!' Solar says about his throwback vibe. "Britney Spears and 'N Sync, all that stuff was huge when I was a kid, but I was like, 'This isn't real music. . . what are y'all listening to?'"
Hear for Yourself: With its boozy narrative and clever, repetitive hook, "Tall Boy" feels like a ready-made radio hit, as much about a 16 oz. can of something frosty as it is about holding your head high. Chris Parton
Sounds Like: Shania Twain's confident spin on country reimagined for 2016's urban-dwellers
For Fans of: Maren Morris, early Sheryl Crow, the colorful style of Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jacqueline is part of an emerging class in country music that favors easygoing hooks and sonic experimentation over bluster and the status quo. Her Prime EP — available for listening on Spotify — tackles the ups and downs of relationships and navigating early adulthood, sticking up for her generation on the wistful "Kids These Days," and dealing with self-loathing over not being able to ditch a loser in the bluesy "Slacker." She can't hide her unfailing optimism, which shines through on the set's effortlessly cool title track and the gritty determination of "Finest Hour."
She Says: "It's my way of having fun with the idea of living it up wherever you are in your life, whether you're 45 and your kids are going off to college, or you're 14," she says of the song "Prime." "I feel like it applies to everyone and I love that we were able to capture something that felt really universal but also feels so unique to me and my perspective. It is a reminder to me every day. When I hear it, I'm like, 'I want to be that girl. I want to be the girl in the song I just wrote about.' It's helpful for me to hear that."
Hear for Yourself: "Prime," with its rumbling guitar and silky organ, is a nice complement to the quirky visual feast of its video: stylish Jacqueline drinks from a rooftop, swings a bat at a cup full of red slushee and lounges with her two adorable French bulldogs. Jon Freeman
Sounds Like: Off-color folk music celebrating the heartbreak and humor of the American underbelly, with songs about roadkill, star-crossed junkies, Daffy Duck and Danzig
For Fans of: Shel Silverstein, John Prine, Cory Branan
Why You Should Pay Attention: "I'm a product of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey," says Bradbury, a self-described "redneck noir" songwriter whose parents met while working in the circus. Such strange-but-true stories helped inspire his upcoming album, Elmwood Park: A Slightly Melodic Audiobook — a set of acoustic travelogues from a hard-touring songwriter who, as befits the son of a former professional clown, knows the value of a good punchline. Tim Easton, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Sturgill Simpson's right-hand man, guitarist Laur Joamets, all make appearances, too.
He Says: "I wanted the album to feel like a collection of short stories, which is what my live show feels like anyway. There's always a lot of talking, a lot of inside jokes, a little bit of a shitshow and songs about characters I've met across the country."
Hear for Yourself: "True Love," where Bradbury likens the initial rush — and eventual destruction — of a doomed relationship to a methamphetamine high. Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: The most versatile honky-tonk singer you've ever heard, a virtuoso vocalist capable of torch, twang and a whisper-to-a-scream range
For Fans of: Kathleen Edwards, Alison Krauss, Caitlin Rose
Why You Should Pay Attention: Minnesota native Smith has been one of Nashville's best-kept secrets for a couple of years now as co-writer of hits for everybody from Cassadee Pope to Meghan Trainor. But the secret will be out with her upcoming album (tentatively titled Starfire, due later this year), a deeply personal collection of songs that sound like she opened a vein. Of particular note: "This Town Is Killing Me," a pensive ode to Music City's darker side, and "Tacoma," which shows off Smith's sonic boom of a voice to devastating effect.
She Says: "Every time I perform that song, I almost go into a trance where I'm just transported into the story," Smith says of "Tacoma." "I can't not sing that one at 100 percent, it's all emotional. 'This Town Is Killing Me' is emotional, too, from a very real and honest place. This industry is not for the faint of heart. There are days I just face-plant on the couch and don't want to get up."
Hear for Yourself: The yearning "Tacoma," captured live here, is the best example of Smith's full-on howl. Dave Menconi
Sounds Like: A rough-around-the-edges return to country traditionalism, full of honky-tonk shuffles, steel solos and the big, booming baritone of a former ranch hand who's actually lived the cowboy lifestyle
For Fans of: Dwight Yoakam, J.P. Harris, Roger Miller
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised less than an hour's drive from Yellowstone, Bell spent his summers working on his grandparents' ranch in Shell, Wyoming. "I built fences, worked horses, stacked hay, dug sewage lines and fixed water tanks," says the 26-year-old, who later resettled in Nashville. There, a weekly gig at Santa's Pub — the double-wide trailer and karaoke bar that's become an unlikely home for Nashville's traditional country scene — helped Bell sharpen his honky-tonk chops. His self-titled debut for Thirty Tigers hits stores this summer, bringing with it a sound that splits the difference between his Bakersfield influences, Wyoming roots and Nashville ties.
He Says: "I grew up on all kinds of music, just like everybody else. I loved Nirvana. I loved punk rock. But I'm very drawn to the simplicity and timelessness of honky-tonk music. A lot of different music is about examining the human condition, but with honky-tonk, you get to have a sense of humor in the delivery. You can laugh at yourself."
Hear for Yourself: "Sometimes" is a super-sized slab of throwback Bakersfield twang (and its video was shot with Santa's regulars). Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: If Steve Earle swapped fiddle and steel for lush piano, but retained the ability to flash from introspective ballad one moment to "Copperhead Road"-aggression the next
For Fans of: Those poets of the American experience who deliver narratives with a whisper, a holler and a growl: John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen
Why You Should Pay Attention: Brantley was only a boy when he started perusing liner notes, becoming just as entranced by the words behind the music as the songs themselves. And what songs they were: growing up in Macon, Georgia — home of Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers — he not only soaked in those local legends but was well-schooled by his preacher father, who made sure to spend equal time exposing his son to the gospel of Kris Kristofferson as anything else. It paid off — shortly after landing in Nashville, he scored a publishing deal and did time touring with the Zac Brown Band and John Hiatt. Over a decade later, Brantley just released what could be his seminal track: "Hurt People," a "Streets of Philadelphia"-style heartbreaker that's inspired praise from artists like Brothers Osborne. It explores how our behavior, both good and bad, often has immovable roots: because "hurt people, hurt people."
He Says: After his co-writer Ashley Ray mentioned the phrase "hurt people hurt people" to Brantley, it haunted him. "Every night, I would walk around the block and couldn't get it out of my head," he says. "And I thought of this kid in the fifth grade who used to kick my ass everyday. Then I went to his house, and I met his father. And I went, 'Holy fuck, I get where this is coming from.'" It's a moment he evokes in the song, when he discovers the bully on his porch "with a welt on his face the shape of his daddy's high-school ring."
Hear for Yourself: With its Springsteen sing-speak delivery and spare piano, "Hurt People" is a ballad of both pain and healing. Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: Old-time Appalachian banjo tunes — both traditional and newly crafted — with sobering, honest lyrics exploring all-too-current themes including poverty and racism
For Fans of: Gillian Welch, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens
Why You Should Pay Attention: A 22-year-old Québec, Ontario, native of Afro-Caribbean descent, Kater graduates from the first Appalachian Program at West Virginia's Davis & Elkins College this month. However, she already writes and performs with the skill of a folk-circuit veteran, penning such startling lines as this one that opens the title track of her debut LP, Nine Pin (named for a square-dance formation): "These clothes you gave me don't fit right, the belt is loose and the noose is tight/ Got drunk out looking for a fight, I'm soft and heavy as the night."
She Says: "I think songwriting prowess really comes through when one lyric can mean so much. I'm reminded of an incredible Canadian musician, and one of my favorite poets, Amelia Curran, who has a song called 'Time, Time.' One of the lines she sings is: 'Now that we're adding up all of the time that it took / you only promised me pages / I promised you books.' To me, it's a song about the futility of time and how it's the only thing you can't get back — which means that time itself, something we take for granted so often, is more powerful than anything. There's something magical about that type of writing."
Hear for Yourself: The plaintive, mesmerizing "Rising Down," which, with its delicate touch of her clawhammer banjo, muted trumpet, upright bass and subtle electric guitar, conjures a quiet, yet powerful storm. Stephen L. Betts
Sounds Like: An unabashed fan, and true aficionado, of all things Nineties country, who doesn't want to rock the jukebox
For Fans of: Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Kenny Chesney
Why You Should Pay Attention: Because legendary producer Keith Stegall — who has worked with Travis and Jackson — encouraged Heddin to become a recording artist. He believes in the Texas native so strongly that the pair started a label partnership with Mike Murphy, the nightclub impresario who has employed Heddin for nearly 25 years as the house-band leader in his Cowboys Dancehall and other clubs throughout Texas and Georgia.
He Says: "The coolest thing about this whole 25 year journey is I've gotten to open for everyone. I guarantee my list is probably longer than anybody in the history of music," says Heddin with a laugh, looking back on time spent at Cowboys warming up for everyone from George Jones to Faith Hill to Kenny Chesney. After some near misses with indie deals, Heddin was satisfied with the life of a working musician in cover bands pleasing big crowds but still wondered about giving a recording career another shot. "I've always thought about doing it, but I've done cover songs so long that I thought I was stuck in a rut and nobody would take me seriously." Stegall and Murphy did take Heddin and his music seriously, however, and at 45, the artist released a self-titled, six-song EP earlier this month.
Hear for Yourself: The ruminative and lovely "Game Changer" details that sweet moment when the right one comes along. Sarah Rodman