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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: May 2017

From a country-soul chanteuse to a hard-stomping band of Southern rockers

An Arkansas singer-songwriter with Eric Church’s seal of approval; a Southern-rock band led by a ferocious guitarist; and a country-soul vocalist with charm to burn and the steady hand of Shane McAnally guiding her latest EP. These are the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear right now. 

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Evan Felts/Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

Phoebe Hunt

Sounds Like: A global spin on American folk music, performed by a Texas-born Brooklynite who recorded her newest album, Shanti’s Shadow, on the heels of a meditation-filled music retreat to India

For Fans of: Abigail Washburn, the Punch Brothers, American folk singers with foreign influences

Why You Should Pay Attention: A top-shelf fiddler who recently logged a year in Ben Sollee’s touring band, Hunt reignites her solo career with Shanti’s Shadow. The album title hints at the otherworldly music within, with Hunt merging her Appalachian-style fiddle chops with Texas twang, Indian ragas, gypsy jazz, unfamiliar time signatures and the free-spirited fun of a jam band leader. The resulting record breathes new life into a genre that’s sometimes so respectful of the past, it fails to push toward the future. Hunt certainly doesn’t neglect her roots, but she doesn’t wallow in the dirt of her influences, either.

She Says: “This is what American music truly is. It’s a melting pot of all these different cultures, inspired by all the places I’ve been and all the different types of music I’ve studied. It’s what America is based upon: the willingness to have an open heart, an open mind and a willingness to learn from everyone. That’s the idea of America that we were sold in school, at least, and it’s the idea we’re clinging to.”

Hear for Yourself: Hunt hits up a carnival outside Austin, demolishes a funnel cake and waltzes with strangers in the sweet, swoon-worthy video for “Just for Tonight.” R.C.

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Josh Wool

Christopher Paul Stelling

Sounds Like: The richly layered storytelling of John Prine, the croon-to-howl hybrid vocal of Tom Waits and Glen Hansard, and an intricately finger-picked guitar style that lands somewhere between Lead Belly and Lindsey Buckingham

For Fans of: Jason Isbell, Sean Rowe, the fiery side of Bob Dylan

Why You Should Pay Attention: While many artists fancy themselves as some variation of a modern day troubadour, Christopher Paul Stelling has earned the title outright. Over the last year and a half alone, he’s played almost 300 shows spread out over 46 states and 14 countries. His conversations and observations throughout that globetrotting gave birth to the grim-yet-gorgeous (and often prophetic) songs on his new album Itinerant Arias, out now on Anti- Records. The album was recorded over nine days in a locked-down log cabin with a full backing band, a decision driven by Stelling playing and traveling so much as a solo artist. “I’d been alone a lot and I needed some community around me. I needed my friends and I needed to hear something different and be inspired by it.” Personnel wasn’t the only change Stelling made to his sound, as he also swapped out his beloved, road-worn “Brownie” acoustic for a vintage electric. “That guitar and I have been through a lot, so it’s taking a well-earned break. I played an electric for this record. I needed change and a new sound.”

He Says: According to Stelling, Itinerant Arias “attempts to address the darkness in the world and hint at a solution through accepting that this is all going to pass. The record wasn’t difficult to make and the songs weren’t difficult to write, but getting through the traveling and tours that preceded and followed the recording was the challenge for me. It was a tiring and beautiful distraction that let the songs filter through without having to be forced into form.”

Hear for Yourself: “The Cost of Doing Business” is Stelling’s evocative take on the Faust legend set to a slinky finger-picked guitar and slithering violin lines. “It’s about that age-old pact with devil,” he says. “Given our current situation, I think America as a whole can identify.” W.H.

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Weiss Eubanks

Jo Smith

Sounds Like: Soulful country pop with retro production, layered harmonies, and a touch of playfulness

For Fans of: Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Sixties girl groups

Why You Should Pay Attention: Formerly a major label country artist – as Joanna Smith, she released charting singles “Gettin’ Married” and “Georgia Mud” – Jo Smith has returned with a new EP and some of country’s biggest names in her corner. Shane McAnally co-produced her EP Introducing Jo Smith with Jesse Frasure, and the four-song set shows Smith following the soul-music footsteps of artists like Maren Morris. While her EP has been out since 2016, feel-good lead single “Old School Groove” was recently released to radio, just in time for the windows-down summer listening season.

She Says: Smith comes by her brand of country honestly, coming of age to the music that would eventually inform her solo output. “I grew up in South Georgia listening to my dad’s country and Motown records, and it was so important to me to blend those influences on my new EP,” she says. “My single ‘Old School Groove’ sets the tone perfectly of who I am as an artist, and I’m so proud the world is getting to hear it.”

Hear for Yourself: “Old School Groove” sounds just like its name implies: It’s a laid-back groover with plenty of soul and Wall of Sound-style harmonies that harken back to the days of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las. B.M.

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Allen Clark

Steel Woods

Sounds Like: Drinking a bottle of bourbon and having inebriated hallucinations of Gregg Allman and Lucinda Williams standing hand in hand in powder-blue choir robes, as “Melissa” plays in the background

For Fans of: Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton, the Allman Brothers

Why You Should Pay Attention: Southern rock is having a moment right now, and this group of ruffians reminds everyone why the genre is one of the best forms of American music. For years, lead guitarist Jason “Rowdy” Cope actually played in Jamey Johnson’s band. “We go at this thing with the same musical integrity as Jamey,” says Cope. “Honest songwriting, always trying to push the boundaries of our musicianship and keeping it really close to our roots when it comes to our influences.” Those roots are in Alabama (lead singer Wes Bayliss) and North Carolina (Cope). The two met at a club gig in Nashville, where they’re both based, and began taking dude-bonding fishing trips to Kingston Springs shortly thereafter. It was only a matter of time before a killer new band was born. Their debut LP, Straw in the Wind, comes out May 19th.

They Say: When asked if they’d rather run a marathon in cowboy boots or wear a pair of gaudy running shoes while performing onstage at a honky-tonk like John T. Floore’s Country Store in the Texas Hill Country, Bayliss opts for the “marathon in boots, assuming that it’s possible for me to run a marathon.” (Probably not.) Cope agrees. “I feel like we’d be less likely to get beat up running a marathon,” he says. “It’d be us beating ourselves up.” After years of pre-gaming with “meat and moonshine,” Cope clobbers himself a little less nowadays. He jokes he’s quit boozing in favor of “ice water with lemons.”

Hear for Yourself: “I’m Gonna Love You” evokes the best of Chris Stapleton while balancing lyrical tenderness with a propulsive, Skynyrd-esque guitar solo from Cope. M.S.

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Cal Quinn

Vandoliers

Sounds Like: Rediscovering your parents’ country record collection and realizing they’d make good punk songs

For Fans of: Old 97’s; Titus Andronicus; guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music

Why You Should Pay Attention: After spending 15 years playing in rock and punk bands, including the last seven of those in a trio called the Phuss, Fort Worth, Texas, native Josh Fleming contracted an eye infection in the fall of 2014 that left him blind for two months. While recuperating, he stumbled across The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV and vowed to write an honest-to-goodness country album. That promise turned into the Vandoliers, a six-piece cowpunk band that took Fleming’s punk and ska roots and dressed them up with acoustic guitar, brass, and fiddle for a jet-fueled take on the Texas two-step. The Native, Vandoliers’ sophomore LP, was recorded in the same suburban Dallas studio as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and drops May 26th on State Fair Records

They Say: “I’ve always been a storyteller and there’s not a ton of storytelling in punk music, so I never realized how left-field I was as a writer in that genre. But when I found country music, it was like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been doing this the whole time, just in the wrong vein,'” says Fleming, who admits that as a young man he was “just too rebellious” to give his father’s music a chance. “For some reason, the Vandoliers worked out because I just simplified everything that I do without changing it and focused on my story, whether it be dropping acid in Tennessee all the way up to getting married.”

Hear for Yourself: “Endless Summer” mixes Kurt Cobain angst with the musical flair of country and Cajun. J.G.

Country Artist to Listen to May 2017

Amarylis Lockhart

Stephanie Quayle

Sounds Like: A child of country radio equally fluent in nostalgic Dolly Parton and airwave-friendly guitar pop

For Fans of: Faith Hill, Cassadee Pope, Lauren Alaina

Why You Should Pay Attention: Quayle made a splash last year when she released “Drinking With Dolly,” a wistful number about hanging out with country music royalty in the good ol’ days. “Imagine sitting around a table with Tammy, Loretta, Dolly and Patsy,” Quayle says. “Can you even picture it? What would have been said? I’d probably just sit there and take notes.” The numbers suggest that plenty of listeners share Quayle’s curiosity – “Drinking With Dolly” has accumulated nearly half a million streams on Spotify. Quayle grew up on a bison farm in Montana, where country music was a constant presence thanks to an AM radio in the barn. She started playing piano at age four, bought a guitar at age 15, and stepped onto a stage fronting a band the next year, at which point she decided “this was where I was meant to be.” After a short detour in Los Angeles, Quayle moved to Nashville, where she eventually signed with an indie to release “Drinking With Dolly.” New song “Winnebago” is beginning to make tracks at country radio.

She Says: “Drinking With Dolly” earned Quayle a nod from Parton herself. “She typed me a letter on her pink paper – how much she appreciated the song and how one day she hopes we put on our rhinestones and kick up our heels,” Quayle remembers. “With ‘Winnebago,’ I love that it’s roll your windows down and sing along. If that song doesn’t make you smile, then I don’t know what will.”

Hear for Yourself: “Winnebago” aims to conquer the youth vote with a viciously contemporary sound, all bouncy guitars and sternum-shaking bass. E.L.

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