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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: May 2018

From the vocal knockout Tenille Townes to the Garth Brooks-endorsed Randall King

10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: May 2018

Tenille Townes and Randall King are among the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to know this month.

A Texas singer who received a stamp of approval from Garth Brooks, a buzzed-about vocalist with the ultimate empowerment anthem and a folksinger-activist duo make up this month’s list of country and Americana artists you need to hear.

rising appalachia

Chad Hess

Rising Appalachia

Sounds Like: Protest music for the modern age, bolstered by delicate, skillful musicianship and otherworldly vocal harmonies

For Fans of: Abigail Washburn, I’m With Her, Hurray for the Riff Raff

Why You Should Pay Attention: Plenty of folks are writing politically inspired music these days, but not all of those artists are putting their money where their mouths are and doing work as activists. Sisters and bandmates Leah Smith and Chloe Song, who comprise Rising Appalachia, fall into that latter category, having participated in recent protests in support of water protectors at Standing Rock. Their newest song “Resilient,” which they wrote in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and is the duo’s first release since 2017’s live album Alive, gives voice to taking action and hints at further socially conscious work to come.

They Say: “We are resilient,” Chloe Smith says. “I am resilient. This song speaks to the potency of what it means to come back to one’s original shape after being bent, broken, or compressed. It is not about favorable politics or preaching to the choir. It’s about remembering that difficult times are the makeup of each of us, and we have the opportunity to triumph over that. This song came like wildfire from our hearts and found its way to the page on its own. Now, we sing it to the world and send it to anyone needing to be reminded of their own resilience.”

Hear for Yourself: The ethereal, simply arranged “Resilient,” which they performed at the recent Connect: Beyond the Page conference in Asheville, North Carolina, is a protest song tailor-made for our unique moment, its narrative of progress in the face of obstacles both empowering and comforting. B.M.

bishop gunn

Bishop Gunn

Sounds Like: The best of the southeast — a little Nashville twang, some Memphis-ippi blues, and a whole lot of Muscle Shoals soul

For Fans of: Anderson East, Sam Morrow, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Why You Should Pay Attention: Anyone can cite the Muscle Shoals sound as an influence, but few acts can actually pull off making music worthy of such a claim. Nashville band Bishop Gunn is one of those acts. Relocated from Natchez, Mississippi, the four-piece band recorded a handful of tracks off their debut album Natchez (released earlier this month) at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, with the rest of the album cut at Leiper’s Fork’s the Purple House. The resulting music is the perfect blend of Nashville and the Shoals, and is the rare album that builds upon its influences rather than resorting to outright mimicry.

They Say: “[Drummer] Burne Sharp and I had just moved up the Natchez Trace to a house on this farm in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee,” singer Travis McCready says of writing the infectious song “Shine.” “We moved to be closer to the music network of Nashville and weren’t really sure what we were gonna do next – we just knew we needed songs to do it. I sat down on the porch one day in a state of complete confusion, but also clarity, and I thought of Nashville as this big house I was getting ready to walk up and knock on the door of, ya know, and ask for a little attention. And that’s where the whole ‘shine that light on me’ sentiment came from. It’s about a transition into an unknown situation and the vulnerability of that moment really shows in the words. It’s from an honest state of mind and a moment of real humility.”

Hear for Yourself: Just try not to crack a smile (or bust a move) when you listen to “Shine,” a horn-heavy Southern rocker with big guitar riffs and even bigger vocals. B.M.

izaak opatz

Izaak Opatz

Sounds Like: Quirky Americana crossed with the indie-pop sensibility of the Shins, as performed by a Montana mountain man

For Fans of: Warren Zevon, Jonny Fritz, Jeff Tweedy

Why You Should Pay Attention: Opatz is one of a kind, an eccentric singer-songwriter whom you not only connect with, but root for as he tries in vain to sort out his love life in songs he describes as “Nora Ephron Rom-Com-earnestness with a sense of humor.” His latest album Mariachi Static (which takes its title from a lyric in Zevon’s “Carmelita”), produced by Malachi DeLorenzo, is an easygoing listen, driven by Opatz’s sublime way with a lyric. He’s opened for Langhorne Slim and James McMurtry, and is currently on the road with Traveller, which counts Opatz’s erstwhile mentor, and fellow Montanan, Jonny Fritz as a member. They met after Opatz rented a room from him in Nashville after exchanging emails. “It might have been a disaster – I had only an impression of him from his oddball songs and wild internet presence, but luckily, we hit it off and have been good friends ever since.”

He Says: “I studied Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula and have kept up with writing as a way to get my insides out, where I can make sense of them. It’s a splattery, less precise form of echolocation for me … Plus, it’s fun, and the easiest way I’ve found to reach common ground with people. The right metaphor, resonating deeply between two people, can create a truer mutual understanding than anything else.”

Hear for Yourself: “Got to Me Since” is a surprisingly upbeat jam about being unable to get over a former lover, especially when you’re, as Opatz expertly describes, “root-canal sensitive.” J.H.

Jess Williamson

Sounds Like: Psychedelic indie folk from a true seeker of cosmic wisdom

For Fans of: Jessica Lea Mayfield, Jefferson Airplane, astrology books on tape

Why You Should Pay Attention: With Jess Williamson’s third album, Cosmic Wink, a deep thinker takes a left turn away from sad, painfully intense solo folk to a more upbeat, full-band approach. After leaving Austin for L.A., Williamson was determined to stay open to the weird coincidences she and famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung call “cosmic winks,” and decided she would no longer make music that requires her audiences to be totally immersed in the song. “You’re touring solo and you’re playing these sad, slow songs, and you’re asking them to be completely silent and listen to everything you say, or it’s gonna be uncomfortable,” she explains. “When it works, it’s magical, but it doesn’t always work. It can be a bummer and sometimes you’re just getting through it.” Cosmic Wink came out earlier this month, and it finds her dissecting the intricacies of falling in love, the passing of time, death and what waits on the other side – but also embracing the simple joys of a killer pop melody.

She Says: “I think it’s easy to get stuck in a narrative of who you are when you’re in a place for a long time. Without knowing it, I had unconsciously become a little bit of a hater in Austin. There was just this pretension that existed there which I thought was normal. There was a lot of noses turned up, basically like, ‘That is too mainstream.’ But then I went to L.A., and there was a lot more openness to music that was pop influenced. It wasn’t judged; it was celebrated as great writing or great performing. I fell in with a lot of people who were literally making pop music, and realized that A) there’s nothing wrong with that and B) it’s an art and alchemy of its own to reach and connect with people on a global scale.”

Hear for Yourself: With jangling guitars, expansive synths and out-of-body vocals, “I See the White” was written as Williamson began noticing the fur around her dog Frankie’s eyes turn grey, but its deeper inspiration orbits a human-to-human love so profound it made her second-guess her ideas of an afterlife. C.P.

tenille townes

Matthew Berinato

Tenille Townes

Sounds Like: Rootsy singer-songwriter wares with an infectious melodic gift; think Lori McKenna meets Laura Marling

For Fans of: McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Charlie Worsham

Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up in Canada – Grand Prairie, Alberta, to be exact – Tenille Townes was always dreaming up ways to take what she leaned in the classroom or around the kitchen table and turn it into a song. Beginning singing lessons at age five, Townes was a sensitive, emotionally connected and ambitious kid who wrote poetry, picking little moments of heartbreak or injustice to feed her lyrics – and her philanthropy (Townes started a fundraiser in her hometown for a youth shelter at only 15 that has since raised over a million dollars). It was that work that found Townes on the road for 32 weeks after graduating high school, singing directly to students in hopes of inspiring leadership and listening to their stories (one in particular, of a teen killed in a car accident, made its way into the heartbreaking “Jersey on the Wall”), and eventually to Nashville, where she played at guitar pulls, signed a publishing deal and started working with Jay Joyce. Her new EP, Living Room Worktapes, is a stripped-down introduction to an artist with a whole lot to say.

She Says: “To me, music is about just showing up and being who you are. And for me, that’s telling these kind of honest stories. Singing about things [like the topic of ‘Jersey on the Wall’] gives people the emotional freedom to go there. I love the real stuff. I want to listen to the real stuff all day long.”

Hear for Yourself: On tour this summer with Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, Townes will take the auditorium stage with nothing but her guitar to play songs like “Where You Are,” an unusually raw look at searching for love in a complicated world. M.M. 

randall king

Randall King

Sounds Like: Making it to Amarillo by morning, with stars in your eyes and last night still on your breath

For Fans of: George Strait, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson

Why You Should Pay Attention: Randall King’s true-blue take on neo-traditionalist country music is no gimmick: It’s the music he grew up with and, for King, life is all about laying down and embracing your roots. Born in Amarillo, he comes from three generations of west Texas hay farmers and truckers, and would have likely followed the same path had he not taken to singing at a young age. Though he fell in with songwriters frequenting the Blue Light in Lubbock, King sounds more like his heroes than his Texas country peers, and those icons have taken notice. “This kid is what country music is all about,” raved Garth Brooks recently, giving his endorsement to King’s self-titled LP, having met up in person after being impressed by King’s demoes. Released last month, King’s album was cut with studio ringers including Bobby Terry and produced by King, who studied sound engineering in college, himself.

He Says: “Every time I go home I get that same feeling, it just gives you butterflies. Like when you’re a kid watching that west Texas sunset, watching your dog run away for three miles. It’s your roots, and your roots sink deep there,” says King, who signed a songwriting contract with BMG in February. “There are a lot of pieces of my family in that record. Every song I write I try to make sure it reflects who I am as best as possible. Without a good song you have no product to begin with.”

Hear for Yourself: “Tuggin’ at My Heartstrings” mixes boot-scootin’ boogie with the brash and the bawdy, along with some clever wordplay. J.G.

Nathan Kalish

Sounds Like: The heartland rock and alt-country soundtrack to looking for UFOs in Roswell, New Mexico

For Fans Of: Neil Young, Wilco, The X-Files

Why You Should Listen: Growing up with a father who worked as an evangelical missionary, Kalish was born in Milwaukee but bounced around such far-flung places as Germany and the Czech Republic. Though his access to music was limited by his parents, that footloose lifestyle stayed with him as he shuffled between homes in Chicago, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Nashville, among others. After a stint as a hired hand with the Deadstring Brothers, Kalish – broke and homeless – set out on his own, living and touring out of his van without hardly enough money for tolls. On track to play 250 shows in 2018, he self-released I Want to Believe in April, which he recorded with Dave Beeman (Pokey LaFarge). The LP is a single-minded, songwriterly collection of folk, Americana and country that dips its toes into the waters of alternative rock and psychedelia.

He Says: “That nomadic lifestyle is what I was raised with. I went to three, four schools in one year. I got used to changing friends and meeting new people. Traveling just came naturally to me. I like New York and Seattle, and even L.A. But the real stuff of the country is in the middle, and there’s so much of it that people forget about it. I love going to weird places like North Dakota and to pretty places like Montana, and even to Texas. I guess I’d say I’m from the Midwest, but I’d have a hard time identifying with being from anywhere. America’s gotten so weird in the last few years that it’s gotten hard for me to figure out what’s going on anywhere here. I have a hard time fitting in anywhere. I think I always will.”

Hear for Yourself: “My Best” articulates Kalish’s wandering spirit, and rolls along with an easy vocal delivery before an otherworldly spiraling solo. J.G.

lacy cavalier

Lacy Cavalier

Sounds Like: A formidable new entry into the increasingly growing soul-country contingent, with brassy horns and bold vocals

For Fans of: Lindsay Ell, Kalie Shorr, Jillian Jacqueline

Why You Should Pay Attention: Lacy Cavalier is known around Nashville as one of the Song Suffragettes, a collective of female songwriters dedicated to showcasing female musical talent. She’s currently supporting a new single, “Every Time It Rains,” which she wrote with Cary Barlowe and Autumn McEntire as a response to some particularly painful rainy-night urges to reconnect with an ex-flame. Though still not old enough to buy a legal drink, Cavalier has already caught the ears of plenty of fans, including Chase Rice, who brought the up-and-comer out on the road in 2017.

She Says: “My favorite story to tell about [Chase Rice] is probably the first conversation we ever had. I was in Austin, Texas for maybe eight hours and it was my first time ever visiting. About an hour before heading to the airport, I went down to Congress Avenue to do some shopping. I was standing in some store when a random number started calling me. Usually I’d let it go to voicemail, but for some reason that day I decided to pick up and I’m extremely glad I did. I heard, ‘Hey, this is Chase.’ I replied with the expected, ‘Chase, who?’ I quickly realized what ‘Chase’ in particular it was that was calling me. I started pacing around the store with the biggest smile on my face. We talked for a second and then he told me he loved my song ‘Put You Down’ and that he wanted me to open for him on tour.”

Hear for Yourself: “Every Time It Rains,” with its doo-wop vibe, Motown-inspired horns and punchy guitar, is one of the rare songs that makes heartbreak sound like a pretty good time. B.M.

john calvin abney

Erin R.A. Rambo

John Calvin Abney

Sounds Like: Dreamy folk with a good balance of sadness and sunshine

For Fans of: Elliott Smith, M. Ward, Wilco’s slower acoustic tracks

Why You Should Pay Attention: If you’ve seen John Moreland live, you’ve likely also seen John Calvin Abney, who spends part of his time onstage performing alongside the fellow Oklahoman singer-songwriter. But Abney’s been making his own music for a decade too, with his subtle, introspective skills culminating on his newest LP, Coyote. Written after weathering some personal losses – of a friend (the artist Chris Porter) to an accident, his grandmother, a relationship – it’s a tender set of songs about the dark side of growing up and realizing that these realities will keep getting sharper and more urgent as time goes on, but without the music resting on melancholy. Instead, there’s wisdom in acceptance.

He Says: “Coyote was my way of chronicling these difficult situations and maybe served as a reminder to keep your head up and keep pushing forward, and to always try to keep your shit together. Songwriting was never a catharsis for me: Coyote was more learning how to deal with life stuff.”

Hear for Yourself: “Get Your House in Order” is a dreamy bit of slowly chugging classic rock that’s a reminder to do just that: keep your shit together. M.M.

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