An Americana singer with an endorsement from Huey Lewis, two multi-instrumentalists with country-radio in their sights and a pair of trios – one male, one female – highlight this month's installment of new country and Americana artists you need to hear.
Sounds Like: Gorgeously introspective Laurel Canyon-tinged folk, delightfully free of ironic twee, manbuns or overly-dated flourishes: think Joni Mitchell, riding the "Big Yellow Uber"
For Fans of: First Aid Kit, Indigo Girls, the "J" Trilogy: Mitchell, Joan Baez, Joan Armatrading
Why You Should Pay Attention: Andrews has been a touring musician since she left home at 16, playing guitar and singing backup for Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World, and gaining praise from Ryan Adams for her quietly released solo albums along the way. And though traveling the world in your early twenties might seem like a dream for some, Andrews longed for the comforts of home, eventually taking a job as a bartender in the Pacific Northwest. It was there, slinging beers and mixed drinks to a working-class clientele, that she began to write the material that would become her most recent LP, Honest Life. On songs like the title track, the maturity is uncanny: "some people take a little more time to grow," she sings, her voice flickering and flourishing. It's an inquiry into authenticity and sense of place that few could conjure with twice the amount of years under their belt.
She Says: "People love to talk about their deepest personal thoughts when they are intoxicated. I never intended to write based around those stories, but they really influenced me. It gave me a wider empathy for the world, and those stories are the ones that ring true in my soul more than anything." And she knows a thing or two about summoning liquid courage: "Of all the bartenders, I was always the one to pour the stiffest drink."
Hear for Yourself: On "How Quickly Your Heart Mends," Andrews mourns a lover who has moved on too fast, in a warble that indicates she's hurting more for the ephemeral nature of romance than any one particular suitor. M.M.
Sounds Like: The middle ground between Nashville's Music Row hitmakers and Americana's rule-breaking rebels, with songs that mix the familiar – acoustic guitars, handclaps, super-sized choruses – with quirky turns-of-phrase and unexpectedly poppy production from Brandy Clark producer Dave Brainard
For Fans of: Will Hoge, Dave Barnes, Brothers Osborne
Why You Should Pay Attention: Like the name suggests, All American Mutt rejects purebred twang in favor of variety. There's husky-voiced country, acoustic roots-rock and the sort of bright-eyed, Top 40-minded singer-songwriter fare that once ruled the roost at L.A.'s Hotel Cafe. Raised in Massachusetts but rooted in Nashville, Kent has a unique North-South perspective on songs about love, liquor and the cultural glue that binds us all together. Released independently and stocked with cameos from Huey Lewis (with whom he has toured), country crooner Michaela Anne and New Grass Revival's John Cowan, All American Mutt debuted in the Top 20 of Billboard's Country Albums chart.
He Says: "Over the past year and a half, I wrote 150 songs. The year before that, I wrote 25. I've been working hard on upping my songwriting game, while playing somewhere between 150 and 200 shows every year. In a town like Nashville, where there are so many talented people, you have to work hard. Keep plugging away for long enough, and eventually the hard work will reward itself. That's been the key to this whole career."
Hear for Yourself: On All American Mutt's title track, Kent celebrates the differences that keep us unique, setting the whole thing to a soundtrack of groove-heavy guitar and arpeggiated banjo. A.L.
Sounds Like: A kinder, gentler Avett Brothers, from north of the border
For Fans of: Mumford & Sons, Rascal Flatts, Ricky Skaggs
Why You Should Pay Attention: Brothers Brad and Curtis Rempel were raised in the boondocks of upper Alberta, Canada, but isolation hasn't stopped them from creating music that resonates in the lower 48. Their major-label debut isn't even out yet, but they've already amassed 8 million song streams – 3 million of which come from their first Top 30 single, "Make You Mine," featuring their hero Ricky Skaggs – and scored a go-ahead TD by placing "Young Forever" on the soundtrack to EA Sports' Madden NFL 17. Raised on gospel, and only introduced to pop music when their town got FM radio while still in high school, the brothers are 100 percent dedicated to family-friendly positivity, and with their new album, Dear Life (out November 18th), bring a modern pulse to a generation-bridging mix of folk, pop and country.
They Say: "The music that we're doing now on Dear Life is very influenced by the old school," says Curtis Rempel. "We used to sing 'I'll Fly Away' at church and youth group all the time, and that was just the style – kind of bluegrassy, simple chords and straight up old-timey music."
"A lot of people call our music super old-school, and a lot of people think it's very progressive with all the hand claps and the stomps and the gang vocals," adds Brad. "Easily my biggest compliment is when people say it's old school and progressive at the same time."
Hear for Yourself: "Make You Mine" is driven by propulsive beats, acoustic instruments and hearts-wide-open vocals. C.P.
Sounds Like: Three-part harmonies and healthy doses of fiddle meet arena-pop instincts, as if Shania Twain recorded a song for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
For Fans of: Dixie Chicks, Pistol Annies, Alison Krauss
Why You Should Pay Attention: When Runaway June played Broken Bow Records founder Benny Brown their first batch of songs, he signed them to BBR imprint Wheelhouse Records on the spot. His faith is well-placed: the trio was hand-picked by Carrie Underwood to back her up on the CMA Awards. Currently putting the finishing touches on their debut album, Runaway June credit Marcus Hummon, who co-wrote Number One hits like Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away" and Sara Evans' "Born to Fly," with helping them find their sound. "We're influenced by modern music," lead singer-guitarist Naomi Cooke explains, "but you'll hear fiddle and steel and Dobro. Even with our live shows, we don't have tracks – I think us and maybe William Michael Morgan are the only two artists right now that don't use tracks live."
They Say: Singer-guitarist Jennifer Wayne (the granddaughter of John Wayne) recalls the origin of debut single "Lipstick." "Our co-writer, Rebecca Lynn Howard, had found this meme on Pinterest that said, 'Be with someone who ruins your lipstick, not your mascara.' She brought it in, and we were like, 'That's a great song idea,'" says Wayne. "Naomi jokes that everyone had been saying, 'It's five o'clock somewhere' for God knows how long, and then someone thought to write it – that song did alright. So hopefully this will follow suit." "Lipstick" has become popular enough to partially overtake its online source material. Says singer-mandolin player Hannah Mulholland, "Now our song is a meme."
Hear for Yourself: "Lipstick" is a rattling, eminently hummable song with a heart-racing, double-time ending. E.L.
Sounds Like: A long-lost member of the Class of '89
For Fans of: Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks
Why You Should Pay Attention: With a pure-country baritone and a stubborn love of timeless, gravel-road themes, Alabama native Shane Owens has been waiting on his big break for a damn long time. It may have finally arrived with his new album, Where I’m Coming From (out December 9th), if for no other reason than the big names throwing their weight into Owens' corner. John Anderson appears on a renewed version of the clucky "Chicken Truck," which has been picked up by Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel. Meanwhile, Randy Travis makes a rare cameo in Owens' video for the easy-going "Country Never Goes Out of Style," even going so far as to tell Owens point blank, "You're good." Travis is also the executive producer of Where I’m Coming From, backing the play of another industry vet: producer James Stroud (Tim McGraw, Clint Black, Chris Young).
He Says: "People may not realize it, but this is my third record deal. Some people portray me as a new artist, but truth be told, I've been doing this a long time and have had my share of lumps and pains in this business. It's part of the process just like anything else. It's going through those hard times that have really shaped me in to who I am today. I simply love what I do and I've learned in life you can't quit, no matter how hard it is. I've come too far to throw in the towel now.”
Hear for Yourself: "Country Never Goes Out of Style" takes no offense to the world's ever-changing ways – it's just a bright and breezy reminder that some things have never required an update. C.P.
Sounds Like: Cleverly blending Seventies California country with Eighties crossover vocal groups, Midland are a Friday-night back-porch guitar pull where everyone knows the songs and isn't afraid to sing along
For Fans of: George Strait, Eagles, Glen Campbell, honky-tonk karaoke
Why You Should Pay Attention: Three words: Solid. Country. Gold. The chemistry between bassist Cameron Duddy, lead singer Mark Wystrach and guitarist Jess Carson is undeniable – both to fans who discover them and to the members themselves, who jammed for the first time at Duddy's wedding. Named after Dwight Yoakam's song "Fair to Midland," the band captures harmony-rich, California country on their new self-titled EP for Big Machine Records. The trio recently finished up a run of shows opening for two of their heroes, Yoakam and Willie Nelson, and will hit the road with labelmate Aaron Lewis in January.
They Say: "[Outlaw country singer] Gary Stewart is a huge influence on our sound. He made being down and out sound appealing with a shooting-dice-in-the-alley behind the honky-tonk, devil-may-care effortlessness," says Wystrach. "The three of us got on stage together for the first time at a 'talent show' during the rehearsal dinner for Duddy's wedding. However, it was the bonding, fighting, drinking, writing and crying that took place during our first studio sessions at El Paso's Sonic Ranch that crystallized us as a band."
Hear for Yourself: "Drinkin' Problem" rolls along on a slinky barroom shuffle as if it's coming straight out of a neon-lit jukebox circa 1978. W.H.
Sounds Like: Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Roy Orbison
For Fans of: Merle Haggard, Sturgill Simpson, the Sixties golden era of country music
Why You Should Pay Attention: Pound for pound, there's no better unsigned artist working in Nashville today. A nuanced, heart-tugging fiddle ace – he was playing in bars before age 11 – Hedley has been the go-to sideman for Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz. And his voice – he guests on the new track "Shadows" by Southern rapper Yelawolf – is just as striking, a warm, smooth baritone that's nonetheless capable of hitting honky-tonk highs. As such, Hedley has become a fixture of the bars on Lower Broadway, particularly the classic-country outpost Robert's Western World, which he calls "my spot forever, no matter what happens." Should Jack White be looking to sign the male counterpart to Margo Price, he needn't look any further.
He Says: "So many of my contemporaries dabble in a classic sound but there's always some sort of new innovative twist. My new innovative twist is that there isn't one. It's important to exercise your creative muscles, but for me the genre of country music was perfected in 1965 and anything after that, albeit good, was experimentation. When it comes to making country music, my mantra is, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Hear for Yourself: "Don't Waste Your Tears," off Hedley's upcoming EP (a record he made for his father, who died two years ago), is a cry-in-your-beer breakup ballad with a soaring chorus. J.H.
Sounds Like: A lovelorn, multi-instrumentalist phenom influenced equally by Vince Gill and Boyz II Men
For Fans of: Hunter Hayes, Billy Currington, Justin Bieber in ballad mode
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ennis penned his debut single "Woke Up in Nashville" with David Hodges and Blair Daly, a true-to-life account of his move to town. But Ennis, signed to Arista Nashville, has also written with Liz Rose and Nathan Chapman (on Tyler Farr's new single "Our Town"), two writers with a gift for pop crossover, which Ennis approaches wholeheartedly: his live sets often include a medley of hits from the Killers, Fall Out Boy and Blink-182. He also says he writes rap music as well as country. "I love writing different sounding songs," he notes. "There's no limitations on what you can do."
He Says: "I wanted to play CMA Fest really badly after my first year in town. I didn't have a booking agency or a record label that could get me on a show like that, but I saw this advertisement for a Bud Light Battle of the Bands, and the winner got to play one of the stages at CMA Fest. We entered the competition and our application got denied. The day before, they called and said, 'We had a band drop out, can you guys still do it?' It was just one of those crazy Nashville right-place-right-time stories. There was a label executive having a beer with a friend from college, there was an agent in there watching another act, and my producer now, Corey Crowder, was there judging the thing for free beer. We played and we ended up winning. I couldn't have written it better myself."
Hear for Yourself: "Woke Up in Nashville" builds slowly but surely, blossoming from solo piano lament to an immaculately produced, full-band bit of soft rock, with Ennis playing every instrument on the session. E.L.
Sounds Like: The rough-hewn rumblings of a 21 year-old Canadian millennial armed with the weathered voice, writing chops and bushy facial hair of his 1970s country favorites
For Fans of: Steve Earle, Dylan LeBlanc, Parker Milsap
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in the Saskatchewan prairieland, Wall makes lonely, wind-blown country music that's as lovely and rural-sounding as his hometown. He's already made a dent in the States, too, opening for Lucinda Williams at the Ryman Auditorium and receiving a standing ovation from Steve Earle during a recent appearance at Nashville's Skyville Live. The biggest splash may be yet to come, though, with Wall's full-length debut – a raw, minimalist record, with production by Dave Cobb – due out in mid-2017.
He Says: "I'm living in Kentucky now, and a lot of the people I meet will say, 'Hey man, I didn't even know Canadians listened to country music.' But the reality is, if you're in a rural community, it doesn't matter where you're at. Country music is country music. People in Minnesota love Waylon just as much as people in West Virginia. It's a lifestyle kind of thing. It's universal."
Hear for Yourself: Wall strums, stomps and shudders his way through this live version of "Kate McCannon," a moody murder ballad that'll make an appearance on next year's album. A.L.
Sounds Like: One of those road-trip radio sweet spots where two great stations – in this case, modern country and Top 40 pop – weave in and out to create a unique sonic hybrid
For Fans of: Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, John Mayer, guitar-fueled twang-pop
Why You Should Pay Attention: Moore is a talented multi-threat who co-wrote every song and played 11 different instruments on his most recent album Getaway, out this past summer. Tracks "Might As Well" and "Some Are" have been released as singles, with the latter's music video garnering significant fan support on CMT. While Moore has shared the stage with Alan Jackson, Rascal Flatts, ZZ Top and Gary Clark Jr., his most recent set of shows found him opening for Martina McBride, Thompson Square and Cassadee Pope on the Band Against Cancer: The Sarah Cannon Tour.
He Says: "In the studio, playing the majority of the instruments is a very rewarding – but tedious – process. I spend a lot of time layering instruments, crafting guitar parts, playing solos and doing mandolin, piano and banjo overdubs. It's a marathon trying to get everything down the way I hear it in my head, but it's always a fun process to build a song from the ground up and watch it grow. My producer [Dwight Baker] and I really set out to make this album as authentic and real as possible. We purposefully left in little imperfections to give it that real, human feeling that you only get from watching a live show. That's the magic we wanted to capture."
Hear for Yourself: "Might As Well" is a radio-ready anthem that sneaks up on you with an intoxicating instrumental pulse, before leaving its mark with a scorching guitar solo. W.H.