An Americana singer living in Germany, a gothic-country band with a flair for theatrics and a onetime Santa Monica street performer poised for her breakout moment make up the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear this month.
Sounds Like: The Black Keys meandering into Seventies psychedelic soul, with a storyteller’s eye, a swampy Southern groove and an emotional, political punch
For Fans of: Parker Millsap, Anderson East, Cosmic country
Why You Should Pay Attention: For a guy who was once called “a modern Townes Van Zandt” by none other than Chris Stapleton, Sam Lewis doesn’t let much go to his head – he’s been working as an under-the-radar but locally-beloved artist in East Nashville since 2009, when he moved there to write songs … and work at Walmart. His focus on the music that moves him over flashier day jobs or the lure of the social scene is what’s kept Lewis quietly honing his own soulful breed of Americana for years, and scored him opening slots for Stapleton and Marty Stuart. Though Lewis has released two excellent LPs, it’s his forthcoming album, Loversity, that might prove to be his breakout moment: everything is a little deeper, a little darker and jams a little longer. And he’s taking a closer look at a country in peril, written with an empath’s heart – i.e., Lewis, like many artistic minds before him, sensed something rotten in the state of Denmark even before Trump became president. “A lot of these songs were written before that idiot got elected,” Lewis says.
He Says: “Being political wasn’t the mission, but it’s a sense of duty,” says Lewis, about his sonic dive into the world around him on Loversity, due March 23rd. “My angle and my approach is ‘Ok, we’ve all acknowledged this thing, and what can you do about it? What do you think?’ I have a microphone and I’m still learning how to use it. And this project is going to push me out there a little further into the uncomfortable zone, and that’s fine. We need more conversations. I hope I’m not the only one that’s getting some of this out there in a creative and loving way.”
Hear for Yourself: For his cover of Loudon Wainwright’s “Natural Disaster,” Lewis lets the tone stay mischievous and menacing, the guitar solos brooding and his voice smooth enough to help the trouble ahead feel a little more bearable. M.M.
Sounds Like: K.T. Tunstall, Sheryl Crow, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild on a confessional girls’ night out
For Fans of: Dreamy, glinting tunes anchored by introspective, heart-worn lyrics
Why You Should Pay Attention: In 2013, Williams was spotlighted in the “Playing for Change” version of Maroon 5’s “Daylight” video, but her greatest showcase was Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, where she has performed acoustically for the last several years, selling a staggering 100,000 copies of her three indie albums. Among her customers: Oscar-winning director Ron Howard and singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, whom she counts as a major influence. Boomerang, her debut LP for Blue Élan Records, offers an impressive array of soundscapes but still manages to keep things refreshingly simple and honest. Highlights include the swirling big-top-inspired instrumentation on “Anything Worth Saving” and “Lonely Girl,” in which Williams recounts a 26-year run of lonely tears “for my string of darling dears.” Resolute loneliness has rarely sounded this desirable.
She Says: “Writing has always been an organic creative process for me. I think the best songs write themselves if you can just manage to get out of the way. That’s why I really wanted to keep the Boomerang sound pallet pretty organic and natural. In an era of synth pop and sample-driven music, I strove to make this record as human as possible. The closest thing to a sample on the record is the Mellotron on ‘Lonely Girl.'”
Hear for Yourself: “Lonely Girl” sports a whistling intro fit for a spaghetti Western and a swirling rockabilly vibe boosted by Williams’ killer voice. S.B.
Sounds Like: Tom Petty, high-school heartbreak, the most energetic of Americana guitar-rock
For Fans of: Petty, Bruce Springsteen, John Moreland
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jon Latham didn’t write his first song until he was in his thirties, but he’d spent most his life before that studying for the part. A fan of Bruce Springsteen virtually from birth – his first word was “Bruce” – he played cover gigs in Atlanta before moving to Nashville in 2013. Shuffled out of an old band’s lineup because he didn’t “look the part,” Latham was inspired to write his own material after hearing John Moreland’s music and soon found encouragement at an open mic hosted by a local radio station. Eventually he fell in with established songwriters and Nashville residents Todd Snider and Elizabeth Cook, and another up-and-coming talent, Aaron Lee Tasjan, who appears on Latham’s new LP – his second – titled Lifers. Released last month, he takes turns on virtually every instrument that appears on this heart-on-his-sleeve collection of heartland rock.
He Says: “When I started writing, it felt like I was doing the right thing, but I’d never thought in a million years that I’d do it. I was always the dude in the crowd watching other bands do it and thinking, ‘Man, I would love to do that.’ With my gigs in Atlanta, my attitude was always that I’ll never be able to say what I have to say as well as Tom Petty has said it,” Latham says about overcoming his insecurities. “I realized that none of that matters; the image part is bullshit. I’ll never live up to that, I’ll never be fashionable. But to me rock & roll was never fashionable. If we do it right, we all come off stage sweaty and exhausted and nobody wants to touch us. I can just be me. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just finding my own way to spin it.”
Hear for Yourself: “Major Key,” recorded live last month in Nashville, sees Latham – with frequent collaborator Andrew Leahey – transform from soft-spoken storyteller to rousing band leader. J.G.
Sounds Like: Sharply played ensemble Americana, with a powerhouse vocalist who puts the “blues” in bluegrass
For Fans of: Infamous Stringdusters, Nicki Bluhm, Nickel Creek
Why You Should Pay Attention: Since relocating from their native San Francisco Bay Area to Nashville last year, Front Country have grown by leaps and bounds, working the intersection between bluegrass and Americana. A lot of that is due to the ascendancy of front woman Melody Walker, a big-voiced belter whose blues-mama voice is versatile enough to put across everything from campfire folk songs to King Crimson covers. After winning best female vocalist in 2016’s International Bluegrass Music Association “Momentum Awards” for up-and-coming acts, Walker wrote eight of the 12 songs on Front Country’s current album, Other Love Songs. With an IBMA nomination this year for the entire group (as best emerging artist) and successful tours as far away as England and even Tibet, Front Country’s trajectory seems solidly upward.
They Say: “We’re all pretty big prog-rock nerds,” explains guitarist Jacob Groopman of the group’s knack for offbeat covers. “That had a lot to do with us starting this band in the first place, realizing we all like a lot of the same nerdy music. These days, we’re at the stage where we wind up playing to a lot of different audiences, still figuring out who we like and want to play for. We want to play for a younger, clubbier kind of audience. We’ve never considered ourselves a jamgrass band, but we seem to fit into that scene pretty well too.”
Hear for Yourself: “If Something Breaks,” the kickoff track to Other Love Songs, gets the album off to a great start with Walker’s insistent lead vocal and fine picking. D.M.
Sounds Like: Sophisticated, shimmery goof-free pop-country in the vein of Hunter Hayes and Dierks Bentley’s “Black,” but with an activist twist
For Fans of: Hayes, Billy Currington, LeAnn Rimes
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in Tennessee, the Los Angeles-residing Stansell got his start in the music industry as a backup dancer for Taylor Swift, and it wasn’t until he landed back home after two years on the road supporting her Fearless tour that he even started exercising his own talents as a songwriter (fun fact: he’s one of the members of Swift’s crew that inspired her Speak Now track “Long Live”). Going through a breakup, Stansell began to find some healing within his lyrics, a process that bred his first EP – and there’s no shortage of love lost on his debut LP, Slow Down, either. An openly gay man, Stansell has also intently used his platform and his artistry to support the LGBTQ community. He actively works to advocate for issues that matter to him while, at the same time, putting out gorgeously-directed music videos that show stories of romance and relationships that just happen to be between two men – a priceless message for the genre of country music.
He Says: “Coming out was the most tumultuous experience of my life,” Stansell says. “And a big part of my passion is also my advocacy work. I hear from people in my community so often through email, about what it means to feel represented in this genre. And if there is anything that I can do to have one less person have to go through what I went though, then it’s all worth it. It’s not just that people are hearing music that they enjoy – it’s artistry and advocacy going hand in hand.”
Hear for Yourself: A collaboration with friend and collaborator Ty Herndon, the record’s title track “Slow Down” is a sultry, mid-tempo rewriting of a romance that burned out as fast as it flamed. M.M.
Sounds Like: A world traveler’s perspective on American folk-rock and classic pop, recorded halfway across the globe.
For Fans of: The Beatles’ solo projects from the 1970s, Josh Rouse, Neil Young
Why You Should Pay Attention: Before moving overseas in 2008, Ian Fisher grew up in Missouri, raised on the soulful sounds of his father’s 1970s record collection and the punchy twang of Nineties country. Although he made several trips to Nashville with childhood friend and songwriting buddy Chris Janson, it was a relocation to Vienna that served as the launching pad for Fisher’s songwriting career. He’s been living in Europe ever since, rolling the best parts of American music – including Fleetwood Mac’s harmonies, Jason Isbell’s charged Americana and the subdued, rainy-day vibe of his Seventies favorites – into Idle Hands, an upcoming album that’s politically conscious and globally minded. “The more I felt that I was losing my national identity,” he says of his early days as an expat, “the more I was able to enjoy country music again. I was able to separate the genre from the political and social ideas that attached themselves to it. I realized that country music didn’t need a country to exist.”
He Says: “I like to blur the lines between what is personal and what is social in my lyrics,” says Fisher, who recorded Idle Hands in a small East Berlin studio surrounded by Soviet apartment blocs. “In the song ‘Road to Jordan,’ for example, I mix the themes of the healing power of empathy in the wake of the death of a friend with the backdrop of the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe. Why write about just one thing when it’s all connected, anyway?”
Hear for Yourself: One of the most Americana-leaning songs on a wildly diverse album, “Road to Jordan” roots itself in pedal steel guitars and Levon Helm-worthy grooves. R.C.
Sounds Like: The intersection of coffee-shop folk and juke-joint blues, performed in a sophisticated jazz club
For Fans of: Rhiannon Giddens, Muddy Magnolias, Amy Winehouse
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in Kansas City by a father who played guitar and a mother who sang in the church choir, Samantha Fish was steeped in roots music from a young age. Learning the drums and later guitar, she cut her teeth playing local blues jams, where she developed a reputation as a serious blues guitarist. Her second solo LP, Wild Heart, topped Billboard‘s blues chart in 2015, and this year Fish released a pair of albums showcasing different sides of her talents, beginning with Chills & Fever, a covers collection of obscure R&B. Earlier this month, she dropped Belle of the West, which reunited her with Wild Heart producer Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars. Like that album, it debuted at Number One on the blues chart
She Says: “It doesn’t really cross my mind to try to make something contemporary. I think when you find yourself in something, that’s what makes it contemporary. [With Belle of the West,] I feel like these are the best songs I’ve written, but it’s just my most personal album. I wanted to put the guitar hero thing down for a second and I wanted to let other things shine. It’s sort of like it was with Chills & Fever, but this album is about the songwriting and vocals and instrumentation. The guitar’s still there, but we pushed other things up to the forefront.”
Hear for Yourself: “Belle of the West” evokes the painted skies of the American southwest with subtle Spanish guitar and Fish’s yearning vocal. J.G.
Sounds Like: Smooth pop-country crooning over arena ready arrangements, distinguished by clever lyricism
For Fans of: Dustin Lynch, Tucker Beathard, Brett Young
Why You Should Pay Attention: Cale Dodds is no stranger to Music Row, having penned songs with artists like A Thousand Horses. His time behind the scenes was never meant to last long, though, as tracks from his independently released 2016 EP People Watching notched millions of streams for the Georgia-born artist. On his 2017 single “All Over,” Dodds blends big pop hooks with alt-rock guitars, making for a tune that should appeal to fans of Dustin Lynch’s country sheen and Tucker Beathard’s pop-punk ethos in equal measure.
He Says: “I think that everybody has a moment like the one I am describing in this song: the guy is seeing someone he was with for a long time with someone new,” Dodds says of “All Over.” “The difference in this story is that the guy does not do what he wants to do, but what he knows he needs to. He takes the high road by not getting angry after realizing that the girl is happy for the first time without him. In many ways, I hope some guys out there will hear this song and maybe react the same.”
Hear for Yourself: “All Over,” Dodds’ first official single with Warner Music Nashville, is a mid-tempo ode to an ex-lover that succeeds with some inventive wordplay. B.M.
Sounds Like: Cerebral lyrics à la Conor Oberst, with no-frills, twangy arrangements that call to mind troubadours like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt
For Fans of: Justin Townes Earle, Cale Tyson, Marlon Williams
Why You Should Pay Attention: Hayes Peebles has been floating around Brooklyn’s folk scene for several years now, making a name for himself among the circuit’s bars and small venues. Now the New York native’s vintage-inspired folk tunes are starting to make their way out of Brooklyn, thanks in part to the strength of his 2017 EP Ghosts and subsequent release of two additional tracks, “Airways” and “Bella.” Those recent releases show the young songwriter to be a distinct new voice in Americana songwriting, one who’s clearly studied up on his idols before him.
He Says: “If you told me 10 years ago that I’d be making anything remotely like country music I wouldn’t have believed you. I grew up worshipping the Strokes and Interpol like a good New Yorker. But I also spent hours a day digging into Neil Young and the Band and Dylan’s twangier stuff trying to figure out why they moved me so much. Townes Van Zandt was probably the final straw. Once I heard Delta Momma Blues I just admitted to myself that I needed to make this kind of music, or try to. I’m not capable of giving up indie rock, sonically or otherwise, but I’m so drawn to the troubadour and the sad song and the way the steel sounds that I’ve really got no choice but to try and do both all at once.”
Hear for Yourself: “Ghosts” is a plaintive acoustic ballad that shows off both Peebles’ way around a lyric and his haunting baritone. B.M.
Sounds Like: A country-gothic garage band playing a high-school sock hop during the early Sixties, dressed up in black leather and blue velvet
For Fans of: Quentin Tarantino soundtracks, the Cramps, Sun Records’ rockabilly artists
Why You Should Pay Attention: Launched by members of punk group the Blacklist Royals and fronted by country singer Samantha Harlow, the Bad Signs brew up their own blend of haunted honky-tonk and slow-moving psychedelic rock. It’s a woozy, nostalgic sound, dripping with reverb and punctuated by Harlow’s voice, whose sad-eyed twang echoes Patsy Cline. Partially recorded at Sun Studio, where Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison built their own legends during the 1950s, Black Magic Moments is the band’s debut, full of songs about switchblade fights, doomed love and consciousness expansion. After hitting stores in April as an official Record Store Day release, the EP was reissued on November 10th with several live tracks.
They Say: “Recording at Sun was creepy,” says Nat Rufus, who first crossed paths with Harlow while pumping quarters into a Nashville venue’s jukebox. The two found themselves drawn to the same jukebox selections, including Sam Phillips’ pioneering work with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Months later, they finished the Bad Signs’ debut in Phillips’ old studio. “There’s still magic in that room,” he adds. “To us, music like that is religion. I don’t go to church – I listen to Elvis records on Sunday.”
Hear for Yourself: Recorded live, the band’s cover of Sam Cook’s “Bring It on Home to Me” sounds as though it’s being delivered from the bowels of an echo chamber. R.C.