Modern-country songwriter Nick Wayne, rockabilly vet Kim Lenz and garage-country outfit the Craig Brown Band are among the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear now.
Sounds Like: Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton stuck in an escape room with Jeff Buckley
For Fans of: Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban, John Mayer
Why You Should Pay Attention: Having one of your idols record your song before you even hae a publishing deal sounds like a fairy tale, but that’s exactly what happened to newcomer Nick Wayne. Keith Urban heard “How Do I Get Close” right after Wayne wrote it in 2015, and he cut it immediately. Then, luck struck again when Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recorded it. Neither version made their albums, mind you, but the buzz was enough to give Wayne the lift he needed. On his just released two-song collection, Two Sides, the Nashville native shows his deep love of both soul and country music, pulling inspiration from Bill Withers and Usher to Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban.
He Says: “I feel like people come to this genre and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll just try and make it in country for a little bit,’ and they always talk about crossing over… into what [they] really want to do, which is become a mainstream pop artist. I’m from [Nashville], I grew up here and listened to all the songs — a lot of my friends’ parents were songwriters, and just the integrity of it all is what means the most to me. I only want to make it if it’s real and good. And I think there’s a lot of artists like that, but there are also a lot of artists that keep the world from listening to country music. It just doesn’t feel as real, and there’s a reason for that.”
Hear for Yourself: On his own version of “How Do I Get Close,” a sparse arrangement puts Wayne’s falsetto voice and soulful melody at center stage alongside bluesy guitar, a dramatic balance of light and shade. J.B.
Sounds Like: Dive bar-ready insurgent country and ragged, punk-fueled folk-rock with witty lyrical musings about the mundane
For Fans of: Bottle Rockets, Banditos, Deer Tick
Why You Should Pay Attention: A fixture on the Detroit music scene, Craig Brown co-fronted the electro-punk outfit Terrible Twos and played guitar with King Tuff, while also fostering his love of old country by recording twang-leaning tunes at home for his own amusement. One of those recordings landed Brown on a festival bill, so he put together a band to expand the sound. It didn’t take long for the fledgling group to catch some big breaks. After attending an early gig, Jack White signed the band to his Third Man Records, which released their debut album, The Lucky Ones Forget, in 2017. Back in the spring, White also tapped the six-piece garage-country crew to open an arena show in Detroit. Another early supporter, Dwight Yoakam, personally invited Brown to open a handful of shows after seeing him play in L.A.
What They Say: “The total country gateway for me was the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. My friend checked it out from the library and we became obsessed with it. I went way further and got into Buck Owens and George Jones. But at first I was more into the energy of playing fast punk and metal, and thought of the country stuff as something I’d just play privately. People think this band is blowing up because of the cool things that have happened, but we’re working really hard. I still teach guitar and work at two different bars, and sometimes we play shows with no one there. We’re just getting started.”
Hear for Yourself: The jangly “Planet Song” rambles with the swagger of Sticky Fingers-era Stones with a message about taking what life gives you in stride. J.F.
Sounds Like: The atmospheric soundtrack to haunting, late-night fever dreams about being on the business end of a murder ballad
For Fans of: Neko Case, Watson Twins, David Lynch-style film noir
Why You Should Pay Attention: Cashavelly Morrison sings in a coolly emotive croon that conjures up a cinematic vibe, and it’s a just-right fit for the finely detailed mini-dramas of her lyrics. Her husband/partner/co-writer Ryan MacLeod grew up playing old-time folk-music murder ballads in his native North Carolina (where they’re based), and his dayjob is as a psychotherapist — the perfect skill set to evoke ways that are dark. There are lots of wide-open twangy spaces on the duo’s second album Hunger, which employs beautiful sounds to tell spooky tales with a staggeringly high body count. They’re setting the album up now with a series of expertly choreographed videos while finalizing tour plans for 2019.
She Says: “Our first album came out of me trying to write a novel set in West Virginia in the early 1900s, and that has carried over. I was doing research and talking to an old miner who told me these really intense stories painting this world of coal-company towns. ‘Ashes White’ on this album was inspired by him telling me about black men disappearing into coke ovens without anyone ever knowing.”
Hear for Yourself: “Night Feeding” was inspired by the birth of Morrison’s daughter, with a video featuring dancers “exploring the strength of the female body.” D.M.
Sounds Like: Homegrown Nineties-era neo-traditionalism crafted for the modern audience
For Fans of: Brothers Osborne, Michael Ray, Josh Turner
Why You Should Pay Attention: A native of Cypress, Texas, Anderson honed his craft as a teenager playing at dancehalls and juke joints, so rest easy knowing he comes by his interest in traditional country music honestly. Don’t look for Anderson to don a Nudie suit, though, as his brand of country draws as heavily from contemporary radio as it does classic songbooks, positioning him smack in the middle of the growing gulf between traditionally-inspired and commercial country music. Signed to Arista Nashville, Anderson released his first single, “Drop Everything,” over the summer, with no firm plans yet for a debut album.
He Says: “It was so much more than just standing up there with your guitar and singing your songs,” Anderson says of his early years in bars. “After a couple hundred shows, I figured out how to actually put one on. I learned there’s a lot of good folks out there that are still fans of traditional country music. I was told early on, ‘Doesn’t matter how big or small the crowd, ya gotta put on the same show.’ That was a big lesson. On the other hand, I also learned to not trust everything you’re told in a honky-tonk. And you can’t go wrong with playing Johnny Cash or George Strait.”
Hear for Yourself: Anderson’s first single “Drop Everything” shows the young artist to be a deft vocalist with a sturdy baritone, and boasts a foot-stomping beat that would sound right at home on Nineties country radio. B.M.
Sounds Like: Appalachian music, through and through, with all the dynamism of a string band and the longing of a lovelorn country song
For Fans of: Old Crow Medicine Show, Lillie Mae, Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and logging her dues in her family band, the Whitetop Mountain Band, since her youth, Martha Spencer was flatfooting and singing while other kids were at home stacking blocks. And after years playing with, and for, others, her self-titled debut LP feels like a continuation of tradition, not a half-baked attempt to go back in time. Featuring a score of top-notch collaborators, like Frank Rische, her parents and members of the Whitetop Mountain Band (as well as Hank Williams III’s guitarist Andy Gibson), it’s a collaborative album that showcases not only Spencer’s skilled musicianship and mountain quiver, but both an adept songwriting hand and a knack for the perfect cover — her string-heavy take on Hazel Dickens’ “Ramblin’ Woman” is especially potent.
She Says: “I always try to be as true to myself as I could be,” says Spencer. “With everything, I never thought, ‘Well, it has to sound like this or this style.’ A lot of the way I learnt music was from what I was surrounded by. I never said it has to sound old country, it just has to be authentic to who you are. A lot of it is rooted in tradition and a lot of it is who I am now. Music is a living thing.”
Hear for Yourself: “My Heart Says Yes,” a delicate ode to the fickle nature of love, features some gentle plucking and a duet with Rische that feels both traditional and timeless. M.M.
Sounds Like: Brooding, ethereal indie-folk with subtle Western influences and a sharp sense of social consciousness
For Fans of: Lera Lynn, Lindi Ortega, Amanda Shires
Why You Should Pay Attention: Though Vera Sola is preparing to release her debut album, the LP is far from her first rodeo: She spent years playing in Elvis Perkins’ band and has a background as a skilled multi-instrumentalist. Her recently released album Shades shows Sola to be a vocal and lyrical talent, too, one with an auteur’s sense of mood and atmosphere. Standout track “The Colony” builds on Sola’s experiences as a water protector at Standing Rock in 2016, coupling a transfixing arrangement with a truly sinister point of view.
She Says: “I’ve been fired out of a cannon, out of nowhere, and suddenly here I am. I never even expected to make this [album], let alone release it. I played and arranged and produced it all myself — which was wild and initially terrifying. So in that vein I guess I’d hope that someone would be inspired to strike out on their own and shake off any fear of creation and release… It might inspire someone to find the power and fertility in times of darkness. And humor there, too. These songs seem sad, but there’s a lot that’s funny in them. Usually if you have to say explicitly that something’s funny it’s definitely not, but in this case I’m telling you it is.”
Hear for Yourself: The eerie Gothic twang of “The Colony” underscores the song’s narrative, which rebukes white colonialism by embodying the perspective of the colonist. B.M.
Sounds Like: Masterful rockabilly with modern influences and sonic touchstones that span the best of American roots music
For Fans of: Wanda Jackson, Imelda May, JD McPherson
Why You Should Pay Attention: While it’s not quite accurate to call Kim Lenz a “new” artist (she released her debut album in 1998), it’s safe to assume she’ll attract a host of new fans with her forthcoming fifth album Slowly Speeding when it releases on February 22nd. Where her earlier efforts solidified her as one of rockabilly’s more exciting voices, Slowly Speeding finds Lenz exploring her interest in American roots music and blending gospel, soul and country with her rockabilly sensibilities. The resulting collection is a kaleidoscopic look at rock music and all of the genres from which it first grew.
She Says: “[Slowly Speeding is] a lush landscape of roots traditions, tones and sounds from county, rockabilly, blues and gospel. I wanted to combine the unexpected with the familiar. It has the same deep rockabilly feel I have offered in the past, with a bit of Western gothic overtones. ‘Slowly Speeding’ elicits the feeling of the beginning of a love affair, that overwhelming feeling that makes you question your acceptance of consensual reality. ‘Did the stars all turn blue?’ ‘Yes, it’s true.’ Enjoy the intoxicating euphoria. Fall in love.”
Hear for Yourself: “Slowly Speeding” is the first single off Lenz’s forthcoming album of the same name and, with its spare arrangement and ghostly production, shows the rockabilly mainstay to be ever-evolving. B.M.
Sounds Like: Woody Guthrie’s social consciousness, Alison Krauss’s fiddle, and Emmylou Harris’s vocal shimmer sharing a brown-bag singalong around a hobo fire
For Fans of: Gillian Welch, Amanda Shires and the mystical vocal-instrumental finesse of I’m With Her
Why You Should Pay Attention: NPR praised folk singer/fiddle player Rachel Baiman’s 2017 album Shame for “testing her music’s potential to carry a timely message” and her new 4-song EP Thanksgiving finds her pushing out those walls even further. Initially inspired by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that hit a cultural awareness peak on Thanksgiving Day 2016, Baiman was inspired to write an “alternative” holiday album that attempts to reconcile the brightest and bleakest elements of the season. Part protest album and part nostalgic invitational, Thanksgiving offers perspective and celebration shouldered by slinky fiddle lines, rolling banjos, bluegrass harmonies and campfire guitars. As a songwriter, Baiman smartly matches the opening topical heft of “Tent City” and “Thanksgiving” with the closing affectionate warmth of “Madison Tennessee” (her bluegrass-bounced John Hartford cover) and “Times Like These,” providing an incredibly rich listening experience for both the head and the heart.
She Says: To take the Thanksgiving theme even further, Baiman added some extra chairs to her table and invited a few special guests to join her on the EP: “One thing that was really exciting about the idea of an EP was being able to do a few different collaborations. With a full-length record I feel more pressure to maintain a cohesive sound, but this was more of a fun sampler in terms of genre and style. Molly Tuttle brings such an incredible energy and ability to her guitar playing and singing that just elevates any performance. Josh Oliver is such a deep and tasteful musician that I always tell people that adding his vocal is like sprinkling teardrops into a song.”
Hear for Yourself: The wistful banjo ballad “Thanksgiving” finds Baiman striking the Guthrie-Dylan vein of brutally honest lyrics wrapped in beautifully sung melodies. W.H.
Sounds Like: A golden hour snapshot of a shared road trip with your favorite person beside you
For Fans of: Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, Nebraska-era Springsteen
Why You Should Pay Attention: Although Stephen Kellogg has released 10 albums and played over 1500 shows over the last decade, the vast majority of his career has been as a front man for his band the Sixers. However, with this month’s release of his new solo album Objects in the Mirror, Kellogg is poised to introduce himself as a singer-songwriter who can replicate the power and electricity of a full band with only his voice and guitar. Produced by Americana rocker Will Hoge and quickly recorded in just a single week in Nashville, Objects in the Mirror captures the talent, spontaneity and humanity of Kellogg’s songwriting and presents it in a soulful, folk-rock packaging that is refreshingly free of pretense and studio polishing. In another new move for the artist, Kellogg wrote a book of companion essays called Objects in the Mirror: A Storyteller’s Take on What Matters Most that will be released next year. Kellogg is currently on a solo headlining tour that runs through the end of December and will then embark on a full-band tour next March.
He Says: “I play music to articulate the contents of my heart and in order to do that, I need to be able to approach it conversationally,” he says of the “live in the room” recording process used for the album. “If one were to try to have a conversation in bits and pieces, it would feel pretty fragmented. I’ve found the same is true with my music. In cutting all the songs live and keeping the vocal passes unedited, we allowed for something I can recognize as myself — flawed, but real.”
Hear for Yourself: The slow-burn heartland rock of “High Highs, Low Lows” unfolds like John Prine fronting the Heartbreakers with Kellogg’s relaxed vocal delivery and just enough pedal steel and piano to strike the sonic sweet spot. W.H.
Sounds Like: A mountain music version of Feist’s “Gatekeeper” with the occasional flute
For Fans of: Cat Power, Bright Eyes, Lucinda Williams
Why You Should Pay Attention: Growing up in Kentucky as one of six children, Senora May informed her musical identity through both the native sounds of her home state and everything from Tracy Chapman and Natalie Merchant to Led Zeppelin. Now living in an off-the-grid homestead where she spends her days hauling buckets of water, her debut LP, Lainhart, shows why it’s never worthwhile to make assumptions based on where someone might be from or how they live. Although she uses the tools of Appalachia to create a lush folk landscape, her breed of sonic inquisitiveness feels more about finding the universal within the personal and less about a particular sense of place. Fittingly, much of Lainhart is about refusing to be what we’re expected — from the point of view of a woman who grew up defining her identity around a slew of brothers; to one in love but not willing to lose herself; to one from the holler who looks to Beyoncé as a main source of inspiration. “It’s a borderline dangerous obsession,” she says of her Beyoncé fandom. “But I think it’s remarkable how she’s kept control of every situation after being in the limelight for so long.”
She Says: “My dad always chose the boys to do stuff, and I always wanted to be a boy because of how much recognition they got,” says May, who worked through that concept in songs like “Female” and the album’s title track, where she explores what women are conditioned to give up when they get married. “I tried to capture those sides,” she says. “From the raising I had, from the more independent side from my mom, and then growing up and finding myself and my sexual power. That’s another reason I adore Beyoncé: she’s so comfortable with that side of herself, but it’s all for her art.”
Hear for Yourself: Keith Urban may have tried (and, arguably, failed) to capture the spirit of women on his “Female,” but May’s “Female” truly hones in on the balance between power, sexuality and the ability to let go of the definitions and road maps placed on women from the pink-colored cradle and on. “You say I’m just so pretty, you say I look real small, I ought to be at home pinned against the wall,” she sings to a soulful shuffle, her voice rolling to wistful highs. M.M.