A brooding hardscrabble honky-tonker, a band of bluegrass experimentalists and a country vocalist with a pole-dancing hobby and a single called “Stripper for a Week” make up the 10 new country and Americana artists you need to hear this month.
Sounds Like: No frills honky-rock with plenty of pedal steel, Western swing and vocals as smooth as the highest dollar whiskey
For Fans of: Buck Owens, Joshua Hedley, Paul Cauthen
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jeremy Pinnell caught the ears of fans and critics alike when he released his debut album Oh/Ky in 2014. The album arrived on the cusp of traditional country’s popular renaissance and earned the Kentucky native praise for his aching voice, honest songwriting and Western sensibilities. Pinnell just released a follow-up album in Ties of Blood and Affection, a stellar collection that could earn Pinnell comparisons to Sturgill Simpson.
He Says: “I definitely felt more freedom in making this album. Just accepting who I was and what I sounded like. Any artist will tell you they hate hearing themselves.” As for writing meaningful songs, Pinnell says, “I’d say [it’s] the honesty in the delivery. If you mean what you’re singing then it’ll show.”
Hear for Yourself: “Ballad of 1892” is hardscrabble honky-tonk at its best, nodding to Johnny Cash and Buck Owens in equal measure. B.M.
Sounds Like: Regina Spektor refracted through the lens of American roots music
For Fans of: Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Amanda Shires
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jillette Johnson’s 2013 debut album Water in a Whale showed the young New York native to be an important new force in songwriting, earning her slots on tours with artists like Delta Rae and Mary Lambert. The follow-up All I Ever See in You Is Me, Johnson’s Rounder Records debut, is a powerful collection of piano-driven songs that show the singer to have evolved both lyrically and musically. Produced by Dave Cobb, the album makes the case for Johnson to be one of folk’s most intriguing up-and-comers.
She Says: “This album was a long time coming for me. I had written hundreds of songs since my first release, and grown a lot as a person and an artist. By the time I actually got to Nashville to record, I was about ready to burst. It felt like I was finally taking the lid off a boiling pot. In some ways, I was terrified, because it had been so long and I didn’t want to blow my chance at making something I was really proud of. But I think the fear was good for the energy in the songs. Plus, we made the album in the same studio where Dolly Parton recorded ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and we all joked that we could feel the ghosts of our heroes in the room while we recorded, so there was no lack of vibe.”
Hear for Yourself: “Bunny” is the gorgeous dystopian piano ballad about artistic integrity you never knew you needed. B.M.
Sounds Like: Fresh-off-Lower Broadway Little Big Town, delivered with a Kentucky yodel and through a gauzy Instagram filter
For Fans of: Harmony-laden pop country like Dixie Chicks, Eden’s Edge and the Band Perry before things got weird
Why You Should Pay Attention: Liz Sharpe, otherwise known as Little Feather, isn’t just a coal miner’s daughter: she’s a coal miner’s granddaughter too, and one actually related to Loretta Lynn and Patti Loveless (they’re second cousins). It’s a lineage tailor-made for a future in country music and one that Sharpe’s been pursuing since age three in Pikeville, Kentucky – from playing piano as a kid to singing backup with (surprise!) Michael Bolton. But even those born into tradition need to throw it for a loop now and then, which Sharpe did by living in Florida and then moving to Australia to learn to surf, an experience that brought a light, bohemian quality to the songs she would later come to write. For Little Feather, Sharpe compiled a band of ace musicians, including her drummer husband Aaron Spraggs and Glen Campbell’s son Shannon as a multi-instrumentalist, and loaded the tracks on the band’s debut LP with plenty of banjo, mandolin and her Appalachian yodel – essentially everything she once tried to beat against. “I chased my dreams right back to my roots,” she says.
She Says: “I always had this really weird yodel and break in my voice, and always tried to hide it. I wanted to do everything but country. Now, I get chills when I listen to a bluegrass band. But I also really enjoy mainstream country. Who doesn’t like to dance?”
Hear for Yourself: “Hillbilly Love Song (Hey Y’all)” was inspired by Sharpe’s desire to reconnect with her Kentucky spirit: set to a percussive banjo, it’s about trading sidewalks for cowboy boots and not being afraid to kick back, Southern style. M.M.
Sounds Like: Meticulous, modern country pop, influenced equally by Southern storytelling and R&B production
For Fans of: Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, Kelly Clarkson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Named after Emmylou Harris, White was raised by songwriting parents in Baltimore, with the sounds of the city’s two main radio stations – one playing country music, the other blasting R&B – filling the family home. After studying voice at Berklee School of Music, she found her way to Nashville, turning the genre-jumping sounds of her childhood into songs about love’s victories and missteps. Her debut EP, Emma White, doubles down on a contemporary approach to country music, with acoustic instruments, hip-hop loops and pop production all sharing the same space. The songs have racked up more than 1.5 million digital streams – an impressive number for an artist who remains proudly independent.
She Says: “I’ve always loved Justin Timberlake’s first solo album, because he made great pop music out of organic sounds and acoustic instruments,” explains White, who finds a similar balance with the moody, minor key “My Ex.” “The song builds this bridge between country instrumentation and an almost hip-hop-sounding beat. There’s pedal steel in it, but also an urban loop, and it feels so natural to me.”
Hear for Yourself: Built on groove and spacey guitars, “My Ex” finds White turning down a suitor whose charm only seems to bring up bad memories. R.C.
Sounds Like: The sass of Nikki Lane mixed with the clever wordplay of Brandy Clark, all dressed up with brass and funky production
For Fans of: Nikki Lane, Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley
Why You Should Pay Attention: Nashville native Jenny Tolman doesn’t have a whole lot of music out just yet, but what she has released shows that the up-and-comer is someone to keep an eye on. “Stripper for a Week,” the first single off her forthcoming Dave Brainard-produced debut album Jennyville, is unlike much else out right now, blending honky-tonk twang with white-hot horns, and delivering lyrical gems. To boot, Tolman is also a pole dancer. For real.
She Says: “One of my favorite things about country music is that it has always been rooted in storytelling. I love getting to create characters and develop narratives for them. When I was telling Marty Dodson, my co-writer on ‘Stripper for a Week,’ about a blog post I had read where a girl was literally a stripper for a week as a social experiment, he was like, ‘That’s our song!’ I am a pole dancer as well, and there’s always the stripper connotation that goes along with anything having to do with a thin perpendicular pole, so why not embrace that for a song and daydream a little bit?”
Hear for Yourself: “Something to Complain About” is an easygoing steel-based ode taking to task those whose diamond shoes fit too tightly. B.M.
Sounds Like: Contemporary country-rock, performed by a group of Kentucky-based road warriors raised on Mellencamp and Petty
For Fans of: Turnpike Troubadours, a mainstream Jason Isbell, the midpoint between Hootie & the Blowfish and Darius Rucker’s solo career
Why You Should Pay Attention: The band’s self-titled debut tackles mainstream country music – a genre still headquartered in Nashville – from an outsider’s perspective. “I grew up on bluegrass music,” says co-founder Paul Priest, “and when I heard John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, it made me feel like I wasn’t so uncool. He embraced rural subject matter and rural music, and he turned rock music into this regional thing.” Jericho Woods’ songs follow suit, mixing lyrics about the day-to-day lives of blue-collar Bluegrass Statesmen with fiddle riffs, guitar muscle and supersized melodies. The result might be difficult to categorize – “we’re too commercial for the Garden and Guns of the world, but country radio doesn’t like that we’re not talking about sugar shakers and big ol’ trucks,” says frontman Josh Mitcham — but that doesn’t make its punch any less potent.
They Say: “I love our friends in the indie scene, but I love pop hooks too,” admits Mitcham. “Our audiences work hard all week. When they drive home and turn on the radio, they don’t want to hear a funeral dirge. They’re probably tired of songs about field parties, too. We’re trying to meet them somewhere in the middle.
Hear for Yourself: Stacking electric guitar and fiddle into the same harmonized riff, “Better Now” builds its way toward an anthemic chorus. R.C.
Sounds Like: Smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings on the Gulf Coast of Texas
For Fans of: Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Sun Studio in the 1950s
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in the south Texas town of San Benito, the home of Tejano country legend Freddy Fender, Crockett – a descendent of frontiersman Davy Crockett – grew up listening to chopped and screwed hip-hop. Following the footloose example of one of his heroes, Woody Guthrie, he cut his teeth performing in the streets of New Orleans and the subways of New York City, nurturing a love for jazz, blues, and country. Returning to Texas, where he befriended like-minded old soul Leon Bridges, Crockett released an album of bluesy originals, In the Night, in 2015 before signing with Thirty Tigers last summer. His first album for the label, Lil G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee, is a collection of country classics with his own Cajun-meets-Tex-Mex twist, complete with ragtime trumpet and accordion. Mining a number of influences not commonly seen in Americana circles, Crockett is currently touring with Turnpike Troubadours.
He Says: “As I’ve gotten older, the same way that I gravitated toward old-school players who paved the way like T-Bone Walker, I’ve been drawn more to guys like Freddy Fender,” says Crockett of his rootsy eclecticism, which he was first exposed to on the streets. “I like the simplicity of a short song. The street taught me to do that. I could never play a song on the street that didn’t get tips. If it didn’t, I had to throw it out. [As a street performer] nobody’s asking you to be there. In fact, it’s the opposite. So you have to overcome those things and gain somebody’s attention. You’re getting a much more raw and honest exchange with that.”
Hear for Yourself: Crockett’s cover of Tanya Tucker’s “Jamestown Ferry” showcases his raspy vocal style, which adds a Creole drawl to the familiar country twang. J.G.
Sounds Like: The glory days of female-fronted, Nineties country music, updated for a generation raised on Spotify rather than FM radio.
For Fans of: Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs, Jon Pardi
Why You Should Pay Attention: After kickstarting her career on the college-bar circuit, Rachels will spend the rest of 2017 in much bigger rooms, opening a run of shows for Dwight Yoakam before joining Luke Combs for the rest of his sold-out fall tour. The timing couldn’t be better. Faren Rachels, a five-track EP of heartbreak songs and party anthems, arrives November 10th, showcasing a Georgia native with Tennessee-sized twang and ball-busting sass. “There’s some programming on the songs,” she says, “but there’s a lot of fiddle and steel guitar, too. I love those instruments, and I miss them these days. I wanted the EP to be super country but still feel 2017.”
She Says: “I grew up on all the Nineties power females, like Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, and Sara Evans. That’s the stuff I still love more than anything in the world. I’m super drawn to traditional country music, but when I write something, I need the lyric and the vibe to be super fresh. It’s in a lane of its own.”
Hear for Yourself: “He’s about as good for me as free drinks all night long,” Rachels sings in “Free Drinks,” a mid-tempo anthem about avoiding the temptations that’ll only hurt you in the morning. R.C.
Sounds Like: A back-porch hootenanny set not in an Appalachian holler but in a city, where the songs performed draw from Bill Monroe to David Bowie
For Fans of: Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Old Crow Medicine Show
Why You Should Pay Attention: Coming up on seven years since they formed as undergraduates at the University of North Carolina, Mipso have built enough national presence to have cracked the Top 10 of Billboard’s bluegrass chart with their last three albums (one of which, 2015’s Old Time Reverie, went all the way to Number One). On this year’s Coming Down the Mountain, the quartet’s winsome Americana is as catchy and easygoing as ever, but with drums added at the behest of producer Brad Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun), it packs a lot of rhythmic pep. Veteran road dogs, Mipso are spending this fall on a coast-to-coast Campfire Caravan Tour, co-headlining with the similarly minded Brothers Comatose and Lil Smokies. That sets things up nicely for their recorded-but-as-yet-untitled next album, produced by Ani DiFranco sideman Todd Sickafoose and due out next spring.
They Say: “By the end of this calendar year, we’ll have played 135 shows and been on the road 190 days,” says mandolinist Jacob Sharp. “We actually recorded the next album before Coming Down the Mountain even came out because we wanted a challenge, to record it ahead of whatever feedback we’d be getting. So we decided to follow the music. We went to Eugene, Oregon, and holed up for three weeks during a dark and depressing Oregon winter. It definitely reflects that place and time where and when it was made.”
Hear for Yourself: “Hurt So Good” rolls along at an amiable pace, with lilting hoe-down fiddle from Libby Rodenbough and an earworm lead vocal by Joseph Terrell. D.M.
Sounds Like: Arena-sized country with a not-so-guilty pleasure for poptimism
For Fans of: Big & Rich, Thomas Rhett, Kid Rock on Tennessee mountaintops
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in Arkansas with family on the West Coast, Strickland was a competitive horse rider in his youth, where he learned the discipline and self-assurance of performing in front of crowds. It was at one such equestrian event that he met Johnny Cash’s longtime bassist Marshall Grant, who took him under his wing after listening to a demo and indulged Strickland’s interest in everything from classic country to Black Eyed Peas. While Grant passed away in 2011, Strickland, who ha released a handful of singles over the years, joined forces with Big & Rich producer Sean Giovanni for his first LP, California Dreamin, released in August. Now based in Nashville, he writes party-friendly anthems and doesn’t try to hide his affinity for Lana del Rey and Timbaland on songs that bear heavy pop and electronic influences.
He Says: “I’m very open-minded. Anytime someone wants to talk about the old school or the new school, I’m very intrigued, especially when I’m talking to other artists. I want to know what they’re passionate about, what drives them. Because I know what drives me,” Strickland says about his pop leanings, which he says result from a desire to be “bold” rather than “cookie cutter.” “There are so many interesting things out there with technology and the studio. [But] I love to tell stories. Country is known for that – that’s one genre where you can tell a story. And of course ballads are fun, too.”
Hear for Yourself: “We Don’t Sleep,” California Dreamin‘s lead single, is a country power ballad about an insomnia-inducing romance, complete with Top 40 synths. J.G.