This month's installment of rising country and Americana artists puts the emphasis squarely on lyricism. From the introspective, brooding ballads of Cody Jinks to the daring glimpses into society's dark corners by Shelley Skidmore, the songs are what elevates September's class of new talent. Put simply, these aren't disposable tailgate jams. Here's September's 10 new artists you need to hear.
Sounds Like: As if Norah Jones and the late Jeff Buckley had started a band and gone just a tiny bit country
For Fans of: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Brandi Carlile, Lera Lynn
Why You Should Pay Attention: With this year's slow-burning War & Peace, singer-songwriter LaBrie has garnered a steadily growing fan base and surpassed 2 million streams on Spotify. That's likely due to the fact that LaBrie never balks at using her lyrics to say something meaningful, whether she's pointing out the darker side of social media ("Against a Wall") or expressing disenchantment over the democratic process ("It's Political"). And her songs unfold with style and subtlety, coasting over the album's lush, beautiful arrangements via LaBrie's gorgeous voice.
She Says: "War & Peace was an extremely personal and healing album for me. I've wondered if I'll ever need to write about addiction or death again, because I can't imagine saying any more," says LaBrie, who had a run-in with the law during the recording process. "I parked my ’92 Honda Accord at the top of the hill. Halfway through recording, an officer knocked on the door asking, ‘Anyone in here drive an old white hatchback?’ Outside, I found my car at the bottom of a hill with her rear end smashed into a light pole. I was so embarrassed. I thought I had forgotten to pull the emergency brake or put it in gear. The officer said, 'Nope, you did everything right. But I'm not sure how to categorize this?' Story of my life."
Hear for Yourself: "Alcohol" is a dark and stormy piano ballad about addiction, love, and the perilous way in which those two things sometimes intersect. D.P.R.
Sounds Like: An intuitive everyman from Asheville, North Carolina, with a knack for deceptively smart lyrics and a slightly grizzled style of modern country
For Fans of: Eric Church, Jason Aldean, Chris Stapleton
Why You Should Pay Attention: Combs didn't even learn to play guitar until he was 21 (just five years ago), but since then he's done nothing but hone a style that is uniquely "him." Inspired by home-state hero Eric Church, Combs is a study in country contrast disguising intelligent, literary lyrics inside easy-going jams full of beers, babes and broken hearts. After moving to Nashville two years ago, he's racked up more than 15 million streams, 100,000 social followers and played more than 400 shows. Combs co-wrote all 12 tracks on his debut album, This One's for You, which comes out this fall and is packed with concise writing, humor and a fearless sense of self.
He Says: "I'm a student of Eric Church, and I say that a lot. . . I was drawn to it because of the honesty and because it's got rough edges on it. He doesn't shy away from anything and that's the way I wanted to be. I don't want to put myself in any kind of a box as far as my sound goes, because being an artist is fluid. If you look at a painter's work, a lot of times it's similar in style but other times – over even a year's period – it can change so much. I'm just going with the flow."
Hear for Yourself: "Hurricane," the first single from Combs' debut album, may sound familiar in a tailgate-anthem kind of way, but its sharp descriptors make this ballad about accidentally hooking up with an ex utterly unique. C.P.
Sounds Like: Deceptively simplistic Midwestern country-folk channeled through an engaging push-pull duo dynamic
For Fans of: Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams, early Wilco, the acoustic side of Rhett Miller and the Old 97's
Why You Should Pay Attention: While Graham Young and Adam Reed have been friends since childhood, the duo didn't start making music together until high school. After a temporary geographical divergence from their Michigan upbringing ¬– Reed attended college in Ohio and Young moved to Illinois – the pair eventually reconvened in Los Angeles, christened themselves the Michigan Rattlers, and recorded a demo that attracted the attention of producer Johnny K (3 Doors Down, Plain White Ts, Megadeth). Following some recent standout L.A. shows, the duo put the finishing touches on their highly anticipated debut 10" vinyl EP coming out later this fall. Young wrote lead-off single "Illinois Sky" about his time in Chicago and the song's upbeat, Son Volt vibe showcases the band's knack for evocative lyrics and shimmering vocal harmonies. The duo also recorded a live video for their cover of John Denver' "Prisoners" that's been generating buzz on YouTube as well.
They Say: While the band draws inspiration from some recognizable two-pronged sources like Uncle Tupelo and Drive-By Truckers – "We like Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood," says Young. But they're also quick to proclaim their love for a slightly more surprising muse: "Tanya Tucker in the Seventies," Reed reveals. "She has such great songs and such a great voice. Plus, she sounded 25 at age 13. She's a total badass."
Hear for Yourself: "Illinois Sky" rambles along with a Tom Petty swagger, as the Rattlers celebrate how those "late night talks probably saved our lives." W.H.
Sounds Like: God-honest country music boasting fiddle, steel and astute songwriting tailor-made for today's thinking country fan
For Fans of: Brandy Clark's storytelling, the Dixie Chicks' girl power and Loretta Lynn's lyricism
Why You Should Pay Attention: Raised in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, Shelley Skidmore worked as a song-plugger upon moving to Nashville and met Brandy Clark on the job. The two became friends, with Skidmore studying under Clark while writing together every week for two years. "Shelley is as committed to staying true to her traditional country roots as anyone I've ever met in this business," says Clark. "She started out country and she's going to stay country. She won't be a trend chaser." Skidmore's new single "White Picket Fences," off her self-titled EP, was born out of those sessions with Clark and offers a no-apologies look behind the façade of small-town America. "Half the soccer moms are hooked on Percocet or speed or weed," she sings, before describing a faraway big, bad city full of "sin, pollution, pedophiles. . .and heroin" and denying, with a wink, that such depravity could ever happen here.
She Says: "I remember the first time I played the Opry and I wondered, oh my gosh, if I could say 'Percocet and pedophiles' on the Opry stage. But people just want to hear the truth. And that song is pretty truthful," says Skidmore. "I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Why don't you write stuff that is more commercial?' And maybe I'd have been a big ol' star on country radio had I done that, but I moved to this town to make great music – not to be a millionaire."
Hear for Yourself: With its steel-guitar intro and Skidmore's Kentucky drawl, "White Picket Fences," written with Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, is Honky-Tonk 101. J.H.
Sounds Like: A triple-barreled blast of Texas country, soul and holy-roller rockabilly, delivered by a big-voiced crooner who kicked off his career as frontman of the Americana group Sons of Fathers.
For Fans of: Waylon Jennings, Luke Bell, Sun Records' country catalog
Why You Should Pay Attention: "I feel like there's a sweatshop somewhere on Music Row, and there's a bunch of guys in there with their pencils and their Parker Fly electric guitars, and they're just throwing things down the assembly line and writing these shitty Top 40 country songs," says Cauthen, whose solo debut, My Gospel, steers clear of the pop (and pap) of modern-day Nashville. Produced by Beau Bedford and released October 14th by Lightning Rod Records, the album unleashes the full fury of Cauthen's voice, a barking, booming baritone developed during his childhood days as a choir member at the Church of Christ. There's plenty of gospel here, but these songs also worship at the altar of Muscle Shoals soul and groove-heavy country, packed with all the drive and drama of Roy Orbison's work.
He Says: "I really found my voice on this album. It's got a lot to do my with upbringing. You've gotta sing real loud in the Church of Christ, because there's no mics. You've gotta learn to belt. And that's what I did with My Gospel. I didn't want to be timid; I wanted to pour my heart out and be honest. I wanted to put some genuine music out into the air, because that's the stuff I love. When you can get to know someone, just from listening to their songs, they're doing their job well."
Hear for Yourself: Cauthen puts the pedal to the metal with "Still Drivin'," a knockout punch of truck-driving twang whose melody spans more than two octaves. A.L.
Sounds Like: Saturday night turning into a kiss-and-run Sunday morning, as sung by a suicide-blonde honky-tonk angel
For Fans of: Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, heartbreak
Why You Should Pay Attention: A year after this Arkansas native moved to Nashville, she won American Songwriter magazine's 2013 "Pub Deal Contest," which thrust her into the world of Nashville co-writers. Eventually she hooked up with Clint Wells, her primary collaborator, with whom she co-wrote most of the 14 indelible and deeply personal songs of relationship trauma on her album, The Token (out September 9th). Sharp production from Josh Ritter keyboardist Sam Kassirer and just-right backup from a band of what Davis calls "really cool non-Nashville guys" transform her confessions of alcohol-fueled romantic misadventures into stark relief. Songs like "Benefits," "Motel Room" and "I Go to Bars and Get Drunk" are lived-in and true to life.
She Says: "Ever since I was young, songs have been like my diary. Every song on this record is pretty much verbatim. I don't write about things I've not experienced, at least not so far. Something I've only recently realized, because of the demise of every relationship I get into, I have trouble telling men what I feel and think about them – but not writing about it. Songs are my easiest outlet for speaking super vulnerably about what I'm feeling but can't say face-to-face."
Hear for Yourself: "The Token," her album's title track, plays like a series of mood swings from the exit ramp of another cratering relationship. D.M.
Sounds Like: Bluegrass musicianship meets jam-band exploration, delivered with a self-confident Philly attitude
For Fans of: Old Crow Medicine Show, the Felice Brothers and the string-based collaborations of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman
Why You Should Pay Attention: Formed in 2006 during a mini-explosion of indie bluegrass in Philadelphia and its 'burbs, Mason Porter evolved into a jam-oriented folk-rock-country hybrid, culminating with their latest EP Heart of the Mountains. The record is a loose concept project, tied into the centennial celebration of the U.S. National Park Service, a touchstone for mandolinist-guitarist-vocalist Joe D'Amico. Tim Celfo (upright bass, vocals), Paul Wilkinson (guitar, vocals), Sarah Larsen (violin) and Evan Smoker (drums) round out Mason Porter, who have played with artists as diverse as Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Daniels and jam-guitarist extraordinaire Tom Hamilton.
They Say: "We're able to draw a folk crowd, a jam crowd, a bluegrass crowd and stand out within each of those spaces. We're able to be accepted in multiple communities and that's key these days, as everything becomes more vague. 'Americana' – what does that even mean? It means different things to different people," says D'Amico, who will assemble Mason Porter on September 16th and 17th for the group's second-annual Midnight Mountain Music Show in Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains. "It started as a chili cook-off in my backyard and now it's turned into our own festival."
Hear for Yourself: "See America" is a rollicking road trip across the country, with a stomping drumbeat and hoedown fiddle. J.H.
Sounds Like: The crystal-clear harmony of four award-winning songwriters and multi-instrumentalists whose songs have previously hit country radio in the hands of other artists.
For Fans of: Dixie Chicks, Pistol Annies, SheDaisy and wickedly smart songwriting delivered with a healthy dash of sass
Why You Should Pay Attention: Before becoming a single unit, the multi-talented members of Farewell Angelina – Nicole Witt, Andrea Young, Lisa Torres and newcomer Lauren Lucas – experienced individual successes by having their songs cut by artists like George Strait, Lee Brice and Rodney Atkins, while also lending their voices and instruments to songs by Trace Adkins, Jason Aldean and Jerrod Niemann. Their debut self-titled EP, co-produced by Keith Stegall (Zac Brown Band, Alan Jackson), was just released this summer and features the tongue-in-cheek "Hillbilly 401K" and the flirty "Shotgun Summer," which flaunt the group's songwriting savvy and instrumental expertise.
They Say: "It's been a real gift to write for our band and find our own voice. Although writing solo is rewarding, writing together is rewarding and a blast," says Witt. "We really have a lot of fun in the writing room. We have such a strong relationship where everybody can let it all hang out. We know that unless you feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, you aren't ever going to catch the magic." Regarding their "courtesy of Bob Dylan" moniker, Young says: "We were looking for a unique band name that was both attention grabbing and feminine. Since some of our favorite bands have been named after songs, we started a list of song titles with women's names in them. We all gravitated to 'Farewell Angelina' and we fell in love with the story behind the song. It was written in the middle of a musical transition for Bob Dylan. For us, it represents that same musical growth and discovery."
Hear for Yourself: "If It Ain't With You" does a great job of bringing together everything that Farewell Angelina does best – witty lyricism and deft playing – into one sonic knockout punch. W.H.
Sounds Like: Heartland pop/rock with a country core, fueled by the guitar chops of former A-list sideman who now fronts his own band.
For Fans of: Kip Moore, John Mellencamp, Will Hoge
Why You Should Pay Attention: "I used to say that Big Spring has nothing but football, dirt and Jesus," Ray says of his Texas hometown, where he played high-school baseball before a career-ending injury prompted him to pick up the electric guitar instead. After moving to Nashville, those guitar skills landed him a sideman gig as Brett Eldredge's guitarist — a job that included a six-week run on Taylor Swift's Red Tour — while adding a riff-heavy focus to his own songs. Now a full-time solo artist and Sony/ATV songwriter, he draws on those Texas roots as a sort of stylistic compass, focusing on blue-collar anthems and riffy roots-rockers that have as much in common with the grit of the Lone Star State as the polish of Music City.
He Says: "I'm not trying to be John Mellencamp, but there's an honesty in that kind of music — the storytelling, the phrasing, the whole attitude — that fits in with who I am. Country music is all about storytelling, where you can paint these pictures for your audience. Look at 'Jack & Diane.' You can see the Tastee Freeze. You can see these two kids as their story unfolds. I love that. We're doing something similar on our new six-song EP, where we're looking to bring some real meaning with us, instead of just six or seven songs about tailgates and beer."
Hear for Yourself: Co-written by Kip Moore, Ray's "American Way" is a arena-country anthem that aims for the cheap seats, sketching the picture of a small town gearing up for a big weekend. A.L.
Sounds Like: Tattoos, Telecasters and Texas twang, performed by a recovered metalhead who still digs the darker things in life.
For Fans of: Whitey Morgan, Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton
Why You Should Pay Attention: A road warrior since the late Nineties, Jinks logged six years as frontman of the metal group Unchecked Aggression before returning home to Texas, where he rested his shot-to-shit voice and rediscovered a love for outlaw country. More than a decade later, I'm Not the Devil — the latest in a string of solo releases — has turned Jinks into an unlikely Top 10 star, peaking at Number Four on the Billboard Country Chart shortly after its August 2016 release. Full of honky-tonk heartache and barroom ballads, the record also steers Jinks into unusual territory for a country singer, with vampires, devils and apocalyptic imagery all rearing their heads. You can take the country singer out of heavy metal. . .
He Says: "We look like a dirty-ass rock & roll band, but whenever people ask what kind of music we play, I just tell them 'country.' I don't use any other adjectives. That leaves it really open-ended. It leaves room for everyone. I'm one of those guys where one of the best compliments anyone can give me is, 'I don't like country music, but I really dig your stuff.' I just want it to be good music, really. That's the stuff that resonates."
Hear for Yourself: On the apologetic "I'm Not the Devil," Jinks pleads for forgiveness over power-ballad guitars and waltzing percussion. A.L.