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10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: September 2017

From a country-folk prodigy with an affinity for Appalachia to a soulful, smooth operator from Louisiana

An ever-changing collective of Texas studio musicians, an adolescent Appalachian prodigy and a duo that tempers soft ballads with irreverent humor make up the 10 country and Americana artists you need to hear this month. 

Carole Litwin

Karen and the Sorrows

Sounds Like: Seventies-era folk rock, accented by generous amounts of pedal steel and a steady social conscience

For Fans of: Emmylou Harris, Lilly Hiatt, the idea of Dolly Parton fronting Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers

Why You Should Pay Attention: Led by singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman, Brooklyn-based Karen and the Sorrows are central figures in New York’s burgeoning queer country scene, a sprawling group of performers that includes My Gay Banjo and the Paisley Fields. New York native Pittelman founded the inclusive performance round-ups the Gay Ole Opry and the Queer Country Quarterly, and organized the 2017 Another Country festival in July to support and promote fellow country-loving musicians identified as queer or trans. In August, Karen and the Sorrows released their second full-length LP The Narrow Place, featuring the kind of heartbreak and loneliness you’d expect of any solid country recording (see “Can’t Miss What You Never Had”), plus a surprising gender-flipped take on the bro-country truck song in “Take Me for a Ride.”

They Say: “I come from an organizing, social justice background – I can’t stop myself,” says Pittelman. “I want to say, ‘Focus on the music! It’s hard enough to have a band!’ And then all of a sudden I’m organizing a day-long event in July, right before the album came out. How did I end up doing this? But I did it to myself. Nobody made me do it. I’m still proud of that one, even though it kicked my ass, because I want this conversation about gender and sexuality to be intersecting with the conversation about race in country music and Americana.”

Hear for Yourself: “Back Down to the Dirt,” with its desolate lead guitar work, is a sinewy, agitated tune about losing everything and seeing the way forward through the destruction.

Blank Range

Sounds Like: A little bit county and a little bit rock & roll, with a pair of co-frontmen/co-songwriters – super-crooner Jonathan Childers and six-string savant Grant Gustafson – in a dead heat to deliver melodies sturdy enough to withstand the force of a rhythm section worthy of Helm/Danko comparisons.

For Fans of: Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, the Band

Why You Should Pay Attention: An increasingly country-leaning quartet born from Nashville’s buzzing garage-rock scene, Blank Range’s psychedelic grit and hooky, harmony-heavy songcraft have made the quartet pack-leaders in a Music City where country and indie-rock lanes continue merging. Four years and two EPS following the band’s formation (not to mention tour dates supporting artists from Death Cab for Cutie to Alice in Chains), the band’s full-length debut, Marooned With the Treasure, arrived last month via Sturdy Girls Records/Thirty Tigers. Brimming with storyteller verses, bourbon-bathed choruses and transcendental bursts of shred by Gustafson – one of Music City’s most inventive guitarists – the record reflects a circa-now Nashville underground where, as Childers tells Rolling Stone Country, it’s not uncommon to catch local rock musicians out two-stepping at local honky-tonks. Marooned lead single “Opening Band” has already cracked 100,000 plays on Spotify, where the band’s received considerable exposure thanks to being featured on a handful of curated playlists. Perhaps most notably, Mumford & Sons put “Last Crash Landing,” from Blank Range’s 2013 Phase II EP on their ongoing “Songs for the Road” playlist.

They Say: “In Nashville, at the level we’re playing at, there’s very few hard lines between country and rock,” Childers observes. “I think we kind of blurred the line with a bunch of different things in our writing, and our styles. … We’re not consciously catering toward it, I think it’s just a thing that’s come around. What we like, [this] happens to be a good moment for it.”

Hear for Yourself: The organs swell and the guitars glide like waves as the band wrestles with demons and reconciles the rigors of the road on the groovy wistful lament “Opening Band.” A.G.

Daniel N Johnson

Penny & Sparrow

Sounds Like: Unplugged folk music for Sunday mornings, quiet evenings and all the fragile moments in between, punctuated by two harmonized voices and one acoustic guitar

For Fans of: Bon Iver, Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Elliot Smith’s bedroom recordings

Why You Should Pay Attention: With two members, Penny & Sparrow can barely fill the stages they’ll be playing this fall, during the group’s headlining tour in support of the newly released Wendigo. That hasn’t stopped bandmates Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke from filling venues with gorgeous, whisper-soft Americana since 2010. Live, the pair’s deadpan humor adds some levity to an otherwise somber show – a move that brings to mind another acoustic duo, the Civil Wars, whose John Paul White produced Penny & Sparrow’s previous album Let a Lover Drown You. With this year’s self-produced Wendigo, the guys chart their own flight, mixing Baxter’s husky huff – a voice cut from the same crooner’s cloth as Ray Lamontagne’s – with songs about romance, religion and the rush of staring down your deepest fears.

They Say: “Our songs are definitely heavier than our banter,” admits Jahnke, who handles the band’s guitar duties. “Whenever Andy and I can make each other laugh, it helps bring some lightheartedness to the show. Luckily, that’s who we naturally are.” Baxter agrees, adding, “We’ve had our fair share of playing for six people at the Jade Lounge in Oregon, but as we’ve grown more comfortable onstage, the audiences have grown too. And besides, the confused look on people’s faces when you vacillate between humorous banter and depressing music is worth the ticket price alone.”

Hear for Yourself: “Double Hearts” casts its own soft spell with Beatles-worthy chord changes and a falsetto-fueled chorus. R.C.

EmiSunshine

Sounds Like: The spunky, intense little sister of Iris DeMent, Natalie Maines and Nanci Griffith

For Fans of: Trenchant, mountain-grown bluegrass with a smattering of chilling murder ballads

Why You Should Pay Attention: Emilie Sunshine Hamilton is a mind-bogglingly talented adolescent who writes intense Appalachian folk tunes in the Carter Family tradition and sings them with wisdom and ferocity. Since she was 10 months old she’s been able to harmonize, and she wrote her first song at age five, recording two albums by the time she turned seven. With Ragged Dreams, she has – with her mother, Alisha Hamilton – written a stunning album that’s driven by acoustic instrumentation and EmiSunshine’s plaintive, powerful vocals. In “Strong Armed Robbery,” the fearless 13-year-old plays a now-deceased victim exacting fiery revenge on her killer and banishing him to hell – which she delivers as a seven-syllable word.

She Says: “I write about everyday stuff that happens. I have seen and experienced tragedy. I was in Gatlinburg [Tennessee] during the wildfires; I’ve witnessed friends in need who struggle with autism, depression and bullying. I write about the things that people don’t like to talk about and bring it to the surface. And … I do like scary movies; that’s where I get a lot of my song ideas. I like the ‘shock’ factor and I like to add ‘shocking moments’ and lyrics to my music.”

Hear for Yourself: For a girl barely in her teens, “Ragged Dreams” paints a stark, and indeed quite shocking, picture of heartache and loss. “Sorrow never leaves until you set it free / It eats just like the cancer, it was the death of you and me,” she sings. S.B.

Christopher Polk/Getty

Jacob Davis

Sounds Like: A date-night playlist of R&B-infused country, curated by the All-American boy next door

For Fans of: Old Dominion, Gavin DeGraw, early Maroon 5

Why You Should Pay Attention: Davis, originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, is a longtime fan of romantic comedies – How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is a favorite – but the genre isn’t just a guilty pleasure. While an undergrad at LSU, the movies acted as an introduction to soul godfathers like James Brown and Stevie Wonder, which added vocal gymnastics to his voice and some R&B into his chronological songwriting. These days it’s Davis’ wife Whitney who acts as muse, and those songs, three of which were released in late July via Kelsea Ballerini’s label home Black River Entertainment, speak to a more mature understanding of love by highlighting the beauty that comes the longer you know someone. No wonder fellow romantics Ballerini, Sam Hunt and Lady Antebellum have all tapped the 31-year-old to open their shows.

He Says: Davis’ brother, Jordan Davis, is also a country musician (profiled by Rolling Stone Country in June), and the two, who shared bunk beds as kids, sat down recently to ensure success never comes between them. “It was the best thing we ever could have done,” says Jacob Davis, older by two years. “There’s a friendly competitiveness that I think drives both of us. But at the end of the day, man, your family’s the most important thing out there. You can have all the hits in the world, but if you don’t have relationships with people that you love, it don’t make a hill of beans. There’s not a bigger fan of my brother than me, and vice versa.”

Hear for Yourself: In “What I Wanna Be,” a longwinded pickup line promises not just passion but pancakes the next morning, which act as a symbol for commitment. Domesticity has never sounded sexier. J. Gugala

Thorp Jenson

Sounds Like: A deeper, raspier-voiced Ryan Adams interpreting the riffs from the Rolling Stones’ “Tumblin’ Dice,” with plenty of warm, heartland sheen

For Fans of: Tom Petty, Jared Deck, John Moreland’s Big Bad Luv

Why You Should Pay Attention: If the name Thorp Jenson sounds silly, that’s because it kind of is: the nom de plume for Virginia’s Chris Ryan, it came to be after his bandmates started calling him “Thorp” to make a play on his particularly Ron Burgandy mustache. The name and the facial hair stuck, as did Ryan’s love of classic Southern-focused rock & roll that, if released these days, would be – let’s face it – dubbed Americana. A staple on the Richmond, Virginia, scene, Ryan made the rounds in bands, weddings and anywhere he could exercise his guitar skills, until deciding to buckle down and make an album. The forthcoming Odessa explores some vintage melodies and illustrative tales of life in the American heartland – with a heap of influence from the notably non-American Rolling Stones.

He Says: “I wanted to make a rock & roll record,” says Jenson/Ryan. “That’s what I was thinking about. So I submerged myself in a lot of the Rolling Stones, which isn’t something I had necessarily listened to before. I listened to a ton of their catalogue, I read Keith [Richards’] book. I was trying to write a rock & roll album, and I had never even thought about ‘Americana.’ When people started calling what I do ‘Americana,’ I’m like, ‘Huh, OK.’ But I was listening to a British act to get me there.”

Hear for yourself: Rather than rest on the confessional, Jenson/Ryan focuses on imaginative storytelling, something clear across the swampy vamps and Bruce Springsteen spit of “Oklahoma,” a song about slinking away from the trail of some bad habits. M.M.

Country Artist to Listen to August 2017

Allison Pierce

Sounds Like: Lush, acoustic-based Americana that transposes the ethereal soul of Pierce’s native Alabama with some dusty California roots – think Kacey Musgraves making a record with Dawes

For Fans of: Emmylou Harris, Courtney Marie Andrews, Karen Elson’s twangy first LP

Why You Should Pay Attention: When you’re best known for a track about murder, it’s fitting to have a solo debut that’s all about rebirth, reinvention and reflection. For Allison Pierce, that song was “Secret,” recorded with her sister Catherine as the Pierces, which opened the sugary teen television thriller Pretty Little Liars. But even if you’re related to a bandmate by blood (and maybe especially if you are), breaks are often in the cards, and Pierce was itching to do something with her sole fingerprint. Year of the Rabbit, a nod to Pierce’s birth year, was actually born itself in some ways back in 2000 in Nashville, when the duo was recording next to Ryan Adams, at work on Heartbreaker. Pierce sang on Adams’ “Why Do They Leave,” and she and the album’s producer, Ethan Johns, spoke about their desire to work together someday. Year of the Rabbit is that moment, 17 years later – and its soft textures, vibrant emotions and natural but hooky palette was well worth the wait.

She Says: “My sister Catherine and I have been making music for a really long time, and we both got to the point where we needed to express something else,” says Pierce. “It felt like the right time. We made five albums together and neither one of us could imagine going back into the studio to make another. And I had these songs for a while. I’d been collecting them, and it was always clear to me that they were for a future solo project. I would play them for Catherine – and she’d agree.”

Hear for Yourself: Like a rocking Joni Mitchell, “Evidence” is a catchy ode to dancing with the devil and seeing an angel in the steps. M.M.

Camino

Sounds Like: If Chris Stapleton’s husky vocals had a love child with Khalid’s croon

For Fans of: Stapleton, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, R&B-infused country

Why You Should Pay Attention: Mississippi native Camino can’t quite be confined to just “country.” From playing guitar in the hardcore scene on the Warped Tour at 16 to recording a track with B.o.B., the charismatic 23-year-old singer-songwriter co-signed by T-Pain and Akon has a melting pot of influences embedded in his signature sound. Camino left Mississippi for Atlanta, where he was homeless, struggling to make it in the music industry. Eventually, he found a mentor in Marcus Rippy and learned from producers DJ Spinz and Polow da Don before he defined his own soulful country roots. His affinity for the past and present finds him deep-diving into Elvis’ blues and tapping into Adele’s soaring vocals. The rising star released his fiery first single “Riot” in July, which has garnered more than 150,000 Spotify streams. He’s currently self-producing his 10-track debut album on Columbia Records.

He Says: “Akon came into my studio session one day the first time I ever met him and he stopped my music when it was playing and said, ‘You’re my idol,’ and I looked at him and I said, ‘No, you’re my idol,'” says Camino. “We had a big idol conversation for 10 minutes. Then we ended up becoming good friends and making music together. When other greats recognize greats, it’s a beautiful thing. There was a lot of energy and a lot of power in that room. He’s truly one-of-a-kind. There’s nobody that makes music like Camino: there’s nobody like Camino in this world. God did a pretty damn good job when he made me. That’s a real statement.”

Hear for Yourself: On “Riot,” Camino intersperses sharp R&B verses with rousing Southern rock choruses, crafting a hip-hop and country rallying cry unlike anything you’ve ever heard. I.K.

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