The guitar resonates loudly in Rolling Stone Country's spring installment of Artists You Need to Know. There's a farm-girl-turned-country-rocker who would give Keith Urban a run for his money; a high-haired young gun on tour with Tim McGraw; a shredding Americana duo with a T Bone Burnett-produced debut; and a mother-and-son group — yes, mother and son — who blend howling blues with acoustic picking. The artists who don't play make up for it by having monster voices. Here are the 10 new country artists you absolutely have to hear right now.
Sounds Like: The twin harmonies of Nashville's newest power duo
For Fans of: The Civil Wars, ABC's Nashville soundtracks
Why You Should Pay Attention: Most country acts rely on sidemen and hired guns to bring the firepower. Striking Matches, the guitar-slinging twosome of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, handle that job in-house. She's a Tele fan with an appetite for searing slide solos; he's a finger-picker who loves his Strat. Both members sing, turning Striking Matches not into a rootsy shred-fest, but a melody-driven band whose members don't let guitar solos get in the way of a good hook.
They Say: "We're very different guitar players," explains Davis, "and we want our styles to operate as two separate voices. When you can make the distinction between who's playing what, it really adds personality to those parts. It's not just a vocal duo. It's not just two people playing guitar. It's a balance of everything."
Hear for Yourself: Fans of Nashville may be familiar with Striking Matches' lovelorn "When the Right One Comes Along," which appeared on the show long before the band recorded it for their T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, Nothing But the Silence. By Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: Chris Stapleton singing "Whiskey River," Bonnie Raitt's secret twin brother
For Fans of: Keith Urban with the Ranch, Cross Canadian Ragweed in their weediest moments, Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn"
Why You Should Pay Attention: It hasn't been an easy road for the Alabama-born White — he was dropped from a Mercury Records deal after his first single "The Simple Life," failed to make an impression on radio, and he's been touring for years behind nothing but an EP. That hasn't bothered his fans, though, or Big Machine's Dot Records, which snapped him up. Good move: he's a growling, stomping spitfire, blasting his songs with bluesy energy that's as infectious as his catchy choruses.
He Says: "It's gonna be me, it's gonna be a spark," he hints about his upcoming LP, expected in the fall. "I'm not sure how people held on with me this long, but they did. And I truly believe it's because our live show is second to none. Now the obstacle and the challenge is to convey that on the album. If you're rocking out live and people are loving it, then do that in the studio. Spit, growl, preach and jam."
Hear for Yourself: "It Feels Good" was loosely inspired by the vibe of Pharrell's "Happy" and packs a washboard, sitar, banjo and suitcase kickdrum for that signature swamp stomp. By Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: If Sara Bareilles went country
For Fans of: Taylor Swift (circa 2010's Speak Now album), Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry
Why You Should Pay Attention: If anyone can fill the void Taylor Swift left in country music, it's this East Tennessee native, who rivals the "Style" singer with diary-entry lyrics, striking guitar prowess and a lot of stage swagger. But after moving to Nashville at age 15 to try to be the next Swift, she learned a lesson that has ended up being the secret to her success: "You can't be who your inspirations are," the now 21-year-old relates. So Ballerini found her own voice — both as a singer and songwriter — and became one of the most unique new talents the genre has seen in a long time.
She Says: "I listened to a lot of outside songs, and they're so good," Ballerini recalls of putting tracks together for her debut album, The First Time, out May 19th. "But the whole reason I'm an artist is because I'm a songwriter. So I thought it would be more honest of a record if I had my voice and my hand in all of it."
Hear for Yourself: Inspired by the "sass" of Rihanna's "Take a Bow," Ballerini's debut single, "Love Me Like You Mean It," is a Top 15 (and climbing) hit — a huge feat for a new female artist in country music. By Beville Dunkerley
Sounds Like: Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," Ryan Bingham on Nicorette
For Fans of: Guy Clark, New Morning–era Dylan, every artist on the Big Lebowski soundtrack
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Texas-born, Nashville-residing Combs first came on the scene for "Too Stoned to Cry," which perfectly captured the blasé heartbreak of modern love, where intoxication dulls the pain and the brain. But his sophomore LP, All These Dreams, made it clear he's more than just a killer, honey-cooled voice with a knack for turn-of-phrase — it's an expertly-crafted, layered work that pulls not just from country but little licks of James Taylor, Paul Simon and early Seventies Dylan. Shuffling, smooth and soulful.
He Says: "My parents listened to a lot of Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor, and I've always been pretty into [Simon's] first few solo records," he explains. "Just the way he mixed cool musical ideas with interesting lyrics. I think that's what's missing in a lot of modern music. It's either really cool musically, or really cool lyrically. I wanted to try and merge those things. Why not? More people should."
Hear for Yourself: The sweeping, pedal-steel gloss of "Nothing to Lose" is set to the sweetest percussion this side of Graceland. By Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: Captivating no-frills folk tunes for pop fans who've got the blues
For Fans of: Tom Waits, Tracy Chapman, the Civil Wars, Adele, Americana in general
Why You Should Pay Attention: Mother-and-son duo (how’s that for a rarity!) Ruth and Madisen Ward toiled in obscurity, woodshedding their meditative living-room folk at Kansas City coffeehouses for five years before playing their first road gig — an intimate performance by candlelight at fashion designer Billy Reid's annual Shindig in the Shoals hangout in Florence, Alabama. Word of mouth spread to Nashville where, during Americana Fest a month later, the duo floored an invite-only crowd of Music Row insiders with a similarly captivating set at Jack White's Third Man Records. Buzz built quickly and, in a matter of months, a Letterman appearance, big-stage bookings at festivals like SXSW and Bonnaroo and a deal with Glassnote Records (home to the likes of Phoenix and Mumford & Sons) followed. The duo's debut LP, Skeleton Crew — recorded in Nashville with Grammy-winning producer Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys) — comes out May 18th.
They Say: "There's so many talented people in the world [that] there's got to be a mom playing with her son somewhere and they're probably amazing,” Madisen Ward tells Rolling Stone Country. "We really didn't set out to be a duo. [But] we started to realize that other people we were playing with wasn't quite what we wanted to do, and a lot more original songs started coming into form. We finally just stopped doing our own thing, set our egos aside and said, 'Let's just go ahead and make this a duo and really try and pursue it head on. But we were reluctant . . . My mom was saying she was too cool for me."
Hear for Yourself: Their juke-joint performance of "Silent Movies" on Letterman is the group at its best, with Madisen's howling tenor a goose-bump-inducing quiver and Mama Bear Ruth's walking guitar lines reminiscent of Willie Nelson's casual pickin' style. By Adam Gold
Sounds Like: A Nineties-influenced country songwriter with a sweet voice and a sunny disposition, supported by high-profile pop producers Jeff Bhasker and Tyler Johnson
For Fans of: Lady Antebellum, David Nail, the Band Perry
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Lafayette, California, native used Kickstarter to finance her debut album, which attracted the attention of Arista Nashville. Although she grew up in the Bay Area, Cam's favorite memories come from her beloved grandparents' ranch in Southern California. She sang the subdued "Burning House" at the request of Emmylou Harris at the All for the Hall benefit concert in Los Angeles last year.
She Says: "I grew up singing in a lot of different languages and a lot of world music choirs, so I have a lot of musical influences. But the songwriting structure of country music is the standard in my mind," insists Cam, who shortened her given name of Camaron Marvel Ochs to reflect her friendly, approachable personality. "That structure seems to feel the most homey to me."
Hear for Yourself: Cam's exuberant debut single "My Mistake" isn't as sweet as it sounds — it's actually a damn-the-consequences night-out anthem, pushed along by a healthy dose of devilish sass. By Craig Shelburne
Sounds Like: Rainy day tributes to life, loss and loneliness in Middle America, sung by a road dog who's all too familiar with heartbreak
For Fans of: Steve Earle, Ryan Culwell, John Fullbright
Why You Should Pay Attention: Recorded in his parents' garage outside of Tulsa, High on Tulsa Heat — Moreland's third record — finds the strange beauty in down-in-the-dumps proclamations like "I'm so damn good at sorrow." He is good at it, particularly during his live shows, where he foregoes the group of folk-rock Okies who appear on the album and, instead, takes the stage alone. Country stars have always made beer-drinking music, but Moreland's sad-eyed songs push you to drain your glass in commiseration, not celebration.
He Says: Moreland wrote his new album during gaps in a busy tour schedule. "It's about having this love/hate thing with your hometown, then leaving and going on tour," he explains. "You come back home and realize you don't really have a home to go back to."
Hear for Yourself: A live favorite for years, "Cherokee" makes its studio debut on Tulsa Heat, mixing melody and melancholy into the sort of ballad that can silence a bar. By Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: A feather-light voice that evokes the best singers of the Lilith Fair era
For Fans of: Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Ashley Monroe
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Virginia native's wistful, often heartbreaking, tunes about relationships have already garnered several prizes, including the esteemed Kerrville Folk Festival songwriting contest and American Songwriter magazine's 2013 lyric competition. And for good reason: The songs on Spence's debut release, the stripped-down, beautiful Somehow, delivered in her haunting, gossamer-winged voice, capture life's fragility, while celebrating our humanity.
She Says: "When I moved to Nashville, I focused on songwriting and only started performing because that was a way to put my songs out there," she recalls. "The artist thing grew out of that. I realized there was a chemistry there and that I could quiet a room with my tiny, little voice."
Hear for Yourself: On the elegiac "Trains Cry," Spence puts words to the lonesome feeling of being in a constant state of just passing through. "The beauty of what I get to do is I get to meet people and see all these new places," she says, "but the hard part is you only get to be there 24 hours." By Melinda Newman
Sounds Like: Keith Urban, if Keith were a woman and played guitar in the Rolling Stones
For Fans of: Urban, Frankie Ballard, Bonnie Raitt
Why You Should Pay Attention: If 2015 truly turns out to be country's Year of the Woman, then Clare Dunn will supply the girl power. A ferocious guitar player more in line with Page than Paisley, the Colorado ranch worker and one-time big-rig driver is absolutely magnetic onstage. Whether she's opening for Bob Seger in an arena full of classic-rock fans or entertaining the bros on the Florida Georgia Line cruise, Dunn knows how to work any crowd.
She Says: "It's important to know whom you are playing for. If I feel I need to tailor my set, I do it, and if I don't, I just rock on," explains Dunn, who was shaped by her mother's love of George Strait, Waylon Jennings and the Eagles, and her dad's R&B record collection. "I was very much into all that, and the Rolling Stones were a huge influence for me. But if it was music and I thought it was good, I listened to it. There was no picking and choosing, especially driving a tractor — you just listen to whatever radio station you can tune in."
Hear for Yourself: The end-of-the-work-week release "Get Out" showcases both Dunn's husky vocals and sizzling guitar playing. By Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: The easy-going swagger of Eighties pop rock tossed with the melodicism and storytelling of country, filtered through a Millennial's mindset of a world still full of possibility
For Fans of: Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Hunter Hayes
Why You Should Pay Attention: Music is in Bryant's blood: His grandpa played piano for Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly, and his uncles were in Nineties hitmakers Ricochet. But Bryant's his own man, musically. The 22-year old Texan learned quickly to "always make your own stamp. I wanted to create a shadow of my own instead of living in someone else's." With his sense of melody and fiery guitar playing, he's blazing his own path — right into the opening slot on Tim McGraw's summer tour.
He Says: "Records that were around me growing up were Fleetwood Mac, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles. Music from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies," Bryant says, which may explain his music's expansive appeal. "But country music was where I found lyrically that I fit in. No one said you have to wear a cowboy hat to play country; you just have to tell the truth."
Hear for Yourself: The nostalgia-laden "Take It on Back" from Bryant's self-titled debut EP is a prime example of pop-country done right, all high harmonies and repetitive choruses. By Melinda Newman