A Los Angeles cowboy influenced as much by mariachi as Merle, a New Orleans band whose primary mission is to make fans dance and a bohemian vocalist with a crooked halo and pop lilt make up this warm-weather season's list. It's such diversity that helps define both the country and Americana genres, affording fans a listening opportunity unlike any other. With that in mind, here are the 10 acts you have to hear right now.
Sounds Like: Classic country through the lens of a modern Angeleno, more weathered East L.A. than glittery Laurel Canyon
For Fans of: George Jones, Hayes Carll, Guy Clark's "El Coyote"
Why You Should Pay Attention: A former ad executive trudging away in the Los Angeles grind, Sam Morgan decided to ditch some possessions, embrace his mother's maiden name (the incredibly kismet Outlaw) and take up country music after a decadent 30th birthday party helped him discover he wasn't living the life he'd hoped for. "I realized I didn't really give a shit about [material] stuff," he says. "And I felt like I wasn't living by my own terms. I was keeping music at arms length out of fear and ego." So he dove in, embracing this newfound self in his debut Angeleno, which offers a refreshing, often funny and sometimes tearful take on classic twang. Still, he never tries to pretend he's anything but a lost soul in the City of Angels, looking for love, peace and musical redemption. Bonus: the LP has the Cooder family seal of approval, with Ry producing alongside son Joachim, who also played drums.
He Says: "It's tough doing [country music] from L.A.," Outlaw says. "I thought about moving to Nashville, but then I thought, 'Well shit, I might be just a dork in a cowboy hat in L.A., but if I move to Nashville, I'll be just another dork in a cowboy hat.' We would play shows in L.A. and the other band would be like, 'Are you doing this as a joke?' They didn't understand you could play country music at a bar in Silver Lake.'"
Hear for Yourself: "Who Do You Think You Are?" boast a unique mariachi-meets-countrypolitan vibe. Marissa Moss
Sounds Like: The California girl next door, with the country-pop delivery of Sheryl Crow
For Fans of: Crow, Kelsea Ballerini, Kelly Clarkson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born and raised in Cali, the real-life farmer's daughter was reared on Patsy Cline and George Strait before a Tim McGraw documentary on CMT inspired her to move to Nashville. The change of scenery suits her: Bosko mixes her innate West Coast chill with country's personal lyrics. Fan favorite "Crooked Halo" toasts bold, free-spirited women, while her empowering "Fighter" encourages them to strive on. "This is a man's world, and right now it's more bro-tastic than it's ever been," she says, zeroing in on the country music industry. "There's a very small percentage of females that are able to really break through." With the support of SiriusXM and some high-profile gigs — singing backup for Adele and Darius Rucker on a CMT special; opening for Wynonna and Pat Benatar — Bosko is poised to give the guys a run for their money. Besides, "I've always been one of the boys," she quips.
She Says: An American Idol alum who cashed out in the Top 36, Bosko wasn't thrilled with the experience but looks as it as part of her artistic journey. "Contractually, you can't play gigs," she says. "So I was cleaning houses to make money, because I couldn’t do anything musically related, which was frustrating. But it's OK, because you realize it's part of the story, and you just accept everything as making you a better person."
Hear for Yourself: "Angel With a Crooked Halo" is bright and beguiling, an anthem for country girls unafraid to go against the grain. Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: Old-time country originals with a loose New Orleans vibe
For Fans of: Woody Guthrie, Old Crow Medicine Show, Hayes Carll
Why You Should Pay Attention: People who claim to not like country? They'll dig the Deslondes (pronounced “Dez-Lons”) and their grooving roots music. While playing in other groups, college buddies Sam Doores and Cameron Snyder crossed paths with Riley Downing at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma. Today, Downing credits that encounter around the campfire with learning how to sing harmony, while Doores recalls being immediately impressed with Downing's clever songwriting. In time, they abandoned their other bands and brought in Dan Cutler (stand-up bass) and John James Tourville (pedal steel/fiddle) to round out the lineup.
They Say: "In New Orleans, people love to dance," says Doores, who resides on Deslondes Street in the city's Lower 9th Ward. "People go out there to go two-stepping. It's part of the culture. When you start playing, people grab each other and start dancing. That's what we're used to."
Hear for Yourself: "The Real Deal," written by Downing, matches woeful R&B lyrics to a country-tinged, sing-along melody. Craig Shelburne
Sounds Like: Modern country with a rootsy, DIY feel
For Fans of: Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves
Why You Should Pay Attention: Brill made a strong impression at this year's Stagecoach Festival, blurring the line between Americana and the mainstream. Distilling choice elements of rock, country and blues through a millennial's frame of reference, her sound is both of the now and timeless. Powerful, smooth vocals are surrounded by a polished-but-edgy presentation and set loose on songs written by some of Nashville's elite. Her second album, Shuteye, reveals Brill's story of becoming a woman in today's world — often in gritty detail.
She Says: "I credit my parents for giving me my earliest influences. The music from their generation is what originally inspired me to want to be a musician. They'd play everything from Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton to Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix,” says the Knoxville, Tennessee, native. “Trying to figure out who I am has taken me a lot of different places and, in my experience, mistakes and let-downs have been as much a part of the process as the high points and successes.”
Hear for Yourself: Sassy, sexy and young, "Shuteye" features twangy guitar hooks and a thumping beat (plus a story about passion-filled sleepless nights). Chris Parton
Sounds Like: A slick Texas-country duo with Top 40 tendencies
For Fans of: Lady Antebellum, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge
Why You Should Pay Attention: Waterloo Revival's first single, "Hit the Road," was textbook contemporary country — down-the-middle melodies, "whoa-oh" choruses and vague romantic imagery. Their follow-up "Bad for You," however, taps into country's new fascination with funky power pop — with thrilling results. Co-written by the duo with Ross Copperman ("Real Life," "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16") and Jon Nite ("Smoke"), "Bad for You" may be a preview of where country radio is headed. Or where Waterloo Revival is taking it.
They Say: "Today's format is especially exciting for us because it is a blend of everything that we grew up on," say George Birge, who makes up the duo with Cody Cooper. "'Bad' never felt this good. The song is two-and-a-half minutes of energy, and takes you through those temptations that feel so right you don't care if they're wrong."
Hear for Yourself: Landing in the same Bruno-Mars-meets-Maroon-5 vein as Thomas Rhett's "Crash and Burn," "Bad for You" is up-tempo and beat-heavy, filled with breathless, girl-focused lyrics and wah-pedaled guitar. Chris Parton
Sounds Like: If Justin Timberlake moved to Nashville and spent his nights partying with Luke Bryan
For Fans of: Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, synthesizers mixed louder than the steel guitar
Why You Should Pay Attention: It's not every day you hear falsetto on a modern country record. Actually, it's pretty much never. But North Carolina native Lane is hoping to change all that on the debut EP he's recording with Joey Moi (Jake Owen, FGL), which is a left turn from his only single, "Broken Windshield View." Think R&B grooves, rock guitars and aggressive dance beats, held together by Lane's dynamic range and love for country's more present-day heroes (Keith Urban is his idol). The former baseball star discovered himself as a performer after suffering a torn ACL, playing sets in his hometown that comprised mostly covers, occasionally slipping in a song or two of his own. When the crowd kept dancing, he knew he was on to something.
He Says: "I feel like I found a sound that is unique to country music, in my own lane," Lane says of the new material's R&B vibe. "There's always going to be people who say, 'This ain't country.' But that's fine, that's how it is. Those same people aren't listening to Sam Hunt, aren't listening to FGL. But obviously a lot of people are. Everything evolves, not just music."
Hear for Yourself: Though his still-under-wraps new songs are nothing like "Broken Windshield View," it does give you a taste for his love of big rock guitars and Jason Aldean-style swagger. Marissa Moss
Sounds Like: A slightly raspier Trisha Yearwood with a touch of Rosanne Cash
For Fans of: Yearwood, Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, Sara Evans
Why You Should Pay Attention: Yearwood — and husband Garth Brooks — took a shine to the Kentucky native when she made her Opry debut in May and red hot songwriter-producer Busbee has chosen her as his first country artist to mentor. "I'm his baby artist that he's been looking for to really stick his neck out there to show he can do country production," says Pearce of the man who has penned hits for everyone from Lady Antebellum to Kelly Clarkson. "I found a true champion for me."
She Says: "I've always lived a life of being fearless and almost kind of naïve, just because I knew I was meant to be on a stage," says the 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Pearce's early dedication to country music was so strong that she asked to be home-schooled at 16 in order to perform six shows a day at Dollywood before moving to Nashville at 18. She signed and then lost a record deal in 2012, but it turned into a blessing. "I am so thankful it did not happen," says Pearce, especially because the opportunities she's had since — including a slot on the Country Throwdown Tour with Florida Georgia Line and a stint as a background singer on Lucy Hale's recent tour — was her version of college. "I've gotten to stand on the sidelines and get all of that valuable information and experience that you cannot be taught." Pearce currently has an EP available on iTunes and is hoping to have her debut album out within a year.
Hear for Yourself: In the lilting "Blame the Whiskey," Pearce begins to fall for a guy but preemptively worries that she is "just kissing a boy with a buzz." Sarah Rodman
Sounds Like: Miley Cyrus meets Miranda Lambert
For Fans of: Cyrus, Lambert, Shania Twain
Why You Should Pay Attention: Listening to tunes like "Turn Me On Like the Radio," with a sleepy pedal steel and lazy whistle underscoring her husky vocals, it's clear that Qualley is a classic country fan with a flair for pop. In a get-to-know-you promo video the singer-songwriter jokes she hopes to record "the most popular album ever made in the history of the world." It's all about lofty goals, she says with a laugh: "As an artist, you have to aim high."
She Says: "I started singing before anything else," says Qualley, who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, the daughter of a hobbyist musician who taught her to play guitar and instilled her love of artists like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. She was thrilled when she recently got the chance to open for Willie Nelson at the Ryman Auditorium. "It was a lot of pressure but it was incredible," says Qualley, who has also shared the stage with Loretta Lynn. Qualley's mom is actress — and big country fan — Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day, St. Elmo's Fire). Although she has dabbled in acting — Mad Men fans may recognize her from a small but memorable part she played in the final season as an actress auditioning for a fur-coat commercial — Qualley is a singer-songwriter first. "Music definitely has always been where my heart is,” says Qualley, who moved to Nashville a year and a half ago after stints in New York in L.A. She's currently writing and recording in the hopes of releasing her full-length debut by the end of 2015.
Hear for Yourself: Qualley has some fun making a trifling man regret the day he was born in the cheeky kiss-off "Me and Johnny Cash." Sarah Rodman
Sounds Like: Ray LaMontagne with a bigger range and a better sense of humor, cutting loose on Stax Records
For Fans of: Americana that's brass-y, not steel-y
Why You Should Pay Attention: Anderson East was always one of those familiar names on the Nashville circuit, where most people who gathered to see him in tiny venues or backyard concerts would often whisper, mouth agape, "Why isn't this guy bigger?" After tours with Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell and an LP, Delilah, produced by their right-hand man, Dave Cobb, the Alabama native may very well be on his way to "next big thing" status. Because, boy, can he sing: Few can sound, in one breath, like they've lived enough lives and smoked enough cigarettes for 10 men, and belt out a soulful, pitch-perfect howl the next that reaches as high as a church steeple. Hear him blast through the classic "Find 'Em, Fool 'Em and Forget 'Em" — a song affectionately referred to as the "Four F's," and East, with the album's ubiquitous horns and praise 'em chorus, shows there's no need to spell out that fourth "f."
He Says: "I just wanted to have more fun for once in my life," he says. "[Soul music] is ultimately the best feeling around. I think people are naturally drawn to it. I don't know anybody that can hate Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. We're trying to tip our hats to that style of music, but I don't want to wear that hat. I still want to be relevant now. I don't want to be making 1960s music in 2015."
Hear for Yourself: "Devil in Me" is a soulful ode to temptation that brings his acoustic, Nashville side straight into the FAME studios. Marissa Moss
For Fans of: Old Crow, the Avett Brothers, high-energy newgrass
Why You Should Pay Attention: This summer, the Northeastern Pennsylvania six-piece will share stages with Gregg Allman (they've played every installment of the Allman Brothers' Peach Fest), Willie Nelson, Counting Crows and Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt — a mix as eclectic as Cabinet's own string-based sound. Their latest album, Celebration, lives up to its name, a propulsive ritual of a record that shows off the 10-year chemistry between pickin' cousins Pappy Biondo and J.P. Biondo, drummer Jami Novak, fiddler Todd Kopec, bassist Dylan Skursky and guitar player Mickey Coviello. Landing on bluegrass as the group's structure was merely an accident says Pappy Biondo. "The instruments themselves drove us to where we are today. J.P. didn't know what a mandolin was, and I had no idea what a banjo was. He had one sitting at his house and I picked it up, but I hadn't listened to a lick of bluegrass," he says. "We really had no idea what bluegrass was, and to a degree, we still don't. That's the beauty of it."
They Say: "We're kind of chameleons and what our fans like most about us is how we weave in and out of genres. Some of my favorite bands have done that, Beck in particular," says Biondo. "J.P. and I got our acoustic kicks on this last record, and maybe Todd will do something experimental with the next one. There's no leader to the group. We just see where it goes."
Hear for Yourself: The unstoppable groove of "Celebration" is a how-to guide for lovin' — and hurtin'. Joseph Hudak