There's a lot to be excited about in this winter edition of our quarterly new-artist round-up. A Carrie Underwood-like power vocalist is on the horizon, a dusty southern country-rock band is galloping onto radio and an irreverent acoustic-based duo is infusing country with a much-needed sense of spontaneity. There's also a Number One songwriter with enough cool cachet to fill a football stadium — and the voice to match. Here are the 10 new country acts you need to check out right now.
Sounds Like: The biggest, baddest country voice you've ever heard. No, really.
Why You Should Pay Attention: "It's uncanny the level of talent that guy has," praises fellow Artist You Need to Know Adam Hood, who wrote Little Big Town's "Front Porch Thing" with Stapleton. So far, it's songwriting that has defined Stapleton, the pen behind such mega-hits as Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer" and Josh Turner's "Your Man." He's currently finishing work on his debut solo album, Traveller, produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson), which — thanks to that monstrous voice — will be all but impossible to ignore.
He Says: "I try to sing with as much belief as I can, and I like to believe in what I'm singing," Stapleton says of his approach in front of the mic. "A lot of this record we recorded as live performances. I think sometimes we give a little too much power to engineers. We can edit the life out of things that actually move people and it dehumanizes it."
Hear for Yourself: While we await a single from Traveller, check out this tortured live performance of "Sometimes I Cry," which also appears on the album. By Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: The thrift store swagger 'n' stomp of the Black Crowes, reinterpreted by a group of country-loving Millennials who're happy to shake their money makers to music that twangs as hard as it bangs.
For Fans of: Marshall Tucker Band, Exile-era Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Jr.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Backed by a team that includes Motley Crue's former manager, Taylor Swift's label CEO and Jason Isbell's producer, A Thousand Horses are pulling out of the gate this summer with Southernality, a debut album whose mix of modern rock and post-Aldean country recalls the music of their label mates (and fellow Artist You Need to Know alums), the Cadillac Three.
They Say: "We travel with a nine-piece band, including three female backup singers," explains lead singer Michael Hobby. "It's the sound we've always wanted for our shows: big, soulful, powerful, southern. It gets tight onstage, but that was the way we convinced the label to give us a bus. We were like, 'Hey, we're fine with a van, but we want these girls to be comfortable…'"
Hear For Yourself: The band's first single, "Smoke," debuted at Number 28 on the Country Aircheck chart in mid-January, setting an all-time record for new bands. By Andrew Leahey
Sounds Like: Someone who grew up listening to Patsy Cline on vinyl and LeAnn Rimes on radio.
For Fans of: Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Martina McBride
Why You Should Pay Attention: This Texas talent writes from the heart and sings from the gut, hitting Underwood-high vocal altitudes. When she first moved to Nashville, Guyton made one songwriting rule for herself: "Put it all out there." Sticking by that rule will yield a debut album, due sometime this year, made up of musical confessionals that span the handful of years she jokes were her "quarter-life crisis." Expect the LP to have as many girl-power anthems as tear-jerking ballads, as the singer takes listeners on her real-life journey of love lost, love found and musical destiny delivered after years of waiting tables and spilling her secrets through lyrics.
She Says: "A lot of the album tackles those times where you don’t like yourself and you don’t have that person to lift you up. I know what that's like to not have someone fighting for me…. So this is my story, but I'm trying to lift other people up."
Hear for Yourself: The ex-boyfriend-inspired "Better Than You Left Me" turns a breakup's lemons into a single girl's lemonade. By Beville Dunkerley
Sounds Like: The country-rock travel log of a band that's spent the past decade on the road, swirling a string of last calls and open highways into songs that celebrate the highs — and the hangovers — of life in the HOV lane.
For Fans of: Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Cory Branan
Why You Should Pay Attention: American Aquarium teamed up with producer Jason Isbell for 2012's Burn.Flicker.Die., a pissed-off record about being broke and disillusioned. This year's Wolves finds the guys singing a different tune, with lead singer BJ Barham — newly sober and recently married — barking out revved-up love songs between swells of pedal steel guitar. He may be laying off the sauce, but he hasn't lost his bite.
They Say: "We're an independent band with no label," says Barham, "and we're proof that you can make a small blip on the national radar through touring. Your fans can help you make records with major label budgets, too. We have a fan base of 24,000 people, and if 24,000 people give you $10, you're looking at a budget of a quarter million dollars. Now go ask Sony if they're gonna give you that."
Hear for Yourself: Barham and company slow things down with Wolves' Springsteen-worthy power ballad, "Man I'm Supposed to Be." By Andrew Leahey
Sounds like: A Kings of Leon co-write with David Nail
For Fans of: Charlie Worsham, the Fray, if Chris Carrabba covered Chris Young's "Lonely Eyes"
Why You Should Pay Attention: It's becoming a familiar story by now: one-time college football star ditches the field to find solace in the guitar. Maybe there's something in the Gatorade, but Dorr, from a small Wyoming coal town, moved to Nashville for an internship and quickly found his footing as a songwriter. Luckily said coal town had two radio stations — one devoted to hairband rock and one to country — and it shows: he points to Ryan Adams and Tom Petty as much as Garth Brooks, and the songs sport earnest flourishes, cresendoing riffs and big drum fills dripped in coming-of-age hope. Perfect stuff for that last song at a senior prom in Anytown, USA.
He Says: Dorr nearly considered leaving Nashville after a freak kitchen fire destroyed almost all of his possessions — with the exception of a few crucial things. "I walked out with my guitar, my laptop, a couple bags of clothes and that's it," he recalls. "When I took my MacBook to the store to have someone to pull the hard drive — it had gone into sleep mode after the sprinklers poured down for four hours — a girl opened it and it rebooted to James Taylor's 'Fire and Rain.' I was like, 'Shut up!' I started thinking, is this a sign? I decided to stay in Nashville and keep writing songs, and luckily it panned out."
Hear for Yourself: With its mid-tempo chug, "Save Your Breath" was inspired by a fight Dorr overheard while waiting tables – but with a sexier spin. By Marissa R. Moss
Sounds Like: A deep-south version of John Mellencamp backed by the Rolling Stones.
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Opelika, Alabama, native has had his diary-like songs recorded by radio stars (Little Big Town, Frankie Ballard) and Texas troubadours (Stoney LaRue, Josh Abbot Band) alike, underscoring the universal quality of Hood's hooks. Both his latest album Welcome to the Big World, inspired by his teenage daughter, and 2011's The Shape of Things, are full of rock riffs and acoustic ruminations — as well as an unflinching honesty that'll have you taking stock of your own existence.
He Says: "I write for myself, and I don't think that's a selfish thing. It just doesn't come that easy for me. So I have to write when I'm inspired, and the songs that make it on record insist on being written. Those happen to be personal tunes," says Hood, proud of his Southern country sound. "I ooze that crap."
Hear for Yourself: "Trying to Write a Love Song" is an inspire-me-baby rocker from Welcome to the Big World, his album released this past November. By Joseph Hudak
Sounds Like: The perfect soundtrack for a Saturday night, as duo Rachel Beauregard and Bryan Dawley mix harmonies and acoustic instrumentation with a lighthearted playfulness that is the ideal pick-me-up after a rough week.
For Fans of: Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, Thompson Square
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Virginia natives turned heads with their wine-inspired YouTube covers of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine" and Tim McGraw's "Red Rag Top," which they performed in bed under the covers (but, no, they're not a couple). The pair's sound is distinguished by a shared love of acoustic instrumentation — they blend banjo and mandolin with thoroughly contemporary production — and Beauregard’s strong, emotional voice, around which Dawley wraps his nuanced harmonies. Top Music City songwriter Luke Laird produced the duo’s full-length set, to be released later this year. They're currently on the road with Sam Hunt on his Lipstick Graffiti tour.
They Say: "We really want people to know that we're probably the weirdest people on the planet," Beauregard says of the duo's sometimes goofy antics. They also love a good banjo: "It's such an incredible layering instrument in ways you wouldn't expect,” she says. “If it's not there, you don't miss it necessarily, but if you heard it in a song and then it went away, you'd be like, 'This doesn't' feel the same.' It has a very adhesive quality."
Hear for Yourself: Listen to flirty first single "Good On You," which has already garnered more than 18 million plays. By Melinda Newman
Sounds Like: A heartfelt country crooner from before Pitney was born.
For Fans of: Keith Whitley, Gene Watson, Joe Nichols
Why You Should Pay Attention: Although he once set aside guitar to play bluegrass banjo, this Illinois native is pretty damn "country." His debut single is, in fact, called "Country." Co-written with Opry legend "Whisperin'" Bill Anderson and Bobby Tomberlin, the song isn't one of those flag-waving anthems about farm life, dirt roads and pickups that have been all the rage at radio lately. It's a deeper meditation on faith, family and patriotism, from someone who is admittedly an old soul. At his core, however, Pitney is a vivid young storyteller who happens to play country music. "I don't even like to call myself country sometimes," says Pitney, "because I listen to James Taylor, I listen to Randy Newman. I listen to a lot of different types of writers."
He Says: "I tend to attract the purists. They want to immediately link arms and say, 'Let's fight this other monster.' And I say, 'It's not a monster. They're artists and they're doing what they do.' There are more tweets on my Twitter that say #saviorofcountrymusic. I'm like, 'Don't put that on me!' I just want to make music. I'm honored that people see me as that but I'm not doing this as a way to be different."
Hear for Yourself: The clever, country-to-the-core "Clean Up on Aisle Five" earned Pitney a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry. By Stephen L. Betts
Sounds Like: The Eagles, but with mandolin, violin, accordion, a female member and a whole lot of Red Bull.
For Fans of: Zac Brown Band, Fleetwood Mac, Little Big Town
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Railers — brothers Jordan and Jonathan Lawson, Jonathan's better half, Cassandra Lawson, and Tyler Oban — are all classically trained musicians with instrumental prowess and a knack for lush vocal harmonies; their multifarious sound is unlike anything on today's country radio. The magic is in the group's stage-to-studio strategy, as the foursome craft music based on its live show, and not vice versa. The Railers' 2014 EP, The Geraldine Sessions, is more like a "jam session in your living room," they say, and effortlessly transfers their infectious energy — and chemistry — to tape.
They Say: "We don’t want somebody to push fast forward," says Cassandra of the Railers' upcoming full-length. "We want to take somebody on this whole long story: There are songs about reckless, coming-off-the-rails kind of love, and then there's the questioning of relationships, and then there's just the good old, 'Let's have a good time and forget about our troubles' songs."
Hear for Yourself: "Kinda Dig the Feeling" shows not only the quartet's extraordinary musicianship, but also the free-spirited personalities of its members. By Beville Dunkerley
Sounds Like: The clean-cut boy next door who wants to make your dreams come true but isn't above a little mischief.
For Fans of: Hunter Hayes, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw
Why You Should Pay Attention: The 23-year-old Tennessee native has been playing and singing since childhood and possesses the kind of voice that makes you want to lean in and listen: strong with a touch of smooth southern soul and a feathery falsetto underscoring his country twang. After playing sports in high school, including winning two state championship football rings alongside future Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb, Lee decided that his true calling was music. The crowd at the Grand Ole Opry apparently agreed, giving the newcomer, who signed to Broken Bow Records in late 2013, a standing ovation during his debut performance at the venerable venue.
He Says: "My senior year of high school, Carson challenged me," Lee comments of famed producer Carson Chamberlain (Keith Whitley, Easton Corbin), whom he met as a child when Chamberlain worked with his aspiring musician father. "He said, 'I want you to write a song every single week and turn it into me.' And that really started to help mold me as a songwriter and lit a passion in me to want to do this." He hopes to pick up where his dad left off and was thrilled when he was able to have his father perform on the Opry with him. "I want to win a CMA award and an ACM award and all those things — that would be amazing — but the Opry is something we hold so dear to our hearts and high up on a pedestal."
Hear for Yourself: "She Does" is a radio-ready, mid-tempo charmer. By Sarah Rodman