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SXSW 2015: 21 Country-Music Artists You Need to See

Americana favorites, country icons and emerging talent to catch in Austin

SXSW 2015 country artists

Kelly Willis and Lukas Nelson are two must-see acts at SXSW 2015.

Lex van Rossen/MAI; Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Snoop Dogg may be giving the keynote speech and the schedule may be rife with indie bands, but there is still a wealth of country and Americana artists to be found at Austin’s annual music conference South by Southwest, kicking off March 17th. This year’s lineup boasts the return of Willie Nelson and guitar-slinging son Lukas at the Heartbreaker Banquet, the continued emergence of Sam Hunt and the welcome second acts of veterans Kelly Willis, Robert Earl Keen and Ray Wylie Hubbard. We sorted through the schedule for some of the singers, songwriters and twang-tastic players worth going the country mile to catch.

BirdCloud

Mick Leonardy

Birdcloud

"Warshin My Big Ol Pussy" may not seem like the title of your average country song (and most definitely not anything you'd want to sing your baby to sleep with) but the Nashville-based duo of Jasmine Kaset and Makenzie Green are about as true to the genre as it comes – if you consider the trailer-park fringes of Tennessee just as vital as the mansion-dwelling Music Row set. In voices that sound roughed from either the Appalachian air or too many nights at the corner bar, there's a mix of history and humor in their music. All that and good hygiene, too!

Ryan Bingham

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 05: Singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham performs in concert at Austin Music Hall on March 5, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images)

Rick Kern/Getty

Ryan Bingham

Sure, Bingham is best known for co-writing the Oscar and Grammy-winning song "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart, but any Americana fan would be remiss if they didn't check out the rest of his excellent catalog. In January, the 33-year-old released his fifth album, Fear and Saturday Night, on which he sings in a gentle rasp that could only come from being put through life's wringer at such a relatively young age. He covers topics like his father's suicide and his mother's alcoholism-related death while maintaining a rugged beauty that's even more powerful onstage.

Whitey Morgan

DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 21: Whitey Morgan performs at St. Andrew's Hall on February 21, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images)

Paul Warner/Getty

Whitey Morgan

With an approachable Waylon-esque sound, it's easy to perk up an ear when Morgan is playing. And having opened for fellow Michigander Bob Seger, he knows a thing or two about working a crowd. But it's the ferocity of Morgan's performances that makes him truly transfixing. The workingman's musician, he'll sweat hard to win over SXSWers. His new single, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's dirge "Waiting Around to Die" that is even more ominous than the original, should help with that.

Curtis McMurty

Joe Bensimon

Curtis McMurtry

Backed by a stand-up bass, cello and occasionally a horn section, the 24-year-old McMurtry epitomizes the catch-all nature of Americana. But there's nothing haphazard about his artistic process. The son of revered songwriter James McMurtry, Curtis draws on a music composition degree and his experience composing modern-day chamber music for his own über-descriptive songs. "He's got so much more training than I did, and he knows theory really well," his father told Rolling Stone Country recently. "It's kind of hard for me to hang with him sometimes."

Ryan Culwell

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 22: Ryan Culwell performs at the Station Inn during the 14th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference - Festival - Day 5 on September 22, 2013 in Nashville, United States. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music Festival)

Rick Diamond/Getty

Ryan Culwell

Born in Texas, living in Nashville, Culwell is following the through-line between Bruce Springsteen and Jason Isbell. His new album Flatlands — which Rolling Stone Country premiered last month — is like a bleaker Nebraska meets Southeastern, full of dusty laments about growing up in the Texas panhandle. But while albums of such gravity can often collapse under the weight of their own melancholy, Culwell's soars, thanks to a knack for infusing even the loneliest of songs with melody.

Asleep at the Wheel

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 03: Ray Benson performs in concert with Asleep at the Wheel on day 1 of the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on October 3, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

Gary Miller/FilmMagic/Getty

Asleep at the Wheel

If you think Asleep at the Wheel's western swing is something only your grandparents would dig, think again. Yes, the accordion, pedal steel and the members' tendency to yodel moves the nine-time Grammy-winning group's music toward 1930s styling, but that's the point. And the energy with which Ray Benson and the band play prevents the tunes from ever becoming musty. Case in point: their new all-star tribute to Bob Wills, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills. Released earlier this month and featuring guests like Merle Haggard, George Strait, Old Crow Medicine Show and the band's Number One fan Willie Nelson, the album of cowboy classics is proof that this Wheel keeps on turning. 

Roger Clyne

Maria Vassett

Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers

One of the most successful independent bands of the 21st century, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers grew from the ashes of the Refreshments, the Nineties alt-rock band responsible for radio gems like "Banditos" and TV themes like the one for King of the Hill. There's still plenty of rock & roll muscle in the Peacemakers' rootsy stomp, but there's country, too — specifically the wide-open country of Arizona, whose desert dwellers and dusty landscapes rear their heads on signatures tunes like "Americano!" 

Pirates Canoe

Pirates Canoe

Pirates Canoe

Even the hippest of SXSW hipsters probably haven't heard of Pirates Canoe, but with a sound that's Alison Krauss-meets-Ry Cooder-meets Alan Toussaint, they're the skinny jeans from Japan that are destined to be fashionable stateside soon. The sometimes trio, other times sextet, mixes a dollop of Irish folk with a helping of fiddle, mandolin, guitar and percussion that beautifully complement — but never overwhelm — the singers' ethereal harmonies. Though based in Japan, the members met in a very Americana way; the story of Pirates Canoe's inception involves a bar, a violin case and a few adult beverages. That's not to say that the band has completely shucked its Asian roots for Nashville though. Consider "Gull Flying North," an uptempo mandolin romp that has just enough delicate tones to bring the Far East to mind.

Sam Outlaw

Harmony Gerber/Getty

Sam Outlaw

A Hollywood honky-tonker, Sam Outlaw filters the twang of his country influences through the Mexican-American culture of his Los Angeles home. The result? Angeleno, a debut album that mixes acoustic guitars, mariachi horns, James Taylor-worthy melodies and two-step tempos into the best culture clash this side of Linda Rondstadt's Canciones de mi Padre. Come for the breezy, brassy "Who Do You Think You Are?" — stay for "Jesus, Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)," where Outlaw literally prays for a cold one.