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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.

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.