(Editor’s note – While I would love to claim this was an original idea, truthfully, this post was inspired by Grady Smith’s recent YouTube video titled, “The Future Stars Of Country Music (Hopefully).”My only intention with this piece is to add to, what I feel is, a healthy conversation to be having as a country music fan, currently).
While learning from the past is an essential element of country music, making sure the genre is in good hands for the future is equally important. Even at its lowest (or, at the very least, most formulaic) points, country music always seems to rebound thanks to a fresh crop of young talent ready to forge a new path. The most common example, of course, is the class of ‘89, which included, among others, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Travis Tritt. They would end up leading the genre forward into a new age, even if certain contributions stood out more than others.
These days, country music is split between its mainstream and independent sides to the point where both sides usher in completely different conversations, yet still somehow feel connected in small ways. In other words, it’s not uncommon to hear names such as Jason Isbell or Cody Jinks enter the conversation even despite them not receiving country radio airplay at all. The mainstream’s current mini-neotraditional revival is well-documented, with names such as Luke Combs, Runaway June, Jon Pardi bringing back, at the very least, organic mixes that sound like they actually belong in country music.
In the independent realm, however, there’s an exciting abundance of debut albums from artists this year (not counting EPs), with still more to come. And even if they’re not necessarily debut albums, there are still artists releasing breakthrough projects and putting their names into that conversation as if they are brand new. Personally, it’s been exciting to listen to artists who never crossed my radar prior to this year, and while there’s the possible bias of giving in to that first time feeling, I’d argue these artists are also giving listeners plenty of reasons to dig deeper into their catalogs (and watch out for future releases).
In February, Charles Wesley Godwin released a debut album that sounded like the work of a seasoned veteran. Released as a tribute to his native West Virginian land, it’s the little details that make Seneca stand out. Whether it’s the cry of that lonely crow at just the right time on “Seneca Creek” or the lonesome echoed effects of “Sorry For The Wait” to reflect the plea of a ghostly miner, Seneca sounds as lush as the land it describes. There’s a straightforward earnestness to Godwin’s lyrical style that’s both poetic and beautiful, inviting the listener to metaphorically walk with him as he takes us to a place we likely don’t know, but are excited to explore. The heart of Seneca is that is has a heart, and like any good debut album, it tells the listener exactly who Godwin is and what makes him stand out.
Seneca, though, is not the only album centered around one’s home. Hailing from the great state that gave us Kelsey Waldon, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Angaleena Presley, Tyler Childers and more, Kentucky-native Ian Noe released his debut album, Between The Country, in May. Unlike Seneca, however, Between This Country is a more biting, harsh look at the rough elements of rural culture, including songs about meth heads and two separate incidents of dying in a train accident and a bank robbery. Labeling it as southern Gothic would only be appropriate if there was an understated optimistic beauty to it, but Between The Country excels on crisp songwriting and Noe’s plainspoken delivery instead of unnecessary gimmicks. Not only does this album boast some of the finest songs of the year thus far, it’s one of the most complete records as well.
Of course, part of the beauty in music is that it often recalls past great legends or influences. Noe’s style has been compared to John Prine, Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt, but this is clearly an Ian Noe album. And that’s the key difference – knowing that it’s OK to honor influences, but never directly emulate them. Artists like Gabe Lee and Dee White have dropped debut albums that sound like they come from another time, yet it’s their modern context and approach that help them stand out. On the note of Lee, the Prine comparisons once again will inevitably fluctuate. But Lee’s approach is more personal, showing on his debut album, farmland, that, at heart, he’s still a kid trying to figure out how to make it in the real world. A lot of the lessons he’s learned to craft these songs have come the hard way, and while I hate to use this word, it’s nothing short of authentic. For White, that’s largely the thematic arc of his debut album, Southern Gentleman, too, only he sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of Roy Orbison over Prine and Dylan. For White, though, that gives him room to flex his incredible knack for melody and great hooks like on “Way Down,” and the songwriting is exceptionally strong, too. To able to write a song as good as “Rose Of Alabam” for as young as he is only shows a promising future ahead.
White’s sound comes courtesy of Dan Auerbach, who’s quietly had quite the impact on country music this year. Along with White, he’s also helped to produce another Easy Eye Sound artist, Yola. When it comes to her, you’ll even want to hear her sing songs you don’t like, if only because her voice is pure magic. Really, her performances are top-notch from technical ability all the way down to emotional interpretation. Her debut album, Walk Through Fire, is like ear candy in that sense, making it one of the most enjoyable albums of the year thus far.
Of course, if the aforementioned Dylan, Prine and Orbison comparisons from these last few artists are a little too outside your country music wheelhouse, acts like Ben Jarrell, the Lowdown Drifters, and Taylor Alexander have you covered. Fans of the outlaw era of country music will immediately gravitate toward Jarrell and the Lowdown Drifters, particularly for their meatier instrumental work and swampier production. Jarrell is adept at writing some true country tunes with a twist thrown into the mix, like the effectively weird “Black Helicopter” or “The Flyer” from his debut album, Troubled Times. But he’s also great at writing simple tunes where the emotion resonates throughout like on “Daddy’s Prison Radio.” And the production, handled by Preston Tate White, gives certain tracks like “Big Iron Train” and the title track the big, meaty grooves they deserve.
The Lowdown Drifters are a Washington-based band that balance rockers like “Won’t Find Me Anymore” with straight country material like “Between The Bottom and The Bottle,” but aren’t afraid to get heavier with their instrumental textures as they move along. In other words, by incorporating great technical performances backing songs with some real lyrical heft to them, the Lowdown Drifters feel like a true band. In that sense, Last Call For Dreamers truly sounds like it comes from the heart.
Fans looking for something a little more grounded, however, will likely gravitate toward Taylor Alexander’s Good Old Fashioned Pain. The key to Alexander’s appeal is his delivery, giving his material a warm, gentle touch evident in past greats like Randy Travis and Keith Whitley. Moreover, Alexander’s material hearkens back to when country artists knew how to write a hook or make their song titles interesting (“I’m sorry for growing up, I won’t do it again,” as he sings on the closing number). But don’t confuse Good Old Fashioned Pain with musical comfort food, as it boasts some incredibly good material from front to back. As a fun fact, Alexander was once a contestant on The Voice.
Of course, if you are alright with looking just a tiny bit past country music borders, Jade Bird released a self-titled debut album that I can only describe as “frenetically fun folk music.” Again, the point here is to point out young, budding talent, and along with the aforementioned Dee White, Bird is only in her very early twenties. Yet she’s still able to draw from a multitude of experiences already, including her views on life and love. But the main draw of her album comes from Bird herself, an excitingly raw, charismatic performer who truly puts her heart into her material.
And while this conversation has focused mostly on the independent side of country music (or whatever is adjacent to it), the mainstream can’t be excluded from this conversation, either. Lauren Jenkins is a mainstream artist not interested in catering toward radio airplay, yet her material contains a modern freshness that shows how country music could sound in this setting in 2019. Filled with raw performances, No Saint finds Jenkins’s haunting, smoky voice at the front of the mix, giving an extra chill to songs like the title track and “Blood.” The album boasts modern pop-flavored country music with real lyrical substance to it that paints Jenkins as an interesting character to watch in the coming years. On the other hand, a group like Runaway June are just celebrating their first top 20 hit in “Buy My Own Drinks.” And while they may be excluded from this specific conversation considering they debuted all the way back in 2016, Blue Roses only found its way to fans this year. Suffice to say, it was worth the wait.
While, however, this piece has mainly focused on debut full-length albums, we can’t discount the banner year acts like the Steel Blossoms, Alice Wallace, and Emily Scott Robinson are having with their latest projects. While all excel in terms of their songwriting, the Steel Blossoms and Robinson have managed to connect specifically for their blunt honesty, the former act opting for humor at times with the latter act cutting relentlessly straight to the bone. Wallace joins the camp of artists like Noe and Godwin who salutes her home (in this case, California) with a voice that’s just heavenly. In terms of pure range, you’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse vocalist than her right now.
As mentioned before, too, there are still more debut projects to come. Jason Hawk Harris will be a name to watch out for when he releases his debut album, Love & The Dark, August 23. If “Cussing At The Light” is any indication of the project, it’s sure to embrace the macabre from a country perspective, and I’m on board with that. Furthermore, while not much is known about Logan Ledger’s forthcoming self-titled debut album due Oct. 4, he’s another artist where the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding him feels significant. He certainly hasn’t disappointed with the first two singles, “Starlight” or “Imagining Raindrops,” the former feeling like a cool mix of Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
And who knows? Perhaps there will be many more to come before the year is over. No one certainly could have predicted a level of fresh, new talent this huge would grace our ears back in, say, January, and it’s hard to predict what the future will hold. The exciting part, however, is being a music fan and enjoying the ride while having plenty of excellent material to listen to and enjoy.
- Buy or stream Seneca by Charles Wesley Godwin
- Buy or stream Between The Country by Ian Noe
- Buy or stream farmland by Gabe Lee
- Buy or stream Southern Gentleman by Dee White
- Buy or stream Walk Through Fire by Yola
- Buy or stream Troubled Times by Ben Jarrell
- Buy or stream Last Call For Dreamers by the Lowdown Drifters
- Buy or stream Good Old Fashioned Pain by Taylor Alexander
- Buy or stream Jade Bird by Jade Bird
- Buy or stream No Saint by Lauren Jenkins
- Buy or stream Blue Roses by Runaway June
- Buy or stream Steel Blossoms by the Steel Blossoms
- Buy or stream Into the Blue by Alice Wallace
- Buy or stream Traveling Mercies by Emily Scott Robinson