Listen to these eight up-and-comers for a sampling of country’s future.
You can’t walk down one block of Nashville’s honky-tonk row without being blown away by the talent. On any given day, it feels like Music City is bursting at the seams with way-above-average songwriters, musicians, and singers. And eventually, the best of the best of those hopefuls up and down Lower Broadway make it out of the bars and onto the radio. If there was a demographic cohort for that elite group, these country artists would be the ones defining that next generation.
When Nashville welcomed Riley Green from Alabama, he could’ve easily been just another guy with a guitar ready to sing about his small town, his Southern roots, and all the other clichés that modern country regularly relies on. But then, “There Was This Girl.” The vocals on his first big hit have just enough twang to take you back to a time when country was still very, very country. So yes, he’s singing about a girl: in his life, at his gig, and eventually by his side for life. But it’s the way Green is doing it --— so naturally and seamlessly — that makes him sound so genuine.
You could make assumptions about Jordan Davis the first time you hear his music. His modern countryish songwriting leans a little pop, but don’t let that fool you. The Louisiana-born newcomer (pictured) has deep country roots and a vast array of influences from all of the much-heralded ’90s country artists. So while he can turn up the freshly infectious groove in songs like his debut “Singles You Up” and “Take It From Me,” he can also sing you an old Shenandoah song on the spot or give you a long list of reasons why Jim Croce was the poetic lyricist he was.
Writing country songs for other country artists is one of the ways that hopefuls get their foot in Nashville’s door. That was the case for Michigan native Ryan Hurd, who penned tunes for just about every big act: Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw, Jake Owen, Rascal Flatts, and on and on. His lyrics can be hopelessly romantic, quietly edgy, effortlessly sexy as hell, or all of the above. And now, finally, Hurd is the one on the radio singing the lyrics he penned. His latest hit, “To a T,” gives you a glimpse of the soulful and sultry side of his mind.
For most of the summer of 2019, Randall King was playing the road from his home state of Texas to Oklahoma and Wyoming. It’s his proving ground, before he sets off for the bar and club circuit all over the Midwest. But wherever King goes, he’s bringing his West Texas roots with him. That will serve him well as he introduces crowds to his unambiguous art, full of steel guitar and substantive songwriting. King may have been influenced by the traditional artists who came before him, but soon, he’s going to be doing his part to keep the chain of influence going strong.
The first time anyone outside of Nashville heard of Ashley McBryde was right around the time her “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” ended up on the radio. Which was, as her follow-up song says, not bad for a girl going nowhere. Growing up in Arkansas with folks who weren’t convinced she’d succeed as a country singer was fuel for her “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.” But after a few long years of playing open mic nights, people started to pay attention. And when Eric Church started paying attention, so did record labels, country radio, and brand-new die-hard fans of her so-honest-they-hurt stories. Oh, and that Georgia haunt depicted in “A Little Dive Bar” is real -— it’s called The Crimson Moon.
The other Arkansas native on our list almost didn’t make the move to Nashville to be a country star at all. He had an alternate dream. One where he’d have been Matt Stell, M.D. But right before he was about to leave for a pre-med graduate program, he decided to give Nashville a shot. It was the right call. Ever since he chose to put his smarts to work in songwriting sessions, the outcome has been healthy, with tunes like the classically faith-based country “Prayed for You” and the outrunning-a-memory “Everywhere But On” both getting big love on the radio and at his live shows.
When Tenille Townes was 19, she went on a 45-hour road trip. She drove from her small town in Alberta, Canada, to Nashville, fueled by a youthful determination and a healthy obsession with lyrics. And somewhere in those 45 hours, Townes had a lot of time to think and to be inspired by the idea that everybody has a story. And, maybe, to look out the window, see a homeless woman, and realize that she wasn’t always homeless. She was “Somebody’s Daughter.” It’s as if Townes has made it her mission to put the stories — the real ones, with a beginning, a middle, and an end — back into country songs.
When Hailey Whitters moved from Iowa to Nashville to chase her neon rainbow, she gave herself 10 years. That’s supposedly the amount of time it takes to make it in country music. But right around the time when Whitters moved past that 10th year and stayed, things started looking up for her as a songwriter. And like the most insightful songwriters do, she turned that impatience-is-a-virtue mind-set into one of her most honest tunes, “Ten Year Town.” It’s just one of so many songs Whitters has written that remind you what solid songwriting is supposed to sound like. She does the same with “Heartland,” turning a double entendre into pure poetry. It’s a lost art, but Whitters is on the verge of bringing the craftsmanship of country music back.
Photography: Harper Smith, Courtesy Columbia music group, Courtesy Matthew Berinato/Sony Music, Durango Artist, Daniel Meigs/Q prime, Courtesy Matthew Berinato, ShopKeeper Management, Preston Leatherman/Missing Piece Group