Country Welcomes a Flood Of New Talent to The Top 20: LANCO, Carly Pearce and Russell Dickerson

Jim Wright

Country music is nothing new, but the artists who are succeeding in the genre increasingly are.

Six of the top 20 singles on the Country Airplay chart dated Dec. 2 were recordings by artists who had never previously reached that level, including LANCO, Carly Pearce and Russell Dickerson. In a genre that's historically known for hanging on to its established names, it's a stunning development that likely makes old-guard performers nervous at the same time it emboldens the newer acts.

"It's cool that this is even a topic," says Dickerson. "It shows that there's a new wave in the industry."

Consider it a hyper-drive version of a trend that has been in operation for some time. The lead story in the Aug. 10, 2015, edition of the Billboard Country Update examined the influx of new talent in the upper chart reaches: 13 of the top 20 Country Airplay titles at that time were by artists who were working singles from their debut or sophomore albums. But only two of those individual songs -- Michael Ray's "Kiss You in the Morning" and Chris Janson's "Buy Me a Boat" -- represented the first time those acts had been in the top 20.

With Aaron Watson, Walker Hayes and Devin Dawson rounding out the six first-timers in the Dec. 2 top 20, it suggests that artists who are determined to stick it out and willing to tinker with their sound have a shot at getting heard.

"It took me 18 years, 13 albums and 2,500 shows to have that first top 20," says Watson, "but I'm so proud. We've done it our way."

Watson's way is the route that Texas acts have taken for years: tour heavily in the Lone Star State and slowly branch out to new concert-markets, self-financing albums along the way and staying active with the fan base through -social media.

Now, even beyond Texas, the digital age has made it easier -- and cheaper -- to take a DIY approach to many facets of the business, and the artists who take advantage of those platforms are able to turn metrics into marketing success stories. Thus, artists who have built a following online or caught an audience through playlists are able to prove to radio programmers that they have a following.

"A lot of us have stories now prior to going to radio where I feel like in the past, we all just came to Nashville, wrote songs, and some of us made it, and some of us didn't," says Hayes. "You know, Kane Brown blew up on YouTube. He had more followers than half the people signed in Nashville before he even got a record label. Luke Combs had tremendous success on [SiriusXM's channel] The Highway. I had the 8Tracks [EPs], and I was beginning a following. So we all are bringing something to the table, and I feel like radio, there's people in their markets already listening, so they're less reluctant to say no and they give us a chance."

Marketing tools aren't the only way that new artists are making inroads faster. In other eras, the definition of country was more narrow. The same instruments -- often played by the same studio musicians using the same tones -- dotted records by many of the artists in the genre. Now, with a wider array of instruments at hand, plus the ability to create new sounds through an increasing number of computer plug-ins, guitar pedals and other sound-enhancing add-ons, artists have more ways to separate themselves from the competition.

"You can differentiate, for each of [the six], who they are," says Pearce, who reached No. 1 with "Every Little Thing." "There's a lane. There's nothing like them out there."

"Something else that I think is special about every one of those people," she continues, "they have years and years and years under their belt of just really carving out the songwriting, fine tuning, sleeping in a van, hustling. There's a maturity to everybody that's coming out right now. We're not all little kids. We've all put in a lot of work for this, and I think that you can hear it."

Pearce discovered over an eight-year period that the songs that worked best were the ones where she expressed her uniqueness, rather than trying to fit existing trends or templates. Dickerson similarly notes that he went through a phase where he imitated such low-register traditionalists as Josh Turner and another two-year period where he chased a "guitar-slinging Keith Urban vibe." Hayes released two singles with Capitol Nashville in 2010 and 2011 that show only a glimpse of his tone and personality. Dawson tried to make it in a Los Angeles band, but found it difficult to promote music that didn't feel completely genuine.

"We were playing death metal, and it wasn't the same as these songs that are so close to my heart," he says. "It just feels easier and more right to, I guess, push out what is just my life. It doesn't feel like self-promotion. It just feels like existing."

For many -- if not most -- mainstream listeners, the first top 20 hit represents an introduction to an act, and each artist is set to build their creative footprint a little differently. With his 13 albums, Watson has an entire catalog and history for new fans to mine instantly. Dickerson toured for nearly two years behind a four-song EP, and when the Yours album was released Oct. 13, it expanded the familiarity of his songs at concerts, which also improved the audience interaction. LANCO's debut album, Hallelujah Nights, won't be released until Jan. 19, 2018. So fans have a limited supply of tracks, though when the album does arrive, it will provide an overview of the band's sonic journey by mixing new material with tracks from an EP, plus other songs that were finalized at various stages along the way.

"We went back in the studio a couple months ago and tracked about three more songs," says lead vocalist Brandon Lancaster. "It's cool because we have some songs on the record from the first time we ever went in there, and pretty much have been going back in the studio ever since. It shows our entire growing period on the record."

All that material is important in creating a larger creative picture for an artist, but also in providing options for the follow-up single. The first hit provides an emotional charge -- "We're really soaking up this moment and making the most of it," says Watson -- but picking the right single to sustain the momentum is crucial. Another wave of artists is already being groomed for its first run at the top 20.

"Now my biggest challenge," says Pearce, "is making sure that I am transitioning into a career instead of just a song."