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Chris Stapleton became an overnight sensation after his CMA Awards performance. His Traveller album rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and "Tennessee Whiskey" -- which he sang with Justin Timberlake -- took the No. 1 spot on the Hot Country Songs chart. (Notably, it did not crack the top 25 on the Airplay chart -- radio is typically slower to move on newly-popular songs.) Stapleton is a longtime songwriter who finally got a chance to step into the spotlight. Here's a group of 13 young singers who could make a similar impact if they get the chance.
Few singers in or out of country can keep pace with Guyton vocally -- she’d arguably make a better duet partner for Mr. Stapleton than Timberlake. “Better Than You Left Me” earned her some attention earlier this year, though it isn’t easy for youngsters to break through with slow-burn ballads. Her eponymous EP rifles through country, pop, and soul. A tune like “Pretty Little Mustang” may be the key to cracking radio: it’s a breezy slice of guitar pop that suggests Guyton will leave country behind as soon as she finds her own “Since U Been Gone.”
Cam cracked the charts with “Burning House,” which got a major boost from the popular program The Bobby Bones Show. But even better is her first single, “My Mistake,” an assertion of her right to a one-night stand, and the slippery “Half Broke Heart,” which tackles failed romance with country’s typical cleverness. Cam has a writing credit for Miley Cyrus and the ear of Jeff Bhasker, who penned hits for Kanye West and Mark Ronson, meaning she’s well-positioned to extend country’s pop-crossover moment.
With the plethora of male singers in country music, there’s bound to be a lot of vocal overlap, but you won’t find many singers like T.J. of the Brothers Osborne. He sings in a low rasp but suddenly bursts into a seductive, malty mid-range, perfect for the angst-ridden love songs he and his brother John penned for their debut EP. One of those, “Stay A Little Longer,” came together with the aid of ace writer Shane McAnally, and it’s at No. 13 on the most recent Country Airplay chart.
RaeLynn reached the top 10 on Hot Country Songs with “God Made Girls,” which is not even the most impressive tune on her Me EP -- that distinction belongs to “Careless,” with its sing-song flow and cascading melodies. Among the current crop of youngsters, only Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt can match her ear for contemporary, top 40-friendly production. But RaeLynn’s voice is unrepentantly country -- instead of charting a course toward pop, she brings pop to her.
If you listened to Beats 1 Radio on Monday this week, you would’ve heard something unusual during Zane Lowe’s flagship program: the sound of country music. Apple’s broadcast has shown minimal interest in the genre up to this point, but Lowe brought on Kane Brown for an interview and played a pair of his tracks. One of those was “Used To Love You Sober,” which mixes modern country production with a voice that would’ve ruled early ‘00s radio rock. Brown is still unsigned, but with his success on Facebook and YouTube, he won’t be for long.
Listeners intrigued by Stapleton’s country-soul approach will find plenty to like in Anderson East. Not only were both singers’ debut albums produced by Dave Cobb -- who also helped Sturgill Simpson achieve outsider country fame -- but the two artists share a love for the classic R&B produced at the Stax and Muscle Shoals studios in the ‘60s. (Stapleton also co-wrote East’s song “Quit You.”) East sprays his gravelly vocals like shrapnel and plays with the aid of a punchy horn section. At a show in New York City earlier this year, he covered Van Morrison and Prince -- he likes idiosyncratic stars who enjoyed popular success without compromising their approach.
Striking Matches have an impressive pedigree: several of the duo’s songs have appeared on the beloved show Nashville, and their Nothing But The Silence album was produced by T Bone Burnett, who was the go-to producer for historically-minded country and folk projects before Dave Cobb came along. On top of that, Matches have the songs: their specialty is sweet, pained duets like “What A Broken Heart Feels Like.”
Brill’s 2015 album, Shuteye, drips with classic bona fides. Stay until the end for “I Wish You Loved Me,” quietly one of the year’s most tragic country ballads. Brill wraps herself in a cocoon of anguish here, and the true mark of the devastation is that she can’t even drink this guy away: “I wish this whiskey didn’t burn like your memory.”
Qualley’s got an easy way with genre, happy to reference Johnny Cash and show off some proto-rap on the same project. “Kiss Me Drunk,” the highlight of her Turn Down The Lights EP, already sounds like a hit. It’s gleefully nonsensical -- “kiss me drunk, when you’re sober” -- and totally compelling, a savvy mix of pop texture and just enough banjo and male-female harmony to code country.
Country has a hard-rocking contingent, where artists like Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert enjoy cranking the volume and slathering on riffs; Dunn is ready to join the club. She has an effective, time-honored strategy: start loud, then get louder. Her massive 2015 single, “Move On,” is an exhortation for a guy to hurry up and kiss her. “I know you’re a little bit shy,” she sings. “But if I’m gonna be honest baby, so am I.” That’s hard to believe though, as the beat thunders and the guitars crash and burn before spiraling off into an ecstatic solo.
Janson is an indie success story: he was unsigned when put out his smash “Buy Me A Boat,” but the amusing single made it all the way to No. 3 on the Country Airplay chart and earned Janson co-signs from stars like Tim McGraw and Toby Keith. While “Buy Me A Boat” is a riff-soaked materialist anthem -- “I ain’t rich, but I damn sure wanna be” -- Janson showed versatility on his latest album: the soft rock “Under The Sun” suggests that drifting free of capitalist goals can be just as fulfilling.
Sam Hunt has earned a slew of hits with his talk-sing style, and Old Dominion noticed: the first verse of “Break Up With Him” -- which recently reached No. 1 on Country Airplay -- moves fluidly between conversation and croon. (The opening line also brings to mind Fetty Wap’s now classic phrase, “hey what’s up hello.”) But at its core, Old Dominion is interested in country tradition: guitars cascade prettily, the drummer beats out a snappy shuffle.
Every genre likes to glorify its tropes, and Granger’s 4x4 EP arrived earlier this year ready to do just that, with tunes like the smirking “City Boy Stuck,” which pokes fun at drivers who lack four-wheel drive. “Backroad Song,” a lighter ode to the pleasures of automotive transport, is still climbing the charts thanks to its eminently hummable hook.
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