Country Vocal Groups Are Resonating Again On the Charts: 5 Acts to Watch

Harper Smith
Midland

Watch out, country music awards shows: Your vocal group categories have just gotten a whole lot more competitive.

With more than 20 groups now signed to significant Nashville labels, it’s a fertile time for the field. In fact, there arguably hasn’t been such a strong crop of country bands since the early to mid-2000s, when BlackHawk, Diamond Rio, Lonestar, Restless Heart and Sawyer Brown were all having hits. On the current Country Airplay chart, vocal groups claim nine of the 60 spots.

A collective of superstar vocal groups that includes Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Rascal Flatts and Zac Brown Band has been joined in recent years by a tier of such established — but still developing — acts as LANCO, Old Dominion and Parmalee. Now, they’re all feeling the squeeze from a brand-new collection of recently signed vocal groups (some still in the label pipeline) led by Midland, which managed to score a top 15 hit with debut single “Drinkin’ Problem” in just 17 weeks.

Here’s a look at five acts to keep an eye on.

MIDLAND: A traditional sound that has been compared to ’70s-era California country, coupled with a handsome frontman who is a former model, helped this Big Machine Records act get off to a fast start. Cumulus’ Albuquerque, N.M., operations manager Brad Hansen gives this group the edge among all the newcomers, noting that such a quick rise into the top 15 “is an accomplishment for just about any act right now. They have put a modern spin on a traditional sound, and it just works.” Midland is based in Dripping Springs, Texas, and comprises singer Mark Wystrach, lead guitarist Jess Carson and bassist Cameron Duddy. They just finished a string of dates opening for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in Canada, and will head out with Kenny Chesney in August. Their debut EP was released last October.

DELTA RAE: Valory Music introduced this six-piece band from Durham, N.C., with “A Long and Happy Life” in mid-March and followed it with a Dann Huff-produced EP of the same name later that month. The single has not yet charted on Country Airplay. The group comprises Hölljes siblings Ian (vocals, guitar), Eric (vocals, piano) and Brittany (lead vocals), along with Liz Hopkins (lead vocals, tambourine, percussion), Mike McKee (drums) and Grant Emerson (bass). The festival-circuit regulars, who are currently on a 60-plus-city tour, are giving teachers in each city an opportunity to see their show for free via their “Tickets for Teachers” initiative.

LEVON: Like Midland, this trio has a ’70s-influenced sound, and its name is an homage to both The Band’s Levon Helm and Elton John’s hit “Levon.” Jointly signed to Sony’s Columbia and Epic imprints in an unusual move, this act released its self-titled debut EP in May. Its still-to-be-determined debut single will go to radio this summer. Levon consists of three best friends: Northbrook, Ill., native Michael David Hall (guitar, lead vocals); Sumter, S.C.’s Jake Singleton (harmonies, bass, percussion); and Camden, Tenn., native Ryan Holladay (guitar, mandolin, banjo, harmonies).

THE RAILERS: This Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville group is at No. 57 on Country Airplay this week with current single "11:59 (Central Standard Time).” Its previous single, “Kinda Dig the Feeling,” peaked at 49 on Country Airplay in 2014. The threesome honed its performing chops touring the country in an old van dubbed Geraldine, playing 150-200 dates a year for several years. That’s a lot of togetherness, especially for their unusual family configuration: Jonathan and Jordan Lawson are brothers, while Cassandra Lawson is Jonathan’s wife. The Railers are currently working on their debut LP, due later this year.

RUNAWAY JUNE: This all-female Wheelhouse Records act introduced its three-part harmonies on the Mickey Jack Cones-produced debut single “Lipstick,” which reached No. 28 on Country Airplay in February. Next single “Wild West” goes to radio in early summer. The group members are Florida native Naomi Cooke (lead vocals, guitar); Malibu-raised Hannah Mulholland (vocals, mandolin); and former Stealing Angels member, The Amazing Race veteran and fellow California native Jennifer Wayne (vocals, guitar), who took the last name of her grandfather, film legend John Wayne.

Hansen says each of these new groups “has a unique sound and image,” which helps all of their chances at success. KVOO/KXBL Tulsa, Okla., PD Greg Mozingo agrees, noting, that “a distinct look or sound” is helping them all stand out from the pack.