"I was driving down the driveway, I got about halfway down, and I was heading to school in the morning," he recalls. "The song ‘You'll Think of Me' came on the radio. It was Keith Urban, and I literally put my car in park, turned the radio up, closed my eyes and just sat there. And I realized in that moment that there's a place for me in country music."
Here's a look at those who hope to make a place for themselves with their first big-time album or EP during the final six months of 2020:
• Hannah Ellis (Curb) — The former Voice competitor turned a Curb | Word publishing deal into a full recording contract, exhibiting a country tone and spunk that compare favorably to Carly Pearce and Jana Kramer. Ellis has dropped one self-funded EP prior to her forthcoming Nashville label debut, and she also landed a cut on the Teen Wolf soundtrack.
• Filmore (Curb) — Percolating rhythms and old-school pop melodies are the norm for Filmore and his passionate tenor. A Wildwood, Mo., native, he honed his chops while working the college circuit and built an online presence on his way to a Curb deal. His first full album for an established label, State I'm In, is expected Oct. 30, following a new single mid-August.
• Ryan Griffin (Altadena/Warner) — The 2019 death of producer busbee (Pearce, Maren Morris) delayed his debut EP, though it's now in the mix for late August. Bearing a blue-eyed soul resemblance to Rascal Flatts' Gary LeVox, Griffin's high notes hint at painful vulnerability even as they suggest a hopeful future. A former tour opener for Old Dominion, Griffin also cowrote Kelsea Ballerini's "Dibs."
• Caylee Hammack (Universal Music Group) — Nominated for two Academy of Country Music Awards, Georgia-bred Hammack has overcome two house fires and a teenage bout with cancer to arrive at the precipice of her first album, If It Wasn't for You (Aug. 14, Capitol Nashville). She evokes a raw, worldly quality as a vocalist while occasionally tapping a Dolly Parton-like innocence.
• HARDY (Big Loud) — After writing hits for Blake Shelton, LOCASH and Morgan Wallen, HARDY's own "One Beer" (No. 25, Country Airplay) is making his one name much more familiar to the average country fan. Smart, twisty songwriting and his penchant for small-town stories seed a first album expected in late summer or early fall ladled with classic-rock, Southern rock and alt-rock influences.
• Parker McCollum (MCA Nashville) — Already a known quantity on the Texas club circuit, McCollum is breaking out nationally with catchy single "Pretty Heart" (No. 26, Country Airplay). With two previous indie albums under his belt, he already has a healthy backlog of heart-on-the-sleeve admissions to keep new fans exploring. Will the first major-label project be an EP? LP? TBD.
• Tim Montana (Knox Music) — "For Montana, the Big Sky is the limit." The cheeky final line of his bio references Montana's home state and his real last name. A gritty, blues/rock sound fits that background, as do friendships with Kid Rock and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. Montana arrives at the BBR Music Group through producer Michael Knox (Jason Aldean, Trace Adkins).
• MacKenzie Porter (Big Loud) – With her first Big Loud single, "These Days," released to radio in April, Porter's girl-next-door vocals cut like a blade while the distinct lift of her choruses comes direct from the Taylor Swift school of songwriting. Thrice nominated in the Canadian Country Music Awards, Porter's first American album has a tentative October release date attached.
• REDFERRIN (Round Here) — Emerging on Florida Georgia Line's label, singer-songwriter Blake Redferrin owns his sound, easing into a drawling effort while obliquely celebrating his neck with "Red in My Last Name." His hard consonants and Southern enunciations suggest he draws heavily from FGL's Tyler Hubbard. No official date for REDFERRIN's debut EP has been set, though it could come as early as August.
• RoadHouse (BBR Music Group) — Forget "Dueling Banjos." Country's now looking at dueling turntables with an EP from Dee Jay Silver and DJ Ikon. What's in store — remixes and mashups of established hits, similar to Silver's country concert productions? Original EDM material sung by country artists, a la Diplo? The label is leaving room for both possibilities.
• Noah Schnacky (Big Machine) — Two of the seven titles on his eponymous debut, "Meet the Man" and "Hello Beautiful," practically announce the project as an introduction. Due July 24, the EP is loaded with optimism, a trait that has helped him amass 2.3 million TikTok followers. Schnacky's breathy, pop-tipped phrasing owes a debt to Gavin DeGraw and John Mayer.
• Elvie Shane (BBR Music Group) — A former preacher, Shane saw the light and became an evangelist for country music, inspired by the energy of Bruce Springsteen and the grit of fellow Kentuckian Chris Stapleton. His forthcoming EP frames him as a bad ass, though "My Boy," built on his love for his stepson, suggests he convincingly observes the Golden Rule.
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