It isn’t easy being green, but a little naivete can be a good thing — particularly in the music business, where most new artists have no idea how big the obstacles are until they actually find themselves in the middle of a career.
Thus, a debut is a big deal, and several talents — including current Country Airplay chart acts Ingrid Andress, Gone West, Gabby Barrett and Caylee Hammack — will hit a career milestone over the next six months with the release of their first album or EP with a major label or significant indie imprint.
While new acts are considered the lifeblood of the industry, it’s always a risk for labels to back first-timers. And in an era when women are still fighting an uphill battle at country radio, it’s noteworthy that three of those charting new faces are solo females, while the other, Gone West, is a gender-balanced quartet.
Gone West is the least green of those acts, since all four members have a solo history. But that also means the band has enough experience to recognize the positive signs — every time it got discouraged, a songwriter with the heft of Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me”) or Liz Rose (“Girl Crush”) offered an unsolicited pep talk or booked an unexpected co-write.
“That would fuel us,” group member and pop singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat recalls. “Then a month later, we’d get denied by a couple of other people, and then we’d get to write with [someone else]. There’s been a long list of people that believed in us at the beginning, but there’s been ups and downs.”
Here’s a look at 11 country artists tentatively expecting “ups” with the release of their first album or EP before June 30:
• Ingrid Andress (Atlantic) — Andress vacillates among vulnerable, confessional and brash, making her a bit of a signpost for modern female complexity. Her first terrestrial single, “More Hearts Than Mine,” occupies a top 15 slot on the Country Airplay chart, setting her up as a smart musical documentarian and creating anticipation for her debut album in March.
• Gabby Barrett (Warner Music Nashville) — With her kiss-off single “I Hope” taking an acerbic ride in Country Airplay’s top 30, Barrett is building nicely on her American Idol introduction. Her tone mixes a slight nasal whine with pure power for an authoritative effect. She issued an independent EP in 2019, but graduates to a major-label album in the coming months.
• Adam Doleac (Arista Nashville) — As an infielder for Southern Mississippi, Doleac earned base hits in the College World Series before he refocused on country hits. A smoky texture and modern production made him a SiriusXM Highway Find as an indie act, and he steps to the plate for his major-label EP in February after signing with Arista last fall.
• Gone West (Triple Tigers) — The quartet’s first single, “What Could’ve Been,” is an established Country Airplay chart resident, introducing listeners to an accomplished harmonic weave. Caillat’s involvement provides an instant storyline, though the act is focused — much like Little Big Town — on balance rather than a single lead voice. Its debut album likely arrives in May.
• Caylee Hammack (Capitol Nashville) —Lead single “Family Tree” draws on Hammack’s small-town roots and dramatic tendencies while mixing country, pop and gospel textures. It’s a great opening chapter for the Georgia native who has overcome tragedy (a brush with cancer, two house fires) that make music-industry hurdles seem inconsequential. Her first album will expand on that personal picture.
• Trea Landon (Warner Music Nashville) — Southern Georgia roots gave Landon a connection to songwriter Dallas Davidson (“What Makes You Country”), who offered a publishing deal when Landon arrived in Nashville. There’s an occasional hitch in his voice that lends an air of believability. Landon issued an EP on his own, but has a major-label debut in the works.
• Johnny McGuire (Stoney Creek) — After his duo Walker McGuire broke up in February, McGuire tackles country with a scrappy attitude and a mix of Southern-rock influence and redneck snarl as a solo act. A journalism major in college, his background shows through in his blend of specific imagery in rhythmically focused melodic cadences. Expect a debut album in June.
• Teddy Robb (Monument) — With a neighborly, centrist country tone that occasionally resembles Dustin Lynch, Robb was inspired to take up music by George Strait’s recording of “Troubadour.” He left his native Ohio to hone his skills in touristy Vail, Colo., before tackling Nashville. Signed to Shane McAnally’s SMACKSongs, his debut album is likely to be a late-spring arrival.
• Noah Schnacky (Big Machine) — Schnacky made a high-profile appearance at 2019’s Country Radio Seminar, impressing with relentless optimism, pop-influenced melodies and preternatural confidence. Combined with a fresh-scrubbed countenance, he could become country’s answer to Shawn Mendes. His music is produced by Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts); “I’ll Be the One,” from his forthcoming first EP, is prepping its chart debut.
• Dan Smalley (Big Machine) — After getting his honky-tonk education in the clubs and dance halls of Louisiana and Texas, Smalley knows what to do with a steel guitar and a two-step groove. But he’s got a swampy side, too, and it’s evident in his first EP, on the way with guidance from producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band).
• Lainey Wilson (Broken Bow) — Teamed with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Miranda Lambert), Wilson’s Louisiana drawl is framed by a variety of sounds, including burning Southern rock, buzzing alt-rock and authentic backwoods country. Her first terrestrial radio single, “Dirty Looks,” exemplifies the playful personal and rural life experience at the heart of her songwriting. A full album is expected in May.