Now, they’re all key pieces of country’s puzzle in the marketplace. Old Dominion earned a No. 1 country single in November 2015, Cam peaked at No. 2 in December, and Stapleton shocked the world with three victories at the Country Music Association Awards.
A smaller number of newbies than usual is on the horizon for 2016, with roughly seven artists sporting debut albums during the first half of the year, though there’s a huge disclaimer on those releases. With albums selling fewer copies than in past years and radio still the dominant piece of the marketing puzzle in the genre, albums are timed to coincide with expected airplay peaks. Particularly with new acts, it’s not uncommon for delays when a single doesn’t perform as expected.
That said, there are some solid guarantees among the debut albums between now and the end of June. Brothers Osborne and Canadian indie Robby Johnson were not pushed back — both of their albums arrived the week of Jan. 11 — and Charles Kelley, in his first project outside of Lady Antebellum, is locked in for a Feb. 5 release two days before the Grammy Awards, where his collaboration with Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay, “The Driver,” is a nominee.
One of the hallmarks of being a new artist is the relative lack of expectations. There is no track record, so it’s the one time an artist gets to launch without being compared to past performance. The exception to that in 2016 is Kelley, whose Lady A credentials make him a recognizable commodity.
That said, the chance to hit the “refresh” button on his ?career is part of the lure of making The Driver, which Kelley viewed as an experimental side project until he had gotten a good head start in the studio.
“It was just so fun to make music again without any agenda,” he says. “If it didn’t come out good, I wasn’t going to play it for anybody. I didn’t have to borrow any money from the label and didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder or picking songs or anything. It felt like the first record we made where you didn’t really know how it was going to come out, but you knew you were on to something.”
Here’s a rundown of the artists who might well have full albums on the way during the first half of the year:
• Brothers Osborne (EMI Nashville): Vocalist T.J. Osborne and guitarist John Osborne are simultaneously intense and languid in Pawn Shop, which garnered a Grammy nomination for “Stay a Little Longer” before the album’s Jan. 15 release. Overseen by producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), it ranges from the effervescent “21 Summer” to the classic country tone of “Loving Me Back,” featuring Lee Ann Womack, though there’s a grit through it all at the heart of the brothers’ authenticity.
• Robby Johnson (Contrast Music): An independent Canadian artist, Johnson has a neighborly tone in Don’t Look Back, released in the United States on Jan. 12. He’s certainly well connected in country circles. The album is produced by James Stroud (Chris Young, Clint Black), boasts songs written by Sam Hunt and Old Dominion’s Trevor Rosen, has a guest appearance from Vince Gill and is being publicized by Shock Ink (Willie Nelson, Toby Keith).
• Charles Kelley (Capitol Nashville): Given his eight-year chart history as a member of Lady Antebellum, it’s a little difficult to think of Kelley as a solo artist. But The Driver, due Feb. 5, is his first project on his own. The voice is certainly familiar, and the music isn’t a complete departure. But it is more raw than what he typically crafts with Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood, and there’s a little more room for his blue-eyed soul tone to stretch out.
• Ryan Kinder (Warner Bros.): The name is Kinder — not Tinder — though there are plenty of reasons for listeners to swipe right over his sonic profile. Kinder’s first Warner single, “Tonight,” has a burning melodicism, much like his introductory tracks on now-shuttered Bigger Picture. Even more, there’s an edge to his voice — particularly his enunciations — that makes him instantly identifiable, an essential quality in every artist of importance.
• William Michael Morgan (Warner Bros.): His rich resonance and relaxed delivery in debut single “I Met a Girl” suggest a heavy influence from Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and George Strait, and the ever-present cowboy hat underscores the ’90s sensibility in his approach. Morgan exudes swagger ?onstage and incorporates a little vulnerability in his first video. As much as country has changed during the last few years, there’s still a sizeable audience for accessible singers with a sturdy, rootsy sound.
• Maren Morris (Columbia Nashville): Her name seems to be on the tongue of every plugged-in member of Music Row. Morris made a big impression on Spotify, found her way onto SiriusXM’s The Highway and is now at No. 32 on Country Airplay in her third charted week with “My Church.” Her voice is clear, her songs are daringly melodic, and her stage presence is already well developed. Think of her as the 2016 version of Cam: a bold newcomer in January who will be considered a hitmaker by the end of December.
• Drake White (Dot): His new single “Livin’ the Dream” (see Makin’ Tracks on page 15) is a made-for-radio representation of a made-for-the-stage ?performer. White’s a confident, energetic presence with a mix of gravel, soul and gospel in his voice. While there’s a smoothness to “Dream,” the ?rough-cut sentimentality of “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” built from his own relationship experience, shows the range of his interpretation and the quality of his songwriting.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.