Photo: Jeremy Cowart
Carrie Underwood On Creating Her First Gospel Album, 'My Savior,' Working With CeCe Winans, & Making "Legacy Music"
Carrie Underwood recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about her new album, 'My Savior,' her spiritual journey, learning from gospel legend CeCe Winans, and crafting what she calls "legacy music"
In 2005, fresh off her "American Idol" win, Carrie Underwood, then a rising singer from Oklahoma, scored her first country radio hit, "Jesus, Take The Wheel." Two years later, the faith-based ballad elevated her to another level in her career: a GRAMMY award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards show. (That year she also took home the coveted Best New Artist award.)
Now a seven-time GRAMMY winner, she's notched hits like "Before He Cheats" and "Blown Away," but has never shied away from her spirituality. "Something in the Water," "See You Again," "Temporary Home," and her soul-piercing performance of "How Great Thou Art" alongside Vince Gill during an Academy of Country Music television special in 2015 showed her devotion proudly.
Those spiritual leanings come full-circle on her first gospel album, My Savior, released on March 26. Much like last year's holiday album My Gift, Underwood's new project finds her drawing from childhood memories; She sings of attending a rural Baptist church in Oklahoma—listening to Sunday sermons and joining the congregation in singing classics such as "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" from an old hymnal.
"It's so great for me because I feel like in recording them, even now I can still feel myself sitting in the church pews next to my parents, hearing my mom sing harmonies and hearing other voices singing in the congregation," Underwood tells GRAMMY.com. "I feel like that just still rings in my ear and it's wonderful, but more importantly, it provides a feeling of comfort and inspiration that hopefully other people can feel as well when they listen to these songs."
Like so many impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, Underwood turned to her faith—and faith-based music—as a source of comfort. She has stayed in Nashville with her husband, Mike Fisher, and their two sons and kept in touch with family members back in Oklahoma from afar. The project's production process made her feel closer to the family she can’t be with at the moment.
"Making this album felt like home, and I haven't been home since Christmas of 2019," Underwood says. "I haven't seen my dad in so long, so it was nice in the middle of the unsureness and chaos of 2020, first to get to make the Christmas album and then to follow it up with more songs that just felt like home."
Carrie Underwood recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about her new album, My Savior, her spiritual journey, learning from gospel legend CeCe Winans, and crafting what she calls "legacy music."
Making this album had to feel like a walk down memory lane for you. What memories do these songs bring to mind?
I've been singing these songs my whole life. Even now I can still feel myself sitting in the church pews next to my parents, hearing my mom sing harmonies and hearing voices from people in the congregation. I feel like that still rings in my ear and it’s wonderful.
Did anyone in your family have suggestions for songs to include on the album?
Everybody always chimes in. Some of them were already on the list. My husband would chime in every once in a while with something that maybe was an older faith-based song, but not necessarily a hymn. He didn't necessarily grow up listening to a lot of the hymns that I did, but he wanted me to do "Give Me Jesus," so maybe someday I can cover that one down the road.
How did you narrow down the song choices?
We had the biggest running list. [There were] dozens [of songs]. But you have your pillars—I knew I wanted "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "How Great Thou Art," "Softly and Tenderly," [and] "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus." We wanted to create diversity in the sound because so many of them were written kind of around the same time period with the same instrumentation. The challenge was making them sound fresh, but still keeping that traditional thing about them that I love.
And so many of them have a lot of verses, but no chorus. It's not a traditional format that we are used to, so for "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" in particular, that's why we put the "Ohs" in there, to become the little break between verses.
Bear Rinehart from NEEDTOBREATHE sings with you on "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" and the song has this great soulful sound. How did he become part of this album?
When we started playing around with tempo on this song, we could just hear his voice on it. It took me forever to ask him, but it was one of those things where he actually showed up one Sunday at my church and sat right in front of me. I was like, "Oh my gosh, we've been talking about giving him a call." We were wrapping up the album and it was reaching that point where I needed to ask him. Of course, I chickened out because who wants to start talking work at church?
Then we ended up in a small group having brunch afterward, and he asked me about what I was working on. I was like, “Well, as a matter of fact, you're probably going to get a call within the next couple of days about maybe coming and singing on something.” It does sound so cool, and I loved the way it turned out because [it] was exactly what we were hearing the whole time.
CeCe Winans joins you on "Great Is Thy Faithfulness."
I feel like God was really watching out for this project in so many ways. Her people had called us about something completely separate, and we thought, "This is our open door." She said yes, and within days she was in the studio with me.
She came in, and I felt like we just needed to sit back and let her work her magic because it truly was inspirational. And besides her extremely God-given, powerful, inspiring voice, her presence was just so wonderful to be around. I feel like when I work with legends, I'm a sponge. I want to see what you do and how you do it. So it was equal parts getting to work with her and sing with her, but also learning from her.
You have always included faith-based songs throughout your career, from "Jesus, Take The Wheel" to "Something in the Water." With everything going on in the world, were you nervous at all to put out a specifically faith-based project?
I feel like the answer to all of our problems is Jesus, and like you said, it's not a secret where I stand. And this has been good for my soul. I feel like hopefully when people listen to it, it'll inspire. It'll bring some peace, and hopefully some good, positive feelings.
Do you recall when you first felt like you had a personal connection with God?
Well, I was always in church. There was always an altar call song. For our church, it was "Just As I Am," and that's on the album. I might've been 10 years old, something like that. When you grow up around it, it means you have to make that decision for yourself. I remember making that trip down the aisle, knowing that was what I wanted to do.
When do you feel most connected spiritually?
I've been singing my whole life, even before I knew that this [was] going to be what I do. I'm a bird. I sing. It's what I do. When I sing songs like this, I definitely feel connected. With the Christmas album, too. I loved getting to be in the studio and sing in more intimate settings, because when there [are] people in front of you, you're worried about, "What do they see? What do they hear? Are they happy? Do they like it?" You want to put on a good show. But in the studio there's nobody else there, it's just me and God in the room, and I get to just sing to Jesus.
Speaking of performing, you recently announced you will celebrate the album's release with a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Easter Sunday, April 4, and that it will livestream from your official Facebook page.
Well, we're missing performing. Under normal circumstances, you make an album and then you get to tour it in front of an audience. Obviously, right now, we're not quite there yet, but we still want a project this special to have that moment. We decided to go to our country music Mother Church, the Ryman, because it is spiritual. You walk in there and you feel it. I think it's going to be an inspiring morning.
There have been a lot of collaborations between country artists and CCM/gospel artists recently—Chris Tomlin and Florida Georgia Line, and Dolly Parton's work with Zach Williams and for King & Country, for example. Are there other CCM artists you would want to work with in the future?
I would love definitely for people who are strong in their faith to sing about it. I feel like the more of us that make it a norm and do our thing—I've already had other people in the music industry who are friends in mine say, "I've always wanted to do this, but would wonder what people would think about it." There are a few of us, like Hillary Scott and Dolly, we're just making music and trying to stay true to ourselves. When that's part of you, I feel like it's easy, and maybe more artists will feel like it's a safe space to be able to do that.
You never know, as far as me working with other Christian music artists. I would never count any of that out, but everything just has to feel right and be right in the moment.
You have two young sons, Isaiah and Jacob. So many congregations lean toward praise and worship music, or modern-day hymns. This album feels like one way to pass down these traditional hymns you grew up with to a new generation of listeners.
I did grow up with these songs and like you said, so many churches do praise and worship. Every once in a while at our church, they'll sneak in a chorus or a bit of a hymn, which is always nice for me because I love them. But I do feel like so many younger people didn't necessarily grow up with these songs. Maybe we are, in a way, introducing some of these to a new generation. I sing them around the house, and I love that my boys will have my voice on these songs, as they get older.
Legacy music is how I like to think of it. I love all the songs and all the albums that I have ever made and I have a special connection with each one. But I feel like this is the real stuff, the heart stuff, the soul stuff.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: (L-R) Mickey Bernal/Getty Images, Neil Lupin/Redferns, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images
2022 In Review: 6 Trends That Defined Country Music
From Dolly Parton to Zach Bryan, country music's veterans and new generation found room to grow within the genre in 2022.
Country music isn't always heralded as a haven for artists who fall outside the genre's accepted mainstream. But 2022 saw country music claim a bigger piece of the cultural pie than it has in recent years.
Artists are discovering new paths to success, driven by the meme-ification of culture and music and templated by stars like Walker Hayes, whose GRAMMY-nominated song "Fancy Like" broke through in mid-2021 thanks to TikTok and ended 2022 among the top five of Billboard's Hot Country Songs. Breakout stars Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman also rode online acceptance to mainstream success — the former built a career on his YouTube buzz, while the latter turned his TikTok virality into Platinum sales.
The genre expanded in other non-traditional ways in 2022 as well. In particular, indie-rock and LGBTQIA+ artists are no longer hovering in the periphery, but making real impacts on country music listenership, thanks to worthy efforts by Waxahatchee and Adeem the Artist, among others.
As country music continues to expand its horizons into 2023, here are six trends that defined country music in 2022.
New Artists Dominated
If the emergence of new talent is a barometer of a genre's health, country music has nothing to worry about. Not since 2015 has a country artist landed on Billboard's top five Best New Artists, when Sam Hunt broke through big. But this year, country music landed two of the five spots on the year-end chart, thanks to newcomers Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman.
Bryan emerged with an audacious statement, claiming country's biggest first-week sales with his major-label debut, the triple-album American Heartbreak. The album landed at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and topped country streaming tallies on both Spotify and Apple Music.
Like Bryan, who first found success when his music went viral on social media, Bailey Zimmerman parlayed his online following into an impressive run with Platinum singles "Fall in Love" and "Rock and a Hard Place." Both are off of his first EP on Warner Music Nashville, Leave the Light On, which became the most-streamed all-genre debut of the year and the biggest streaming country debut of all time.
Lainey Wilson also had a banner year, proving that her No. 1 hit on country radio with "Things A Man Oughta Know" in 2021 was no fluke. In between winning new artist honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association this year, she landed her second No. 1 on country radio with the Cole Swindell collab "Never Say Never" in April. Most recently, Wilson became the latest country star to appear on the hit Paramount TV drama "Yellowstone"; she debuted on season five as the character Abby, performing her original songs "Smell Like Smoke" and "Watermelon Moonshine," and has become a recurring character.
After Jelly Roll made waves with his 2021 single "Dead Man Walking" and the 2022 Brantley Gilbert collaboration "Son of the Dirty South," the Nashville country rapper solidified himself as a newcomer to watch with "Son of a Sinner." The slow-burning single scored Jelly Roll his first top 10 hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts, and it broke the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. He also proved his hometown pride is strong: On. Dec 9, he headlined a sold-out show at Nashville's 20,000-cap Bridgestone Arena.
Bluegrass Saw A Resurgence
You'd be hard-pressed to find another artist who has broadened the bluegrass horizon in recent years more than Billy Strings; his progressive approach to the foundational country genre pulls in elements of rock and psychedelia. While he titled his 2019 Grammy-winning album Home, on his 2022 set Me/And/Dad, Strings came full-circle to play traditional bluegrass standards with his father, Terry, like they did when he was a kid. Strings (whose birth name is William Lee Apostol) even located the Martin acoustic guitar Terry played in those early days but pawned to support the family, fulfilling Billy's bucket-list bluegrass album in more ways than one.
Representing the more traditional approach to the genre, bluegrass icon Del McCoury issued his 17th album, Almost Proud, in February. A peer and collaborator of the genre's Mt. Rushmore (Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), McCoury is keeping the flame lit in his ninth decade — and he hasn't lost a lick of his abilities. McCoury and his sons Ronnie and Robbie pick, roll and harmonize like it's a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry.
Up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the Po' Ramblin' Boys have tapped into a similar authenticity by playing bluegrass standards like their forebears. Although they formed around a regular gig at a moonshine distillery, their 2022 album God's Love Is So Divine walks the straight and narrow on 13 gospel bluegrass tunes.
Old Crow Medicine Show have come a long way since O.G. bluegrass musician Doc Watson discovered them busking on the streets of Boone, North Carolina in 2000. While that growth is evident throughout 2022's Paint This Town, they incorporate bluegrass on tracks like "Painkiller," "DeFord Rides Again" and "Hillbilly Boy." The group also invited Americana mainstay Jim Lauderdale to co-write a couple of tunes, and Mississippi fife master Sharde Thomas to guest on "New Mississippi Flag."
Punk Went Country (And Country Went Punk)
Genre-bending is nothing new in Nashville, and even punk rockers have been acknowledging the raw power of country music since the early '80s — when bands like X, Social Distortion and The Gun Club began incorporating elements into their music, and even covering classics like Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Fast forward to 2022, and the trend has kicked into high gear.
Woody Guthrie, the iconic folk hero of dust-bowl-era America, left behind a large body of unrecorded songs — evidenced by the three volumes of lyrics that have been set to music and recorded as Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. Boston pub punks Dropkick Murphys plucked 10 more uncut Guthrie gems for their 2022 set This Machine Still Kills Fascists, a play on the line Guthrie famously scrawled onto the body of his guitar. For their first country album, Dropkick Murphys recruited two of the genre's brightest lights: Nikki Lane, who guests on "Never Git Drunk No More," and Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, who shares the mic on "The Last One."
Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett — who previously played with speedy punks No Use For A Name — got into the act, too. When he isn't cranking guitars alongside Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, he plays his own Bakersfield-inspired country rock, as heard on 2017's West Coast Town and 2019's Hard Lessons. This year, he issued the singles "Born & Raised" and "Long, Long Year," a pair of breezy, pedal steel-assisted cuts that find him leaning more than ever into his sunny SoCal disposition.
Shiflett previously shredded the guitar solo on "Goin' Nowhere," a collaboration with country hitmaker HARDY on his Hixtape Vol. 2, released in the last weeks of 2021. Now, HARDY's back and flipping the script with his own rock record, the mockingbird & THE CROW, set for release in January. Early singles "JACK," "TRUCK BED" and the title track, all released in 2022, show the influence of Nirvana and post-grunge songcraft alongside his distinctive, rhythmic lyrical delivery.
Legends Got Their Due
In 2022, country music proved that age is irrelevant when the music is this good. Newcomers Chapel Hart captured the national spotlight — and a rare Golden Buzzer — on "America's Got Talent" in July with a nod to icon Dolly Parton. The trio's electrifying performance of their original song "You Can Have Him Jolene," an answer to Parton's 1974 smash "Jolene," elevated them to star status, and they spent the latter half of 2022 playing to sold-out audiences across America. Darius Rucker even recruited them to back him on his song "Ol' Church Hymn."
Parton had her own high point this year, earning her first No. 1 on Billboard's Bluegrass Albums chart with her 48th studio album, Run, Rose, Run. She also released a new compilation album, Diamonds & Rhinestones: The Greatest Hits Collection, in November.
After Shania Twain spent the last couple of years featuring on other artist's songs, the best-selling female country artist of all time returned to her throne in 2022. She announced her sixth studio album, Queen of Me (due Feb. 3, 2023), helmed by the dance-floor bop "Waking Up Dreaming." The announcement followed the Netflix documentary Not Just A Girl (and the companion album that featured more than a dozen unreleased songs) and preceded another huge announcement: a 76-date U.S. tour for 2023.
Twain's fellow genre-bending '90s icon, Sheryl Crow, also issued a documentary in 2022. The Showtime special, "Sheryl," was accompanied by a double-album compilation of the same name, which featured two discs of hits plus collaborations with Chris Stapleton, Stevie Nicks, Jason Isbell and more. Crow also featured on 2022 releases from TobyMac and Lucius. The latter track also featured Brandi Carlile, who has played a big role in Tanya Tucker's recent comeback story — as shown in yet another 2022 doc, "The Return of Tanya Tucker," which featured their song "Ready As I'll Never Be."
The CMA Awards paid tribute to icons Jerry Lee Lewis, who passed away in October, and Alan Jackson, who is in the midst of a farewell tour dubbed Last Call: One More For the Road. Firebrand singer Elle King channeled The Killer's wild moves as she performed his signature hit, "Great Balls of Fire," backed by The Black Keys. Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood led a star-studded Jackson tribute featuring Dierks Bentley, Jon Pardi and Lainey Wilson, who performed a melody of his hits including "Chattahoochee" and "Don't Rock the Jukebox."
The legacies continued both on stage and in studio. Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn, Reba McEntire and Bonnie Raitt all returned with new albums in 2022; meanwhile, Shenandoah, Billy Dean and Wade Hayes appeared on the Country Comeback Tour, and Wynonna led The Judds: The Final Tour in tribute to her mother, Naomi Judd, who passed away in April.
Indie Rockers Infiltrated Country Music
As '90s-style indie rock has a moment thanks to artists like Big Thief, Momma and Alvvays, Katie Crutchfield is leaning deeper into laid-back country vibes. The leader of Waxahatchee, whose blissful 2020 set Saint Cloud landed her on scores of year-end lists, doubled down in 2022.
Waxahatchee collaborated with Wynonna on the single "Other Side," recorded on the Judds singer's farm in Tennessee — an experience both artists ranked among their favorite recording sessions. Crutchfield also collaborated with Jess Williamson on a new project dubbed Plains, releasing the album I Walked With You A Ways in 2022 to critical acclaim. The 10 songs on Plains' debut rival the artists' soothing solo work and combine their strengths with Fleetwood Mac harmonies.
Madison Cunningham, who is best known for weaving mind-bending melodies and harmonies between her voice and guitar, guested on the second edition of Watkins Family Hour — which pairs siblings Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek with a series of notable collaborators like Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne — contributing her signature spidery guitar playing to "Pitseleh."
Other notables on the indie side of country include Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, who returned with Palomino, a strummy set of acoustic guitar-driven country pop and their first album in four years. Michaela Anne's gentle LP Oh To Be That Free chronicled a period of personal troubles with compassion, while Sierra Ferrell released the sparse, playful single "Hey Me, Hey Mama" and collaborated with Shakey Graves on "Ready Or Not."
LGBTQIA+ Country Artists Were Celebrated
Acceptance for LGBTQIA+ artists in country music has grown steadily in recent years, thanks to efforts by allies like Kacey Musgraves and Dolly Parton, as well as artists who have publicly discussed their sexuality, including T.J. Osborne, Lil Nas X, Chely Wright, Amythyst Kiah and Shane McAnally. With such star power in their corner, gay and non-binary country artists are now getting a fairer shake.
Non-binary singer-songwriter Adeem the Artist released the acclaimed album White Trash Revelry. Over 11 songs, Adeem chronicles their experiences growing up different in small towns surrounded by smaller minds — from the stomp-along "Going to Hell" to the Heartland rocker "Heritage of Arrogance" and fingerpicked album closer "My America."
Elsewhere, Orville Peck, the masked singer who performs a fever dream of '70s-inspired country music with a deep-throated croon, returned with his second album, Bronco. Peck traded the spare songscapes of his 2019 debut, Pony, for Bronco's more fully realized, cinematic arrangements, broadening his sound and the scope of his persona.
Brandi Carlile, whose pro-LGBTQIA+ activism is tied directly to her music — she founded the Looking Out Foundation early in her music career, and donates a portion of touring proceeds to groups like The Trevor Project — has seen her reputation grow steadily over nearly two decades of releasing music to ever-growing audiences. In 2022, she added to an already storied career by performing with her personal hero, Joni Mitchell, at Newport Folk Festival. Carlile also headlined Tennessee's Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival, marking the first time a woman has headlined the fest.
However country music continues to expand and impact culture as a result, 2022's trends certainly set up a promising future for the genre.
Photo: Ralph Bavaro/NBC via Getty Images
Listen: Get Jolly With New Holiday Music From Dolly Parton, Phoebe Bridgers, Pentatonix, Alicia Keys & More
This year saw several new holiday albums and singles from artists of all genres, from Backstreet Boys to Gloria Estefan. Get in the spirit with this festive 30-song playlist.
As we're all stringing up colorful lights and scrambling to buy last-minute gifts, music shines as the one constant in our lives amid the rush of the holiday season.
Some playlists have been bursting with holiday music since early autumn, with releases such as Dolly Parton's "A Smoky Mountain Christmas" dropping back in August and Joss Stone's Merry Christmas, Love releasing in September. Since then, several more holiday albums arrived, whether they were new projects from artists such as Alicia Keys and Thomas Rhett or polished deluxe editions from the likes of Reba McEntire and Norah Jones.
Beyond releasing albums, many artists have also found their holiday spirit by releasing festive singles. Remi Wolf brings her bubbly personality to warm covers of "Last Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland," Dan + Shay remind us to throw a "Holiday Party" with loved ones, and Phoebe Bridgers shares her annual holiday cover, this year a rendition of the Handsome Family's "So Much Wine." And even stars such as RuPaul, Jimmy Fallon and Ryan Reynolds surprised with holiday singles this season.
Groups such as Pentatonix and Backstreet Boys joined in on the fun with their own cheery holiday albums, and Gloria Estefan and her family capture the joys of love in a snowglobe on Estefan Family Christmas. Collaborations sparkle with holiday magic as well; Ingrid Michaelson and A Great Big World team up for "It's Almost Christmas," and Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande perform "Santa, Can't You Hear Me" in a thrilling live version.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.