Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage
12 Must-See Acts At Stagecoach 2023: Nate Smith, Morgan Wade, Jackson Dean & More
Before the famed country music festival takes place on April 28-30, take a look at some of the rising stars to check out whether you'll be at Stagecoach or tuning in from home.
Now that the Coachella dust has settled at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., it's time for country music to take over.
Since 2007, the Stagecoach Festival has been bringing some of the biggest names in country music to the desert. This year is no different, with the festival featuring headliners Luke Bryan, Kane Brown and Chris Stapleton, along with some of country's newer hitmakers, including Bailey Zimmerman, Parker McCollum, Gabby Barrett, Lainey Wilson and Tyler Childers.
In addition to the always exciting headliners and stars, Stagecoach continues to be a showcase for up-and-coming talent. Several budding country and folk artists are on this year's roster, from a genre-bending New Jersey native to a bluegrass songstress with a powerful voice.
For fans who can't make the trip to catch the action in person, Stagecoach will be live streaming all weekend on Amazon Prime. No matter how you're enjoying the festival, get to know 12 acts to catch at Stagecoach 2023.
The weekend will be a big one for Nate Smith all around: Not only will the California-born singer make his Stagecoach debut, but he will be releasing his self-titled debut album on the same day, Friday April 28.
It's been a long road to success for Smith, who first moved to Nashville in his early 20s. After things didn't take off, he returned home to Paradise, Calif.; in 2018, he lost everything he owned in the massive wildfire that ripped through his hometown.
But through it all, he found hope through music, and returned to Nashville to try again. Now, he has a No. 1 song — the gritty breakup romp "Whiskey On You" peaked in January — and a rejuvenated soul that is clearly resonating.
Tiera Kennedy's smooth voice and southern charm first caught the attention of Nashville in 2019, when she was signed as the flagship artist on Songs & Daughters, a publishing company founded by songwriter Nicolle Galyon. In 2020, she released her first single "Found It In You" to critical acclaim.
Since then, Kennedy has independently released a self titled EP, giving fans a more full sense of who she is as an artist and songwriter. The release also led to a record deal with Big Machine Records in 2021.
Kennedy's bright personality has resonated just as much as her music, as the singer hosts her own show on Apple Music Country. Titled The Tiera Show, the program sees Kennedy sharing her take on what's on the rise in country music with a very personal touch.
Another artist making his Stagecoach debut this year, Jackson Dean has been winning over country music fans with his outlaw style and unique, gritty voice. He's already scored a top 5 hit with his debut single, "Don't Come Lookin,'" which reached No. 3 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.
Dean's success has not been limited to just the charts, either: "Don't Come Lookin'" was featured on the TV show 'Yellowstone,' and he's been included on a number of artists to watch lists including Spotify's Hot Country Artists to Watch in 2023, Amazon Music's 2023 Breakthrough Artists to Watch: Country Class, and CMT's Listen Up class of 2023.
After selling out his headlining debut in Nashville in January, Dean will spend the majority of the year headlining sold-out shows and supporting the likes of Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Parker McCullum, Lainey Wilson, and Jon Pardi.
After first seeing success as a co-writer on Lily Rose's breakthrough song, "Villain," Mackenzie Carpenter has since made a name for herself as an artist in her own right. The Georgia-born singer's down-home personality shines through in her fun country-pop tunes including the catchy cautionary tale "Don't Mess With Exes" and the heartbreaking ballad "Jesus, I'm Jealous" — all of which ultimately prove that she isn't afraid to be herself.
In less than a year since signing with Big Machine imprint Valory Music Co., Carpenter has enjoyed many career milestones, including a Grand Ole Opry debut and an invitation to CMT's Next Women of Country class of 2023. And just weeks before taking the Stagecoach stage, Carpenter released her debut self-titled EP.
Since the release of his debut single "My Truck" in 2019, Breland has been making waves in the industry by stretching the boundaries of country music. The New Jersey native's sound is derived from a mix of hip-hop, R&B and gospel, while still remaining recognizably country — he even titled his debut album Cross Country.
Breland's feel-good, diverse sound has already helped him land collaborations with country superstars, including Sam Hunt, Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley. His single with the latter, "Beers On Me" (also featuring HARDY), scored Breland his first No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, but he's proving to make an impact in his own right with more than 1 billion streams to date.
This year marks Breland's second year in a row on the Stagecoach stage, as he performed at the Late Night at Palomino after-party in 2022.
Bella White brings a fresh perspective to an old-time sound. The Canadian artist serves audiences traditional bluegrass sounds with a clear, powerful voice.
White's voice, however, is not her only strength. She's also a skilled instrumentalist, as she was raised in a musical household and was drawn to the mandolin and banjo early on in her life.
Following the success of her debut album Just Like Leaving, White signed to Rounder Records in 2021. Just ahead of her Stagecoach performance, White released her second album, Among Other Things, on which she explores heartbreak and a wider breadth of sounds, weaving drums and electric guitars into her traditional-sounding strings.
After a short stint on 'The Voice' in 2018, Kameron Marlowe began paving his own way in Nashville. The singer has made a name for himself with his signature smoky voice, while making sure his music is a true reflection of who he is.
Marlowe gained traction with his first independent release, 2019's "Giving You Up," which helped him land a record deal with Sony Music Nashville in 2020. He's since released his debut album, 2022's We Were Cowboys, and has sold out shows across the country — including his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.
Marlowe nods to his home state in his latest release, "Take Me Home," in which he grapples with the changes that come along with success: "I hate feeling like I'm someone / That I've never been before / Take me home to Carolina / I don't wanna be here anymore," he sings.
A trailblazing country singer with an edge, Morgan Wade has captivated audiences with the striking vulnerability of her music. Wade takes her experiences with heartbreak, mental health and addiction and crafts them into songs that stick with listeners.
Wade's voice borders on the edge of country and rock, which makes her moving lyrics all the more affecting. That is particularly true on her breakout track, "Wilder Days," which takes listeners through the raw emotion of finding the right person at the wrong time.
Since the 2021 release of Wade's album Reckless, she has been touring nonstop, both in the U.S. and overseas. Wade's Stagecoach performance is one of over 65 tour dates for 2023, giving fans across the country and around the world a chance to experience her powerful music live.
Folk artist Tre Burt uses his storytelling prowess to tell the stories of the moment, amplified by his rootsy sound. Burt engages audiences with tracks like "Under the Devil's Knee," a protest song written during the upheaval of 2020, a year during which he found musical inspiration in the chaos surrounding him.
Since hitting the scene, Burt has performed with artists including Nathanial Ratecliff and Margo Price, and has become a staple at folk festivals around the country. Burt expanded on his deeply affecting sound with his second album, You, Yeah, You, which arrived in 2021; with his powerful delivery on stage and on record, he's been labeled a "storyteller and musical philosopher," and a "troubadour" blazing his own path.
Jaime Wyatt's success has been long and hard-earned. The singer/songwriter entered the music business when she was just a teen, and the now 37-year-old has kept her nose to the grindstone ever since. Her years have been colored with late nights in honky tonks, addiction, and recovery, and she details it all in her traditional country music.
Wyatt's 2020 release, Neon Cross, challenged the genre, as the singer examined her identity as a queer woman, and positioned herself as a true outlaw in the landscape of the industry. In 2021, she released a merch line with a portion of the proceeds benefiting G.L.I.T.S, an organization that addresses systematic discrimination of LGBTQIA+ individuals. In being true to herself, Wyatt has provided a beacon of hope for queer artists and fans alike.
Kaitlin Butts has made a habit out of being a good listener, crafting the stories she hears into fun, innovative country songs. Like many of her Stagecoach cohorts, Butts has a versatile sound, drawing in influences from rock and 90's emo music — but the baseline is always undeniably country.
While Butts has been releasing music since 2015's Same Hell, Different Devil, this past year has been a whirlwind for the budding star. Her second album, What Else Can She Do, landed in the top 10 of Billboard's Americana Albums chart; the title track earned a spot on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Songs of 2022" list.
Within a span of six months, Butts played the Ryman Auditorium and made her Grand Ole Opry debut, and has opened for fellow Stagecoacher Morgan Wade as well as playing several other festivals.
American Aquarium, led by BJ Barham, incorporates elements of country, folk and rock music into their thought-provoking music.The group's lyrics wrestle with some of life's biggest problems and tell delicate, personal stories.
The band's latest record, Chicamacomico, is a journey through the lead singer's personal losses. The album is a departure from the band's previously harder, rock-leaning sound, presenting more stripped-down tracks that lean more on Barnham's stirring vocals. Even so, Chicamacomico has been hailed as their best album yet.
Over the span of a 20-year career, American Aquarium has cycled through many members; Barnham being a mainstay on lead vocals. The band has proven their staying power in the industry, and their presence at Stagecoach proves that the festival is a celebration of country music in all its forms.
Photo: Douglas Mason / Contributor via Getty Images
Watch Backstage Interviews At Newport Folk 2023: Turnpike Troubadours, Nickel Creek, M. Ward, Thee Sacred Souls & More
Another Newport Folk is in the books; its 2023 iteration was one of the great ones — featuring Aimee Mann, Lana Del Rey, Jason Isbell and more. Watch backstage interviews with some of its radiant artists below.
Another summer, another Newport Folk. The storied bastion of American roots music flourished once again, with three days of plucks, strums, harmonies and good cheer.
Lana Del Rey enjoyed her Newport debut, James Taylor made a surprise appearance (calling it "emergency folk music") and the Black Opry made waves — and GRAMMY.com was on the grounds for all of the excitement.
Backstage, a number of artists chatted about their experiences onstage, their love of the American roots community and more.
Watch all of the interviews below — and we'll see you at Newport Folk 2024!
Gregory Alan Isakov
Indigo de Souza
Thee Sacred Souls
Photos: Mickey Bernal/Getty Images; Jason Davis/Getty Images; TK, Mose Wilson, Lia Callie Photography; Scott Slusher
5 Female Artists Creating The Future Of Country Music: Jaime Wyatt, Miko Marks & More
Country music’s view of women is often reductive, yet a new generation of female country singers are breaking the mold. They've cracked open the notoriously slow-to-change genre, nudging it toward aural, queer, gender and racial diversity.
In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill provoked outrage by saying out loud what had long been an unwritten rule for much of country music radio: Women are like the tomatoes in a lettuce salad, they should be sprinkled in sparsely. Despite Hill’s comments and the country music industry's often restrictive and prescriptive attitudes, women are essential to the genre and its growth.
Female country singers have broken the rules and fought sexist expectations since the genre's inception. Just five years after the first country music recording, the Carter Family cut their first album — often considered country music’s "Big Bang" — at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. In 1952, Kitty Wells' "It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" placed the blame for unfaithful women squarely on the shoulders of philandering men in a retort so resounding, hardly anyone remembers the song that inspired it.
A decade later, Bobbie Gentry scored a No. 1 in 1967 and three GRAMMY Awards with a torpid ballad about apathy and suicide ("Ode to Billie Joe"). Loretta Lynn routinely took a defiantly feminist stance (although she rejected the label) in her music and had her song "The Pill,"about how birth control pills liberated women, banned from most radio play. Throughout her career, Dolly Parton's hit songs have dealt with gender-neutral gut-wrenching poverty and pretty much every aspect of womanhood.
Contemporary acts continue the work of their forebearers, pushing the genre toward inclusivity and demanding respect in the male-dominated genre. Stars like Shania Twain and Faith Hill followed by Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Micky Guyton and Maren Morris have deftly charted their own stories, rejecting the genre's rigid stereotypes. Allison Russell, Rhiannon Giddens, Brennen Leigh and Sierra Ferrell (and many other artists) have shifted country music sonically, bringing bluegrass, Western swing, blues, and traditional folk-inspired tunes back into broad circulation.
Together, they represent a new generation of female country singers who have cracked open the notoriously slow-to-change genre, nudging it toward aural, queer, gender and racial diversity. These musicians aren’t waiting for radio DJs to slot them in between male stars; they’re leveraging social media, YouTube and Spotify to reach an audience tired of hearing the same old sad and exploitive songs. Avoiding stereotypes and the neat niches country music carved for them, these women sing about motherhood, wifehood, womanhood, sex, hard work, struggle and loss and yes, love and heartbreak too — but on their terms.
While it’s by no means a comprehensive list, here are five women essential to the future of country music who you may not have heard of, but should know.
On her 43rd birthday, the Ameripolitan Music Awards named Summer Dean 2023’s "Honky Tonk Female."The best-known twangy, danceable honky tonk-style tracks go to men, but Dean flips their signature bravado on its head with brash songs about a single woman’s empowerment.
Since her debut EP Unladylike, Dean’s drawn power and inspiration from her own experience, singing about both the joy and sadness in not following social expectations of womanhood. "I’m all alone / Just a woman on her own / Writing songs with no baby and no vow," she sings, neatly skewering country music’s preconceived ideals of a woman’s path in life on "Picket Fence," which opens her 2021 album Bad Romantic.
Dean, a seventh-generation Texan, started her country music career in her late 30s after years of teaching elementary school. Making up for lost time, she’s collected accolades fast: A wildly successful duet with Canadian Western music heavyweight Colter Wall; opening gigs for Nikki Lane, Marty Stuart, and Charley Crockett; and her own co-headlining tour this spring. This summer, Dean will release her second full-length album, The Biggest Life.
Sometimes Jaime Wyatt’s backstory sounds like any number of gritty, sad country songs — she served most a year in L.A. County jail for robbing her heroin dealer, struggled with addiction, and lost a best friend to drug overdose. Although her experiences feed her music, Wyatt uses them to illuminate relatable, meaningful stories that are anything but cliché.
Wyatt's 2017 debut EP, Felony Blues, draws heavily from her experiences with addiction and jail. Moving beyond those early experiences, she unpacks them, her sexuality and outlook on life in her Shooter Jennings-produced Neon Cross, released in 2020. Thriving on Wyatt’s smoky, intoxicating voice, the album’s title track ruminates on the hazy purgatory of nights lost in dim, alcohol-soaked bars; "Rattlesnake Girl" simultaneously celebrates gay joy and puts anyone who might mess with Wyatt on notice; and Wyatt owns her power as a woman in "Just a Woman," a duet with Jessi Colter, Jennings’ mother, whose own outlaw country career was often overshadowed by her husband, Waylon Jennings.
Wyatt recently performed at Willie Nelson’s famous Luck Reunion, and this summer will hit other big stages, including the Stagecoach Music Festival and Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Musicians of color, especially Black women, have been systematically sidelined by country music in spite of their foundational contributions to the genre. Fifteen years after her first run at country music success, Miko Marks is back and flourishing with a series of songs rooted both in her own experience and the genre’s history.
With a heady mixture of country, blues and gospel influences, Marks highlights Black contributions to country music. On 2021’s Our Country, her first album after returning to music, she reclaimed the genre; 2022's Feels Like Home hinted at a broader, inclusive future for the genre. In between, Marks reimagined a slice of country music history with her 2021 EP, Race Records, a compilation of some of country’s best-known songs, for which she borrowed the name given to music marketed to Black listeners by the companies that started branding country music for white people in the 1920s.
Marks performed with the Black Opry, a collective of artists designed to lift up and highlight roots musicians of color. Last year, Marks made her Grand Ole Opry debut and was part of CMT’s Next Women of Country Class of 2022. On March 24, she released a single with Rissi Palmer, "Still Here."
The Local Honeys
In pop culture and politics, Kentucky evokes strong associations for almost everyone — a fact of which country and folk duo The Local Honeys are acutely aware. With nuanced, closely-worded songs, they critique and dignify the complicated stories and history of their beloved Appalachia.
Their first album, 2017's Little Girls Acting Like Men, kicks off with "Cigarette Trees," an anthemic takedown of the coal industry whose fiery message is accompanied by banjo and fiddle. The track planted Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs squarely in a long tradition of folk music that blends activism with oral history. Like their first album, the Honeys’ subsequent recordings, 2019’s This Gospel and The Local Honeys, released last year, feature a mixture of traditionally-inspired ballads and new folk songs that subvert and complicate typical Appalachian narratives.
The Honeys’ catchy songs and achingly-human, tragic and sometimes funny vignettes earned them tours with Colter Wall and Tyler Childers, a documentary about coal’s devastating effects and the region’s resilience for Patagonia and Pop-Up Magazine’s Working Knowledge series, and a record deal with La Honda Records.
So often in country music, men get to do all the leavin'. Declaring themselves unable to resist the siren call of adventure, they’re gone in a cloud of dust and three chords and the truth. Women in country music rarely hit the road and when they do, they often aren’t the ones who get to tell the story. But Hannah Juanita wrote a whole album about leaving — and then did.
Feeling stuck in a life that didn’t turn out the way she hoped, Juanita penned the songs for her debut album Hardliner as solace from a failing relationship and then moved to Nashville to sell it. Snappy and straightforward, with traditional country steel guitars, western swing and bluegrass’ sway, and a dash of conjunto, the album’s catchy sing-along lyrics sound like miles flying by on the road with one hand tapping a beat on the steering wheel.
Now a mainstay of the local Nashville scene, Juanita released her new single "Memory of You," on March 31.
Photo: Little Jack Films, Alysse Gafkjen, Courtney Sultan, Bobby Cochran, Bethany Johanna
Country & Western's New Generation Is Defiantly Of The Moment: Meet Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Sierra Ferrell, Bella White & Others
A diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters are steeped in the genre's oldest stylings, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. GRAMMY.com explores what this movement says about country music — and America.
Seismic shifts in music — the kind that reverberate across the social landscape to reveal something essential about the moment, that challenge a dominant narrative, or herald the start of a new era — often rumble the ground for a while before the cultural gatekeepers start to feel it. When the shaking can no longer be ignored, the movement is recognized, and a consensus forms that something important is happening.
Follow Charley Crockett around for a few days and it's hard not to conclude that, well, something important is happening. The itinerant songwriter grew up shuttling between Texas and New Orleans, and calls his music "Gulf & Western" — crisp, hard, insightful songs that blend old country and folk, blues, Tejano, Texas swing, and Dixieland. Crockett is selling out shows everywhere he goes. And the audiences pouring in are from across the cultural spectrum.
"We're breaking through. I got young kids, old timers, s—tkickers, good 'ol boys, hippies, LGBTQ all right up in front," Crockett says after a sold out performance in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In one week in September, he opened for Willie Nelson in New York and played Farm Aid. Now he's headlining a coast-to-coast tour and a European run in support of his new album, The Man From Waco, which dropped Sept. 9.
When asked his thoughts on his surging popularity, Crockett says he hears the same two things all the time: "Number one thing they say is, 'I'd given up on country music until I found you.' Which is really sad to be honest. And two, they say, 'I didn't know that I could like country music.'"
Crockett is part of a diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters who are steeped in country music's oldest stylings and traditions, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. Their songs feel both timeless and strikingly original — defiantly of the moment.
Alongside Crockett, Colter Wall is the most widely known artist in this new cohort. The 27-year-old cattle rancher from Saskatchewan has nearly 2.5 million Spotify followers. His music appears on the popular ranching drama "Yellowstone" and on the playlists of Post Malone, Lucinda Williams, and Jason Momoa. All of his releases have been critically acclaimed for their exquisite songwriting, musicianship and old-soul depth. He is a living monument to the genre, making his way across the landscape and timeline before our eyes — and ears — leaving behind music that sounds both everything and nothing like what he recorded before. Two new singles, released Sept. 21, are the latest time capsules.
Other artists are breaking through too. West Virginia's Sierra Ferrell is an otherworldly vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist making a seductive blend of country, bluegrass, and jazz who came up busking on the streets of New Orleans and Seattle. Vincent Neil Emerson is a Texas artist heavily influenced by his tragic upbringing, his Choctaw-Apache heritage, and his early days playing honkytonks in Dallas' Deep Elem. At just 22, Bella White is a songwriting prodigy and emotional alchemist.
It's difficult to put a precise label on this music. By classic definitions, it is both country and western, so perhaps it's best to dust off the term used by Billboard in the late '40s and 1950s, when music from Texas, California and points in between nudged its way into a genre that up until then had been largely Southern. But as Craig Havighurst of MiddleTennessee's WMOT radio says, "Genres are marketing categories. Music organizes itself in communities." He's right.
This revival of traditional country and western music is made up of a community of artists and fans, and it's playing out alongside, and at times intermingled with, other communities supporting a parallel surge of new folk, bluegrass, and old-time mountain music.
So far, the revival has not been embraced by the mainstream country music establishment. Most people you talk to say it's "too country for country," an admission of how far the pop country sound has traveled from the genre's founding ingredients. But in the six years since Sturgill Simpson took the industry to task for "pumping formulaic cannon fodder bulls—t down rural America's throat," an entire ecosystem of independent labels and music platforms has sprung up to support the music, giving it a chance to reach broader audiences, and foster that sense of community.
Independent label LaHonda Records was started by Connie Collingsworth and Travis Blankenship in 2019–as the revival was beginning to coalesce–to put out Vincent Neil Emerson's first record, a collection of jewels that established labels wanted to release the "traditional way," which would have meant waiting a year or more. The two friends hoped their complementary skillsets and work ethic would be enough to do right by Emerson. The album, Fried Chicken and Evil Women, struck a chord and LaHonda has since established itself as one of the movement's centers of gravity. In just three years, the label has also released records by Colter Wall, Riddy Arman, and the Local Honeys.
The community has spawned a litany of supportive entities. Gems on VHS and Western AF are two digital channels posting performance videos by artists from this music community. Both sites see themselves as archivists, preservers of history and seed banks for future generations to draw from. In the meantime, they're acting as vessels for discovery and gathering places — a Grand Ole Opry for a new generation. W.B. Walker's Old Soul Radio Show and Kyle Coroneos' website Saving Country Music are playing similar roles, as is a vibrant festival circuit.
The timing of this revival is a story unto itself, and key to understanding why the resurgence is such an important cultural development. Country music first rose to commercial prominence during the Great Depression, when America was in transition, and crisis, and millions of people sought solace from the uncertainty by tuning their radio dials to the familiar music. In the late '60s and early '70s, when the nation was again sharply divided and in transition, the music circled back in a revival that got branded as "Outlaw Country."
While all music has the power to empathize and heal, this music has always been a barometer measuring the depths of America's shared anxieties, a leading indicator marking our hardest times, and a tonic to treat the pain.
"People find comfort in familiarity, in simplicity," says Dr. Lucy Bennett, an assistant professor of music, media, and culture at Cardiff University in the U.K. "They turn to the traditional, to things that evoke the past. Living in a technologically advanced society as we do, with so much misinformation and not knowing what to trust, there's a yearning for truth and authenticity. This music isn't faked. We can feel the sincerity."
Bennett notes that this current revival isn't a U.S.-only phenomenon — the music is popular across the Atlantic, too — though part of the music's appeal is its emphasis on place. Drawing on tradition, these artists are adept at telling emotionally resonant tales that are deeply rooted in their home regions. In these songs, we feel the connection — not just to their home, but to ours as well.
No one in this generation embodies that tradition better than Colter Wall. Back in 2016, when he was 21 and first garnering attention, he played at an installment of the Skyline Live series in Nashville, and earned a standing ovation from those in attendance, which included Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. After the show, Harris encountered Wall and asked him, in awe, "Where did you come from?" Those present weren't sure if she meant geographically, or something of a more ethereal, spiritual nature. A man of few words, Wall answered either interpretation of the inquiry by simply saying, "Canada."
Listening to Wall's catalog is to immerse yourself into the towns, ranches, traditions, history, and ethos of western Canada. It is to spend time at the Calgary Stampede, in Speedy Creek, Manitoba, with the Rocky Mountain Rangers, to tune your ear to Ian Tyson and the other great country and western artists of the region. It is to understand a different kind of love story.
Indeed, this revival has a decidedly Western tilt to it. Bella White grew up not far from Wall in Calgary. Riddy Arman is in Montana. Kassi Valazza was born in Arizona but is now part of the Portland music scene. Margo Cilker has roamed the rural parts of eastern Oregon and Washington, as have Seth Brewster and Kate Eisenhooth, the duo who make up Buffalo Kin.
"Yellowstone" Music Supervisor Andrea von Foerster believes the inherent sparseness of Western art is also a factor driving interest in this music. She and show creator Taylor Sheridan use music from this cohort in part because of its austerity. "We have very busy lives. Every instant feels overscheduled. This music is the opposite of what we're living," she says. "Our show has the same appeal. Most people don't get to live in these kinds of lazy landscapes and open spaces. It's a quiet in the storm. It's restorative. In times of turmoil, you don't look for bells and whistles, you want bare bones."
It could also be the astounding songsmanship that's drawing in these audiences. Sonically, and stylistically, there are wide variances between these artists. But one thing that unites them all is their songwriting command. Maybe it's what happens when an entire generation, on top of whatever personal trauma they had to endure, were forced to come of age through a string of civilization's brutal failures — 9/11, school shootings, the opioid crisis — but were given Townes van Zandt as an artistic influence. A thousand poets bloomed. When I ran the van Zandt hypothesis past Vincent Neil Emerson, he agreed: "Yeah, it would be like painters discovering a whole new set of new colors."
The truth is, the digital age makes it possible to draw upon just about anyone as an influence, and that's apparent with this cohort too. Despite their relative youth, there's a deep understanding of the country music's niche stylings, sounds and regionalisms. As a result, a new canon is being created alongside the old one, filled with extraordinary songs that are raw, sparse, honest, gut-wrenchingly sad, punchy, hopeful, bare, good-natured, and that feel as if they're rising up out of the ground, infused with something ancient and holy.
Rodney Crowell, a contemporary of Townes van Zandt and one of the Texas songwriters who helped drive the Outlaw revival, believes this new generation is going about it the right way. "They're sticking to their guns. It reminds me of what Guy Clark used to say: 'Focus on being an artist and the rest will take care of itself.'"
The word that most often comes up when talking to people about the appeal of this music is "authenticity," the great yearning of our time, and musically speaking, something fans aren't finding in mainstream country. Anthony Mason, senior culture correspondent for CBS News, and one of the establishment gatekeepers to first recognize this movement when he profiled Crockett back in April says, "There is something pure and genuine and accessible about the music. You can't help but respond."
For many music fans, it's the sad songs that provoke the most powerful response. After years of trying to understand why listening to sad music didn't make people even sadder — something psychologists call the "sadness paradox" — we now know that sad music can relieve a depressed mind. In this light, the music of this revival could be considered urgent care.
Fluent in the language of mental and emotional health, this generation has produced a litany of deeply resonant and sophisticated pain songs, where stories of addiction and grief, suicide, loss and longing are not masked with niceties or polite euphemisms.
When I complimented Bella White on her strength as a writer of pain songs, she laughed and said, "I only write pain songs." Just 22, she demonstrates a remarkable amount of wisdom in her first record. "People my age had to navigate scary things, and we got grown up fast." Her song "Just Like Leaving," for its preternatural self-awareness, is one of the revival's anthems. "Well maybe I just like hurting/Building up walls and then ripping them down with my own disposition." In these unsettling times, perhaps the most universally relatable insight in the song, or any song, comes when she sings, "The bars on my window didn't leave me safe at night."
There's a desperation in lines like that, and across songs such as Wall's "Sleeping on the Blacktop," Margo Cilker's "Kevin Johnson," songs that are more like cries for help, pleas to a world drained of its caring and empathy. At times the desperation shows up as contempt, moral disdain for a system that has failed them so often, like Crockett's "Are We Lonesome Yet," and Emerson's "Letters on the Marquee." If you believe songs can be allegories, listen to Colter's Wall translation of "Big Iron" and imagine the Arizona ranger as a modern-day insurgent, or social movement, sent to topple a power structure, deliver justice, and free people from their fears.
Yet also present in this music, alongside the heartache and rage, is a resilience, a weary confidence that a better, uncloudy, day is ahead. Vincent Neil Emerson's "The Bad Side of Luck" warrants its own consideration as a generational psalm, especially knowing Emerson's heartbreaking personal story, which included losing his father to suicide and a younger brother to a house fire. Listening to him narrate lines such as "I was ashamed to say that I am somebody's son" and "I wasted my time waiting for change" — it is impossible not to feel the weight of sorrow. Until he concludes, "But I came out clean, and there ain't too much I regret," and "Sometimes what you get, ain't the same as the things you expect, so I guess I'll keep fightin' on the bad side of luck till I'm dead."
Maybe that's why the audiences keep growing, why people who don't normally associate with each other are gathering together. It’s three chords and the truth for the volatile 21st century. The music allows us to linger in our pain, which beats being numb, and somehow, measure by measure, line by line, it eases the hurt. And it reminds us, and bolsters us, in spite of the anguish, to keep going.
"It's been a long time coming," Shooter Jennings said of this movement. "It's really inspiring and cool to see it working. We're not even at the peak yet." Shooter is in a unique position to assess its status. Not only is he a country music scion — the only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter — but as an artist he was part of the Red Dirt wave in early 2000s, a musical community helping keep the independent country scene alive during a time when, as he put it, "the landscape was pretty empty."
Today, among many other musical hats he wears, he's producing albums for this rising generation, including for Jaime Wyatt and Kelsey Waldon, and is confident in the direction they are headed. "The country music establishment is soon going to be tasked with a choice. Either get on board and open up the old format, or the old format is going to die. Because these artists don't need it," Jennings says.
Given the infrastructure that has been constructed around them, not to mention a social media and streaming environment that didn't exist in earlier eras, it seems entirely plausible that the movement will continue to grow organically. Earlier in September, Sierra Ferrell won Emerging Act of the Year from the Americana Music Association, a prize that went to Charley Crockett a year ago. All these artists are young and will keep honing their craft, and because of their achievements, more will be coming up behind them. A weary population will continue to need it.
But even with the momentum—and favorable conditions ahead—this generation is intent on defining its own success metrics. Crockett says he now gets calls from people in the business telling him that he can sell out stadiums.
"As if that's what I'm wanting to hear. It's absolutely not," he says. "There's a lot of people selling stadiums out right now that I don't think people are going to remember very much in 20-30 years. Willie Nelson was never the biggest country artist, never, not even at the height of 'Red Headed Stranger.' Bob Dylan was never selling out those stadiums. But all these years later, who are we talking about? Who are we remembering?"
Photo: Diwang Valdez
Kane Brown Transforms Before Our Ears On Genre-Blurring Album 'Different Man': "I Just Feel Completely Different"
Kane Brown continues carving a new path for country music with his new album, 'Different Man,' which is aptly titled: Brown describes his life today as a brave new world.
Kane Brown is a special kind of artist, in that he seemingly can't stop breaking new ground.
At the 2022 MTV VMAs, he became the first male country artist to take the stage at the ceremony. There and then, he performed his new single "Grand," a hip-hop-heavy declaration of achieving his dreams and living the good life.
"Grand" is a reflection of where Brown is now both in his career and his personal life, feeling lighter and happier in what we might call the "post-pandemic" era. This change also prompted the title track of his new album Different Man, where Brown audibly hits his stride alongside featured artist Blake Shelton. "What if I was made for the stage?" goes the exultant chorus. "What if I was made for the lights?/ What if I was chosen to write the stories?"
These lines form the ideal clarion call for Different Man, which dropped Sept. 9 — and this bold blend of genres, as heard on tunes like "Bury Me in Georgia," "See You Like I Do," and "Drunk or Dreamin'," reflects just another enticing chapter in his ongoing evolution.
Past collaborations with artists including H.E.R., John Legend and Khalid prove that Brown is well versed in all types of music. Still, this is the first time we are seeing Brown really push aural boundaries for a full album, infusing traditional country music with elements of hip-hop, rock and R&B. Indeed, Different Man is aptly titled; Kane is transforming before our ears.
Just ahead of the release of Different Man, Brown announced a North American tour. The Drunk Or Dreaming tour includes 25 dates throughout the US, following an international trek throughout Canada, Europe and Australia.
Brown spoke with GRAMMY.com about the upcoming tour, the new album, and pushing boundaries within country music.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you settle on the title of Different Man?
Well, the song is what got me for the title, but recently I've just kind of felt different when it comes to everything, you know. We went through the quarantine and I was super-depressed and felt like literal gum on the bottom of my shoe, basically.
After freaking out about this album and being really nervous, we got the finished product, then I absolutely loved it. I just love playing my shows now. I just kind of found my sound, like I just feel like a completely different man. I'm just a really happy person right now.
What was making you nervous about the album?
Usually, every artist would be nervous about any album, I would say. I've always heard that the third album was like, make or break. So yeah, I guess that was kinda that was in the back of my head. But now this is the most excited I've ever been.
The way you broke into country music is interesting. You used social media and streaming to kind of get around the traditional systems. So, you've always kind of been outside the box, and this new album pushes the boundaries aurally. Do you think that you felt like you had a little bit more freedom, because you've taken a different route?
I would say just because I came in looking different, I came in releasing what I wanted. I've never been scared to release songs that we want to release. I feel like a lot of artists don't do it because they feel like they have a certain sound that they have to stay with.
That's not the case for me. I grew up around all types of music and culture. I think that's what's different with me — the people who support me know that I'll never actually leave country music. So, that gives me the freedom to experiment a little bit.
Do you think that with you pushing those boundaries and experimenting you'll reach a different audience outside of country music? And are you interested in or open to them?
Yeah, and that's another reason I've been doing it — because I'm trying to open more doors. The biggest thing that I hate is when people say country music is boring. Or when we get looked down on at awards. And it really makes me so mad because country artists can keep up with any artists in any other genre in ticket sales and things. So it really makes me mad when people just look down on country music.
People say country music is just sad songs. I've had the argument, especially as a person of color trying to convince people it's valid. I think it'll really give people a different perspective on what country music can be.
I hope so. I hope it comes across.
For this album, you've written with Ernest, Josh Thompson, Natalie Stovall and Shy Carter. Do you have any really memorable songwriting experiences as you were putting the album together?
It's always memorable when Ernest is around. He's just a funny guy, there's never a dull moment. He's so talented. Honestly, all those writers are. I write with those writers all the time. I usually go off of the word family. But I'm not just talking about my family; I'm talking about the writers I write with, the people I work with in Nashville. So, all that's what all those writers are. It's always memorable.
Did you start writing this album during quarantine or after?
It was right after the pandemic started. And that's another thing. I was really nervous because we were talking about releasing the album, and then we couldn't go in rooms with people. So then, I'm just really not feeling anything over Zoom. So I was like, "I'm not getting any songs for this album."
I was terrified. Then, it just kind of all opened up at once — and I've never had more confidence in it.
I'm sure you have a lot of favorites on the album, especially the duet with your wife. That must be special.
Yeah, so that's what I'm really pumped about. I have a lot of them: "Thank God," of course, with my wife. To me, that's going to be the biggest song on the record — just because, to me, it's so good. And then Kate sounds absolutely amazing. My fans have been waiting, like, five years for a duet from us.
Another one I really love is "Drunk or Dreaming." It's very beachy. It makes me happy when I listen to it. It makes me wanna open up a Corona. I don't think I really have one of those songs that sounds like that.
"Bury Me in Georgia" — I absolutely love that one. Super rockin', kinda swampy.
"Riot" was one of my favorites from the album. It caught me off guard, in a really good way. Can you tell me more about it?
So, "Riot" is intriguing, right? It just comes straight in with vocals.
I didn't write it. I had the song in 2015. This was when I first met Akon; his artist had it and I said I wanted it. When they gave it to me, it was super hip-hop. Then, I took it to Dann Huff, and [he] turned it into rock and roll.
We've held on to it because a lot of people that first listen to it, it's controversial, how they take the meaning. For me, it's just saying: If you mess with my family, I'mma mess you up. But then a lot of people have also been talking about George Floyd, and all that stuff. I don't know if it's them trying to get a media outlet or if that's just how they hear the song. But regardless, that's why I love music. Because everybody can take different things away from it.
You just announced your Drunk Or Dreaming Tour. Are you going to take your family with you on tour so you and [your wife] Katelyn can sing your duet?
Yeah they usually always come out with me. The only thing that sucks is that they won't come to Australia. Then, Kate will probably come to Europe, but the babies won't. Then the new tour, starting in March, that's with Dustin [Lynch] and Gabby [Barrett] and Locash, they should be at every show.
Does it feel different touring now that you're a parent?
I would say the only difference is my youngest, Kodi. It's a little hard having her. Because at 7 o'clock the bus is dead quiet. No noise. I used to always bring my boys and party — hang out. Now, you make any noise, and my wife is throwing her flip-flop at you.
It's good that you get to take them with you.
You know, that's one of the things I've always talked about is growing up without a dad. So it's cool to get to have them with me all the time and feel like I don't ever have to miss anything.
What can fans look forward to on the tour?
I just want to say it's going to be so much fun. You will not be disappointed. I've never been so stoked to tour. I'm telling you: I just feel completely different.
I want to talk a bit about just how the country music industry is changing. How do you feel about that and what would you like to see going forward?
I think it's changing for the better. This is the most popular that country music's been in a while, but it's still growing. I see a lot of times where people are kind of saying, you know, "I'm just now getting into the country music scene," which I love.
Definitely a lot more color, which I also love. We got me, Mickey [Guyton], Jimmie [Allen], my boy Breland, Willie Jones, so many more coming in. And then you got Kat and Alex. I just love it so much, so much color coming in. Beautiful people. I can't wait to see where it goes in another year, another two years.
Are there any of the artists that are coming in from the newer, more diverse generation that you're really looking forward to working with?
I really want to work with Breland. We actually wrote some super cool songs together, it just didn't make sense for the album. But he's so talented, and definitely needs to be heard more.
I would honestly do one with any of those artists that I mentioned. I'm surprised me and Jimmie Allen haven't done one yet.
I'm waiting for you and Brittney Spencer to do a song together, personally.
She's so sweet. Yeah, we gotta make that happen, too. That's gonna be my next goal. I'll definitely have songs with all of them — if not all of us on one song.