Who will be 2019’s breakout country artists? By checking in with our curators, analyzing music industry trends and poring over data from Pandora and Next Big Sound, we’ve selected the singers and bands we believe are poised for greatness in the coming year. Whether you’re into pop-tinged jams or traditional grit, there’s a new face waiting to become your next fave.
Taylor Acorn’s breezy pop-country songs find their honesty and intimacy in one simple element: she writes them all on her own. The cool vibe of her summer single, “Put It in a Song,” leads off her five-song EP of the same name. A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Taylor studied for two years at Kutztown University on a track and field scholarship, but after the buzz generated from posting cover songs on YouTube, she decided to make a mad dash toward a music career. Three million Pandora streams later, she’s just picking up speed.
It takes one listen to the opening line of her autobiographical “California, Missouri” (named after her hometown) to know Kassi Ashton is anything but conventional.”I graduated with 86 sheep / I was the black one,” she sings. The UMG Nashville/Interscope artist also shows off some serious swagger with the darkly humorous “Taxidermy,” delivered in a confident, husky voice with attitude to spare. A participant in the Country Music Association’s recent Songwriters Series tour, you’ve also likely heard her on Keith Urban’s “Drop Top” from his album Graffiti U.
One of the most buzzed-about new acts in the Americana scene, Leah Blevins has a style that’s Emmylou Harris-meets-Lee Ann Womack, but a voice as unique as the genre has seen in quite some time. The Kentucky native’s sophomore EP, Walk Home, finds her marrying the sonics of ’70s country rock with emotive songwriting and ethereal vocals.
Jordan Brooker got his start by catching the attention of a country superstar’s Grammy-winning producer, who is now his producer. When the Spencerville, Indiana native posted his cover of Dierks Bentley’s “Thinking of You,” producer Luke Wooten contacted him, which led to Brooker’s move to Nashville and the recording of his six-song EP. Released in November, the EP is populated with heartfelt, straight-ahead country.
Phoenix native Austin Burke has 21 years of experience in the music business at only 24 years old. His first gigs came at the ripe old age of 3, singing the national anthem at Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns games, and he’s been hitting home runs ever since. Blending emotive lyrics reminiscent of Keith Urban with swagger that would make Adam Levine jealous, Burke has become a streaming sensation with songs like the catchy, heartfelt “Whole Lot in Love” and nostalgic “One Summer.”
Armed with a distinctive baritone voice and fiercely protective of the country tradition of his influences Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, Burgin, Kentucky’s Dillon Carmichael has a musical legacy rooted in family — namely his country star uncles, Eddie Montgomery (of Montgomery Gentry) and John Michael Montgomery. Still, Carmichael can rock with the best of them, as heard in his harder-edged tunes and the live shows he’s done in 2018 with another of his major influences, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Released in October, his Hell on an Angel album, produced by Dave Cobb, is pure country magic.
Travis Denning’s debut single, “David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs,” is a nostalgic tune about a young guy whose world opens up with a fake ID. But for Denning — a native of Warner Robins, Georgia — being himself is working out just fine. Denning moved to Nashville in 2014 and signed a publishing deal within a year. He has since scored cuts by Jason Aldean, Justin Moore, Michael Ray and Chase Rice. He’s also opened shows for Moore, Rice, Cole Swindell and Alan Jackson and is currently on the road with LANCO on their Hallelujah Nights tour. In November, Denning made his Grand Ole Opry debut. When he’s off the road, he continues work on his forthcoming Mercury Nashville debut album.
The summertime fun Cale Dodds sings about in “Where I Get It From” comes straight from his memory. As a teen in Columbus, Georgia, Dodds spent summers water-skiing on the Chattahoochee River to a soundtrack filled with ’90s country. Those good times are captured in other infectious tunes he has released since being signed to Warner Music Nashville, including the party anthem “What We Gonna Do About It,” and in the trivia and “Country drinking game” he hosts on Amazon’s Alexa platform. Dodds made his Grand Ole Opry debut in October.
“Echo” is a fitting title for a Tyler Filmore song, since he creates the kind of dance-inducing earworms fans want to play over and over. The singer, who goes by his last name due to a saturation of Tylers in the music world, has accomplished what few artists not named Sam Hunt or Walker Hayes have: make boundary-free music that is equally at home in the pop or dance worlds as it is in country. His biggest hit to date, “Slower,” is one DJs in any watering hole can play to liven the crowd.
The road from hit songwriter to big-time artist can be a rough one, but Adam Hambrick, who penned No. 1 hits for Dan + Shay (“How Not To”) and Justin Moore (“Somebody Else Will”), made a strong impression with his debut single, “Rockin’ All Night Long.” An appearance on Little Rock, Arkansas’s Good Morning Arkansas caught Moore’s attention and led to Hambrick moving to Nashville. Hambrick has opened shows for Brett Young, Lady Antebellum and Lindsay Ell and scored additional cuts for Miranda Lambert and Eli Young Band. We have high hopes for the debut album he’s currently working on for Capitol Nashville/Buena Vista Records.
HARDY’s big classic rock-meets-modern country sound, showcased on October’s This Ole Boy EP, has its small-town roots in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the tiny community that also gave birth to country superstar Marty Stuart and songwriter/producer Derek George (Bryan White, Randy Houser). The writer behind “Up Down,” a No. 1 song for Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line, and FGL’s “Simple,” the gritty, blue-collar singer-songwriter has also landed cuts by Tyler Farr, Seth Ennis and more. He joins Wallen’s If I Know Me tour in 2019.
A touring artist since age 15, Lauren Jenkins brings out the rootsy influences of her Texas birthplace and the sultry, southern charm of her Charleston raising. Signed to Big Machine records, she’ll release her first full-length album, No Saint, in March, along with Running Out of Road, an original short film she co-wrote and produced and in which she stars. Jenkins co-wrote the recently released “Maker’s Mark and You” with Jessie Jo Dillon and Aaron Eshui, and co-produced the hypnotic, seductive track with Grammy winner Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell) and executive producer Scott Borchetta.
Long before Texas powerhouse Cody Johnson scored a deal with Warner Music Nashville — which will yield the hugely anticipated release of his Ain’t Nothin to It album in January — he made country music history by placing two self-released albums in Billboard‘s Top 10, selling 74,000 tickets for a single show and becoming the only unsigned act ever to sell out RodeoHouston at NRG Stadium. Johnson’s forthcoming project is sure to swell the ranks of his CoJo Nation fanbase, with plenty of his own material and personality, along with songwriting contributions from Chris Stapleton, Radney Foster and Brothers Osborne guitarist John Osborne.
On their fourth album, Venom & Faith, released in November, sister duo Larkin Poe mix roots rock, blues and touches of Southern Gothic to conjure a sound that stays true to their Georgia upbringing while giving those musical traditions a fresh, modern perspective. Now based in Nashville, multi-instrumentalist siblings Rebecca and Megan Lovell earned a Blues Music Award nomination for 2017’s Peach. The current album was recorded between headline shows and festival dates throughout 2018, including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, along with a spot as featured guest performer on Keith Urban’s Graffiti U world tour.
A native of Richardson, Texas, Heather Morgan has already penned cuts for the likes of Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Maren Morris and Brett Eldredge, including chart-toppers “Lose My Mind” and “Beat of the Music.” With a guitar on loan from songwriter Jason Mraz, she holed up in an Airbnb in Joshua Tree, California, writing songs for her debut album, Borrowed Heart, including the vulnerable “Your Hurricane.” She hits the road with Scotty McCreery and Jimmie Allen beginning in December.
Steven Lee Olsen relocated to Nashville from the chillier climes of Ontario, Canada, in 2004, and after honing his craft for more than a decade, things are definitely heating up for the prolific singer-songwriter. The co-writer of the Grammy-, CMA- and ACM-nominated Keith Urban hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” Olsen also penned Kip Moore’s No. 1 hit “More Girls Like You” and has had cuts by Garth Brooks, 98 Degrees and the Judds, among others. In November, he self-released his album Timing is Everything on his own SLO Circus Records, with the romantic title cut among its highlights.
In short order, Tyler Rich has gone from family jam sessions in the rural Northern California community of Yuba City to an economics degree, then a songwriting and record deal with Big Machine Music and Valory Music Co. Sharing stages with Dustin Lynch, Sam Hunt, Brett Eldredge, Dan + Shay and more, Rich’s infectious, energetic stage show highlights breakout tunes like his 2018 hit, “The Difference,” which delves into his real-life courtship of fiancée actress Sabina Gadecki. In November, he joined Brett Young on the CMT on Tour: Here Tonight trek.
With a focus on relatable songs and fan accessibility, Dylan Schneider has amassed a giant following in his few short years in the business. Subtle yet modern production lets his impressive vocal range shine on the catchy love song “How Does It Sound,” which has been among the top 10 most-spun songs on Pandora’s New Country station for several weeks, alongside the likes of Thomas Rhett and Kane Brown. And after opening shows for Chris Lane and Granger Smith, Schneider now headlines his own shows in the U.S. and U.K.
Mitchell Tenpenny gave himself plenty of material to choose from for his debut album, Telling All My Secrets, writing several hundred songs in the run-up to its Dec. 14 release. Drawing on a diverse slate of influences and confident, detailed storytelling, Tenpenny has already scored a Top 10 with the gold-certified “Drunk Me,” and the track’s 100 million-plus audio and video streams have made Secrets 2018’s top debut from a new country artist. A native of Nashville, Tenpenny’s grandmother was pioneering industry leader Donna Hilley, the first female CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. The co-writer of Granger Smith’s Top 10 hit, “If the Boot Fits,” Tenpenny has toured with Maren Morris, Jake Owen, Brett Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dustin Lynch and more. In the new year, he joins Old Dominion’s “Make It Sweet” tour.
Molly Tuttle’s move from Boston, where she earned scholarships to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, kicked off a whirlwind of critical acclaim. In 2017, Tuttle became the first woman to win Guitar Player of the Year in the nearly 30-year history of the International Bluegrass Music Association, an honor the California-born musician repeated this year. Also highlighting 2018 was an Americana Music Award and opening for the kickoff of Jason Isbell‘s sold-out, six-night run at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium. Not bad for a 25-year-old who has yet to release her debut album, which she’ll do in 2019. Produced by Ryan Hewitt (the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, Dixie Chicks), it’s the follow-up to her current EP, Rise, and will no doubt continue her audience-expanding, award-wining ways.
Adam Wakefield’s first live performance was a show-and-tell in first grade, playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on piano. Born to well-educated hippie parents in New Hampshire, he earned the runner-up spot on Season 10 of The Voice in 2016, then topped the iTunes Top Songs chart with “Lonesome, Broken and Blue” after performing the song on the show’s season finale. On Gods and Ghosts, his Average Joes debut album released Nov. 30, Wakefield’s musical influences range from bluesy country to Memphis soul. Often compared to Chris Stapleton, he sang for a time, as Stapleton did, with bluegrass band the SteelDrivers.
“If you took Keith Whitley and Tom Petty and intersected them at Matchbox Twenty, that’s kind of what we’re going for,” says Jordan Walker of the country-pop sound he and Johnny McGuire have worked tirelessly to craft. The two met at a writers’ round just days after moving to Nashville and initially found common ground in their love of songwriting, followed by the quick realization of the musical magic made by their blended voices. Their nostalgic, infectious current single “Growin’ Up” comes on the heels of their breakthrough hit, “Til Tomorrow,” which introduced these two as powerhouse singers with a sensitive side.
Listening to Colter Wall, you might think of one of his heroes, Johnny Cash. It’s not just Wall’s low, husky vocals that are reminiscent of the Man in Black — like Cash, Wall’s introspective, heart-on-sleeve songwriting isn’t all tailgates and barstools, either. This Canadian singer-songwriter who grew up listening to everyone from Cash and Bob Dylan to Black Sabbath has carved his own lane in the folk and country scenes with his masterful Songs of the Plains, a concept album with brilliant storytelling about 19th century cowboys in his home country.
Rachel Wammack’s soulful pop-country is a direct result of the historic, music-centered Alabama town she calls home. The Muscle Shoals native, who released two indie albums while studying at the University of North Alabama, also made her mark in pageants, earning the Miss UNA crown and competing for Miss Alabama. Wammack wrote her first song at 12, and at just 17 was discovered by Sony Music Nashville, teaming with uber-producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Faith Hill) for a self-titled EP released this year. A full-length album is currently in the works, set to spotlight everything from heart-worn ballads to empowering anthems. Her debut single, the poignant and personal “Damage,” is out now.
Koe Wetzel commands the stage with a heavy dose of rock ‘n’ roll energy and plenty of East Texas charm and swagger. The Stephenville, Texas, native has performed throughout the Lone Star State and beyond, and his songs have connected with his ever-increasing fan base because of their relatable lyrics and themes. Since the release of his 2016 debut album, Noise Complaint, Wetzel has toured heavily, but he and his bandmates Andres Rocha (drums), Mason Morris (bass), Jerrod Flusche (rhythm/lead guitar) and Michael Odis Parrish (lead guitar) have also been in the studio working on its highly anticipated follow-up.