The Artists Who Are Saving Country Music
Published on 24 August 2021
As one of the oldest forms of popular music, the rich history of Country is fascinating. From the pioneering celtic and folk music that developed into classic American country, to Outlaws such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, there is no other genre quite as recognisable.
While it has always thrived, particularly in the States, in recent years, there’s been a real resurgence in the genre’s more traditional sound. The more pop orientated Nashville scene may have dominated the charts but there’s been a quiet and steady rise of artists who are paying homage to their roots, while driving them forward into something altogether different. Let’s take a look at some of our favourites.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Sturgill Simpson is as country as they come. He was raised by musicians and saw pickin’ on the porch as a way of life, not a way to survive. After years working 9-5 jobs and playing in dive bars in his free time, he finally realised his talent and shipped out to Nashville with his wife to pursue a career.
The following 4 or so years saw him write, record and release his first album before touring a seemingly impossible number of dates to get his name known. Since then, he’s put together 5 stupendously good albums, almost totally reinventing his sound in each. Whether playing a traditional motown sound, psychedelic fused country rock, or more recently, old time Western music, he always does his own thing and lets the art do the talking. He’s picked up a killer band along the way and has a deep power to his voice that harks back to artists like Conway Twitty, Elvis and Roy Orbison.
For starters, try out his second studio album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music which is a trippy rock tinged country masterpiece. If you feel like diving in further, you can check out one of his Cuttin’ Grass EPs where he performs a kind of Greatest Hits catalogue, adapting his own songs to a bluegrass format with fresh arrangements. It won’t take you long to get hooked.
Next up we have Florida native Waxahatchee. Now, her catalogue has more of an indie slant to it but it’s laced in country influences and dripping in southern style, so we thought she deserved a mention. With interesting guitar parts and fantastic songwriting throughout her music, we think she’s a real one to watch. Her latest album St Cloud was her most successful yet and its polished, southern indie sound draws on the country and folk music she grew up listening to and learning to play.
For us, this is such an interesting direction for country music - young indie artists with their own sound and writing style. Her tunes push the boundaries of traditional country with this fusion and present something totally unique. Her voice is absolutely killer too and she has so much potential to release more great music. St Cloud is a solid starting point, but the noisier predecessor Out in the Storm also deserves a shout out.
We should stress, the artists we’ve selected on this list aren’t newcomers but legends in their own right who have more than earned their places at the table. None more so than Jason Isbell, the southern rock, slide playing machine whose songwriting is some of the best we’ve ever heard, period.
A former Drive By Trucker who is now doing damage either as a solo artist or with his own group, the 400 Unit, Jason has always been around music, even performing at the Grand Ole Opry at only 16. His songwriting draws so much from his personal life, while also taking inspiration from the country around him. The variety in his repertoire is incredible and immediately drew us to him.
He’s every bit as comfortable picking out a folk track as he is melting faces with his trusty finger slide through a cranked amp. It’s not often in today’s music scene that you find a true all rounder but Isbell more than ticks that box. There’s a hint of Springsteen to the vast yet conversational scope of his songwriting and we’ve come to learn that everything he puts out is fascinating in its own right, we’ve no reason to believe that’s going to change any time soon!
To get you started, give his acclaimed Southeastern album a spin. It’s by no means a cheery listen, but damn is it good.
Some artists are great writers and some have great voices, very few can do both as well as John Moreland. Moreland grew up in Texas and was playing music from a young age, writing his own songs and beginning to find his voice as early as 13 and 14. His distinctive throaty growl is so captivating, but the songs themselves are equally beautiful. Traditional themes of heartache and loss coupled with reflection on his surroundings make up the backdrop to his music, all to the rhythm of intricate acoustic picking and haunting melodies.
We first came across Moreland online and ended up going down a rabbit hole of his live performances, which are maybe the best way to introduce yourself with his work. However, his recorded material is fantastic too. Have a listen to his second album In the Throes for a taste of just how good this guy is and do your own exploring from there, there’s plenty of gold to be found.
Up next we have another Kentucky boy and a contemporary of Sturgill Simpson, the fantastic Tyler Childers. Tyler’s gruff voice sets him apart from the pop tinged country on the radio and he tends to lean towards a more traditional bluegrass sound with a modern twist. Growing up in a small town, his music addresses the poverty, addiction issues and traditional roots of rural America. They say great artists can take you to the place they’re singing about and never has it been more true than in Tyler’s work.
Whether exploring these themes as a singer songwriter, with a band or completely swerving lyrics altogether to record instrumental Appalachian music, he’s never afraid to fly his own flag. However, his songwriting is just so good that tracks such as Feathered Indians still received a ton of radio play. You can’t deny great songwriting, no matter how many armies of label executives in Nashville may try!
Give the Sturgill Simpson produced Purgatory a spin to get a taste for what Tyler can do then work your way through his catalogue - there isn’t much you’re not gonna like!
Stapleton is an interesting character in the contemporary country scene because he cut his teeth as a writer before anything else. Working in Nashville, he’s responsible for many of the radio friendly, cut and shut polished tracks that constantly circle the US Top 10, however, his own work is its own animal. Stapleton reckons he’s written upwards of a thousand tracks over the course of his life and is a well oiled machine when it comes to crafting lyrics. Despite this, his own still tap into personal experience and emotion, with a stunning voice that perfectly matches his sound.
Having played for years in rock bands, bluegrass bands and as a solo performer, there’s no one who knows the trials of a country star quite like this man. Imagine writing a number one hit and then playing to a near empty room full of drunk cowboys in your spare time for fun… We’ve loved seeing him find his own voice and craft a living for himself, instead of giving his best music away to be chopped up for the next highest bidder!
Traveller is one of his finest pieces of work and the album that really propelled him into public consciousness. We suggest you start there!
Country is alive and kickin’, make no mistake! Each of the artists here are fantastic starting points but the genre is so rife with talent that there’s undoubtedly more to come. Over here in the UK, fan bases are only getting bigger and it's been amazing to watch a scene with so much history get the love and appreciation it so clearly deserves. Have a listen to our recommendations and grab your guitar if you fancy playing along, be careful though, those finger pickin’ parts don’t come easy!