This month we’re trying something a little different with our Spotlight Artist feature. We thought we would look at some of the major label artists who have been carrying the torch for more traditionally rooted styles of country music in the past decade, but none of whom have released enough music for us to spend a whole month on individually. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling them “the new New Traditionalists”, as these artists are a generation younger than the original New Traditionalists of the late 80s and early 90s. Most of them are on major labels, with a few on respected independent labels, but they have all made some impact on the scene.
Joe Nichols was the first of our selected artists to debut on the country charts. Born in Arkansas in 1976, he got a couple of unsuccessful record deals in his early 20s before breaking through in 2002. He was an immediate success with his smooth baritone, ear for a melody, and pure country instincts. In 2003 he won the CMA Horizon Award. He has released five studio albums for Universal South, the most recent of which, last year’s Old Things New, produced his third #1 single, ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has revealed his good musical taste by his choice of covers of lesser known classic country songs on his albums. A struggle with alcohol slowed down his career for a while in the second part of the last decade, but he seems to be back at the top, and is one of the brighter spots on country radio. His latest single, ‘The Shape I’m In’, has just been released.
Dierks Bentley (a year older than Joe) was the next to come to our attention, when his debut single ‘What Was I Thinkin’ reached #1 in 2003. Six more #1s have followed, with a string of other hits, and his first two albums went platinum. He was the ACM’s Top New Artist in 2004 and won the Horizon Award in 2005. He has managed to balance traditional country leanings with a commercial sound, writing much of his material. Notably, and almost uniquely among current chart acts, he has made a habit of including a bluegrass track on each album until this year, when his fifth studio album on Capitol, Up On The Ridge saw him make a temporary change of direction completely incorporating bluegrass and Americana influences into his sound, bravely defying the trends of country radio. The latest single is ‘Draw Me A Map’. He also has a sideline as a radio host, broadcasting on The Thread every Monday at 2pm CST and you can tune in online.
A few months after the release of Dierks’ debut album, Josh Turner’s Long Black Train came rolling down the line. The darkly religious title track was only a modest radio hit, but it and Josh’s unforgettable deep bass voice made a massive impact, and sales were impressive. He was nominated for the Horizon Award in 2004, but lost out to Gretchen Wilson. Three of his singles have hit #1, and his second album Your Man has been certified double platinum. His fourth MCA record, Haywire, came out earlier this year, and the second single ‘All Over Me’ is currently in the top 10.
TV reality shows may sometimes be sneered at but they can showcase genuine talent. Tennessee-born Chris Young, a decade younger than the other guys on this list, won the 2006 season of Nashville Star thanks to a fine classic baritone voice and his original song ‘Drinkin’ Me Lonely’. The show has not been as successful at launching country artists as the multi-genre American Idol, and Chris’s first album failed to make an immediate impact. Happily, his label, RCA, had faith in the young singer, and persevered until ‘Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)’, the second single from his second album became his first real hit just last year. He has cemented his neotraditional credentials with his excellent EP Voices, and is a nominee for this year’s CMA New Artist of the Year.
Jamey Johnson’s career has been the most chequered of all this month’s artists. He had a hit with the sentimental ‘The Dollar’ in 2006, but then everything went wrong. The follow-up single flopped, label BNA dropped him, his marriage broke up, and his life collapsed. But this all cued one of the most startling turnarounds in recent years. Jamey channeled his personal disasters into some of the most intense music in Nashville at the moment. He was seeing success as a songwriter with songs like George Strait’s hit ‘Give It Away’, and in 2008 Mercury picked up That Lonesome Song, the album he had recorded independently and re-released it. ‘In Color’ became one of the most memorable hits of the year, and although other singles were not as radio friendly, Jamey sold 650,000 copies of the critically acclaimed album. His much-anticipated new double album, The Guitar Song, is due out this month.
Sunny Sweeney is the least commercially successful of the group so far. Her debut album (recorded independently, like That Lonesome Song) was re-released by Big Machine in 2007. Critically admired if not yet accepted on radio, her music is unmistakably hardcore country. She has now been transferred to Big Machine’s daughter label Republic Nashville, and her second album is hotly awaited. The lead single, ‘From A Table Away’, is her first to chart, and shows her refining her style.
Joey + Rory are perhaps the most surprising success story. Lead singer Joey Martin was signed to Sony in the early years of the decade, but nothing ever materialized. She was dropped after she married songwriter Rory Lee Feek, and in 2008 they entered the CMT contest Can You Duet, despite never having sung together before. The couple finished in third place, but Joey’s outstanding voice and the couple’s obvious chemistry led to a deal with the respected independent label Vanguard. A critically acclaimed album came out later that year, and the irresistible ‘Cheater, Cheater’, which they had performed on the show, was a top 30 hit. They won this year’s fan-voted ACM award for Best New Duo, and the appropriately titled Album # 2 is due this month. They’ve also been nominated in the CMA Duo of the Year category again despite limited mainstream exposure.
Finally, our youngest contender is singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd, a young wife and mother born in Alabama in 1986. Her debut album on MCA elicited two modest hit singles in 2008, and she is reportedly working on a follow-up.
Another artist who fits our criteria is Easton Corbin, just rewarded with a CMA Single of The Year nomination for his breakthrough hit ‘A Little More Country Than That'; Razor X reviewed his debut album earlier in the year. Easton is also up against Chris Young for this year’s New Artist award. Also making waves on the Texas music circuit is honky-tonker Amber Digby, a fine singer and songwriter who’s released 4 albums on the independent Heart of Texas Records.
All these artists, and the fact that they are gaining real success, give us renewed hope that the future of country music isn’t going to completely lose touch with its roots. We’ll be telling you more about them and their contemporaries all month long.