The six best new artists making country rock their own
Country rock is undergoing a renaissance at the moment, and it's not just an old man's game - we profile the best hip new guns in town
With a backstory spanning isolation, heartbreak and substance abuse, there's no wonder this rising songwriter tells us: " My soul is very country".
“Country radio in the US?” echoes Lydia Loveless. “It’s awful. It’s abysmal. At times we’ll listen to the radio, thinking we’ll make fun of it, and actually a dead silence comes over the van. It’s like, you hear these keywords like ‘Bud Light’ and ‘tailgate’. I guess that’s what country is now: a giant commercial for various redneck products. It sounds like bad pop music. And then they’re like, ‘Alright, somebody play a fiddle solo!’ And that’s supposed to be a ‘country song’. It’s really sad.”
Ohio-born songwriter Loveless is a straight-shooter when it comes to her beloved formative music genre. She chuckles darkly when I tell her this piece will be included in a country rock feature. “I’ve not heard Steven Tyler’s album. Y’know, country is the highest-selling music. It’s the only music that’s making money. I guess that’s why everyone is doing it. It’s interesting to me to see all these people like, ‘I’m just going back to my country roots’. It’s like, ‘No, I think you’re just going where the money is’.”
Despite an early run of acclaimed alt.country albums, the 25-year-old is forging a new path on her fourth LP, Real. She refers me to the poppier, rockier, danceable sound: “I listen to a lot of pop, because it keeps me happy and stable. I still predominantly listen to seventies power pop; Tommy Keene, Paul Collins, that sorta Replacements style of rock’n’roll. I want all my records to have a different mood. If I stayed in country, that’d be difficult to achieve.”
And yet there’s no denying that her romance-obsessed, steel guitar-decorated songs still bear the genre’s thumbprints. As a kid who grew up troubled near the town of Coshocton, she recognises that country will always be under her skin. “That’s something I’ll never get rid of” she says. “My soul is very country just from growing up there. I definitely have that sense of injustice. Coshocton is a small town. Very religious, very redneck. I always felt odd-man-out, but I’ve come to embrace that.”
By the time she was 14, Loveless had skipped town. Two years later she was in the studio recording 2010’s The Only Man. But there were always issues behind the ascent; she remembers “masking pain with substance abuse” and admits that Real chronicles a dark period. “I was in a bad place when I was writing this record,” she says. “My marriage was really suffering. Major depression. I had a bit of a nervous breakdown. So I guess I was trying to rebuild myself.”
Did writing Real help?
“Yeah, once you get out of the bad place. People think if you’re in a bad place you should be making the greatest art, but you have to come out of it to make the art. That’s probably what keeps me alive. Like, ‘I have to make another album, because I can’t stay in this place for ever’.”
Real may not sell as well as Tyler’s We’re All Somebody From Somewhere, but with its unflinching honesty this material is country to the core. “It’s hard to find people who sound like they mean anything they’re saying,” she concludes. “I don’t want music to be stuck in the dark ages. I just want it to be honest.”
The Kentucky sailor-turned-songwriter was all adrift until he started making cosmic country albums about extra-terrestrials and the sea.
Sturgill Simpson’s rise to stardom has been little short of meteoric. Three years ago he was just another aspiring singer-songwriter in Nashville, stumping up his own money to record an album, only for his voice to be drowned out amid a sea of slick bro-country and Music Row pop.
Now he’s being fêted as country’s big-shot saviour. He’s shared stages with John Prine, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, appeared on US TV shows including Letterman and Conan, and packed in audiences across the States and Europe. Last September he was voted Artist Of The Year at the Americana Awards and, more recently, scored a No.3 album on the Billboard chart.
“It all feels a bit foggy,” he admits, prior to going on stage at a sold-out gig in Oslo. “When you’re on the train it’s hard to tell how fast it’s going. The last three years have felt like ten, because so much has happened.”