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Music City
EMERGING COUNTRY ARTISTS Of 2022
7/19/22

 

BAILEY ZIMMERMAN

Just 22 years old, Bailey Zimmerman has exploded—to 1.6 million streams in a single day at Apple Music and well over a million Spotify plays of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”—from seemingly nowhere. That nowhere would actually be Louisville, Ill., a dot in the real world where the son of a long-haul trucker was baptized by Country radio as he rode with his father across state lines, absorbing the stories and plaintive melodies.

“Between a Rock” is a slice of hardcore living—love on the brink, two young hearts colliding and crashing into the inevitable buckling places—that offers a clear-eyed plea to hang on in spite of the tough going. With a voice that’s both raw and earnest, Zimmerman puts listeners in the eye of the crisis, closing the song with an ardent “Is this where it mends or it breaks/ How much more of this can we take?” 

The build on the hyper-engaging reality check merges acoustic- and steel-guitar notes with serious arena-rock bombast, suggesting a larger play for Zimmerman’s music. He comes by his hard-rock bona fides—the influence of his mother—and hard-knock reality honestly; getting a job at a local meat-processing plant at 16, he has also earned his pay on a gas pipeline and doing backbreaking road work, all while chasing the dream of making music.

Managed by The Core’s Chief Zaruk and Simon Tikhman, this first breakout for Warner Music Nashville’s new Co-Presidents, Ben Kline and Cris Lacy, reflects their commitment to music that delves into the hard places, the real emotions, and the way bold, truth-telling artists inspire people to create their best lives—and reach for the music that will get them through the low moments as well as the good times.

ERNEST

Ernest—born Ernest K. Smith—is the rarest of all country stars: a native Nashvillian. He was lit up by Eminem as a young man, and that flavor can be detected in the populist country artist’s special blend of music for people in the flyover states. Part of Big Loud’s stable of groundbreakers, the 20-something artist has found a new threshold with the country fans who’ve embraced the bucolic sweetness of “American Rust,” “Cheers,” “Bad Boy” and the Morgan Wallen-featuring busted-romance ballad “Flower Shops,” which has logged north of 50-million streams on Spotify.

The classic country-apology waltz—with pedal steel wrapping around the plangent melody—is Ernest’s his first run at Country Radio, cracking the Top 20 and rising. As hard country as anything on radio, “Flower Shops” turns on an industrial-strength apology that offers not just recognition of the size of what was lost but how bad the damage was.

In his songs—including co-writes on Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the ’90s,” Chris Lane’s “Big, Big Plans,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Dig Your Roots” and Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown”—Ernest embraces the genre’s deep roots and seeks to modernize them for today’s younger generation.

This summer, he’s balancing headlining dates with a slot on Wallen’s Dangerous Tour—including a Minneapolis stadium show with Eric Church—and gigs with fellow country-steeped males Chris Young, Jon Pardi and Mitchell Tenpenny.

Meanwhile, the accolades are pouring in. The Tennessean proclaimed, “Ernest could currently be the busiest—and most consistently successful—creative force in Nashville,” while Outsider noted that “Flower Shops” “paints a picture of a roller-coaster relationship, and a love on the brink of loss.” Whiskey Riff declared of his 2022 album of the same name, “With Flower Shops, Ernest has finally put people on notice.”

KYLIE MORGAN

If 20-something Kylie Morgan understands one thing, it’s how to speak to her fans in an authentic way. With her decidedly pop-leaning take on country, the dark-haired Oklaho(wo)man, who wrote her first songs at 12, has evolved into a voice teens and young women can take to heart. And they do.

Morgan’s wildly (re)active social-media presence reflects the reality of the emotionality that makes her songwriting so impactful. Songs like “Independent With You,” “Love Like We’re Drunk” and “If He Wanted To He Would” from her just-released P.S. EP (EMI Nashville) offer the same degree of candor that made Taylor Swift a standout chronicler of coming of age, personally and romantically.

“With my debut EP, Love, Kylie, I finally got to tell the world over a decade’s worth of stories I had only told my guitar, in six songs,” she explains. “But that was just the first few chapters. I’m so excited to finish sharing this book of love letters from me to my fans with my new EP, P.S.

One of Vevo’s 2021 DSCVR Artists to watch—and the only country artist to make the list—Morgan has also been tapped for the Country Music Association’s highly selective Kix Start program, as well as being named to SiriusXM’s On the Horizon, CMT’s Next Women of Country and both Pandora and Taste of Country’s Artists to Watch lists.

More than making lists, Morgan has taken her music to the fans. She performed at CMA Music Fest’s Nissan Stadium mainstage and toured with Dan + Shay, Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Kip Moore, Gavin DeGraw and Brett Eldredge. She’s currently on Niko Moon’s GOOD TIME Tour.

JELLY ROLL

When Antioch, Tennessee’s Jelly Roll pivoted from straight hip-hop to country rock, Nashville didn’t see the tattooed, 300-pound rapper coming. But leave it to Stoney Creek/BBR/BMG’s Jon Loba to know a breakout superstar from left field when he sees one. Forging an emo-outlaw lane for country music, from his updated Waylon & Willie collab with best friend Struggle Jennings to his own churning, slow-boil recordings, which combine spit rhymes, smooth vocals and unflinching lyrics, he’s poised to become the realest voice in country since early Merle Haggard’s take on life at the poverty line.

With two dozen albums, mixtapes and EPs under his belt, plus features ranging from his 2010 collaboration with Memphis rapper Lil Wyte, “Pop Another Pill” (which has tallied 6.3m YouTube views) and “Come Here White Girl” with Wyte and BPZ as SNO (cited in XXL’s “10 Most Memorable White Rapper Collaborations”), his move into country is as legit as it gets.

Following his gold-certified “Save Me,” with its 65m YouTube views, came 2021’s Ballads of the Broken, his first LP for BBR, which boasts the chart-topping Mainstream Rock track “Dead Man Walking” and Rock and Alternative Top 20 “Son of a Sinner.” The latter, a loping song of self-acceptance, went on to become most added at Country radio and is inside the Top 25 at press time as it connects directly to fans. In all, he’s racked up more than 2 billion audio/video streams.

Jelly Roll sold out the Ryman in minutes last fall and made his Grand Ole Opry debut in April singing “Son of a Sinner.” He’ll spend part of the summer and fall on Shinedown’s The Revolution’s Live Tour, as well as a five-date Sons of the Dirty South trek with Brantley Gilbert. He’ll also headline Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and Red Rocks later this year. 

NATE SMITH

Nate Smith has been through it. After signing with Word at 23, he returned to his hometown of Paradise, Cal., where he lost everything in 2018’s Butte County Camp Fire. Moving to Nashville to chase his dreams, Smith was inspired by the tragedy to write “One of These Days,” which captured the attention of local press as well as NPR, suggesting that his dreams might not be so crazy after all.

He then self-released the viral TikTok hit “Wildfire,” “Under My Skin” (which earned 40m+ streams) and “Sleeve,” catching the attention of Sony Nashville. Randy Goodman, Ken Robold and SVP A&R Margaret Tomlin recognized the Garth Brooks/Fleetwood Mac/Tom Petty tinge to his melodies as a seductive synthesis of the Southern California rock and ’90s country that’s currently driving Music City and signed him to Arista Nashville, home of Brad Paisley and Brooks & Dunn.

His first major-label release, “Whiskey on You,” with its stoic, Merle Haggard-style approach to heartache, charted at #56 on Country radio a week before impact. The single’s also been racking up 4m+ streams every week since it hit the streamers, with more than 17m on Spotify alone at press time. “Whiskey on You” has also resonated with the power players at SiriusXM’s The Highway; currently pulling down 60 plays a week, the sweeping kiss-off anthem is reacting in tangible ways.

The bearded young artist, who looks like a throwback to the Allman Brothers/Marshall Tucker Band era, has found a niche with young people who want their songs smooth but the sentiments a bit more porous. After the inroads he’s made with “Raised Up” and “I Don’t Want to Go to Heaven,” Smith appears on the precipice of a Luke Combs-like breakthrough by staying true to who he is and how he’s lived.

Look for more high-connectivity and keeping-it-real music from Smith, who’s managed by Kevin “Chief” Zaruk and Simon Tikhman of Core Entertainment.


MORGAN WADE

Covered in tattoos and capable of rocking track pants and sneakers or high fashion like a second skin, Morgan Wade hit country from the outside in. Co-produced by Jason Isbell + the 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden and engineer Paul Ebersole, the singer/songwriter’s “Wilder Days” blew up the streamers, hit #1 at #1 SiriusXM’s The Highway and is now scaling Country radio with its uncharacteristically naked take on female desire.

The Floyd, Va., native, discovered while playing indie festivals, is unabashed in addressing her drug use, drinking and reckoning in her songs—and she quickly became a live favorite of country’s biggest acts. After touring with Lucero last fall, she’s on Luke Combs’ stadium dates with Zach Bryan, while also joining Brooks & Dunn with Jordan Davis and Chris Stapleton with Elle King. She’s hitting several major festivals, including Pasadena’s Palomino and Chicago’s Windy City Smoke-Out, along with a handful of state fairs.

A sensation at CMA’s C2C Festival in the U.K. and Ireland, Wade recently wrapped an extended European tour that included Amsterdam, Spain, Belfast, Glasgow, the Isle of Wight Festival and three nights in London: a double at The Garage and a Hyde Park performance.

Nominated for Best New Artist at the Americana Music Awards, Wade has blurred genre lines and the traditional playbook. Her Reckless (Deluxe Edition) (Arista Nashville) adds four songs to the original 2021 release on Thirty Tigers, including her take on Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” and an update on her pre-Reckless breakthrough “The Night.”

Wade’s been named to Best of 2021 lists by The New York Times, FADER, Vulture, American Songwriter, Rolling Stone and Rolling Stone Country, as well as NPR, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan and Whiskey Riff; her white-knuckle writing has made its mark across pop culture. Time opined that Wade’s music embodies “the glorious recklessness of youth and the pangs of nostalgia for such chaos at the same time.” 

JACKSON DEAN 

Jackson Dean comes on terse and a little bit tough, romantic but realistic about not getting tied down. He’s exactly what the next wave of country men should be. Dean was recruited and signed by William Morris Endeavour following multiple sellouts of Baltimore’s legendary Ram’s Head while still in high school, leading to a bidding war among Nashville labels for the fiery blond-haired performer. When the smoke cleared, Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine had won over the rough-hewn, single-minded young artist.

Dean and outlier producer/songwriter Luke Dick (Miranda Lambert’s Palomino, Kacey Musgraves’ “Velvet Elvis,” Dierks Bentley’s “Burning Man”) have crafted a sound that is decidedly percussive. With a driving sound that pumps harder than most of what’s on Country radio, Dean brings a more Merle Haggard-meets-Brooks & Dunn take on the genre.

Foregrounded by his low, rumbling vocals, “Don’t Come Lookin’,” Dean’s breakout track, rocks like The Black Crowes. Long on swagger, resonant guitar chords and a “get gone” attitude, the track embodies the freewheeling lust for adventure that powers Greenbroke, his debut album. “Don’t Come Lookin’,” is connecting across the board, hitting the Top 15 on Mediabase’s Country chart, Top 10 on Shazam’s U.S. Country chart, Top 20 at iTunes Country and making Apple Music’s flagship playlist, Today’s Country, as well as appearing on an episode of Yellowstone—giving the low-slung breakout artist career momentum.

Having toured with hard-hitting headliners Miranda Lambert, Kane Brown, Brantley Gilbert and Brothers Osborne, Dean will be splitting his summer/fall between a run of shows with ACM and CMA Song and Single of the Year winner Lee Brice and major festivals including Idaho’s Highway 30 Festival, Wisconsin’s Country Thunder, Atlantic City’s Tidalwave and Dierks Bentley’s genre-blurring Seven Peaks.