Independent country is getting a huge boost in 2019, and sometimes from some unlikely places. Not only are worthy artists who’ve been working hard for years for recognition finally receiving their due from important independent record labels, even the major labels are getting into the game, but allowing artists to sign deals that allow them to keep creative control of their music, giving them a greater audience, but on the artist’s terms.
Here are some of the big signings that give a lot of hope to the future of country music in the coming months and years.
Tyler Childers – Sony/RCA/Hickman Holler Records
Kentucky-born resurgent country artist and fast-rising star Tyler Childers made it official official on May 17th that he was the newest signee to RCA Records, a division of Sony. A new album was also announced called Country Squire coming August 2nd to be released through Tyler’s own imprint on RCA called Hickman Holler Records.
Those worried that Tyler Childers signing to a major label will mean a major shift in his traditional-oriented, strong Kentucky songwriting style will be sorely disappointed. Similar to the deal struck by his producer and mentor Sturgill Simpson, only with guarantees of creative freedom and a healthy signing bonus was Childers willing to sign his future to a major music outfit.
Tyler Childers was previously singed with Thirty Tigers, which will continue to service his back catalog of his breakout album Purgatory from 2017, as well as the re-release of his Live on Red Barn Radio albums. The 28-year-old from Lawrence County, Kentucky started playing music when he was 13, and learned how to sing in the church choir. After graduating from Paintsville High School, Childers attended a few semesters at a community college while pursuing a music career, releasing his first record at 19 called Bottles and Bibles.
Parker McCollum – Universal Music Group Nashville
The writing was on the wall for the Conroe, TX native, and it was only a matter of “when” and not “if” a big label would come calling. One of the hottest up-and-coming names in Texas country, Parker McCollum has the appeal of younger listeners across the Lone Star State and beyond without sacrificing the substance in his songwriting. With a sound that bridges both the classic and contemporary, he’s a country star for all, and Universal in Nashville recognized this, signing Parker on June 27th.
The argument is often made how country music must evolve to stay relevant. This reasoning is often employed to justify some of the most egregious examples of country perversion ever subjected to the human ear which are often much more akin to devolution than forward progress. That argument also discounts all the artists in bluegrass, Texas country, and Americana who actually are actively moving the music forward by bridging more contemporary sounds with a staunch adherence and appreciation of country’s roots. There might not be a better example of attempting to define country music’s creative horizon and pushing the possibilities of country forward than Parker McCollum.
Tanya Tucker – Concord/Fantasy
Of course Tanya Tucker was once a major country music star, amassing ten #1 hits, another eight #2’s, and 39 Top 10’s total, and logged her first hit “Delta Dawn” in 1972 when she was only 13-years-old. However time has passed her by like it has so many aging country music greats, but now she’s readying the release of her first album of original music in 17 years called While I’m Livin’ due out August 23rd. It is produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings.
“Tanya Tucker is an original outlaw who bucked the country music establishment and became a living legend in the process, which makes Fantasy her perfect home,” says Fantasy Records president, Margi Cheske. “We’re thrilled to work with Tanya, Brandi and Shooter and help bring this stunning new album to the world.”
More than just a producer, Brandi Carlile, and her famous twin backup band of Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth also wrote seven of the 10 songs on the new album, including the final track, “Bring My Flowers Now” which was penned with Tanya Tucker too. However these weren’t just songs written by Brandi Carlile and the twins that they had laying around and happen to bring to Tanya Tucker, they were written specifically for Tanya Tucker by the trio. “It’s a musical biography of sorts about Tanya’s real life and the places she’s seen, and it’s narrated by the greatest country and western singer this side of Johnny Cash,” says Carlile.
Kelsey Waldon – Oh Boy Records
In a special moment on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry on May 28th, it was revealed that Kentucky singer and songwriter Kelsey Waldon was the newest member of John Prine’s independent label, Oh Boy Records. Prine shared the news himself, and then the two sang together in the Opry’s hallowed circle.
“It’s hard for me to put into words what it truly means to me to be signed to Oh Boy Records,” says Waldon about the signing. “To have someone like John, who I have looked up to my whole life, who I have set my songwriting standards after and my general music making standards after, to have someone like him endorse my music and care enough about it to make sure it reaches a wider audience…that means everything.”
Kelsey’s family farmed tobacco and raised cattle in the western part of Kentucky near the Ohio River, and the stories of struggle from of America’s rural heartland drip from her songs. Her last album I’ve Got A Way was a slyly thematic work that found Waldon asserting her own identity and freedom in a world that constantly is attempting to reshape and sway her towards its own image and desires.
Expect news on a new album soon.
Michaela Anne – Yep Roc Records
Independent country singer and songwriter Michaela Anne singed to North Carolina’s Yep Roc Records in May, and will be releasing her new album Desert Dove on September 27th. The well-respected Nashville-based performer has regularly appeared on stage with artists such as JP Harris and Sam Outlaw, while forging her own critically-revered career over the years.
“I’m so excited and honored to get to share that I’ve officially signed with Yep Roc!” Michaela said on May 16th. “I can’t wait to share the music I’ve been working on for awhile now and so grateful to have such a wonderful, hardworking team of people on my music’s side. Not to mention to join a roster of artists and bands I’ve long admired.”
The daughter of a military man, Michaela moved often when growing up. She attended the School of Jazz at the New School in Manhattan, thinking that perhaps that would be her musical discipline, but soon converted to bluegrass and country. Along with guitar, Michaela Anne is also a respected piano player.
Jason Hawk Harris – Bloodshot Records
The moment has arrived for Jason Hawk Harris to go from an obscure country songwriter and performer, to a name to look out for. With a touch of punk attitude and darkness, and a proficiency with melody and composition not always found in country, Jason Hawk Harris put himself on the radar of some with his 2017 EP Formaldehyde, Tobacco, and Tulips, and he’s about to arrive on the radar of many more.
A Houston-raised performer known to some as a member of the Los Angeles-based indie folk outfit the Show Ponies, Jason Hawk Harris signed to Bloodshot Records in November of 2018, and is readying the release of his debut solo LP Love & The Dark on August 23rd.
Jason Hawk Harris was discovered by Bloodshot Records at the Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City in 2018 (where Saving Country Music also first saw him), and soon he was touring with current Saving Country Music Album of the Year winner Sarah Shook and the Disarmers who share many of Jason’s passions for country that is true to the roots of the music, but imbued with a punk perspective and melodic sensibility.
Caroline Spence – Concord/Rounder
Esteemed and respected in east Nashville and beyond for many years as an under-the-radar songwriter and performer, it was announced in January that Caroline Spence had come to terms with Rounder Records to release her third full-length album, Mint Condition on May 3rd. Since its release, Mint Condition has been earning high praise from listeners and critics alike, and landed on Saving Country Music’s list for the Best Albums in 2019 So Far.
The signing of Spence felt significant because she is part of a greater collection of worthy, but often under-supported songwriters scrapping for attention in the underbelly of Music City. Caroline Spence has collaborated in the past with the likes of Anderson East and Andrew Combs, and she released a collaborative album with Robby Hecht in 2018. Spence can also count Miranda Lambert as a fan.
From a musical family, including her aunt who worked at Asylum/Elektra when Emmylou Harris cut her iconic Wrecking Ball album, Caroline Spence started writing songs at the age of six, and began playing shows in Charlottesville at 15. She released her debut album Somehow in 2015, and a follow up Spades and Roses in 2017.
Billy Strings – Concord/Rounder
Billy Strings deserves to be in the discussion right up there with artists such as Tyler Childers and Cody Jinks as an artist symbolizing the best of what country music has to offer in 2019. His debut 2017 solo album Turmoil & Tinfoil earned high marks from Saving Country Music, and in 2018, he was named the #2 best live performer only behind the high and mighty Mike and the Moonpies. Billy Strings officially signed to Rounder Records in late June, and will be releasing his latest album HOME on September 27th, 2019. Don’t be surprised if it launches him into the stratosphere of not just bluegrass, but country and Americana, and the world of music beyond where Billy wows crowds from the jam band and rock world, and even jazz and experimental music with his other-worldly improvisation and musical imagination.
“Rounder has set a very high bar in its nearly 50 years of presenting some of the best virtuosic acoustic music of all time,” says Rounder President John Strohm. “Billy is not only an instrumentalist to rival the finest talents on Rounder’s historic roster, but he’s also a phenomenal singer, writer, collaborator, and live performer. It is our great honor and privilege to have the opportunity to work with such a brilliant, innovative young artist to complement Rounder’s outstanding musical tradition.”
Cody Johnson – CoJo Music/Warner Music Nashville
Announced in June of 2018, Cody Johnson signed a deal with Warner Music Nashville to form CoJo Music/Warner Music Nashville. The deal meant Cody Johnson is now part of one of the biggest label groups in country music, but still retains a certain level of control under his long-standing, completely independent, and personally-owned record label Cojo Music. He released his debut album on the label in January, and the record went #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
“When you come to this town from Texas, I guess everyone has a preconceived notion that you are going to sell out,” Cody Johnson said after the signing. “One of my main focuses with this whole deal is to prove that you can be yourself. The record was done before we got a deal. As soon as we released it, people were like ‘I can already hear the change.’ But this song is to those people and to all those people who said it wouldn’t work. My goal in this whole thing is to step politely into this town and say, ‘Hey, is there room for me here?’ A lot of things I’m doing are very normal for country in 1985 but now it’s different and it’s a new thing now to be country.”
Cody Johnson started playing and singing country music when he was 12-years-old, and first formed the Cody Johnson Band with his father Carl. He worked as a corrections officer at a local prison while moonlighting as a performer until 2011 when he quit to pursue music full time. His 2014 album Cowboys Like Me also saw surprising chart success for an independent artist, coming in at #7 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
Sturgill Simpson – Atlantic/Elektra
Though the signing of Sturgill Simpson to Atlantic Records was now over three years ago, and subsequently he’s been a part of a recent reshuffling at the label that now has him under the Elektra umbrella, it looms as the big moment when independent country began to be recognized by the mainstream, and allowed doors to be opened for all independent artists, including the ones mentioned above. The signing of Sturgill also helped set the table for his Grammy win for Album of the Year with A Sailors Guide to Earth, and his nomination for the all-genre Album of the Year right beside Adele, Drake, Justin Bieber, and Beyonce. It put all of music on alert that artists not receiving radio play were worthy of greater attention.
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Also it’s worth mentioning that Cody Jinks also signed to Rounder Records in 2018 to release his recent record Lifers. However Jinks has decided to go wholly independent for his next album After The Fire on October 4th. Nonetheless, the stint with Rounder gave Jinks more national attention as well.