One of our favorite things about this website is the ability to bring you information about new or previously unknown talent. One of the ways we do this is by our “Ones To Watch” feature. We started this feature in 2009 and continued the second installment last year. 2009’s list included Whitney Duncan, Love and Theft and Joey+Rory. The 2010 list included Easton Corbin, The Band Perry, Josh Thompson, Jerrod Niemann and Danny Gokey. Each of these artists released successful singles and albums while others on our list are still waiting to release their single and/or debut albums. For this year we’ve expanded our list once again to provide you with a list of names you may have heard one or two things by while others will be completely new to you. Without further adieu, here are our Ones To Watch: the class of 2011.
James Wesley (Broken Bow Records)
What He’s Known For: Top 20 single “Real”
Where He’s From: Mound Valley, KS.
Why You Should Care: James Wesley is no stranger to the country music scene. Back in 1999, he put out a pair of singles through Warner Bros., under the name James Prosser. Although the singles made the charts, he quickly faded into obscurity. Although he finally made the Mediabase top 40 earlier this year with "Jackson Hole," it's the top 20 hit "Real" that has been his breakout. He didn't write either song, but he knows how to pick them and he knows how to sing them. "Real" nicely combines disillusionment with reality television and sympathy for struggling lower middle classmen, and its combination of timely topics and a sturdy delivery is proof of his talent. James debut album is scheduled to be release in February. – Bobby Peacock
Thompson Square (Stoney Creek Records)
What They’re Known For: breakthrough Top 30 single “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not.”
Where They’re From: Shawna: Chatom, AL. Keifer: Miami, OK.
Why You Should Care: This duo has the classic (more than) 10 year over-night success story With “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” breaking through after “Let’s Fight” almost did the same in the summer of 2010. This husband and wife duo has a dynamic modern sound but was raised on classic country and rock. Their debut album (which features both singles) is scheduled to be released in late January. It is the first release for the Stoney Creek Records label. Look for an in-depth feature on Thompson Square in the next week. – Matt Bjorke
Amber Hayes (FUNL Music)
What She’s Known For: portraying the daughter of Conway Twitty in the national touring play “It’s Only Make Believe” and first single ‘C’Mon.
Where She’s From: Weleetka, OK.
Why You Should Care: As the writer of each of the songs from the debut C’Mon six track EP, Amber showcased the talent to write tight radio-ready fare. While her run up the charts could be hindred by being part of a smaller record label, the talent hopefully will win-out in the end. – Matt Bjorke
Katie Armiger (Cold River Records)
What She’s Known For: breakthrough single “Best Song Ever," three solo albums.
Where She’s From: Sugar Land, TX.
Why You Should Care: After two albums helped to establish a presence for Katie, her third album Confessions of a Nice Girl feels like her true breakthrough album. Largely written by Katie, the album also features “Leaving Home” and “Kiss Me Now.” With two other albums under her belt, Katie may just be the most seasoned artist on this year’s list. – Matt Bjorke
Frankie Ballard (Reprise Records)
What He’s Known For: The Top 40 single “Tell Me You Get Lonely”
Where He’s From: Battle Creek, MI
Why You Should Care: A fantastic guitar player who seriously rivals Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley (among many top session folks like Tom Bukovac) as one of country music’s top guitarists, Ballard is also a strong vocalist with a striking resemblance to other singers, perhaps most notably Randy Rogers of the Randy Rogers Band. Frankie’s debut album is scheduled to be released sometime in spring/summer 2011. – Matt Bjorke
Brett Eldredge (Atlantic Nashville)
What He’s Known For: His Top 40 Single “Raymond” and co-writing the song "Thirsty" as performed by Hank Williams, Jr. on the Country Strong official soundtrack.
Where He’s From:Paris, IL.
Why You Should Care: Brett Eldredge is coming on strong with his debut single "Raymond." Co-written by him and Brad Crisler, the song matches a sympathetic, bittersweet and inspired story about an Alzheimer's victim to Eldredge's sturdy baritone. After the first time I heard this, I knew it'd be a hit. Brett's gotten his name out there rather quickly, with co-writer's credits on the Country Strong soundtrack and Gary Allan's Get Off on the Pain. While those cuts will certainly help boost his profile, it's "Raymond" that allows the best look at why Brett is a star to watch. – Bobby Peacock
The Dirt Drifters (Warner Brothers Nashville)
What They’re Known For: upcoming album This Is My Blood.
Where The Band is From (formed): Nashville, TN
Why You Should Care: The five-piece found eachother in Nashville and lead by brothers Matt and Ryan Fleener, the band has an appealing blend of gritty country mixed in with rock, funk, and R&B. Rounded out by Jeff Middleton, Jeremy Little and Nick Diamond, The Dirt Drifters’ sound is firmly the product of the roadhouse environment which they toured for several years. Their album was produced by Justin Niebank and will be released sometime this year, after first single “Something Better” rises up the charts. – Matt Bjorke
Josh Kelley (MCA Nashville)
What He’s Known For: Folk/pop hit “Amazing, debut country single “Georgia Clay,” the older brother of Lady A’s Charles Kelley.
Where He’s From: Augusta, Ga.
Why You Should Care: Some folks would be quick to pigeonhole Kelley as nothing but another ‘failed pop wannabe’ masquerading in country music after pop fans have moved on when in reality the artist has always been one step away from Nashville. In fact, when listening to his music, it’s not surprising that Kelley – like Darius Rucker – would make the jump. His well-crafted, smartly-produced EP only hints at the depth of Kelley’s upcoming album. The album, Georgia Clay is scheduled to be released in spring/summer 2011. – Marc Erickson
Casey James Band (19 Recordins/BNA Records)
What They’re Known For: Casey James Appeared on American Idol and showcased a southern rock sound influenced by highlight performances like Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think Of Me.”
Where Casey’s From: Princeton, TX.
Why You Should Care: American Idol has given mainstream country music plenty of artists, like Danny Gokey, Kellie Pickler, Kristy Lee Cook and Josh Gracin but never before has the program showcased an artist who decided to form a band around himself rather than go at it as a solo artist. Taking the “Daughtry Model,” Casey James and his new band look like they’re poised to break-out and perhaps be the best-known artist to come from an obvious down cycle of the television program. Their first single is due in late winter/early spring. – Matt Bjorke
Hunter Hayes (Atlantic Nashville)
What He’s Known For: Songwriter of the song “Play” from Rascal Flatts new album.
Where He’s From: Breaux Bridge, LA.
Why You Should Care: A dynamic young vocalist who signed his first publishing and recording contracts while only 17, Hunter Hayes is a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on national television before his 10th birthday. His debut single will be released in early 2011 with an album to follow shortly thereafter. Also, be on the lookout for our review of his self-released album from 2008. – Matt Bjorke
The Roys (Rural Rhythm Records)
What they're known for: New single "Coal Minin' Man."
Where They're From: Fitchburg, MA & Coral Branch, NB, Canada.
Why You Should Care: This talented brother and siter duo (Lee and Elaine) have been making beautiful acoustically based country music for years so when a label offer from Rural Rhythm Records came (asking them to record bluegrass), the duo didn't flinch. It's as natural a 'transition' as any band can have as the duo's high-lonesome harmonies have always felt like they were heavily influenced by Bluegrass anyway. Their debut bluegrass album Lonesome Whistle will be released March 22, 2011.
Ty Stone (Top Dog/Atlantic)
What He’s Known For: being discovered by Kid Rock, the 4 On The Floor EP released in April 2010.
Where He’s From: Detroit, MI.
Why You Should Care: Ty Stone is a fantastic vocalist, writes very strong songs and when you look at him, you wouldn’t expect that soulful voice to come out of that rotund, Colt Ford-like body. The singer’s tunes range from the Detroit area that mixes Seger-like rock and Bill Withers-like soul into a blender with a bit of southern rock added for good measure. His full-length debut is expected to be released in spring/summer 2011. – Matt Bjorke
Joanna Smith (Columbia Nashville)
What She’s Known For: Single “Getting Married”
Where She’s From: Crestview, GA.
Why You Should Care: Joanna Smith has written some songs for other artists, most notably “Flying By” for Billy Ray Cyrus before landing her deal with Sony Nashville last year. While “Getting Married” only eeked out a #55 slot on the charts, it served radio and the industry with the notice that a talented vocalist (with more than a little twang) was waiting in the wings. “Georgia Mud” will be released in the coming weeks to radio with an EP and/or album likely to follow sometime in the summer/Fall. – Matt Bjorke
Randy Montana (MCA Nashville)
What He’s Known For: New Single “1,000 Faces.”
Where He’s From: Albany, NY & Nashville, TN
Why You Should Care: As the son of 90’s artist/songwriter Billy Montana (“Bring On The Rain” among others), the strong-voiced youngster certainly has country music in his blood. After debuting in 2010 with the Top 40 single “Ain’t Much Left of Loving You,” Randy is set to release an EP in early 2011 with an album to follow, most likely in the summer. – Matt Bjorke
Walker Hayes (Capitol Nashville)
What He’s Known For: The Top 40 single “Pants.”
Where He’s From: Mobile, AL.
Why You Should Care: Aside from his ‘chiseled model looks,’ Walker Hayes has a fresh voice and a unique way that he goes about his recordings with songs called “Kitchen Table,” “Cherry Stem,” “Naked” and the hit “Pants.” His debut album should be released in the first or second quarter of the year. – Matt Bjorke
Craig Campbell (Acoustic Peach/Bigger Picture)
What He's Known For: Debut single "Family Man."
Where He's From: Lyons, GA.
Why You Should Care: Craig Campbell has been playing weekly shows at the stage for a few years now and during that time he eventually ran into Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson) and Stegall immediatly enjoyed what Craig Campbell did and was about and offered to work with him, once his new venture (Bigger Picture) was up and off of the ground. Flash forward to 2010 and the year found the two collaborating on Campbell's upcoming self-titled debut album. A 5-song EP "Five Spot" is out now.