Over the years I’ve done this list — which is back after an 4 year hiatus — I’ve found out that my ears are typically right-on when it comes to the kinds of artists we should be paying attention to. Close to 50 new or just-establishing artists have become successful on many levels. Over the years we’ve selected stars of various levels from being a full six years and two label deals ahead on Chris Janson’s star appeal to a decade ahead of the curve on Walker Hayes (who is making many of these kinds of lists this year) & Mickey Guyton (6 years before her breakout in 2021) to being right on with artists like Brett Eldredge, Hunter Hayes, Dustin Lynch, Thomas Rhett, Chase Rice, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, Brotheres Osborne, Blackberry Smoke, Parmalee, Dan+Shay, Old Dominion, and Christian music superstar Danny Gokey (our class of 2010). It’s with that ear to what’s hot now and what will be hot in the future that we present our class of 2022.
Morgan Wade (Ladylike Records/Sony Music Nashville)
She started off 2021 as an independent singer/songwriter with the release of debut album Reckless and midway through the years she signed with Sony Music Nashville. Reckless was produced by Sadler Vaden and Paul Ebersold and find Wade on the Rootsy edge of mainstream country music. While that would mean a tough sell for the still dominating country radio, Wade’s music certainly deserves the chance as she’s got the chance to be the next big -voiced star in country music with a distinctly raspy voice and a point of view that places Morgan Wade well positioned to stand out from the ever flowing tide of new artists.
One of the singularly best artists to hit my radar in all of 2020/2021, I haven’t quite heard an artist like Elvie Shane since maybe Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, or Old Dominion. Which is to say that it was immediate to me that the Kentuckian is destined to be a game-changing kind of artist. His debut album Backslider is full of all of the kinds of songs you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be on a country record but like Stapleton, Church, Old Dominion and artists like Steve Earle or Chris Knight in years gone by, Elvie Shane is a singular talent deserving of our attention and there are plenty of hits to be found on Backslider after his #1 debut single “My Boy”
Boy Named Banjo (Mercury Records Nashville)
Out of the “fires” of the acoustic music world came Boy Named Banjo. The band started off influenced by Bluegrass, Folk and singer/songwrtier music and early influences include John Hartford and The Steeldrivers but after a time busking on Nashville’s famous Broadway (too young to play or enter the bars), they started recording independent recordings before the band evolved from acoustic trio to full-on five piece band with a sound that is distinctly their own. A blend of those early bluegrass and folk bands with a dose of alternative rock and roots. They released their first major label EP Circles in mid-2021 with a proper radio single and more opportunities set for 2022.
Chapel Hart (Independent)
This powerhouse trio of vocalists showcase a love of country music that rides ever so closely to the 90s style of country music with fiddle and crying steel guitars blending in with telecaster guitars and clear, emotive vocals backing them up. still independent in this new era, the trio of two sisters and a cousin are certainly using the modern means and ways of getting in front of people with their stellar (mostly self-written) songs and album The Girls Are Back In Town.
The latest American Idol winner certainly is one to watch. And not because he won that program. Instead, it’s because of his powerful and grit-filled country rock vocals and intense songwriting talent. He was the first Idol winner to release a coronation single (“23”) that was co-written by the winner while also recording his debut single, “Can’t Do Without Me,” a duet with BBR Music Group label mate (and a graduate of our Ones To Watch list) Lindsay Ell.
The Louisiana native has progressively become popular on the modern country music radar blending his southern country roots with hip hop, soul and pop to create a sound that is fresh and wholly his own. Like others on this list, Willie started the year as an indie artist and then moved to Sony Music Nashville after his debut album Right Now started garnering raves. songs like “Down By The Riverside,” “Drink Too Much” and “Slow Cookin’” showcase an artist who is deftly aware of who he is and with the country genre wide open moreso than ever before, the time’s ripe for Willie Jones to break down the doors and to become a superstar.
Lainey Wilson (Broken Bow Records)
Like Elvie Shane, Lainey would’ve definitely been on a previous list but since she’s still only had one hit on radio, we’re including her here. Like Elvie, Lainey is a unique artist and like the others listed here, she stands out from the pack. Something EVERY artist needs to do for any sense of longevity. That standing out can be vocal, songwriting, visually or any combination of those things but it must be there. That’s part of the “it factor” we’re all looking for. Laney has “it” and her debut album “Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’” is proof of this as was her #1 hit “Things A Man Oughta Know.”
An oft-recorded a-list songwriter (of songs like Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” Kane Brown’s “Heaven,” Charlie Puth’s “One Call Away” and Rob Thomas’ “Someday”), Carter blends the soul and blues of his Memphis upbringing to the pop and country pop sensibilities that he earned while he became an in-demand songwriter. He released the infectious “Good Love” in 2020 and while it didn’t run up the charts, it was a good introduction. His debut EP released via Warner Music Nashville, The Rest of Us, showcases an artist who blends melody and lyrics effortlessly.
Drew Parker (Warner Music Nashville)
There’s been a buzz about this young “hat act” for a little while now. A co-writer on songs like Jake Owen’s “Homemade” and several of Luke Combs’ biggest hits, Parker is like Hardy in the sense that he’s got a way with southern phrases and the kind of ease with lyrics and melodies that just stand out. His debut single “While You’re Gone” has been building up its impact while he works on a full length follow-up to that album.
Conner Smith (The Valory Music Co.)
The artist who we most-compare the young 21 year old Nashville native to is his label mate Thomas Rhett. Spotted for his talent as a singer/songwriter while still in high school, Conner was mentored by Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell and is perhaps the most buzzed about artist on TikTok with his digital single “I Hate Alabama” being a song which will be the breakout single for him, even if “Learn From It” is his first radio hit. Another one, “Why Can’t I Leave” is a melodic ear worm, too. The kind of songs any new artist needs to break out and all three of these songs suggest a guy who can grow into his stardom as he ages himself.