A New Age of Music:
In February of 2017, Chance the Rapper made history by collecting three Grammy awards, including best new artist and best rap album. This, after the Academy changed its rules to allow artists who self release through streaming services to be eligible for Grammy nominations—probably because Chance’s popularity with both critics and fans was undeniable. He became the first Grammy winner not represented by a record label. What is so groundbreaking about this is it proves an independent, self-released album can achieve mainstream success. Large record labels have acted as the gatekeeper and the key master to mainstream music for far too long. It’s exciting to see artists like Chance busting down the back door.
With the rise of new streaming platforms like Bandlab, Soundcloud, Spotify, etc., artists are no longer beholden to a record label to have a successful career. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for record labels, both big and small. They are great at what they do: selling records, filling stadiums, and promoting their artists. The point is they are no longer necessary. You can see this in the way artists are now using crowdfunding directly from their fans to produce albums and sustain their careers. This is fantastic because it means less superstars and more variety. We all have unique tastes and never before has it been so easy to access music that can perfectly hit the spot.
It is an exciting, transitional time for music. We should try to support artists in their independent endeavors because, in my opinion, it means better art. So I put together this list of six of my favorite Independent Alt-Country Artists. (I consider “alternative country” as anything in the vein of country music that strays from the mainstream pop, bro, or party country that has dominated the country charts for the past decade or so.)
Jason Isbell (and The 400 unit)
“If We Were Vampires”
Isbell (39) is by far the most popular and successful artist on the list, with four Grammys to his name. He is a singer-songwriter born and raised in small town Alabama. He’s a very authentic and vulnerable songwriter. Many would say he is the greatest songwriter in the game right now. His songs are often stripped back and very acoustic based.
His latest album, The Nashville Sound, was released last year with his band the 400 Unit on a label he created, Southeastern. It achieved widespread critical acclaim and was nominated at the CMA’s for “Album of the Year ”and all without any support from country radio or a big label.
Isbell has famously railed against big labels. Even cautioning his fans not to buy a re-release of an old album of his, which was recorded before he began his own label. He didn’t agree with the release but his previous label did it anyways.
“Ghost in My Bed”
Suzanne Santo is a singer-songwriter-actress (a true renaissance woman). She plays guitar, banjo, and violin that I know of. She first achieved success as the front woman for a popular Americana group.
Since then, she launched an independent solo career with the release of her debut album, Ruby Red, in late 2017. The album has a palpable rawness to it with echoey harmonics that make you feel like you’re in the room, listening to her play live.
Suzanne is kind of badass as she circumvented the need for a record label by hiring her own team (publicist, distributor, etc). This way she owns her own music and has all the creative freedom she desires.
Okay these girls are not even close to country but I couldn’t not include such fantastic independent artists. Larkin Poe is a sister duo from Calhoun, Georgia consisting of Rebecca and Megan Lovell. They have a swampy rock/blues sound that breathes fresh air into the “roots rock” genre.
It’s difficult to stand still listening to these girls rock out. Larkin Poe’s music is full of foot stomping, head bobbin’, and hand clapping songs. I highly recommend you check out their cover of “Black Betty” (performed later in the video) as well as their most recent album Peach (2017).
“You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry”
John Moreland is a thirty-two year old singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is in the same vein as Jason Isbell, and even opened for Isbell on the road. Moreland has a raw sound with simple melodies. Many of his best songs are simply him pouring his heart out while fingerpicking licks on his acoustic guitar.
His 7th—yes, 7th—and latest studio album, Big Bad Luv, was released in 2017. This guy is not looking for fame and fortune, he is as authentic and honest as they come, and naturally, his songs can be heartbreakingly vulnerable.
“I’m Not OK”
Jill Andrews is a singer-songwriter born and raised in Tennessee and is currently still based out of Nashville. Her songs have been featured on many hit shows from Grey’s Anatomy and Nashville, to the CW’s Teen Wolf and The Originals. Her vocals are gentle and sweet but her music has a lot of range, often bordering into folk, rock, and even pop at times. Her style is very understated which makes it perfect for tv shows but not necessarily stand alone hits.
In order to release her first album, Mirror (2010), she crowdfunded through kickstarter—raising $12,000 from about 300 people. Her latest album, War Inside, was released in 2015. Admirably, Jill has remained an independent artist ever since she launched her solo career in 2009.
Caitlin Canty (36) is a singer-songwriter from Vermont. When she was 30 she quit her day job to focus on her solo music career. It was a bold move, but I think it’s going to payoff. Caitlin has a soft, yet gritty voice often coupled with heart wrenching lyrics that gently cascade over a laid-back tempo. The production is very simple not overdone like many others.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine her achieving chart topping hits, but there is an intimacy to her music that you can’t always find on the charts. And not to say you need to have chart toppers to have a successful career in music—athough it definitely helps.
Caitlin Canty recently released a brand new album Motel Bouquet (2018), which I highly recommend.
Nora Jane Struthers
Nora Jane (34) was raised in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Her husband is the steel guitarist in the band and they have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for a while. It’s obvious that her yearning to be a mother has heavily influenced her latest album, Champion (2017). Her music isn’t totally unique but it’s refreshingly genuine and you can feel that in the music. Nora is by far the most obscure of the artists on this list. Recently her band (along with many others) started using Patreon, a crowdfunding platform, to fund and sustain their tour and music production.