Artists to Watch in 2008 (Part 5 of 5): Critic’s Picks

Jim Malec | January 11th, 2008

I can’t say I’m not a little sad that we’ve come to the close of my 2008 preview. I’ve been married to this project for the past couple of weeks, tirelessly making calls and working the research channels in order to bring you everything you need to know about country music’s new artists in ’08. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve probably developed carpal tunnel syndrome along the way. I’d like to thank the Academy, as well as Mom and Dad, and I wish for world peace in the new year.

So just what does it take to make it big in country music? There are a lot of people who have a lot of different answers to that question, but the truth is that none of us really knows for sure. Not exactly. Not to the extent that we can devise a formula that works every time. Even when an artist is talented, and the material is excellent, and the label is dedicated, and the stars align just perfectly, sometimes a single or an album will flop. And there isn’t always a logical explanation as to why.

So all we can do is look at mistakes artists and their teams have made in the past and apply those lessons learned to the artists working towards the future. If we’re careful, and we do our research, we can make some educated predictions. We can note certain pieces missing from the puzzle. We can point out little slip-ups and miscues that could potentially spell trouble. We can factor in mistakes–usually small but sometimes enormous–that arise along the path from discovery to creation to distribution and beyond.

But as we learned from New Hampshire this week, the pundits can be wrong.

So I can’t tell you for certain that the five artists below are going to go on and have huge, meaningful careers in country music. Hell, I can’t even tell you that they won’t be bankrupt in three years. What I can tell you is that they’ve done mostly everything right up to this point, that their music is substantive and artistically compelling, and that they bring something exciting and fresh to the scene.

These are my Critic’s Picks for 2008.

Lady Antebellum (Capitol): It’s a double-dish of standout vocalists for Lady Antebellum, a new Capitol Nashville trio featuring Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley trading off on lead duties, with guitarist Dave Haywood rounding out. Scott’s sultry alto delivery is compelling in its own right, but the real story is the gravitas emanating from Kelley’s soulful tenor; it’s a rich and unique voice with a colorful grit and quiet confidence…and that’s something country music hasn’t heard a lot of in recent years. Throw into the mix inventive songwriting and electric personal chemistry, and everything about this spells “winner”. Lady Antebellum sets itself apart from the rest of the pack of new country duos and bands by establishing a unique sound right out of the gate with debut single “Love Don’t Live Here,” which is impacting radio now. Both commercially viable and artistically satisfying, this trio is fresh, supremely talented, and poised to be one of the few new names we’ll remember when 2008 is said and done.

Minnie Murphy (Montage Music Group): Everyone in the music industry is looking for an artist with the X Factor. This is our Holy Grail. We’re looking for something more than the ability to just sing notes perfectly, someone whose music transcends craft and speaks to us in a guttural sense. The X Factor is what makes an artist appeal to us on a personal level–it’s that indistinguishable, unquantifiable property that some artists, no matter how talented, will never have. From others it simply overflows. Minnie Murphy is one of the others. Sassy and sultry, when she sings she bleeds emotion, and listening to her croon out a jazz-infused “Tennessee Tango” is nothing short of a stirring experience. This is an artist who deserves to be heard over the chatter and rumbling of the rest of 2008′s newcomers.

James Otto (RAYBAW/Warner Bros.): “Just Got Started Loving You,” which breaks into the Top 40 this week, is a big time, real deal, massive, ginormous, smash HIT. It’s the kind of song that will make even a MuzikMafia non-believer stand up and testify–hallelujah, amen, this is what contemporary country music is all about. Otto is a killer songwriter with a powerful voice and I’m going to predict–no, guarantee–that his upcoming album Sunset Man, produced by John Rich and the most talented of the Rascals Jay Demarcus, will land in the Top 10. There’s nothing not to love about this guy–side to side, front to back, James Otto will become a major player in ’08.

Jamie Lee Thurston (Country Thunder): “I ain’t out to reinvent the wheel,” Thurston declares in “I Just Wanna Do My Thing,” a high-powered up-tempo he co-penned with Little Texas songsmith Porter Howell. Thurston may not have a desire to change country music as we know it, but he certainly has the potential to help shape the relationship between radio and small indie labels like Country Thunder. JLT is by far the most polished, radio ready, and artistically-engaging mainstream independent artist set to make a push in 2008, and coming on the heels of “I Loved Her First,” Country Thunder has a chance to prove that being the little guy in the ring no longer means that your product is going to sound cheap or second-hand. “Fifteen Minutes” is a hit waiting to happen–sonically, it is just as good, or perhaps better, than its major label competition, and Thurston’s huge voice is as big-time as it gets.

Ashley Ray (Capitol): When I first saw Ashley Ray on stage at the Big State Festival in October ’07, I knew I was witnessing the beginning of something special. Ray took the stage at 11:45 on Sunday morning–a time when the festival grounds were still mostly empty. While most of Big State’s lesser-known artists struggled to maintain an audience, Ray pulled in a consistent stream of new faces throughout her set–and no one left (not a single person) until it was all over. An energetic performer, Ray’s greatest strength is her songwriting. Edgy and honest, hints of a rebellious attitude shine through in her lyrics, betraying the cuteness of her quasi-cheerleader looks. And that’s what I love the most about Ray–unlike the primp-and-polished female artists we so often see from Nashville, Ray is very much a realist, fully representing and embracing a series of contradictions that speak to the fact that she is not prefab, vanilla, or G-rated. She is human, and her music speaks to the modern human condition.

The 9513′s 2008 Preview Series:
Part 1: On Notice. For these artists, it’s do-or-die.
Part 2: The Comeback Kids. A handful of artists poised to return to prominence in ’08.
Part 3: Buzzworthy. The artists the industry is buzzing about.
Part 4: New Faces. Fifteen new faces vying for your attention in ’08.
Part 5: Critic’s Picks. Jim Malec picks the best-of-the best.

1 Ping

  1. [...] Otto has garnered a few mentions on The 9513 thus far, including making Jim Malec’s list of Artists to Watch in 2008, but even so, his name may not be familiar. Hopefully that will change with the release of his [...]
  1. Cindy
    January 11, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Thank you for bringing the attention to James Otto!
    We actually flew to Nashville a few years ago to hear him at the BlueBird.. Unfortunately, the booking changed 2 days before we went. It was still a great trip, but I really wanted to hear just that voice and a guitar.
    Got to hear him open for Gretchen Wilson (went for him-she’s ok, but I wouldn’t go thru the mess of going to the York fair just for her.) Man, can he deliver. I encourage everyone to check him out. Like I said before, the Studio 330 session on CMT is a tremendous introduction.

  2. Brody Vercher
    January 11, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    I applaud you for a fantastic series.

  3. Kenny Christmas
    January 11, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Jim, well done. I’ve really enjoyed this series. May I suggest, however, include Myspace links to artist pages to help in the discovery process. Although, I’m fairly resourceful, and listening to Minnie’s “Tennessee Tango” on her Myspace page right now…

  4. Chris N.
    January 11, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    “[T]he most talented of the Rascals …”

    Would anyone care to make the obvious joke here?

  5. Chris N.
    January 11, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Oh! And nice job, Jim.

  6. Brady Vercher
    January 11, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    “They know how to do that stuff.” – Billy Joe Shaver

  7. Kenny Christmas
    January 11, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I’m not into Minnie. But Ashley Ray and that song “Loved by You,” good gawd — that’s good.

  8. Heidi
    January 11, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Well, after a week of what’s wrong with country music and the industry, this entry is refreshing and exciting. Well done on the whole series…even if it was a bit depressing ;)

  9. Matt B
    January 11, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Hey Jim,

    Glad to see Lady Antebellum and James Otto on here. I liked his first CD tremendously. Again Mercury dropped the ball with him (as they did w/Marcel).

    Minnie Murphy is actually Jamie O’Neal’s sister. She’s followed Jamie around so maybe Jamie will follow her to Montage. I hope they can break her (along with getting the Road Hammers USA airplay and Andy Griggs a realistic single for radio).

    Great series.

  10. Rick
    January 11, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    This has been a very entertaining and worthwhile series of articles. The time and effort spent in thought and research is appreciated. I’m actually a bit bummed out that this is the end of the line…

    Now for the choices here:
    Lady Antebellum – Hillary Scott, the daughter of Linda Davis, is such a hottie anything that keeps her in the public eye is okay by me. The fact they have a lot of talent doesn’t hurt any either…..

    I have never heard of Minnie Murphy before, but I will keep an ear out for her based on your comments. Minnie is a half-sister of Jamie O’Neal, so the sisterly support will hopefully be helpful in keeping doors open for this gal.

    I like Jame’s Otto’s new single in spite of his MuzikMafia connections, and if all his material is that good he should make it just fine on radio.

    I’ve listened to Ashley Ray’s music on her MySpace site and I consider her a learned pupil of the Jack Ingram / Miranda Lambert Texas alt. country singer/songwriter school. I personally don’t care for that edgy sound and style at all, but since a whole lot of people do, Ashley may have a real shot if she taps into Jack’s and Miranda’s fan bases.

  11. Cindy
    January 11, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Matt, I agree with your comment about the Road Hammers and Andy Griggs. The Road Hammers are an interesting band-the fact that I am married to a trucker doesn’t enter into that at all!
    And Andy Griggs has an interesting, strong voice. But that Tattoo Rose song was a bad choice. I like “What If Its Me..” I’ve got his last album downloaded, he can interpret good material very well.
    Here is to singers and bands that add something unique to the mix, that aren’t overproduced to death, and are allowed to cultivate their own sound.

  12. Jim Malec
    January 11, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    Thanks to all for the kudos, and for reading and commenting. Everyone here at The 9513, myself included, really appreciates your thoughtful replies. As for this being the end…

    …this is only the beginning. We are going to rock your socks of in ’08. In a country way of rocking, of course.

  13. Matt C.
    January 11, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Jim, I too want to add my congratulations on an awesome series. As someone who contributes content to The 9513, I understand just how much thought and effort this series required. I certainly enjoyed reading it.

    As for this entry: I agree with you about Lady Antebellum and James Otto. I’m not sold on Ashley Ray but I could see it happening. Ashton Shepherd would have made my list. As for Jamie Lee Thurston and Minnie Murphy, I doubt that their labels are going to be able to provide enough push to launch their careers.

  14. Jim Malec
    January 11, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    Matt–you bring up a very good point. There were other artists who could have been on this final list. One of the really difficult parts about dividing this preview up was deciding where an artists fits.

    If Ashton Shepherd was an artists we’d never heard of, someone who had quietly come on to the scene and all we knew was her first single, she probably would have–definitely would have–shown up here.

    But at the end of the day i felt like there was just too much buzz surrounding her already, and that I couldn’t justify not putting her in the same group as Ashley Monroe.

    And, if this has been based solely on my personal preference, Joanna Cotten would have been a Critic’s Pick. Again, though, I had to take the situation into consideration and ask where she really fit better.

    Because so many of these artists could have appeared on a different list than they did.

    Country Thunder was able to work “I Loved Her First,” and Thurston is twice the artist Heartland is, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

    As for Murphy, she’s my dark horse, that’s for sure. Some of the stuff on her page is rough and sandpaper. But there are moments in her performances when she connects like very, very singers can, and I’m banking on that.

    But like you, I doubt Montage. I’m hoping they step their game up and prove us wrong about their ability to get things done.

  15. Brady Vercher
    January 12, 2008 at 12:08 am

    I just gotta jump in and give you props on an awesome feature. I haven’t checked out most of the artists, but at least I’ve got something to do in my down time. I did check out the James Otto song, though, and I gotta say, it just might do as well as you say it will.

  16. Matt B
    January 12, 2008 at 5:09 am


    Thers one flaw in your conviction about Country Thunder. They didn’t work that record. Lofton Creek Records did (the label gaining success with Mark Chesnutt right now). Country Thunder barely got Heartland any exposure with the current single.

    As for Montage, they’ve done OK with helping Midas Records but have yet to break their own artists.

  17. Mike W.
    January 13, 2008 at 3:17 am

    James Otto looks like a good pick and Lady Antebellum has the potential to be great. I also look forward to what the next “big” Austin artist I discover this year. Last year it was Drew Kennedy.

  18. Boomer
    January 14, 2008 at 6:29 am

    James Otto stuns everyone-at first.
    Then you get to “know” him as an artist and he’s-boring. Killer songwriter alright; totally kills interest in him. If that’s the best he could do in 7 years of inside mentoring. Hacked, cliché lyrics and sound alike melodies, boring subjects and second rate vocals when he’s not outright doing his Seger impression. And the current trend of so many “country” artists to refer to themselves as “soul” “soulful”, whatever , is offensive and well, stupid. He’s completely boring onstage. There is this overwhelmingly detached aura. How is the American public going to relate? Thumbs down, he’ll tank big time.

  19. Cindy
    January 14, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Boomer, you’re going to have to back up your opinion far better, especially when it comes to Otto’s vocals being “second rate”. I honestly don’t know what you are listening to.

    That being said, he does face some challenges:
    -What he does best, defies easy pigeon holing. If he lets himself submit to the Nashville machine, he’s doomed.

  20. Jon Walker
    January 15, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Outstanding list. I’m big fans of every artist that made the tops. In particular I’m excited to see what comes from Montage and Minnie Murphy. She’s got a completely unique style and a sort of “vintage” vibe similar to that which has helped propel Amy Winehouse into the spotlight.

    James Otto has been at it for a long time and I truly believe that his talent and persistence will eventually pay off. He’s a class act.

  21. Christy
    January 15, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    You are 100% accurate.. Minnie Murphy is among one of the most talented artists in Nashville. She is a true class-act!

  22. Matt Wilson
    January 16, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Each of them are very talented. Lady A. has a great sound, and James Otto has such a unique voice.

    But I am pulling for Minnie Murphy. Her songwriting skills can blow you away. She is also good live.

  23. Minnie Murphy
    January 21, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Hey I’m Minnie Murphy and I just want to say that I’m so happy to make this list. Music changes lives and I just want everyone to know that there’s no holding back from me on this tremendous opportunity. Don’t underestimate Montage. Allen Butler and most of his team broke the Dixie Chicks. Cheers to independent labels who have some guts!

  24. Cindy
    February 1, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    I wrote the owners of this site to see if they are going to give this artist any coverage, but I thought I’d post it here as well.
    I just discovered Mando Saenz courtesy of the listening party for his cd being released next week courtesy of
    Now, its not traditional country by any sense of the word. But something about it sounds very meaningful I guess for where I am in my life right now.
    I think I described it to a friend as “Music for grownups.”
    On his website, you can check out lyrics to all of the songs on the cd.. pretty deep. Lets just say if you hate songs about drinking in Mexico, shift work, getting your drink on (and all its variations), you might find something that resonates here. Some songs co-written by Kim Richey.
    Really interesting artist. Check him out.

  25. Brad
    February 1, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Mando Saenz has been one of my favorite songwriters for four years now. If you like this new record (which is fantastic by the way) do yourself a favor and pick up his Watertown album too. He’s the real deal.


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