Artists To Watch In 2009: Recapping 2008

Jim Malec | January 12th, 2009

In 2009, a number of country artists will hope that the dawn of a new year signifies a new beginning–a chance, perhaps, to rise from the ashes and revitalize a once promising, prosperous career that has since been tarnished by failure. Others will cling to whatever last bit of momentum their flagging careers can muster, desperately hoping to avoid falling completely out of the public consciousness. And for country music’s newest faces—most of whom we wouldn’t recognize on the street—the new year holds the promise of stardom, a chance to introduce themselves and their music to the world.

But the sad truth is, that in each of these endeavors, few artists–if any–will be successful.

It takes perfect timing, paired with an exceptional artistic statement, to return from country music exile. It takes a miracle to convince the industry that you can rise above your recent string of disastrous singles and poor sales. And to cut yourself a piece of the country music pie, when so many others are as hungry as you? It takes an incredible amount of talent. It takes an amazing song. It takes dozens of highly influential people believing in you and being willing to invest in you. And it takes a whole lot of good luck.

Here’s wishing the best to those hoping that 2009 will be their year, just like last year was for a tiny handful of artists.

2008 Artists to Watch Recap:

On Notice:

In 2008 I put six artists “on notice” (a phrase I blatantly stole from Stephen Colbert), warning that those artists’ careers were treading on ice so thin that immediate positive progress—artistically and commercially—was the only thing that could keep them from fading into irrelevance.

Terri Clark scored a #1 Canadian hit with 2007’s “In My Next Life,” a perfect lead-in to a debut BNA album which was scheduled for April release. That album, titled In My Next Life, was delayed, and Clark ended up parting ways with BNA, a move seemingly devastating to the momentum she was beginning to build. Clark claimed that she made the move so that she could focus on her further growing her career in Canada, but the timing of her departure from the label remains very bizarre.

When Clark announced the move via a letter to her fan club, she hinted at differences over creative direction between herself and the label, but it’s still hard to imagine that a #1 single would not warrant a follow-up—even a half-heartedly promoted one. Clark’s decision to march forward independently may prove successful, as she follows in the footsteps of Canadian country icon Paul Brandt, but it would appear that her days of being a Nashville player are effectively over.

Of all the artists I put on notice, none successfully took hold of his career more than Jimmy Wayne. Though the music on his second album (and first for Valory) Do You Believe Me Now could hardly be called country, Wayne was able to establish himself, thanks to the booming #1 title track, as one of country radio’s top young guns. His follow-up, “I Will,” which currently sits at #28, is gaining serious traction and will likely continue climbing. Given Valory/Big Machine’s increasingly positive track record, it’s hard to imagine Wayne’s future, which spun 180 degrees in 2008, looking any brighter.

The rest of the pack failed to achieve any level of significant forward progress. Singles from Lila McCann and Heartland went nowhere, Jennifer Hanson released an album that lacked roots and seemed inappropriately targeted at the country market, and Rissi Palmer essentially abandoned all previous projects to focus on re-emerging with a new album in 2009.

Comeback Kids:

Dolly Parton was poised to return to mainstream country in a big way in 2008. She had a new record on the horizon, a national tour lined up, and countless media appearances in the queue. By all accounts, it should have been a year that found one of country’s most resilient and enduring icons reclaiming, at least for a time, her crown.

But her album, Backwoods Barbie was adequate rather than exceptional, and her busy schedule was interrupted by back problems. More so than ever before, both Parton’s voice and body faltered under the weight of her advancing age, a fact which served as a harsh reminder that time leaves no one behind—not even those as seemingly timeless as Dolly.

Elsewhere, Phil Vassar, Clay Walker and Mark Chesnutt all scored points on radio, though none of the three were able to really gain the momentum they were hoping for. Walker’s follow-up to the hit “Fall” faltered; Vassar’s Prayer of a Common Man went mostly unheard; and Chesnutt’s “Rollin’ With The Flow” quit rolling as it stalled halfway up the charts. Meanwhile, Clint Black continued to prove that his days as a hitmaker ended long ago. Few in this class of comeback kids managed to come back with any real significance.


Of the nine artists who I cited as Buzzworthy in 2008, nearly half (Jewel, Jessica Simpson, Chuck Wicks and Ashton Shepherd) scored Top 20 hits. Shepherd, on the heels of her debut album Sounds So Good, even managed to fare well in many year-end lists.

Not faring so well were ShowDog’s Carter’s Chord and Mica Roberts, two artists whose careers stalled out of the gate. Carter’s Chord started the year with programmers clamoring for more music, but the music the trio ultimately delivered failed to live up to the high expectations that had been set. So too was it true of Roberts, who, highly touted as an exceptional vocalist, underwhelmed with her debut single “Things A Mama Don’t Know.”

Funkabilly queen Joanna Cotton released her worthwhile album independently, and despite its many strengths it displayed a tendency towards artistic schizophrenia–a tendency undoubtedly at the core of her creative disputes with, and ultimate departure from, Warner Bros. Curb’s Ashley Gearing proved that once being a child prodigy is no guarantee that people in the industry will so much as give you the time of day, while the labelless Ashley Monroe collaborated with Trent Dabbs on a series of songs that seemingly indicated a growing disinterest in the kind of traditionally-laced country music that underlined her debut.

New Faces:

15 new faces—and only four achieved enough to merit remembering. Jeremy McComb quietly began building a reputation as a talented, uncompromising artist who doesn’t fit the Nashville mold, while Tootsie’s-veteran and Nashville transplant Crystal Shawanda delivered a hit single (“You Can Let Go”) and a quality debut (Dawn of a New Day), both of which showcased her gravely vocal delivery (though neither allowed it to soar to the heights of which it seems capable). Justin Moore fared as well as could be expected with a debut single titled “Back That Thing Up,” and at least earned the right to re-enter the game with a more serious follow-up (due in early 09). Finally, Dean Brody emerged at the end of year, beginning a chart climb with the touching “Brothers,” which I urged, back in January, be released as his debut.

Critic’s Picks:

Lady Antebellum stormed onto the scene with “Love Don’t Live Here,” a #3 single, and followed with “Looking For A Good Time,” which currently sits at #11. More importantly, the group delivered a warm, satisfying soft rock/country fusion that presented a unique vocal dynamic and three very talented individuals who have room to grow musically. Lady Antebellum, the group’s debut album, was as notable for its promise as for its achievement, though both were high.

James Otto’s “Just Got Started Loving You” was arguably the most pervasive single of the year, and his album Sunset Man proved that he was more than just another soulful country crooner. As I predicted, Sunset Man debuted in the top 10 on Billboard’s country albums chart, landing at #2, making Otto unquestionably one of the year’s most successful new artists.

Capitol’s Ashley Ray sent her debut album to me in the early part of 2008, and upon hearing it I must say that I was truly disappointed—disappointed in the fact that it was for my ears only and that I wouldn’t be able to share it or write about it for months. Ray’s music is a gritty, hard-edged country that finds her unique voice driving through a series of supremely crafted songs. And when Ray turns the tempo down and slips into a more traditional country sound? It’s hard to think of a young female artist who does it better. After spending the second half of 08 getting to know some radio peeps, Ray is poised to hit the ground running.

My final two picks were Montage’s Minnie Murphy and Country Thunder’s Jamie Lee Thurston. Murphy’s career launch was delayed, while Country Thunder seemingly squandered “I Just Wanna Do My Thing,” a ditty that is better than the vast majority of the equitable material on country radio. Although the label almost certainly lacked the power to make the song a hit, it was a song that could have been a platform from which to begin building a career—one which Thurston certainly has the songwriting chops to support. After all, in 2008 he landed a cut on the upcoming Rodney Atkins project (“15 Minutes”).

Which artists will pull their boots out from under their beds and reemerge this year? Which new artists will rise up and demand our attention? What acts will harness their current momentum and build on the foundation they set in 2008? Be sure to check back over the coming days as we preview country music in 2009.

  1. Occasional Hope
    January 12, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Good idea to start your predictions for this year with a retrospective on last year’s picks.

  2. Paula_W
    January 12, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Anthony Smith will have a new release this year. Tentatively (we all know how that works) scheduled for April.

    I am very biased of course, but I think he’s gonna make some very big waves.

  3. Chris N.
    January 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Er, “In My Next Life” was a Canadian No. 1, but barely made the Top 40 down here.

  4. CMW
    January 12, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    I’ll jump on the confusion train by pointing out that my copy of Trace Adkins’ X does not feature a song called “How Bad Do You Wanna Be?”

  5. Jim Malec
    January 12, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for the correction.

    Obviously it wasn’t a hit here, but I see how what I wrote implied that. Anyway, my point is that it makes no sense for her to leave BNA to focus on doing better in Canada after she just had a #1 song in Canada, on a label that would be far stronger, in terms of financial power, than an indie. Unless the label just decided that they didn’t want to deal with an artist who they deemed could no longer produce hits stateside.

    Clark was already primarily a Canadian artist at the point when BNA signed her. Bailing after one single doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  6. Jim Malec
    January 12, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    That, CM, is because (I would assume) the song was nixed after I started taking notes for this copy months ago ;-)

    Anything else, boys?

  7. CMW
    January 12, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Nice job on the recap. I look forward to seeing what’s ahead in this series.

  8. Rick
    January 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Thanks for that thoughtful recap Jim. Hopefully Ashley Monroe’s collaboration with the ever boring Trent Dabbs will be a short lived detour down a musical dead end road! Ashley still occasionally puts new folk country songs on her MySpace that are far superior to her songs with Trent.

    I really like the Carter’s Chord’s debut album and my only complaint is that too many of the songs sound a bit too much alike, although “Summer, Early 60′s” and “Goodbye Song” both stand out. I acquired a Show Dog sampler that had three songs by Mica Roberts that I found totally forgettable.

    And still no mention of Jypsi! Dang! (lol)

  9. Chris N.
    January 12, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I eagerly await the appearance of Trent Dabbs and/or Mica Roberts to administer a “Rick Smack.”

  10. Rick
    January 12, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Chris, I’ll be the first to admit I totally deserve them! I do dispense a lot of crap and therefore expect to get a fair bit of it tossed back in my face, kind of like the prison guards at Guantanamo Bay…

  11. Davey
    January 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Love James Otto. why did people in Nashville say that he’d never make it?
    Can I join you, Chris N? Mica Roberts seems to have a lot of potential. Hope she gets there.
    I’m also putting in the call for Minnie Murphy to have a good year.

  12. James Otto Sweet Heart
    January 12, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    I love James Otto so much!!! (smiles)

    God bless you and him always!!!

    Holly in East Tennessee

  13. Adam
    January 12, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    I’m curious as to why you said Sunset Man was James Otto’s debut…wasn’t it Days of Our Lives in 2004?

  14. Chris D.
    January 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    I don’t think “Love Don’t Live Here” went to #1 anywhere… It peaked at #3 in the Us and #5 in Canada though.

    Anyway, very good re-cap. I’m excited to see who you guys pick in the next few installments!

  15. Jim Malec
    January 12, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I always forget about Otto’s first album because it was so insignificant. But you’re right, Sunset Man was not a debut.

    LDLH was just a typo. Somehow a previous version of this article (not fact checked) got published. Sorry for the error.

    Thanks for being such great eyes, guys!

  16. James Otto Sweet Heart
    January 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    ^^^ I love the Days of Our Lives album from James! (smiles)

    God bless you and him always!!!

    Holly in East Tennessee

  17. Rick
    January 12, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Paula, I purchased Anthony Smith’s CD that included the title song “If That Ain’t Country” and found it a huge disappointment. Anthony has written and co-written some nice songs, but that album was very poor. It definitely made my “2002 Worst Albums List”. Hopefully Anthony will do a lot better this go round. Maybe he should enlist Jeffrey Steele to join him! Hmmm…..

  18. #1
    January 12, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    looking forward to more ashton shepherd, jamey johnson, and joey+rory

    james otto is garbage, my farts sound better than just got started loving you

  19. Marc
    January 12, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Fart music will finally emergence as the traditional country roots music we’ve been clamoring for?

    I too would welcome such a change. My farts are definitely more country than Jewel or Keith Urban. :)

  20. Paula_W
    January 13, 2009 at 9:24 am


    The title song was definitely not the best song on the album. But I do understand why it was released, it was “radio friendly”. There were some solid songs on there though. I love ‘Who Invented The Wheel’ (which Trisha Yearwood also did a great job on), ‘Metropolis’ (Sammy Kershaw sang that one well), and ‘John J Blanchard’ and ‘What Brothers Do’.

    I didnt know Anthony at that time, I met him shortly after that. I havent heard all of the new album yet, but he assures me it’s going to be ground-breaking. He’s on James Stroud’s new label ‘Stroudivarious’ (I hope I spelled that right!) and he has support from his label like he’s never had before (not dissing anybody in the past, but he’s really excited about the team of folks he’s working with now).

    I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear the full album. From what I know about it personally, and from what Anthony tells me, it’s not gonna be what the “Nashville suits” tend to crank out for the radio. So, at least it’ll be different, whether everyone likes it or not.

  21. Rick
    January 13, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Paula, I actually liked “If That Ain’t Country” best of all the songs on that album. I always enjoyed seeing the music video for that song on GAC and couldn’t understand why LA’s Top 40 country radio station at the time ignored it completely. I was just expecting the rest of the album to sound like that and it surely didn’t, sort of like with Raandy Houser’s “Anything Goes”. For whatever reasons the recorded sound quality of the song “If That Ain’t Country” is amazing compared to most of the big label Nashville output these days and would be a great track to demo high quality sound gear with.

  22. Paula_W
    January 13, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Rick — Hmmm, you’re one of the few that I’ve heard say they liked that song the best. Although I still agree it was the best song to release to radio, and I DO like the song, just not ‘best’. ‘Venus’ is a fun song too.

    I wish I could give you more of an indication of what the new album will be like, but I just dont know yet.

    Supposed to be some touring in the works for the summer, but I dont know the specifics on that yet either.

    Funny that you should mention Jeffrey in your first post. You know he just struck a deal of some sort with Best Buy to distribute his albums. (Although I havent been able to find them in any of my local stores.)

  23. Paula_W
    January 13, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I’m going to be the dissenter here and say that I’m just not all that crazy about Jamey Johnson. I like the song In Color, and I like some of the other stuff he’s written, but when he sings he sounds (to me) like he’s got a wad of tobacco in his mouth (and if he does, that’s ok, as long as it doesnt sound like it!)

  24. Paul W Dennis
    January 13, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I probably listened to less country radio in 2008 than I ever did before. A lot of the new music just did not interest me and most of the newcomers’s albums were just too inconsistant.

    One of the cable networks pushed the Road Hammers but other than “Girl On The Billboard”, none of their music was memorable – a shame since Jason McCoy’s previous solo efforts were good

    James Otto, Crystal Shawanda, Hayes Carl, Randy Houser, Ashton Shepherd and Lady Antebellum all had songs that I liked on their albums, but also songs I did not like. The Joey + Rory album was pretty good but I can only take so much bluegrass before I lose interest. I think the Jamey Johnson and Patty Loveless albums were probably the best two CDs Nashville produced in 2008

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible to re-start a cold career in Nashville. Country radio simply won’t let you. Even if an older artist gets a stray hit (like “Find Out Who Your Friends Are”) radio won’t play the follow up. Canadian artists such as Lisa Brokup, Paul Brandt and others have been able to re-connect with their Canadian fan base so it seems that Terri Clark is behaving rationally in turning her attentions northward – eh ?

    For 2009 I’d love to hear

    More steel guitar
    Less Mandolin
    Subdued lead guitars
    A non-acoustic album without drums

    The arrival of the next Dallas Frazier or Harlan Howard and less of the slop produced by songwriting committees

    As the line in Jack Greene’s great early 70s hit put it “I’ll keep on dreaming, until my dreams come true”

  25. Linda
    January 14, 2009 at 1:12 am

    I was wondering what happened to Carter’s Chord’s album. That’s too bad they didn’t make it.

  26. Adam
    January 14, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I also thought James Otto’s first release was pretty good. I picked it up for a $1 in a used bin, and it was worth at least 4 times that much :)

    I saw Jamey Johnson at a county fair in Westminster, MD. His live show is kind of dull, but I listen to That Lonesome Song all the time.

  27. Michael
    January 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Mark Chesnutt has always been a favorite of mine. I wish his cover of “Rollin’ With the Flow” had been more successful.

  28. PaulaW
    January 22, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Paul: As the line in Jack Greene’s great early 70s hit put it “I’ll keep on dreaming, until my dreams come true”

    Well, that song is playing now on the XM channel I am listening to. So, maybe it’s a sign? :-)


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