Artists To Watch In 2009: Recapping 2008
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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