Country music welcomed a slew of up-and-comers into its fold in 2021, and the new crop of artists hail from every corner of the genre. There are singer-songwriters, solo artists, groups and duos; some acts are as traditional as can be, while others explore new avenues and push the genre’s boundaries. A fair number of country’s hot new artists first found success on televised singing competitions like American Idol and The Voice, while a growing number first found success through viral TikTok videos or established their fan bases independently through social media.
But no matter how they broke into the genre, all 15 of Country Now’s 2022 Artists to Watch are poised for success in the year ahead. Many of them will be on tour with some of the biggest A-Listers in the format, while others are striking out on their own headlining runs in 2022. Read on to get to know country’s hottest new incoming acts, and get a preview of some of the voices you’re sure to hear on country radio in the months ahead.
21-year-old Virginia native Alana Springsteen chronicles all the peaks and valleys that come along with falling in love in her 2021 studio debut, History of Breaking Up (Part One). The seven-song project charts a series of highs and lows that fully display her vocal range, and a rawness that the singer says is critical to who she is as an artist.
She has likened her songs to diary entries, and for Springsteen, that vulnerability has been a part of her life since she started writing songs at the age of 10. She signed a publishing deal four years later, and in the years since, she’s only continued to hone her craft. History of Breaking Up (Part One) also includes a variety of powerhouse co-writes, such as “Zero Trucks,” which Springsteen wrote with “Fancy Like” superstar Walker Hayes.
Boy Named Banjo
Joining in the genre-bending traditions of groups like the Zac Brown Band is Boy Named Banjo, a five-piece, Nashville-based group of guys who first bonded over a shared love of bluegrass and the kind of rootsy country music based around instruments like mandolins, guitars, and of course, the titular banjo.
The group recorded three albums before 2015, but it was 2021 that saw their star begin to rise in earnest, after the pandemic unexpectedly kept them off the road and they spent all that extra time hard at work on new music. Finally, with a fresh deal with Mercury Records and a seven-song EP called Circles under their belt, the band returned to the road with a vengeance. In 2021, they grew their fanbase exponentially while on the road for their Where The Night Goes Tour. They closed things out with a hometown Nashville show the day before Christmas, but 2022 promises even more big things for this group.
One of the fastest-rising artists of 2021, Brittney Spencer launched her first-ever headlining tour at the end of the year. It was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and string of recent successes: The singer-songwriter began performing in her church choir at age three, and she spent years posting cover songs by some of her favorite artists on social media. One of those — a rendition of The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” — earned her recognition from the artists themselves, with Highwomen band mates Maren Morris and Amanda Shires retweeting Spencer’s version and ultimately inviting her to perform with the band.
She’s gone on to become an in-demand collaborator in the country genre, also releasing a bevy of her own solo work, including her 2020 debut EP Compassion. A powerful performer who blends soul and pop influences into her country roots, Spencer is also among those leading the charge of making space for Black women in country music. In one particularly memorable performance, she joined Mickey Guyton and Madeline Edwards on the stage of the 2021 CMA Awards, performing a visually stunning rendition of Guyton’s “Love My Hair” in a segment introduced by Faith Fennidy, the young girl who inspired the song.
American Idol stardom is just the beginning for Chayce Beckham, who won Season 19 of the show early in February 2021. While competing, he quickly established himself as a country act with ample rock influences, performing songs by Tyler Childers, Zac Brown Band and Chris Stapleton as well as Incubus, the Beatles and a couple of originals, too.
After winning the show, Beckham has continued to find success outside of Idol. He’s released songs like “23” and a duet with Lindsay Ell, “Can’t Do Without Me.” With no plans of slowing down in 2022, he’ll head to Canada in March to perform a string of dates on Luke Combs’ tour along with fellow opening act Riley Green.
Buzz around singer-songwriter Conner Smith was already brewing throughout 2021, but it was a viral hit called “I Hate Alabama” — timed perfectly to coincide with this year’s football season — that officially put his rising career into overdrive. Since then, he’s caught listeners’ ears with other releases like “Why I Can’t Leave,” and his growing fanbase will have plenty of chances to see him on tour in 2022, too. Smith is opening for Ryan Hurd’s Tour de Pelago tour beginning in January, and he’s also on the bill for the Sam Hunt-led Casa Fiesta in Cancun, Mexico next March.
Although he’s riding the wave of a particularly hot moment in his career right now, Smith is no flash in the pan: A Tennessee native who soaked up early influences from the Music City songwriting community, he first signed as a writer with BMI when he was only nine years old and snagged a publishing deal at the tender age of 16.
Singing about the rural life is a staple in country music, but no artist comes more honestly by their small-town subject matter than Dalton Dover. The up-and-comer still lives in the same 1,200-population Georgia town where he grew up, along with his wife and the couple’s two young children.
He set those country roots to music with his 2021 release, “You Got a Small Town,” a single that blends Jason Aldean-esque heavy guitars with smooth vocals that showcase ‘90s country inspirations like Joe Diffie and Rhett Akins. But Dover proved his versatility with his next release, “Baby I Am,” a sultry love song as influenced by R&B as it is by modern-day pop country.
The latest in a lineage of Big Loud Records-signed songwriters turned artists that also includes HARDY and Morgan Wallen, ERNEST has already notched four No. 1 hits as a songwriter. Those are Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown,” Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country,” Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the ‘90s” and Chris Lane’s “Big, Big Plans.” His songwriting success isn’t stopping there: He’s also a co-writer on Lane’s current single, “Fill Them Boots,” as well as “One Mississippi,” Kane Brown’s current submission to country radio.
Big songwriting credits aside, ERNEST is poised for superstardom under his own name in 2022: “American Rust,” a fiddle-filled, nostalgic track he put out earlier this year, earned the singer a growing crop of fans. He’ll close out the year strong with the New Year’s Eve release of “Flower Shops,” a duet with Morgan Wallen that he’s been teasing on social media.
Kat & Alex
Ever since fans first got to know them as contestants on American Idol, Kat & Alex have been handily paving their own lane in the country genre. The duo — who are also partners in the romantic sense, and got married early in 2021 — bring a rare dynamic to country music as a male-female vocal duo, and also as Latin country artists. In late 2020, they released their debut single, “How Many Times,” in both English and Spanish.
As 2021 drew to a close, the duo continued to check more milestones off their career bucket list, making their Grand Ole Opry debut in mid-October and following it up with a second performance on the hallowed stage the following month. As they continue to release their own new music, they also showcase their love of modern-day country with cover performances of songs like Luke Combs’ “Forever After All.”
Laci Kaye Booth
Another entry onto this year’s list that comes courtesy of American Idol stardom is Laci Kaye Booth, a Texas native who turned heads with her audition performance of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” — and her country-as-heck accent — and ultimately landed as one of her season’s Top 5 finalists.
While her traditional country chops were self-evident, Booth quickly began to demonstrate her own signature style: A soulful, Stevie Nicks-informed approach she calls “dreamy country.” In recent months, she’s released a string of songs and videos that exemplify her “dreamy country,” including her fall 2021 country radio single, “Shuffle.”
Larry Fleet released his debut country radio single, “Where I Find God,” in 2020, but it was 2021 that truly found the singer-songwriter fleshing out his musical personality for fans. His full-length album, Stack of Records, delivers compelling storytelling and a deep reverence for the traditional side of the country music genre, painting him as one of country music’s most eloquent new storytellers.
Listeners will have the chance to get to know Fleet a whole lot better in 2022, as he’s scheduled to join the bill of Morgan Wallen’s The Dangerous Tour, along with fellow opener Hardy. 2021 also gave Fleet his first-ever opportunity to play the Grand Ole Opry, and he took the stage with the support of his two biggest fans: His kids Waylon and Stella, who got to watch from the sidelines and even join him for a picture in the stage’s iconic circle.
If you’re a fan of Ashley McBryde’s underdog grit and punch-packing songwriting style, Morgan Wade is likely to make your ears perk up. The up-and-comer stormed onto the scene early in 2021 with her major label debut, Reckless, a collection that charts a difficult course through Wade’s experience with sobriety, relationships and more.
Hailing from Floyd, Va. Wade makes music colored by the bluegrass influences she picked up in her hometown, but her current sound falls much more into the category of battle-tested country pop, with just a hint of breezy rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a winning combination that she’ll take to big stages in 2022, including her recently-announced opening slot on Luke Combs’ run of stadium shows.
Nate Smith just signed a record deal with Sony Music Nashville in November 2021, but long before then, he was beginning to grow his fan base through his gripping, story-filled songwriting style and emotion-packed vocal chops. A native of Paradise, California, Smith found grassroots success with the release of his song, “One of These Days,” inspired by a wildfire that devastated his hometown.
Since moving to Nashville, Smith has continued to garner new fans with the release of songs like “Wildfire” and, most recently, a piano ballad called “I Don’t Wanna Go to Heaven.” He’s continued to incorporate the story that first introduced him to many of his fans — his experience of living in a place rocked by natural disaster — into his performance style, recently appearing on the bill of a Nashville benefit concert benefiting those affected by a surge of tornadoes in Kentucky.
A picture-perfect visual representation of Texas country, Randall King is seldom seen without a cowboy hat, a George Strait-esque grin and a pair of well-worn boots. But even more striking than his deeply traditional country aesthetic is his smooth, lilting voice, one that would be right at home in a honky tonk or at the top of the country radio charts in the ‘90s.
King has played stages of all description, from tiny venues in his hometown of Amarillo, Texas to massive stages as an opening act for Garth Brooks. He closed out 2021 as one of country’s most promising modern-day traditionalists, and he’ll continue to ride the momentum of his success in 2022 with a slew of new releases and a packed tour calendar.
Tyler Braden made his introduction to Brantley Gilbert fans in the back half of 2021, joining the bill of Gilbert’s The Worst Country Tour of All Time. Despite the run’s name — taken from Gilbert’s collaboration with HARDY and Toby Keith, “The Worst Country Song of All Time” — Braden’s set list added some serious firepower to the show, adding extra momentum to his November 2021 debut EP, What Do They Know.
Braden was a co-writer on all seven tracks on that project, including stand-out track “Try Losing One,” a gritty heartbreak ballad that puts the singer-songwriter’s story-telling prowess and emotional nuance on full display. It’s a trend he’s sure to continue live in 2022, as he’s booked for a batch of shows beginning in January.
Walker Montgomery’s country music pedigree is impressive — he’s the son of John Michael Montgomery, nephew of Montgomery Gentry’s Eddie Montgomery and cousin of Dillon Carmichael — and his Music City friendships aren’t too shabby, either. He’s signed to Play it Again Music, owned by legendary country songwriter Dallas Davison, who personally pitched Montgomery his song, “Like My Daddy Done It.”
But there’s more than an eye-catching resume behind the up-and-comer. The Kentucky native racked up over 9 million streams after he independently released his debut EP, Simple Town. Since then, he’s increasingly shown a knack for quippy humor and relatability in his songwriting with the release of colorful titles like “Bad Day to Be a Beer.”