Every year, Wide Open Country likes to dish up 10 unsigned country artists you really need to hear. And, not to toot our own horn, but we have a pretty good track record of picking some acts with big things in their futures.
But most importantly, we think you’ll really enjoy the music from these independent musicians forging their own paths. Let’s take a look at 10 of the best unsigned country artists for 2018.
10. Kendell Marvel
Kendell Marvel has been one of Nashville’s most beloved writers for decades now. His writing career includes tunes for everybody from Chris Stapleton (a frequent collaborator) and George Strait to Blake Shelton and Jake Owen.
But in late 2017, Marvel finally stepped out on his own as an artist, independently releasing Lowdown & Lonesome. Somewhere between ZZ Top, Stapleton and maybe just a bit of Waylon Jennings, Marvel is a formidable singer with the chops to deliver some serious roots rock-inspired country music.
9. Ryan Beaver
Ryan Beaver got his musical start at Texas State University in San Marcos, and though his Texas country ties remain strong (he’s written tunes for Kyle Park and Rob Baird and co-written with artists like Wade Bowen and Brian Keane), Beaver made the move to Nashville years ago.
His 2016 album Rx is one of the most under-appreciated albums to come out of the scene in some time, but that doesn’t mean Beaver hasn’t built up a great name for himself and a nice following in Tennessee.
8. Josh Ward
Considering it’s been almost three years since Josh Ward let a record out, you may be wondering what’s so timely about his appearance on this list. It turns out that his 2015 record Holding Me Together has done so well at Texas radio that the cowboy country singer just kept riding the success.
Dating back to 2012, Ward has now eight consecutive No. 1 singles on Texas country radio, including his most recent, “You Don’t Have To Be Lonely.” With a sound that fits somewhere between Cody Johnson and Luke Combs, Josh Ward has built a great career without a label.
7. Sarah Darling
Sarah Darling’s talent is no secret in Nashville. And in fact, she spent about five years at Broken Bow Records from 2008-13. She and the label parted ways around the height of the bro country fad, and she set out on the process of writing and recording her gorgeous 2017 independent record Dream Country.
With the increasing popularity of streaming and the ability to get noticed outside the traditional means of success, Darling has a real chance to gain the kind of attention a label couldn’t help her find.
6. Jenny Tolman
The neo-traditional corner of country music has never been stronger, and Jenny Tolman is a great example of it. With whip-smart writing and a buttery smooth vocal with just the right southern flip, Tolman’s found her sweet spot. After all, it’s not easy to make music your grandma would love with lyrics your average 20-something resonates with.
Working with producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Niemann), Tolman fits right in with critical contemporaries like Clark, Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack.
5. Sunny Sweeney
Sunny Sweeney joins the list of incredibly talented women who no record label seems to be able to pin down. She’s had stints with Big Machine and Republic Nashville, but the Texas native really found her stride when she went the independent route. In 2014, she released Provoked, and her fourth album Trophy became one of the most critically-acclaimed records of 2017.
Sweeney co-wrote much of Trophy alongside heavy hitters like Lori McKenna and Caitlyn Smith. “Bottle By My Bed” was on the short list for best song of 2017.
4. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors
Formed in 2005, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors are some of the hardest working folks in the Americana/roots scene. You’ve probably heard their music in one of many popular TV shows throughout time, and the fact that they’ve sold well over 100,000 records on their own goes to show just how much the band’s poignant lyrics resonate with fans.
In 2017, they released Souvenir, a record that peaked at No. 3 on the U.S. Folk chart and No. 5 on the U.S. Rock chart.
3. Josh Grider
Josh Grider is gearing up for a big 2018 with the pending release of his new record Good People. The Texas-based, New Mexico born country singer has steadily built a following over the last 10 years with release after consistent release.
Now, Grider takes the reins once again with a self-funded record comprising his strongest material to date. One of Texas’ best kept secrets so far, Grider has the potential to make noise on a major scale as an independent artist.
2. Gwen Sebastian
Gwen Sebastian has had one of the more interesting career arcs, but one that isn’t entirely unfamiliar to a lot of Nashville acts. She released her first few projects on an independent label in the late 2000s before auditioning for The Voice in 2012. After the show, she struck up a friendship with coach Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert.
Sebastian spent years singing alongside and opening for Lambert on tour (and on records) before releasing her first new album in years late last year, Once Upon A Time In The West.
1. Maggie Rose
Stop me if you’ve heard this one — Maggie Rose is a phenomenally talented female artist who, once upon a time, had a deal with a major label. And while her 2013 debut Cut To Impress fared pretty well in the traditional scheme of things, she again fell victim to the typical schemings of the major system. But now she’s back with a sound all her own, fueled by equal parts pop, country and soul.
Rose self-released the not-so-subtly titled Dreams > Dollars EP in 2017 and once again has the music world a-flitter.