Every month, Wide Open Country will spotlight three country or roots music acts with upside that's yet to equal commercial airplay or inclusion on taste-making playlists.
In most cases, Acts to Watch isn't code for new. Most appeared on our radar after years of paying dues on stage and in the studio.
Read on to meet April 2021's three Acts to Watch.
Like many of our Acts to Watch selections, Courtney Dickinson knew from a young age that she wanted to chase country stardom.
Her dream dates back to at least age 5, when she made her stage debut with the Little General Cloggers dance group at the Grand Ole Opry. Other golden opportunities for the Georgia native came after she won an Atlanta radio station's contest to sing a duet with Billy Ray Cyrus and when the Braves selected her as a national anthem singer.
In recent years, she's impacted the Music Row chart with the singles "So Over the Rainbow" and "Freedom."
Yet it's her last two releases that caught our attention: "See You Here" and "Convenience Store."
First came "See You Here," a song and music video that find Dickinson reminiscing about time spent with her late grandparents.
"If anyone knows me well, they know how close I was to my grandparents," Dickinson says in a press release. "I got to bring my grandparents to life in this video. It was filmed in Alabama at their house and surrounding farmland. Holidays are always hard when you've lost a close loved one. This is the time of year when everyone reminisces of all the fond memories they shared with people they have lost. I hope this video will help everyone remember the special times with their loved ones. Watching this video definitely brings back many happy memories for me."
More recently, Dickinson shared "Convenience Store," a biting critique of those who won't take a hint.
"This song is one of my favorites I have ever written," she says in a press release. "My writing partner, Erik Halbig, and I were actually having trouble coming up with something to write, but once the idea hit, I just knew we had to write it. It's a fun way of telling that certain someone that texts you at midnight that you aren't just there only at their convenience. It really became an empowerment song and I am really proud of that."
If you didn't know about Houston-born and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Triston Marez going into 2021, you likely became aware of the 24 year old in March through Ronnie Dunn duet "Where the Neon Lies."
Dunn's ringing endorsement paid off years of hard work that date back to when Marez received his first guitar on his 6th birthday.
Then came a life-saving heart operation during Marez's middle school years left him at home for six months.
"I wasn't able to do anything but sit at home and play the guitar," Marez says in a press release. "That's the time I really fell in love with making music."
A few years later, Marez made his on-stage debut as a teenager en route to winning the 2014 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's talent competition.
"The winner received a full day in the studio to record some songs, which encouraged me as a songwriter to create something worth recording," he said in a press release. "Those songs ended up being my first two singles. Six months at home transitioned into everything I'm doing now."
At age 18, Marez chased one of his mother's unrealized dreams by moving to Nashville. Since then, he's sharpened his talents as an on-stage performer while opening for the likes of Aaron Watson and Randall King.
The latest circumstance to shape Marez's creative path is one that's impacted us all: the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Since I couldn't tour last year, I dedicated myself to songwriting," says Marez in a press release. "That was my goal. The songs on this album get to the heart of who I am."
The end result is a self-titled debut album that should make Dunn proud. Like his famous collaborator before him, Marez honors country music's past while pushing the genre forward. This can be heard on love song "When She Calls Me Cowboy," home state throwback "Texas Swing" (a Squeezebox Bandits and Jessica Roadcap collaboration, co-written by Gabe Lee) and other standout tracks.
Marez's new album arrives April 16 via co-producer Alex Torrez's Torrez Music Group.
Nashville-based artist Jennifer Smestad has experienced some of the highest personal highs, such has her 2013 reign as Miss Arizona and the opportunity to compete in the Miss America pageant that followed. Through those days and a stay in Music City that began in 2016, she's overcome obstacles outside of her control-- she was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety at age 10.
Smestad's Christian faith and loving family helped guide her through those triumphs and challenges. Nowadays, both Christ and kinfolks provide comfort and support through the long game that is country music while inspiring some of Smestad's most moving, confessional lyrics.
For example, "Find Me Here" deals with keeping your personal faith intact in the face of great personal loss, while "Half the Man" and its music video pay tribute to her father, veteran United Airlines pilot Captain Gary Smestad.
Here's a Spotify playlist featuring every Wide Open Country Act to Watch to date.