2022 was a renaissance year for country music. It arguably received it’s biggest refresh since bro-country took over in the early 2010s. It has found a new audience through embracing the neo-traditionalism of 90s country, and the work ethic–or at least the aesthetic–of the rancher (thanks, Yellowstone). Here are my picks for the top five artists that have influenced country’s “new-old” sound.
#5 – Brandi Carlile
Carlile burst onto the scene in 2019 not as an artist, but as a producer on Tanya Tucker’s career-resurging album While I’m Livin’. Since then, Carlile has been an omnipresence in country music. The openly-lesbian belter has astonishing pipes that have impressed everyone in the industry from Wynonna Judd and P!nk. Carlile will wrap her tour with the Judds this winter, and become main support for P!nk on her 2023 world tour. Carlile may have been everywhere this year, but her crossover success is just beginning.
#4 – Lainey Wilson
Didn’t it seem like Lainey Wilson came out of no where? Well it took her over a decade in Nashville to do it. The reigning CMA New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year has earned her success the old-fashioned way: through grit and determination. Her spitfire, never-give-up attitude and true originality has captured the hearts and ears of millions. And now, every new female artist on the block wants to be Lainey Wilson. Just look at the way they are dressing.
#3 – Zach Bryan
Zach Bryan is another hard worker. The 26 year old Okinawa Japan-born, Oklahoma native has not stopped releasing music. His 34-song American Heartbreak album was released by Warner earlier this year. A bevy of singles along the way has cemented Bryan as one of the most prolific songwriters and country singers of the new decade. The music has yet to capture the attention of the award-show circuit. And Bryan has maintained radio silence with nearly no media appearances. But 2023 will feature some of his very first headlining gigs that will introduce this musical enigma to the wider world for who he really is.
#2 – Warren Zeiders
There are TikTokers who may be more viral. There are TikTokers who may look more metropolitan. But no country music TikToker (CountryToker, if you will) is putting out the kind of music that Warren Zeiders has released. Every number on the Hershey, PA native’s 717 Tapes project is an instant classic. How do I know? Because I saw a sold out crowd at the 300-seater Birchmere on their feet, singing every word. Oh, and Zeiders was performing with just him, a guitar, and a second guitarist. But it sounded like an arena full of fans. Plus, when Zeiders made his two-song Opry debut with “Wild Horses” and “Ride the Lightning,” the crowd gave him a minutes-long standing ovation. Watching his career this year, I stand by what I said over the summer: Warren Zeiders is a future Country Music Hall of Famer.
#1 – Cody Johnson
Are we really that surprised? “Till You Can’t,” The breakout song from the breakout album Human: The Double Album is everywhere. It is the song of 2022. Johnson himself is as cowboy as they come. He battled a severe cold at a recent Las Vegas concert because he had been roping in Sin City all week prior during the National Finals Rodeo. Every song Johnson performs at his high-energy, Garth-in-the-90s-like shows is as authentic as they come, because of his own lived life. And that makes for timeless country music. We’ll be seeing a Bronze plaque in the Unbroken Circle for him in the future, too.