10 country musicians to watch in 2011

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As I culled through lists of new and upcoming releases from new and up-and-coming country artists, I couldn't help but notice a pattern: many were by women, and most of those by women who seemed to be taking country in a slightly new direction (occasionally, the "new" direction one that country has sadly meandered away from since the days of Dolly, Tammy and Loretta). And so, I hereby declare 2011 the Year of the Woman in Country Music. I can do that, y'know.


Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers

Brought up in Seattle in the 1980s, it's a wonder why Zoe Muth stumbled her way into country/folk/roots music, but it seems she found a different genre in which she could wear her second-hand flannels thanks to her early exposure to the field recordings of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, as well as an appreciation for the musical and lyrical sensibilities of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and the Carter Family. Her self-titled album, released in 2010, has been cited as one of the best of the year and is chock-full of the twangy story songs you'd expect from someone raised up on the music Muth was. Expect also a sophomore album, due out in April.


Joanna Smith

At only twenty-two years old, singer and songwriter Joanna Smith channels a young Dolly Parton with a playful, humorous charm many young musicians in Nashville seem to lack these days. Fresh off of signing a contract with Columbia in 2010, Smith charted with her first single "Gettin' Married," and we can expect a follow-up single, "Georgia Mud," in 2011.


The Secret Sisters

Having found professional friends in the likes of Jack White and T-Bone Burnett, the Secret Sisters have had an incredible year between recording their first album, released in October 2010, with assistance from White and Burnett on all analog equipment at Nashville's legendary Blackbird Studios, to performing next to notable musicians ranging from Elvis Costello to Elton John. The pair sounds unmistakably like the country musicians of a bygone era, and like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family before them, they hail from the rural South - in this case, the small burgh of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, an area that has served as a sort of breeding grounds for great blues, rock and country music over the last half-century plus.


Sunny Sweeney

Though her original aspirations were as a comedienne, in 2007 this Houston native switched gears and released her first album, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame, to little acclaim. But this didn't send Sweeney back to the improv club circuit of New York City - she released her second album in 2010, and its first single "From a Table Away" debuted at 58. Sweeney's since gathered up plenty of favorable reviews from critics appreciative of her honky tonk energy and roadhouse attitude.


Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert has undoubtedly already hit it big, but we think she's still got plenty of room to grow. 2011 will bring not only the release of the fifth single off her 2009 album Revolution, but as rumor has it also her marriage to artist Blake Shelton (woohoo!) and hopefully another full-length album.


Laura Bell Bundy

After several years enduring the way-too-seriousness of artists like Carrie Underwood, it's my hope that artists like Laura Bell Bundy as well as the aforementioned Miranda Lambert and Joanna Smith will loosen things up a bit with their willingness to be a little silly, sing irreverent lyrics and sport bad makeup and costumes in their music videos. Bundy's acting resume is far longer than her musical one - you may have seen her most recently as a recurring character on How I Met Your Mother - but her major label debut started out at #5 on the Top Country Albums chart last spring, as well as #28 on the all-genre Billboard 200.


Sahara Smith

When T-Bone Burnett hasn't been busy lending his signature sound to that of the Secret Sisters, among about a million other things, he's also played a major part in the production of Sahara Smith's debut album, Myth of the Heart. The 22-year-old's album hasn't been picked up by mainstream country yet, but her sultry, mature voice landed her a spot as musical guest on the Late Show with David Letterman.


Krystal Keith

Color us curious - Toby Keith's daughter Krystal is set to release her debut album in 2011 (his rule was that she wait 'til she graduated college). If the above video is any indication, Krystal has the same strong voice as her father. Let's just hope she stays away from songs about patriotism. And, importantly, from any more covers of the worst duet in history. Ick. I hate this song (yea-uh, yeah-uh, a-boom boom boom).


The Band Perry

We got to observe Brooks & Dunn backstage alongside this sibling trio after they opened for the pair at Cheyenne's Frontier Days last summer, and couldn't help but dub them Hot Topic Country (it was the hair, mostly). To be honest, we were a little drunk on free Coors (etc.) when they played, so we're anxious to hear them play at the hometown county fair this summer, when we're a little more sober (maybe, probably not?).


Lucinda Williams

Not a new face of country (folk/Americana/rock) by a stretch, it's still worth noting that Lucinda Williams will be releasing her new album Blessed March 1 on the Lost Highway label. Early word is that the album contains songs that are slightly more optimistic than her characteristic work, her music perhaps evolving in a happier direction following her 2009 marriage to music executive Tom Overby onstage at First Avenue. The album will feature her duet with Elvis Costello, "Kiss Like Your Kiss," featured on the HBO series True Blood.


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