It’s a big night for country music stars—and these newbies that are set to reign on stage are ones to keep an eye on. Country music’s habit of keeping a low profile on the popular culture scene has officially peaked; this year’s crop of new stars is not only bringing the songwriting heat to the country genre, but also landing it’s singles on the Hot 100 charts that have the whole world crooning along.
With country music’s biggest night just around the corner, check out this year’s picks for best “to watch” music stars who are making waves in the industry and landing you with a head full of croons that you just can’t shake.
- Chris Stapleton
If anyone was a breakaway mainstream star this year, it was Chris Stapleton. With his hit “Tennessee Whiskey” and it’s subsequent covers by Justin Timberlake, Sam Smith, and more, the country newcomer is making waves both in his genre and on the bigger pop stage, making him definitely one to watch.
Get ahead of the game by listening to his debut album Traveller, paying special attention to songs “Drink You Away” and “Nobody to Blame.” Both are showstoppers from the album and are as good (or maybe even better) than his more well known hit. But while he’s up for the Best New Male Vocal artist, it won’t be his first award. At the 2015 CMAs, he took awards home for Best New Artist, Best Male Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year. In fact, he’s not new to the country music scene either, having written hits for Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton, only this time he’s making the headlines for himself.
- Kelsea Ballerini
The country up-and-comer has had quite the upstart year, landing both her first two singles on the Number 1 charts and adding her name to a select group of female country stars (including industry queen Faith Hill) who have done the same. “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs” have become instant hits, and belong on your upstart morning playlist. But be warned, these country pop ballads are sure to be stuck in your head for good.
But she’s not just up for Best New Female Voice of the Year, she’s also set to perform a set with Nick Jonas at the awards show—for sure cementing her rising star status on the country music scene. Her recently released “Peter Pan” is set to become another platinum hit, so keep your eyes on this newcomer who has the sweetheart disposition of country music’s favorite gals.
- Sam Hunt
Receiving two nods from the show alongside Ballerini, Georgia-born Hunt is no newcomer to the country world, foregoing a college football career to pursue music after signing with MCA Nashville in 2014. His debut album Montevallo, which went on to claim double-platinum status, included three platinum US Charts hits for singles “Take Your Time,” “House Party” and “Leave the Night On,” making him the first country music star to have all of the singles from a single debut album to peak on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
While being a wildly popular as a solo artist since he popped onto the scene two years ago, Hunt has also been amazingly successful writing hits for industry heavyweights Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington and Reba McEntire, and everything hints at this powerhouse not slowing down anytime soon.
- Brett Eldredge
With three #1 singles from his debut album on the Country Music Airplay, Eldredge is no lightweight, and his nominations for Male Vocalist of the Year and New Male Vocalist of the Year prove it. In addition to his nominations, Eldredge is set to perform his single “Drunk On Your Love” at the show, and with an award under his belt already with last year’s CMA New Artist of the Year award, the soul-sounding, chart-topping singer is making waves with his country slash R&B/Blues signature.
Known for making music even with the unrefined elements of regular office supplies and his easily identifiable soul-twang, Eldredge is definitely one to watch as he takes his Ray Charles vibes on tour with Darius Rucker.
- Thomas Rhett
Son of Akins Rhett, Thomas Rhett is no newbie to the country scene and comes by his Southern roots honest. With 8 singles from his two albums, It Goes Like This (2013) and Tangled Up (2015), and 5 that have landed as Number 1 on the Country Charts, the Valdosta, Georgia native is on a steady rise to the top. Check out his single, “Die A Happy Man,” from his most recent album for a classic country love song that optimizes its acoustic harmonies to sound just right.
He’s toured with the likes of fellow CMA 2016 nominees Brett Eldredge, Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum. He’s also written songs for Jason Aldean, Georgia Florida Line and Lee Brice, and co-wrote his own album. For someone who grew up with Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks frequenting his living room, it’s only the beginning for this singer-songwriter.
Have your own set of favorites to watch or a March Madness version of the ACM Awards on who will take home the big wins? Leave us a comment and all your predictions on what you expect on award night, and don’t forget country music song suggestions!