One of my signature features over the years is the Roughstock's Ones To Watch list for a given year and last year (2022)’s list was no different. We saw Chapel Heart score a Final Four placement on America’s Got Talent and an increased profile with 2023 suggesting an even bigger breakout; Elvie Shane scored his first #1 hit while building a touring profile; Morgan Wade continues to pack shows across the USA as she builds into a 21st century star; Conner Smith scored a hit on the charts while our biggest bet, Lainey Wilson truly came up big. With two #1 hits, a pair of CMA Awards and a critically-acclaimed sophomore album release, Lainey truly looks to be the superstar of 2022’s list and with that in mind, we’re on to 2023’s list, a list which features a wide variety of talent. Some, like last year’s list, have released albums or have singles rising up the charts, others are just beginning their journeys up the various country music charts. With that said, onto the Class of 2023.
Nate Smith (Arista Nashville/Sony Music Nashville)
The full-throated California native is set to release his debut album in February and it’s looking like he’ll be doing so with a huge hit on his hands in “Whiskey On You.” The song is the first from the 20 track album which also includes the powerful “Wreckage,” a song which might be his “here for good” moment as it has a potent vocal delivery and an honest and raw set of lyrics. And those are just two of the many good to great songs on the album which finds Smith somewhere between the vocals of Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton. That is, he’s joins a talented bench of vocally talented singer/songwriters in current country music.
Brittney Spencer (Elektra Records)
Another talented vocalist, Brittney Spencer has been building up to the moment that will be 2023 for a few years now. Her just-released EP If I Ever Get There: a day at Blackbird Studio showcases why she’s on everyone’s radar as an artist to watch. She blends the country roots and soul better than perhaps anyone and her 2020 independently released EP Compassion followed a time serving as a background vocalist for Carrie Underwood on tour. Spencer eventually became more well-known for her performance on the 2021 (55th) edition of the CMA Awards where she performed with Madeline Edwards (also a Warner Music Group artist) and Mickey Guyton.
Megan Moroney (Arista/Sony/Sony Music Nashville)
Signed to a dual label deal with both SMN and the parent company Sony’s Arista label, Megan Moroney is set to break out in 2022 outside of TikTok and viral charts as her single “Tennessee Orange” is set to break out on country radio in 2023 as she readies her debut album for Arista/Sony/SMN later on in 2023.
Gabe Lee (Torrez Music Group)
The Nashville native’s career has been steadily building up through the sheer audacity of working hard and focusing on what makes Gabe Lee truly great: the songs. He’s released three albums to date, 2019’s Farmland, 2020’s Honky Tonk Hell and 2022’s The Hometown Kid. There’s been slight musical evolution over the course of these three records yet Lee remains who he is, an engaging singer/songwriter making the kind of music that has echoes of Earle, Crowell, and Nelson weaving through it.
Shane Profitt (Harpeth 60/BMLG Records)
With just three songs out in the world as a recording artist, Shane Profitt is already showcasing why Chris Janson, Jimmy Harnen and Scott Brochette were right to bet on him as another rising star in country music. He makes interesting music. "How It Oughta Be" is a classic 90s country like song and the Tennessee native's debut single is Top 30 and rising as 2022 turnes into 2023. Primed to release his full-length album in 2023, Profitt is on the precipice of stardom and we're looking forward to following his journey in 2023.
Kimberly Kelly (Showdog Records)
While Kimberly Kelly's debut album (I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen) for Show Dog Records arrived in July of 2022, her first official single is slated for an early 2023 release. And, like Ashley McBryde and Carly Pearce before her, Kimberly Kelly is a “traditionalist” at heart, even if her brand of country music owes more to 90s country music than it does the classic country music of the 1950s or 1960s. She is poised to join those two firebrand female artists as one of the genre's purest neo-traditionalist vocalists in 2023.
Breland (Bad Realm/Warner Music Nashville)
2023 saw Breland’s Cross Country hit stores and with it critical acclaim. The album, features 14 tracks of various production styles with several featuring guests like Keith Urban, Mickey Guyton, Lady A and Ingrid Andress and Thomas Rhett. While all of these songs are great, a couple of them and Breland’s own solo moments on it stand out the most. For more on that, check out our review. One song “Natural” blends the melody from “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” into a whole new song where Breland honors the beautiful women in his world. This man, like Jimmie Allen and Chris Janson before him, is a charismatic entertainer who has an audience in the palm of his hands every time he performs. With his gift of collaboration, Breland is destined to break out in 2023 even more than he already has in 2022.
Patrick Murphy (Warner Music Nashville)
Kolby Cooper (Combustion/Wheelhouse/BBRMG)
The latest BBRMG breakout artist, Cooper has been working towards this moment as his debut single “Excuses” is rising up the charts as 2022 turned into 2023. The song, from his first Wheelhouse Records release (in conjunction with Combustion Music) Boy From Anderson County to the Moon finds Cooper blending the Red Dirt music of Texas with a more mainstream, modern country approach and it seemingly is working. The build up to his current position has been steady and true and 2023 and beyond looks very bright, indeed.
David Adam Byrnes (Four17/Reviver Records)
One of Texas Music’s most-promising artists, Arkansas native David Adam Barnes had to leave Nashville for his career to break out. He still writes and records in Music City but Texas is now home and it’s a move (inspired by conversations with Aaron Watson and others) that has served him well as his star has grown considerably bright with a string of #1 hits (7 and counting) on the Texas Regional Radio Report. He’s the first artist to do this and as such he partnered with Reviver Records for the release of his sophomore album release Keep Up With A Cowgirl, truly one of 2022’s best album releases. That build up has allowed David Adam Byrnes to tour all over the southwest with 2023 bringing more of the same. If you’re a fan of traditionalist brand of country music then DAB is your guy.
The War And Treaty (EMI Records Nashville)
They’ve just released their first major label EP. Coined by some as “Americana,” this husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter, Jr and Tanya Trotter provide heavenly vocals which blend the best of America’s roots music, from country to soul to gospel on their four track Dumb Luck EP which serves as a preview for their forthcoming EMI Records Nashville debut record (tentatively titled Lover’s Game after the smokin’ country blues romp of the same name). That song and the EP songs join with everything they’ve released to date (3 previous albums) and showcases a band right in their element and ready to be country music's next great duo.