Over the last 14 months, just about every music-related conversation, both within and outside of the local music scene, has mentioned the name Leon Bridges.
It’s to the point where I’m beginning to hear his name in my sleep.
All of the excitement and pride and interest is absolutely justified: Bridges has had, and continues to have, the sort of breakout season an artist from Fort Worth hasn’t really experienced since Toadies were omnipresent on MTV, radio and the national festival circuit two decades ago.
Bridges’ Columbia Records debut, Coming Home, has appeared on numerous best-of lists. He’s up for a Grammy next month, is touring the world and made appearances at the Met Gala, the Gershwin Prize proceedings, the American Music Awards, Saturday Night Live, every late-night talk show in existence, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
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Wherever he goes, Bridges is touting not only his ties to Fort Worth, but also those fellow North Texas artists who are still toiling in relative obscurity.
He has namechecked the likes of such local performers as Jake Paleschic, Kirby Brown and Vincent Neil Emerson on his social media channels, and, earlier this month, even brought famed rock photographer Danny Clinch back to the 817 for a photo shoot at Shipping & Receiving.
Bridges is, at present, a sort of focal point for the undeniable energy building up around not only Fort Worth music, but the North Texas region as a whole — something about which the savvy Bridges is keenly aware.
“It feels good to make a record with my friends in my hometown, and the fact that it’s got me this far, it’s such a good feeling,” Bridges told me last month. “If I change it up, it wouldn’t be the same. I want to keep that vibe for the rest of my career.”
That vibe is evident even when considering artists apart from Bridges.
The Arlington-formed Pentatonix, which bagged its first Grammy last year, has likewise enjoyed a wildly successful few months, topping the Billboard 200 charts (as the first a cappella group ever to do so), while artists like Luke Wade, Green River Ordinance, the Unlikely Candidates, Snow Tha Product or Casey James continue, to varying degrees, to find favor and forward momentum beyond the borders of Fort Worth, Dallas and Denton.
What’s more, there is an ever-increasing number of acts joining these musicians on the national stage.
Some have left Cowtown’s friendly confines, striking out for Los Angeles, Nashville, Austin or elsewhere, but none have forsaken ties to the place where it all began.
Bridges is right: Going far with the support of those who believe in you when you’re an unknown just hoping to be heard at an open-mic night is a good feeling.
In that vein, consider these 10 DFW-tied artists as names to familiarize yourself with, some of whom have hit the ground running in 2016, and some of whom show much promise, suggesting they will leave an indelible mark by year’s end, one way or another.
As 2016 dawns, Arlington native Maren Morris seems poised to have the kind of breakout year artists dream of. Late last year, Morris released a self-titled EP that doubled as her major-label debut, one of my year-end picks for best local albums. (Morris is working on a full-length album due out this year.)
Since signing with Columbia Nashville in September, the 25-year-old Morris has embarked on a whirlwind press tour, charming just about everyone who crosses her path (well, save for one sexist alt-weekly) and winning a growing number of fans, thanks to her tart lyrics and unabashedly catchy melodies. Her lead single, My Church, was added to more than 100 country radio stations this month, making history as the highest-charting debut single by a female in Country Aircheck Mediabase’s history.
She has been singled out as an artist to watch by a variety of national outlets, including USA Today, Billboard and the Huffington Post, as well as being tapped to open for country superstar and American Idol judge Keith Urban on his national arena tour beginning in June. (The tour hits Dallas’ American Airlines Center on Oct. 14.)
“I had this moment in Texas where I didn’t know if I could do the performing side anymore,” Morris told country music blog Wide Open Country this month. “I felt like my growth was stunted. I was young and hadn’t seen the world or lived anywhere else. I felt like, if I’m going to do anything, I need to be a better songwriter so I can hone what I want to say into something that is cohesive.”
If her success thus far is any indication, Morris has only just begun to impress.
Another fast-rising star in hip-hop circles is Fort Worth-born and Atlanta-based rapper Solo Lucci (born Michael McIntosh; he took the last name Dorsey in his teens). The now-29-year-old rapper relocated to Atlanta in 2011 after a shooting at a Fort Worth apartment complex that left him wounded and his friend, Kevan Dunlop, dead.
Solo Lucci first turned heads in 2012, with the single RIP Tupac, and again in 2013, with his provocatively titled (and unprintable here) mixtape FYFR. He scored again in 2014, collaborating with Akon on the track Killaz & Drug Dillaz, which turned up on Lucci’s mixtape Life After Death.
After hopping on Chris Brown’s last LP, Royalty, with a guest turn on the track Wrist, Lucci signed with Atlanta’s Bases Loaded Records as well as RCA Records, and gained notice weeks ago for his single Whip It. All Music Guide describes Solo Lucci’s style as “woozy and hypnotic,” but the rapper appears to be anything but as he pursues a career as one of the hottest rappers of the moment.
Reagan James is just 17, but when she sings, her age becomes an afterthought. Armed with that voice, startling in its maturity, James made a starmaking run on the seventh season of The Voice (James was part of a North Texas collective that included eventual winner Craig Wayne Boyd, Luke Wade and several other area vocalists).
The Burleson resident’s new album, Have a Nice Day, is a bold leap forward and one marking her as a singer unafraid of genre cross-pollination.
Too often, local artists put on blinders and rarely venture outside perceived musical boundaries, but James eagerly mixes pop, R&B, soul, jazz and folk into an irresistible concoction all her own.
“I was on The Voice to get exposure, and build a fan base and experience the experience of a lifetime,” James told me not long after her elimination from the competition in 2014. “I feel like a lot of people go on this show and that’s the high point of their career, but I plan on this being just the beginning.”
There have been many beneficiaries of Leon Bridges’ swift ascent from working shifts at Del Frisco’s to contending for Grammys, and fortunately for Fort Worth, Bridges surrounds himself with formidable talent, including singer-songwriter Brandon Marcel, whom Bridges memorably enlisted to help close out his album-release show at Scat Jazz Lounge last year.
But rather than simply trade on his connection to a nationally known rising star, Marcel is intent on making it on his own terms — and as evidenced by his superb The Audition EP, he’ll have no problem making himself heard beyond the borders of Fort Worth.
The son of Cameo bassist Aaron Mills, Marcel told me last summer that Bridges’ increased visibility and success effectively raises the bar for anyone serious about a life in music: “I think [Leon’s success is] opening doors for Fort Worth artists, and giving the city some light, giving Texas some light and at the same time, putting some pressure on Fort Worth artists. You don’t want [to squander] those opportunities.”
To that end, Marcel continues to work on Audition’s follow-up.
Another astonishingly young singer-songwriter already making waves in Texas and beyond, 16-year-old Abbey Cone has swiftly risen to the front of the pack, on the strength of her 2015 self-titled album. In September of last year, Cone signed a publishing deal with Nashville’s SNG Music, giving the Fort Worth-born and Argyle-based musician a serious foot in the door to making a living in music. (She’s currently offering a free download of her new single, Southern Charm, via her website.)
Cone sings and writes with a wisdom well beyond her age, and it’s an approach she has long known sets her apart from other artists her age.
“I’ve always been more mature for my age, and I’ve been told I’m an old soul,” Cone told me last summer. “I love words, too, so any time I can make something, not seem out of the ordinary, but mean something deeper, then I’ll always go that route.”
The man born Austin Post, in Syracuse, N.Y., didn’t arrive in North Texas — Grapevine, specifically — until age 9, according to a thorough blog post last year on Pigeons & Planes. But this Grapevine High School grad (and former Tarrant County College attendee) absorbed much of what Dallas hip-hop had to offer, and when he moved to Los Angeles, it wasn’t long before he was turning heads.
The track the man now better known as Post Malone ushered into the world — White Iverson — was just certified platinum, meaning his first major-label single (Post Malone has signed with Republic Records, a member of the Universal Music family) has moved more than a million downloads.
Post Malone isn’t stopping there — the single’s video has racked up more than 94 million views on YouTube, and has been streamed more than 110 million times. He’s preparing a second single, Too Young, to arrive Tuesday, with a full-length album due out this year.
On Feb. 5, Post Malone will join critically acclaimed and much-talked-about rapper Fetty Wap for a national tour, which stops at Dallas’ House of Blues on March 8. According to his label, Post Malone is also collaborating with A-listers like Kanye West and 50 Cent.
Fort Worth singer-songwriter Summer Dean bills her sound as, alternately, “Americana” or “honky-tonk.” I’d argue there’s also a strong undercurrent of gospel tradition flowing through songs like I Go and Alabama, just a couple of the tunes the very talented former schoolteacher has made available online so far. (Dean reportedly has a full-length album in the pipeline for release this year.)
Dean has opened for buzzy acts like Sam Outlaw and been a fixture at song pulls at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for the last few months. Once you’ve heard her faintly twangy voice — she’ll be slinging songs Sunday at Fred’s Texas Cafe — it’s nearly impossible to forget.
The Denton foursome known as Relick — Amber Nicholson, Matt Hibbard, Andy Rogers and Anthony Corsaro — disarm from the opening moments of their debut EP, Twin House, due out March 4.
There’s a strong whiff of yesteryear permeating these half-dozen tracks — a sort of shimmering ode to the ’60s and the ’00s, if such a time warp is possible — but it’s impossible to dislike the low-key charms concocted by the primary songwriting team of Nicholson and Hibbard.
From the opening track (and lead single), Offering, through to the sweeping finale, Another Life, Relick moves with a confidence not often glimpsed in new bands.
Denton has long been home to artists following their own muses, regardless of what’s going on beyond the city limits, and Relick, thankfully, is no exception. Sometimes, going your own way provides tremendous rewards.
What was once Blackstone Rangers has been reborn (and relocated). The trio behind the Dallas-based avant-pop band has pulled up stakes and moved to Austin, where Derek Kutzer, Ruth Ellen Smith and Nicholas Volpe (replacing drummer and founding member Daniel Bornhorst) rechristened themselves Pale Dian.
The group has moved swiftly since changing its name and physical location — Pale Dian has signed with Los Angeles-based label Manifesto (home to other influential acts like Dead Kennedys, the Turtles and Puro Instinct). Pale Dian’s debut LP, Narrow Birth, is due out in June.
Pale Dian’s bio sums up the new direction thusly: “They make noisey dream-pop and … ride the ashes of their previous band, Blackstone Rangers, into smudgier, esoteric terrain. [Narrow Birth] explores power and weakness, birth and decay, love and abandonment, beauty and abrasiveness.”
Indeed, the more psychedelic elements have been cleared away, leaving an austere landscape in which to admire Smith’s arresting vocals — the surging Evan Evan is a glorious, frantic fever dream, while the ’80s-steeped Waxes and Wanes slowly creeps up on you.
Another Arlington-born singer-songwriter who is fast becoming a familiar face in Nashville, Mickey Guyton found her calling thanks to another Lone Star legend: LeAnn Rimes.
“I was at a Texas Rangers baseball game and LeAnn Rimes was singing the national anthem,” Guyton says in a posting on her website. “This was right when she came out with Blue. I was completely mesmerized.”
After a few years in Los Angeles, Guyton moved to Nashville in 2011 and signed with Capitol Records Nashville. The next four years were full of slow, steady work, which culminated in the EP Unbreakable, and its hit single, Better Than You Left Me, released last spring.
Guyton then spent the summer opening for Music City superstar Brad Paisley, and covered Do You Want to Build a Snowman? from the Frozen soundtrack for a Disney compilation released last winter. Guyton is working on her full-length debut for release this year.