Are These The Next Crossover Country Stars? : The Record Now that Taylor Swift has left Nashville behind, a handful of other up-and-coming stars are showing how country crosses over with other genres — and hoping for success that does the same.

Are These The Next Crossover Country Stars?

Are These The Next Crossover Country Stars?

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Sam Hunt has written hits for both Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. His debut album, Montevallo, is out on Oct. 27. Chase Lauer/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Chase Lauer/Courtesy of the artist

Sam Hunt has written hits for both Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. His debut album, Montevallo, is out on Oct. 27.

Chase Lauer/Courtesy of the artist

Listen to Ann Powers' conversation with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the new voices of crossover country at the audio link on this page.

Country music is so much more than a bunch of bros. Dirt road acolyte Jason Aldean and congenial cornball Blake Shelton may have the top two albums right now, but the genre is opening up to new sounds and stances, from the mainstream to the outliers. 2014 has been outstanding for country musicians messing with listeners' expectations, from Americana-leaning upstart Robert Ellis channeling his inner Paul Simon to Miranda Lambert generating feedback from her pink guitar, to Sturgill Simpson blending grit and psychedelia, to Eric Church (who can claim the year's fourth best-selling album) crashing through the arena circuit like one of the original Wild Ones. And the year's not over. October adds three more contenders to the list of top country challengers.

These artists range from a longtime underground favorite whose debut proves she's an heir to Lucinda Williams' crown to an already hugely popular vocal quartet with chops Fleetwood Mac would envy. Throw in a young songwriter with a genuine feel for R&B and you have a fitting representation of country music's real eclectisism. That openness reflects both the genre's history — from its beginnings, country blended black blues with the music of rural whites newly arrived in the city — and its current state and the preferred sound of a Heartland that's rapidly changing, culturally and demographically. If this is the music of what Angaleena Presley calls the American Middle Class, it's as varied and fluid as that contested term — a sound that shakes the tree of tradition, but also sows its own seeds.

Are These Musicians The Next Crossover Country Stars?

  • Little Big Town

    Little Big Town stands for the Nashville that has rightly taken its place in the mainstream, the major tourist city with the exploding food scene and major sports teams. Around since 1998, the quartet's music is rooted in down-the-middle country, but borrows from many sources, most obviously the classic rock and California pop of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow. Fifteen years into its career, Little Big Town had its first No. 1 country hit in 2013 with "Pontoon," a song about lounging and drinking. With songs like "Quit Breaking Up With Me" and "Girl Crush," Pain Killer merges the mainstream and the edge, and could be even bigger.

  • Angaleena Presley

    A member of Pistol Annies with Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, one of the biggest names in country right now, Presley is from a coal-mining family in Kentucky, and American Middle Class is a hard-hitting look at what it's like to grow up in the rural South. The collection of honest songs about a small-town woman discovering life in the big city sounds amazing (Presley co-produced the album with her husband), putting her in lanes traveled by both Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams.

  • Sam Hunt

    It's a story as old as time: A college football player tries out for the pros but ends up in Nashville writing hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban before landing his own (pretty) face on an album cover. OK, that's a surprise ending, but here's a bigger one: Sam Hunt's debut album, Montevallo (co-produced by Shane McAnally, who helped Kacey Musgraves make a splash last year), mixes hip-hop into country seamlessly. Jason Aldean and Cowboy Troy might have made hick-hop hits, but Hunt's "House Party" and "Break Up in a Small Town" sound like natural blends rather than self-conscious twangs on rap or R&B. This is millennial country, the sound of young Nashville crossing over effortlessly.