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Who's next: five Texas country-music acts to watch for

Posted 12:32pm on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Texas, second maybe only to Tennessee, is forever unearthing fresh new country music talent.

Particularly in cities like Dallas, Austin or Houston, singer-songwriters are working overtime -- holding down second jobs, carving out time to pen new material and hitting open mike nights, hustling to get that next bit of good luck. Thanks to venues like Billy Bob's Texas, Gilley's, Woody's Tavern and the White Elephant Saloon, these aspiring musicians find a footing, clawing their way up to the big time, without the aid of, say, reality television. (Sorry, Miranda!)

Here are five acts worth keeping an eye on, each at various stages in their careers, but all on the verge of big things. -- Preston Jones

Sunny Sweeney

I've been a fan of the Houston-born Sweeney's since her terrific debut, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame, back in 2007. Since then, she's kept busy touring and writing, with a new, self-titled album due out later this year. Sweeney just released an aural amuse-bouche of sorts last month, an EP featuring the hit From a Table Away. Her full-length effort, produced by Brett Beavers, also showcases a song written with Radney Foster. "I really like Sunny Sweeney," wrote Miranda Lambert in our recent e-mail exchange. "I think she is cool and adds a new twist to the format." www.myspace.com/sunnysweeney

Ryan Bingham

Most people probably know him as "that Crazy Heart guy," but the man with the cigarettes-and-trail-dust voice was kicking around long before Hollywood came calling. The New Mexico native was raised in Southwestern Texas and first made an impression with 2007's Mescalito, a record produced by Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. Since then, Bingham has kept on the road, stopping occasionally to dispatch a new record, the latest of these, Junky Star, being produced by Fort Worth's own T Bone Burnett (who collaborated with Bingham on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Crazy Heart). www.binghammusic.com

John David Kent and the Dumb Angels

Hailing from Celeste, an East Texas town of 817 residents, John David Kent and the Dumb Angels took a unique route to country music: Kent was initially part of Ben Kweller's first band, Radish. Kent and the Angels' debut album arrives in May and the group is making the trip to Austin for SXSW this year. The video for lead single My Girl (which name-checks Lone Star beer and Copenhagen snuff) landed the band on CMT, as well as turning heads in the industry. " My Girl is a breakout single, clearly establishing John David Kent as one of the bright young talents in Texas," writes Josh Jones, KHYI/95.3 FM "The Range" general manager. "You'll be hearing his name for a while." www.johndavidkent.com

Hayes Carll

Another veteran of the Texas touring circuit, this Woodlands troubadour is about to release his new album, KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (see review on page 22), after making a splash with 2008's Trouble in Mind. The spiritual heir to Fort Worth's Townes Van Zandt, Carll has made friends in high places (Ray Wylie Hubbard digs him; so does Guy Clark) and established himself as the (drunken) poet laureate of the Lone Star State. "[Carll] is just too slinky with a line, too funny, too disarming for anyone to dismiss him as a one-trick pony," wrote The Washington Post in 2008. "A contender, this guy." www.hayescarll.com

Sahara Smith

Emerging from the fertile soil of the Hill Country, flame-haired Austin native Smith, at the tender age of 21, dances along the boundaries between country and folk. She's armed with a superb debut, 2010's Myth of the Heart, and a high-profile mentor, Fort Worth-bred producer T Bone Burnett. Smith has opened for everyone from Raul Malo to Burnett, who didn't end up producing Heart -- that task fell to Burnett associate Emile Kelman. But Burnett, in press materials, calls Smith "the best young artist I have heard in many years." www.myspace.com/saharasmithmusic

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