Becoming a headlining concert act is the goal of nearly every aspiring artist. Headlining status means you’ve made it; you’ve got enough hit songs to carry an audience for two + hours and that you’re a charismatic enough entertainer to pull it off. For several years, Country has had a handful of headliners that has remained relatively unchanged: Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Florida-Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert. Now, this isn’t to say any of them are ready for the nostalgia circuit. BUT, there is a new crop of young and talented artists who are knocking on the A-list door.
Soon, though, you’re going to see their name at the top of the bill. And here are five who, in my opinion, are ready.
5) Chris Young. What does this guy have to do to break through to the next level? He’s been at this a long time–since winning Nashville Star in 2006 he’s had 11 number ones and several more reach the top ten. In fact, only three of his singles have failed to reach the top ten in the 13 years since his career began. Yes, he does headline shows–but those are generally smaller, mid-sized venues not quite the status of 20,000+ seat arenas or amphitheaters. In fact, the last time he played the Toyota Amphitheater, it was as a supporting act. It’s past time for Chris to move up.
4) Jon Pardi. This is an easy one, and it’s really just a matter of time. Since first hitting country radio with “Missin’ You Crazy” in 2012, Jon’s steadily-rising star has been one of the most consistent things in Nashville. And while he doesn’t quite have the vast accumulation of #1 hits as some other artists (only 2 to date), his live show has a rowdy reputation and his fans don’t just love Jon for his singles, they go deep for album cuts too: songs like “Cowboy Hat” “California Sunrise” and “What I Can’t Put Down” get just as much crowd reaction as “Dirt On My Boots”. Plus, exposure on Dierks Bentley’s tour hasn’t hurt to showcase his talents to fans who maybe don’t know him quite as well. When his next album comes out later this year, Jon’s star might finally reach its undeniable peak (don’t forget to catch him headlining one big event: this year’s Country in the Park on May 11! Tickets available on our main page while they last!)
3) Maren Morris. This is a bit of a stretch–for now. But Maren seems to be one of those performers who is truly an artist–someone who foregoes cliches and isn’t afraid to reach a little deeper with her music, even if has the potential to possibly offend certain circles; her first single, “My Church” was banned in some of the more conservative parts of our country because she was singing about her church basically not being a church. Didn’t matter. It still went to #1. Her latest single, “Girl” speaks unabashedly about female empowerment. She’s got attitude, talent, and social media presence too–which these days is almost as important to an artist as their latest single. She may not be a headliner for a few years yet, but it’s definitely on her horizon if she wants it.
2) Brett Eldredge. Brett has been a little under the radar lately and off social media, too, so that has lowered his visibility. But he’s definitely ready for his close-up: Since 2012 he’s had 5 number one singles, and two others were top 5. He’s the rare country artist who also consistently appeals to TV producers, and has appeared on numerous shows and specials. Onstage he is a non-stop bouncing ball of energy who isn’t afraid to wade into the crowd and improvise. And, the guy is just nearly impossible to dislike. Like Chris Young, Brett has headlined a bit, but again, smaller venues. Give him another couple top 5s and he’ll be ready for his name at the top of the marquee.
1) Luke Combs. Is there any doubt? In my 30+ years of country radio, I can’t really recall an artist with a faster rise to A-list status other than maybe a Garth, Brooks and Dunn, or Shania. Just recently, he had two songs in the top ten at the same time…a feat that hasn’t happened in country music since 2000 with some dude named Tim McGraw. And it’s all the more remarkable because before 2016, nobody other than pretty much his friends and family had heard of him. Then, blammo! His first four singles went to number one and his latest, Beautiful Crazy, will likely top out there too (as of this writing it’s at #4). He’s a perfect mix of old and new country, with a tow-truck driver look that is a perfect counter to the hipster parade currently marching through Nashville. He’s opening for Jason Aldean this summer (Wheatland, Sept 27), but this guy is definitely ready to come on last.