Country’s Class of 2002: Five Artists Most Likely to Succeed

Despite the celebrated return of its superstars, country music also welcomed a few new artists into the fold. Here are five members from the Class of 2002 whose future looks bright.

Steve Azar
“I Don’t Have to Be (‘Till Monday)” showed Steve Azar ’s lighter side, and yeah, it got played waaaay too often. But this 38-year-old’s mature songwriting redeems his second album, Waitin’ On Joe. He’s visibly proud of his home turf in the Mississippi Delta and even filmed his latest music video there. But even someone who’s never been to the crossroads can appreciate the urgency in “How Long Is This Time Gonna Be” and “The Underdog.”

Kevin Denney
Something about Kevin Denney’s tender voice on “That’s Just Jessie” evoked the melancholy of Keith Whitley — which is a high compliment. And like Whitley, the Kentucky native cut his chops on bluegrass before finding success in country music. His debut album serves as a polite introduction, but a little more mandolin and banjo in the mix might take Denney to the next level. In the meantime, hang in there, kid.

Rebecca Lynn Howard
Finally, after five years of biz turmoil, Rebecca Lynn Howard scored her first legit hit, “Forgive.” She’s twangy as all get-out in conversation, but the polished performance of “Forgive” connected with listeners far from her old Kentucky home. With an anguished delivery that belies her age, the 23-year-old Howard has already written for Trisha Yearwood , toured with Kenny Rogers and harmonized with Patty Loveless . It’s too soon for me to say “star,” but don’t count her out.

Joe Nichols
He’s gotten plenty of attention for his looks, but it’s Joe Nichols ’ rich vocals that will sustain his career. “The Impossible,” the first single for new record label Universal South, showcased his smooth baritone with a message that wasn’t too gooey. Big points for his loyalty to the Grand Ole Opry too. The 26-year-old even kept his word to appear the weekend after his father died. If the Opry inducts anybody in this group, it’ll be Nichols. Catch him on tour with Alan Jackson in 2003.

Pinmonkey
Goofy name, seriously good music. It’s nearly impossible to capture the in-concert vibe on a major-label debut album, but somehow Pinmonkey accomplished just that. “Barbed Wire and Roses” pricked up the ears of country listeners earlier this year, and somehow they effortlessly conquered cuts from Sugar Ray and Dolly Parton . Like every worthy new band, the four guys in Pinmonkey will spent most of 2003 on a tour bus, which is appropriate, considering their forthcoming video is called “I Drove All Night.”

Honorable Mention
• Emerson Drive and Kellie Coffey, who both scored Top 10 hits right off the bat.

• Anthony Smith, who crossed over from hit songwriter (George Strait ’s “Run”) to fledgling artist with the debut single, “If That Ain’t Country.”

Tommy Shane Steiner , who scored one of the year’s most-played records, “What If She’s an Angel,” and still parted company with his record label.

• Brad Martin and Shannon Lawson , who popped up on As the World Turns.

• Little Big Town, who criss-crossed the country encouraging people to vote.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.