Arkansas has always contributed a wealth of talent to the performing and popular arts, but as far as country music is concerned, the field has rarely been as deep as it is today. Led by bona fide stars Justin Moore and Ashley McBryde, the current parade of country musicians with Natural State roots is a long one, rivaling the era when Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Glen Campbell were all, simultaneously, in their prime.
And while it remains to be seen if the current crop will one day be regarded as their own Mount Rushmore of Country Music, as their Arkansas forefathers are, there’s little doubt we are living in the state’s second golden age of country music. And, there’s plenty more where that came from, as the latest generation of young stars continues to make their mark on Nashville and beyond. Among those to watch are Little Rock’s Kelsey Lamb and Sherwood’s Baker Grissom.
Editor’s note: Over the years, AY About You has devoted significant coverage to our native country music talent, including: Justin Moore, Erin Enderlin, Ashley McBryde, Adam Hambrick, Matt Stell, Bailey Hefley, Zac Dunlap Band, Mallory Everett, Jenee Fleenor, Donnie Lee Strickland and more.
Little by Little
You would never know it to watch her today, but Kelsey Lamb swears she grew up too shy to even admit that she wanted to sing. But inside, there was never any doubt.
“Music definitely came first. I have known that I wanted to sing since I could talk, I think. I never wanted to be anything else but a singer,” she says. “But I was actually really shy growing up. No one knew that I could sing in high school; it wasn’t until I graduated high school that I really put myself out there.”
Lamb had a built-in audience within her family, where she’s one of six children. But it wasn’t until she landed a music scholarship at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia that the outside world got a taste of her angelic voice. The rest came with time, practice and the occasional kick in the rump from others.
“My parents have pushed me into certain situations, helped break me out of my shell a lot,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to do it myself. They had to nudge me.
“My mom, Sharon, was like, ‘You’re going to OBU. And you’re going to sing … You’re good at this. Go do it.’ That helped a lot.”
Country music casts a wide net these days, and Lamb’s string of singles shows she’s not to be type-cast in any one part of it. Her lilting voice hearkens Alison Krauss on first listen, but deeper, with an unfussy delivery reminiscent of Miranda Lambert, without the twang. It’s not hard to hear the Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts influences commingled with Avril Lavigne, all three of whom she lists as foundational to her musical education.
Lamb owns all of these facets to her voice and her music, saying whatever you want to call it, it all comes out country.
“I think I grew up in the world of evolution when it came to country music. I fell into it, but I also did have to make that decision,” she says. “When I was in [Los Angeles] at one point, I was recording, and it was all pop, very Taylor Swift country. What she was doing then was starting to become country, and she was making waves with that.
“But I remember being in LA like, ‘This is not the world that I want to live in. This isn’t who I am; I’m not LA; I’m not pop. I am country.’ I grew up country. I don’t really have a country accent, but my roots are there and it feels right.”
As she worked to perfect her sound, Lamb found herself with opportunities to act. She’s appeared in multiple movies, including Hallmark’s Christmas in Homestead, Traces, Trailer Park Shark and UPtv’s A Very Country Christmas, in which she acted alongside country artist Deana Carter. She has also starred with the late Alan Thicke in a live performance, The Toy Shoppe, a Kenny Rogers musical.
“The first time I got on stage, I was acting,” she says. “I was Alan’s costar, and he broke me out of my shell. He taught me so much about myself and how to just bring yourself into it. I think that was the moment I stopped being so shy. Sometimes, performing can be acting. I mean, I have some really heartbreaking songs, and I’m not always heartbroken. It kind of plays into each other.”
For all of these other opportunities, Lamb never took her eyes off the big prize — success as a singer. She moved to Nashville without knowing anyone and very soon began to get noticed. Following the 2016 release of her EP, Christmas with Kelsey, she released her single original “Warning Sign,” in 2018, featured on the soundtrack for the Lifetime original movie Bad Stepmother.
Lamb followed that release with two more singles, “Only for the Summer” and “Little by Little,” which have accumulated more than 250,000 Spotify streams and charted on MusicRow’s CountryBreakout chart. In 2019, she released two additional singles, “Girl at the Bar” and “Who’s Counting.”
This year, she released two more tunes, “Talk To Me,” and “Where Do You Go,” two cuts on real-world love, tinged with the weariness of complicated relationships.
“When I come into a writing room, my strong suit is bringing a story that’s, maybe, venting. Or bringing a title that’s got a story attached to it. That’s usually where my songs come from,” she says. “But there have been times where a friend’s going through something, and it triggered something in me that I went through, even if I wasn’t necessarily in that moment of life.
“We all go through the same stuff at one point or another. It’s not easy, but it’s easy to relate to a story because we’ve all felt it.”
Lamb discovered the universality of her writing and performing while opening for the late Kenny Rogers shortly after moving to Nashville. On one particular night, she dusted off a number she’d written only shortly after taking up songwriting.
“I wrote this song called ‘Lonely.’ I really don’t even play it anymore; it was the first song I ever wrote,” she says. “This [song] is me in its entirety. I played it for that concert, and I was so nervous, I was shaking the whole time. And my dad’s right there, and now he’s going to know me better because of this song about how everyone has a vice, and mine was having boyfriends. But it was one of those songs where I needed to say this because there’s someone out there that needed to hear this.
“Afterward, I just thought I’d totally bombed the whole thing because I was so nervous, and I go outside and the meet-and-greet line is so long. So many women came up to me and they were like, ‘I needed to hear that song. I’ve never heard anybody say it like that.’ Some of them were crying. They were just like, ‘I just appreciate you being so honest and just telling your story.’ It was a really powerful, big moment for me.”
No one can ever accuse Baker Grissom of coasting along on natural, God-given ability. As the 29-year-old singer-songwriter himself readily admits, he’s worked for every single thing he’s done in his career.
“I don’t know if I was super, naturally gifted in any of it,” he says. “I got lucky.”
As the old saying goes, the harder one works, the luckier one seems to be, and Grissom worked hard at his craft, learning to play guitar, taking voice lessons to hone his sound and learning the fine art of facing down a live audience.
“I was pretty in the middle,” he says. “I wasn’t naturally outgoing, but it wasn’t too bad for me, either.”
Grissom grew up in a fertile musical household; his mom favored soul and funk in the style of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, while his dad was more contemporary country, à la George Strait, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis.
“He used to race dirt cars a lot when I was younger,” Grissom says of his dad. “He would go on two- or three-hour drives, either where he was from in Northwest Arkansas or wherever he was going. Sometimes, he’d toss me in the truck with him, and there’d always be some country music playing. That’s probably where it started.”
By the time he hit high school, Grissom had added his own favorite ingredients to the musical stew.
“In high school, it was a huge musical mix,” he says. “Some of the older country stuff. Some younger country stuff. Some of the rock/pop music. Rap music. Everything. All of it.”
After graduating from the University of Central Arkansas, Grissom headed for Nashville in 2014 to take his shot at a music career. Again, it was his work ethic, not necessarily just his refinement as a singer, that stood out. He gigged wherever he could, worked forgettable retail jobs to pay the bills and learned to write songs through trial and error.
Ironically, it was a trip home to Arkansas that would yield his big break in Nashville.
“My mom signed me up for a songwriting contest because I was working a lot up here and not coming home a lot,” he says. “She was like, ‘I’ll get him down here, and he’ll play a show, and I’ll get to see him for a day or two.’
“That’s how I met Adam Hambrick, who connected a lot of dots for me up here [in Nashville]. Adam’s been great to me and introduced me to a lot of great people. It ended up all working out.”
One of the doors that cracked for Grissom was RED Creative Group, an agency that already represented Hambrick and fellow Arkansas superstar Justin Moore. It also got him into a wider pool of writers that not only yielded some of his singles but helped him sharpen his own pencil.
“My songs are usually something that I can relate to a little bit,” he says. “It may not be exactly my story or even that kind of song, but it’s something that makes sense to me. That’s usually what I lean toward.
“The biggest thing about writing with someone else is that everybody’s got their thing that they’re good at. So, it’s all about trying to get somebody comfortable in the room with you and go with that. Let them work in their zone and, usually, it’ll turn out better.”
Grissom’s newfound support system moved things forward quickly. Last summer, he released his debut EP, titled Saturdays & Sunday, an effort roundly praised for its lyrical-driven tracks. NYcountryswag.com was among the admirers of the Natural State newcomer, drawing favorable comparisons to Keith Urban and Eric Church.
“Grissom is one to watch,” the site gushed. “His effortless vocals, creative songwriting and poise for a new artist rivals any successful country musician in the industry.”
His subsequent singles, “Workin’ Man” and “Drink for That” follow in the well-crafted mode of his other songs. By the title, you’d imagine “Workin’ Man” to be cut from Merle Haggard (“Working Man Blues”) or Brooks & Dunn cloth (“Hard Working Man”). But therein lies the song’s genius with a clever turn of phrase to close the chorus about failing to drink an ex off his mind:
“This neon ain’t nothing to lean on/but I’m doing the best I can/Aw, but it ain’t workin’ man.”
“I was going to write that day with a guy named Ben Stennis. He’s one of my favorite writers in town,” Grissom says of how that track came together. “He’s had a lot of different things, kind of has that Dierks Bentley/Eric Church/Jason Aldean vibe. A little bit of rock ‘n’ roll to it and that grit. We were going through ideas, and I think that that seemed like the natural one to land on. We spent three or four hours with it and got it done.”
“Drink for That” would probably be the summer’s anthem had it not been for COVID-19 taking a bite out most people’s plans to gather at the lake or honky-tonk. Still, Grissom makes the most of the fun number, including a video featuring clips of friends and fans toasting the times in true quarantine fashion.
“Well, we knew we couldn’t do a video right now because everybody’s got to be separated,” he says. “So, we got some friends and let some other people reach out and everybody did a ‘cheers,’ or something goofy in a video. I had a lot of buddies reach out and were in it and we had fun. It was a good time.”
Speaking of the pandemic, it’s brought a weird period of downtime to the ordinarily hardworking Grissom. But true to form, he’s found a way to stay busy and promises new music is on the way in 2020. And he hopes that in these trying times, he can be an inspiration to the next youngster dreaming of walking his line.
“I would say to that kid, ‘Chase that dream,’” he says. “If you love it, you’ll see it through. I would say, absolutely, ‘Chase it down.’”