Tonight, the very first edition of the American Song Contest kicks off on NBC. Hosted by beloved cultural institutions Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, the eight week competition is a big gamble for the network. NBC is no doubt hoping to capitalize on the success of The Voice, and the presence of Kelly Clarkson (who has served as a coach on that show for several seasons) is proof of that.
But with acts from all 50 states, five populated U.S. territories, and Washington D.C. set to battle it out every Monday for the next few months, non-US residents might find it difficult to differentiate between states. After all, with an estimated over 332 million people, the US’ population is more than double the most populated country in Europe. Each state and territory has its own unique identity, its own musical history, its own cultural output.
But what IS each state’s musical heritage? Which influential and/or famous acts were the product of their home state’s cultural environment? And who are the artists representing these states at the American Song Contest?
Never fear! ESC United is here to give you a primer on each state’s music scene and the artists that will be representing them over the next eight weeks. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive look at the entire breadth of music each state has produced. This is merely a small taste, a morsel of information to help non-US fans get acquainted with all 56 competing states and territories.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s kick it off with the 11 states represented in tonight’s first qualifying round:
Population: 3.042 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Lithuania
Musical Heritage: Bluegrass, rockabilly, folk
Notable Homegrown Talent: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ne-Yo, Evanescence
Arkansas has been an epicenter of folk and country music over the years, even boasting a town that is (self-proclaimed) the Folk Music Capital of the World. Additionally, the state has a rich history of gospel, blues, and R&B music, most of it developed by the African American population during the state’s most racially segregated periods. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an African American rock ‘n roll pioneer from Arkansas, was a massive influence on artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
At the American Song Contest, Arkansas is represented by country crooner Kelsey Lamb, with the song “Never Like This”. Kelsey grew up performing and writing songs, moving to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. Her first release was the 2016 holiday EP “Christmas with Kelsey“.
Since then, in addition to her music career, she dipped her toes into the acting world. She appeared in the Hallmark movie “Christmas at Homestead” and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the SyFy channel original movie “Trailer Park Shark”. Please enjoy the trailer below:
During the pandemic, Kelsey has been busy writing and releasing singles and wracking up millions of Spotify streams. Her most streamed song is the soulful country ballad “When I Remember You”. Watch an acoustic performance of the song below:
Read our interview with Kelsey Lamb here.
Population: 3.547 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Georgia
Musical Heritage: Classical, symphonic, rock ‘n roll
Notable Homegrown Talent: MGMT, John Mayer, and … Michael Bolton
Throughout the 1800s, Connecticut saw a boom of classical music societies and orchestras. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra is the fourth oldest in The US, giving its first concert in 1898. There are several other institutional orchestras throughout the state, as well as a number of classical and chamber music festivals. But it wasn’t always violins and stuffy gentlemen in the Connecticut music scene. A number of rock venues sprang up in the state in the ’60s and ’70s, with performers like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison blowing through town and leaving legend in their wakes. Fans of indie electro pop from the 2010s are no doubt familiar with the work of Connecticut’s own MGMT, the hit-making duo behind songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel”.
Bringing a touch of Connecticut class to the American Song Contest proceedings is Michael Bolton, the famous and (pleasantly) infamous singer-songwriter who sold over 75 million records in his heyday. He will be performing the song “Beautiful World”.
Michael Bolton needs no introduction. He’s released 24 studio albums, won two Grammys for his cover versions of “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” and “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and even appeared as a guest on duet night at Sanremo in 2008. Watch that performance below:
In recent years, Michael‘s sense of humor and willingness to poke fun at himself have made him a beloved pop culture figure. He has been involved with a number of projects involving the creative minds behind Saturday Night Live, including a Netflix variety show entitled Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special and the Lonely Island song and music video for “Jack Sparrow”. Watch that video below:
Population: 6.842 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Bulgaria
Musical Heritage: R&B, punk, gospel
Notable Homegrown Talent: Bill Gaither, Babyface, The Jacksons
The early history of Indiana’s music scene is a fusion of jazz, blue, and rock ‘n roll, though the late-20th century would see the emergence of a flourishing punk and indie scene. Indiana also has a rich history of gospel music, producing some of the genre’s biggest names. But the state’s most famous musical exports need no introduction. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5 and, later, Michael and Janet Jackson, changed the face of the international pop music scene.
Ugandan-born hip hop artist UG skywalkin will be representing the state he currently calls home at the American Song Contest. His song, “Love in My City”, is a perfect encapsulation of his love for African rhythms and hip hop flow. His journey to this point is a fascinating one. Born in Uganda to a musician father and a mother who was part of the country’s royal family, his parents worked as missionaries before relocating the family to Indiana so his father could receive a liver transplant.
Growing up, UG skywalkin was an athlete. He played basketball and was a star Defensive Back for the team at Center Grove High School. He was recruited by a number of colleges, eventually receiving a full scholarship to attend the University of Indianapolis. While there, he became more in touch with his love of music and eventually dropped out to pursue it as a career. He hooked up with another rapper, stage name IC skywalkin, and the two formed a hip hop duo called … SKYWALKIN. Watch one of their earliest efforts below:
Since then, UG skywalkin has been grinding, constantly working on new music, while juggling his life as a family man and the owner of a landscaping business. After some of his more recent work as a solo artist performed well on streaming, recruiters for The Voice reached out to him. He didn’t end up auditioning for THAT show, but his relationship with the team behind that show, many of whom also work on the American Song Contest, paid dividends when he got the call to represent Indiana. Watch the music video for one of the songs that originally brought him to NBC’s attention, “Crush”, below:
Read our interview with UG skywalkin here.
Population: 3.174 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Bosnia & Herzegovina
Musical Heritage: Rock ‘n roll, jazz, metal
Notable Homegrown Talent: The Everly Brothers, Slipknot, Owl City
For a relatively small state, Iowa has produced a number of acts inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Don and Phil Everly, known professionally as The Everly Brothers are one such act. They were a tremendously influential group throughout the late ’50, with their trademark mix of country rock and rich harmonies spawning numerous tributaries and imitators … look no further than The Allisons, The UK’s Eurovision act at the 1961 contest, for proof. In the waning years of the 20th century, a number of rock and metal bands sprouted from the Iowan music scene.
Iowa will be represented at the American Song Contest by pop rocker Alisabeth Von Presly, performing the song “Wonder.” Her punk pop glamour aesthetic is no accident. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, she developed an active imagination and a flair for performance. She eventually began choreographing high school shows and, through her dance acumen, found her way into the gay club scene. By age 12, she was performing as a back up dancer for drag queens, including Natasha Cass, Miss Gay Iowa 2010. This may seem unusual, until you learn her late father was a local actor and entertainer who taught her everything she knows. Here she is in a production of The Rocky Horror Show with her father. Yes, he is Frank N. Furter.
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Alisabeth spent the 2010s working in all aspects of the local entertainment scene. She worked as a photographer, a choreographer, and the front woman of a local rock band. She auditioned for American Idol and The Voice. In 2017, she was finally able to record and release her debut album, “Diamonds in the Blackout“. Since then, she has been touring and continuing to hustle. In March of last year, she put on a live streaming concert from her stomping grounds at the Theatre Cedar Rapids. Watch her performance of the song “American Blackout” below:
Read our interview with Alisabeth von Presley here.
Population: 5.740 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Norway
Musical Heritage: Folk, indie rock, R&B
Notable Homegrown Talent: Bob Dylan, Prince, Lizzo
Minnesota’s musical history began with the fusion of traditional indigenous rhythms and the Scandinavian folk sound brought over by the immigrant population. The parallel growth of folk, pop, R&B, and rock over the years is seen in the state’s (arguably) two biggest music heroes: Prince and Bob Dylan. Minneapolis, the largest city in Minnesota, has a thriving music scene, with countless live venues and the opportunity to hear just about any genre of music performed on any given night.
Indie pop quartet Yam Haus will be performing their song “Ready to Go” at the American Song Contest. The band, made up of Lars Pruitt (lead vocals), Jake Felstow (drums), Zach Beinlich (bass), and Seth Blum (guitar), was actually recruited to participate in the contest. Their quick ascension since forming in 2018 made them a valuable get for American Song Contest producers. Lars, Zach, and Seth grew up together in the suburbs of Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the state lines. After going their separate ways, Lars reached out to his old school chums (and drummer Jake, who he met at college) and proposed they give music a shot. The fellas quit their jobs, dropped out of school, and got to work. It was a risk, but it quickly paid off.
(Of note: Lars’ mom is an indie singer-songwriter named Kate Pruitt. Her song “No More Party Boys” had some chart success when it was released in 2000. You can listen to it here.)
The boys promoted themselves on social media, starting a YouTube channel full of vlogs, skits, and performances that quickly took off and helped boost their profile. The band’s first single, “West Coast”, quickly gained traction, reaching over 100,000 streams in the first week alone. Watch the official music video below:
The next few years were busy, with hit singles like “The Thrill” and the release of the band’s debut album “Stargazer”. Since then, they have performed on bills with acts like Kacey Musgraves, Tori Kelly, and Adam Lambert and have sold out legendary music venues in Minneapolis.
The ‘Yam’ in the band’s name is meant to signify ‘You and Me’, a call for decency and fairness among people. In that spirit, the video for the band’s rewritten version of “Auld Lang Syne”, released in December of 2020, reflected on the turmoil and grief that had overtaken the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
Read our interview with Yam Haus here.
Population: 2.962 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Albania
Musical Heritage: Blues, folk, jazz
Notable Homegrown Talent: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Buffet, 3 Doors Down
A tradition of blues music arose from the large community of freed African Americans in Mississippi post-Civil War. Known as the ‘delta blues’, the state’s trademark music style is a fusion of gospel and folk. Perhaps that genre’s biggest star is Muddy Waters, an influential rock ‘n roll pioneer who brought delta blues to audiences all over The US and Europe.
Grammy Award-nominee Keyone Starr will be representing Mississippi with the song “Fire”. Though she had been performing in church since she was four years old, Keyone‘s first big foray into the professional music scene was a bit of a Cinderella story. In February of 2014, Mark Ronson was looking for a female soul singer to be the featured vocalist on his song “I Can’t Lose”, and he found it when Keyone auditioned for him. At the time, she was working at Comcast and doing backing singing gigs to pay the bills and take care of her daughter. She got the job and was whisked away to Memphis to record her vocal line over the track.
On the plus side, she was working with a global music superstar, though she did lose her job at Comcast when the recording session went over and she missed a shift. Watch the music video for “I Can’t Lose”, off the album that also featured the smash his single “Uptown Funk”, below:
Comcast be damned, the next year of Keyone‘s life was a whirlwind. She performed with Mark Ronson at the legendary Glastonbury Music Festival, toured the world, and, when Grammy season came along, she was nominated for her work on the song. The mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, gave her an official proclamation, and a celebration was thrown in her honor to congratulate her on her accomplishments.
Since then, she has been regularly performing at events and gigs, but has only been featured in one other released track: “Grooving Machine” by electronic DJ Jean Tonique (See below.) But that all changes tonight, with the song “Fire” bringing Keyone back into the spotlight where she belongs.
Population: 4 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Croatia
Musical Heritage: Gospel, country, indigenous
Notable Homegrown Talent: Woody Guthrie, Hanson, Carrie Underwood
Home to a large population of Native Americans, Oklahoma has a rich history of indigenous music that continues to this day. Alongside a thriving jazz community, some of the biggest stars in country music throughout the years have come from Oklahoma. One such artist is Woody Guthrie, a renowned folk singer-songwriter and peace activist responsible for songs of protest, community, and anti-fascism like “This Land is Your Land” and “This Train is Bound for Glory”. The 1976 biopic “Bound for Glory” depicts his years spent as a transient during The Great Depression, an experience that influenced his voice and political worldview.
Oklahoma’s representative at the American Song Contest is miles removed from that particular aspect of the state’s musical history … close to 6,000 miles, in fact. K-pop sensation AleXa will be representing The Sooner State with the pop banger “Wonderland”, co-written by recent Melfest favorite Cazzi Opeia. AleXa is one of the bigger names competing in the American Song Contest, and, with the fervor that often greets K-pop idols, it’s hard to imagine she isn’t one of the front-runners.
Born and raised in Oklahoma until the age of 21, AleXa began studying dance at the age of two. This came in handy in 2017, when she entered the online K-pop idol search competition Rising Legends. Presented in collaboration between Twitch and South Korean media giant Cube Entertainment, the winner would receive a trip to Seoul to audition for Cube Entertainment and would be followed by cameras for a series documenting the experience. As it happened, AleXa was the lucky lady. (Watch her winning submission video below.) Though the audition for Cube Entertainment did not ultimately lead to a contract, AleXa had her foot in the door.
In 2018, she competed on the truly wild-sounding series Produce 48, a series in which audience votes narrowed a field of 96 performers down to a 12-member girl group eventually known as IZ*ONE. And though she was unsuccessful in her attempt at becoming one of 12, AleXa soldiered on … eventually becoming a star in her own right with the 2019 release of her solo debut single “Bomb.” (See below.) Since then, she has released a number of hit singles, amassed millions of devoted fans (known collectively as AI Trooper), co-hosted an award winning podcast, and launched a YouTube channel. All that, and it was recently announced she will be making her acting debut on the South Korean anthology horror series Goedam 2 for Netflix. Not too shabby.
Read our interview with AleXa here.
Population: 1.063 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Cyprus
Musical Heritage: Folk, jazz, noise rock
Notable Homegrown Talent: George M. Cohan, Blu Cantrell, AraabMuzik
Rhode Island may be the smallest of The US’ 50 states, but its musical influence is mighty. It is home to both the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz Festivals, events that have seen musicians from all over the globe descend on the diminutive, seaside city of Newport once a year since the 1950s. In the 1990s, the state’s capital, Providence, became a hot bed of experimental rock, and a rich tradition of Fado music has been cultivated by Rhode Island’s large Portuguese population. Anyone who came of age in the early ’00s should be familiar with the work of one Rhode Island-native in particular: Blu Cantrell. Specifically the cultural reset that was her 2001 chart topper “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)”.
Hitting ’em up style for Rhode Island at the American Song Contest is soulful singer-songwriter Hueston, with his composition “Held on Too Long”. He first entered the music scene as part of indie rock duo The Blancos. The duo, made up of Hueston and Jayson Robbins, began collaborating with each other in the early ’00s, eventually releasing two EPs and securing a major label record contract.
The Blancos’ biggest hit was undoubtedly their collaboration with rapper Joyner Lucas: the 2018 single “We’re Tired”. The song debuted at #24 on the Spotify US Viral Charts and went on to receive over 2 million hits on YouTube. Watch the official music video below:
After the dissolution of The Blancos in 2019, Hueston soldiered ahead on a solo project, releasing a number of singles and the six-song EP “Orbs” last year, a highly personal work touching on overcoming addiction, depression, and loneliness. His most recently released track is the gruff electro song “Nick Cage 93”. (Listen below.)
Population: 5.868 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Denmark
Musical Heritage: Polka, heavy metal, blues
Notable Homegrown Talent: Les Paul, Garbage, Bon Iver
The large German and Norwegian immigrant population that came to Wisconsin in the early 1800s brought with them a tradition of European folk and dance music. In more recent times, the state has produced a number of rock and metal bands, but perhaps the most influential Wisconsin to music history is Les Paul, the blues guitarist and singer-songwriter who pioneered a number of recording techniques and developed an early prototype of the electric guitar.
Pop rock showman Jake’O will be paying tribute to that history, playing the electric guitar during his performance of the song “Feel Your Love”. Jake’O describes his music as Nuvo-Retro, a blend of vintage sounds with modern sensibilities and forward-facing ideas. He counts Elvis, Prince, and Chuck Berry among his musical influences. Raised in the army, his music also combines the different cultures he was exposed to as a child, from Latin rhythms to classic rock ‘n roll, from EDM to rockabilly and pop.
After developing a fascination with the electric guitar at age 11 and teaching himself to play by ear, Jake’O was busking on the street and performing local shows by the age of 15. Under the name ‘Jake ‘O McCluskey’, he eventually released two currently unavailable albums in 2017 and 2018. Watch his live streamed performance from a coffee shop gig in 2016 below:
Since shortening his stage name to simply Jake’O, the hangdog heartthrob’s look and sound have evolved, and he has continued to perform for lucky crowds of local fans who will someday say they knew him when. (All the while, as he told us in an interview published last week, working jobs at a cheese packing facility, a tavern, and a cemetery.) Currently, there isn’t a lot of his music available to stream or purchase online, but hopefully success at the American Song Contest means his complete library will soon be released from the vaults! In the meantime, below is a six minute set he gave at an open air gig last September.
Read our interview with Jake’O here.
Population: 582K, roughly equivalent to the population of Malta
Musical Heritage: Bluegrass, punk, classical
Notable Homegrown Talent: Chancey Williams, Chris LeDoux, Teenage Bottlerocket
Despite being the tenth largest state by area, Wyoming is the least populated state in The US. Unsurprisingly for a rural state, country music is the predominant genre represented in the state’s music scene. But smack dab in the middle of cowboy country is the Grand Teton Music Festival, an annual, seven-week classical music festival showcasing chamber musicians and orchestral compositions. A number of pop punk groups have also called Wyoming home, including Teenage Bottlerocket and The Lillingtons.
Perhaps fusing Wyoming’s history of both country crooners and outsider provocateurs is cowboy rapper Ryan Charles with the song “New Boot Goofin'”. Don’t let his lyrical flow fool you. As an avid hunter, fisher, and horse rider, Ryan is as country as it gets.
As early as 2014, he was performing cowboy hip hop under the stage name ‘Tink Tonk’, switching simply to Ryan Charles before recording and releasing two albums, “JCFnR” and “Blazing Saddles“, in 2015. Watch the video for “Holdin’ It Down” off the latter album below:
After a pretty lengthy absence, beginning circa 2017, Ryan reemerged in a big way last year, releasing the single “Gettin’ Western”. The official music video currently sits at over 656,000 views, in part due to the millions of TikTok videos in which it is used. (Watch the video below.) Earlier this year, Ryan released an EP by the same name and released two more music videos to support the album.
Population: 3.194 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Armenia
Musical Heritage: Bomba, reggaeton, salsa
Notable Homegrown Talent: José Feliciano, Ricky Martin, Daddy Yankee
The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has a long history of colonization. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fusion of Spanish, indigenous, and African rhythms that make up the sounds of Puerto Rico. The territory’s music scene sees traditional instrumentation meet expressive dance beats and Caribbean flavor. Recently, reggaeton has been Puerto Rico’s chief musical export, with artists like Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi sharing the island’s sound with an international audience. People who came of age in the late ’90s/early ’00s will no doubt be familiar with the discography of one Ricky Martin, often referred to as the ‘King of Latin Pop’.
Singer-songwriter Christian Pagán is keeping the tradition of Latin pop alive with his song “Loko”. Born in 1989, in the city of Humacao, Christian grew up performing traditional Puerto Rican music and studying at a performing arts high school. At that school, he met and formed a band with some of his classmates. That group, Ultima Ciudad, released an album titled “Nomads/Foreigners” in 2009, before taking a break to focus on other projects.
Shortly thereafter, in 2011, Christian auditioned for the first season of Idol Puerto Rico … and won. Watch one of his performances on the season below:
Christian’s debut album, 2012’s “Más de lo Que Soy” debuted at #6 on the Billboard Latin Pop Album Charts. He would go on to release two more albums AND reunite with Ultima Ciudad for a new single in 2019. He also dipped his toes into the acting world, playing a recurring role on the Telemundo telenovela Guerra de ídolos for 24 episodes in 2017. His most recent music release prior to the American Song Contest was the song “Hasta Viejos”, released late last year.
Read our interview with Christian Pagán here.
PHEW. And there you have it. Hopefully this primer will help non-US residents to better understand and engage with the artists competing at the very first edition of the American Song Contest. The US is a large country, a country of immigrants. If done correctly, the American Song Contest could highlight The US as a melting pot of culture, history, tradition, and innovation. But will it be done correctly? Only time will tell.
The American Song Contest premieres at 8/7c (1 AM Central European Time for all you insomniacs) on NBC, with performances presumably uploaded to NBC’s YouTube channel and/or streaming platform Peacock shortly thereafter.
Can’t wait that long to hear this week’s songs? Listen to the Spotify playlist above!
Voting is done in one or all of these three ways: on NBC.com/on the NBC app/on TikTok. If you’re a visual learner, here’s Yam Haus providing a helpful explanation:
HOW TO VOTE ON AMERICAN SONG CONTEST pic.twitter.com/6qTaILY8L9
— yam haus (@yamhaus) March 20, 2022
Who are #YOU rooting for tonight? It’s OK. #YOU can say AleXa. We know the K-pop fans have Googled and descended. We love and support #YOU. Anyway … Sound off in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited.