At the top of last week’s second qualifying heat of the American Song Contest, hosts Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg announced that Oklahoma’s AleXa, Connecticut’s Michael Bolton, and Puerto Rico’s Christian Pagán would join the week one jury qualifier, Rhode Island’s Hueston, in the contest semi-finals. And after 11 more acts flexed their vocal muscles, The Voice champion and Kentucky-native Jordan Smith was selected by the jury to join them. Watch his performance of “Sparrow” below:

Jordan Smith

As we wait to find out which three other acts from last week’s show garnered enough support from the jury and public vote to advance to the semi-finals, a new crop of 12 acts are gearing up to take the stage and make their states proud. To help you prepare for tonight’s festivities, we present week 3 of American Song Contest 101, a primer on each state and territory’s music scene, as well as an introduction to the various artists who will be competing for the audience’s votes.

Disclaimer: 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 (and one territory) represented in tonight’s third qualifying round:

Population: 4.95 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Ireland

Musical Heritage: Gospel, soul, country

Notable Homegrown Talent: The Blind Boys of Alabama, Hank Williams, Alabama Shakes

Perhaps unsurprisingly in the state that was at the epicenter of The US Civil Rights Movement, the history of jazz, soul, and R&B music created by African American artists is rich and deep in Alabama, with countless influential artists in those genres birthed within the state’s borders. Country music, in all its forms, has thrived in Alabama, with Hank Williams being its most famous practitioner. Raised in the state in the ’20s and ’30s, Hank Williams is now considered the “King of Country Music”. He was only able to release two studio albums before his untimely death at 29 years old in 1952, but he was incredibly prolific, releasing nearly 30 chart topping singles and earning national recognition through his work at the Grand Ole Opry. Posthumous releases like the single “Your Cheatin’ Heart” topped the Billboard charts and have become some of the most recognizable country music tracks of all time.

Left: Dani competes in the DanceXplosion touring dance tournament, Right: Colton competes as part of Eleventh Hour on ‘The Sing Off’; both in 2010.

Pop singing YouTubers Ni/Co will be representing Alabama with the song “The Difference”. Partners in music and in life, Dani Brillhart and Colton Jones met while studying music at Belmont University in Nashville, but both of them traveled a long and winding road to get there. Dani grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, taking part in regional dance and singing competitions all through childhood. After attending elementary school in Alabama, Colton spent his adolescence moving from city-to-city, as his mother’s job in journalism required. He spent his high school years in Ohio, where he joined a cappella group Eleventh Hour and competed on the 2nd season of NBC’s The Sing Off. (The group finished 7th.) Dani and Colton met at a party while attending Belmont and spent hours discussing their mutual love of pop and R&B music. After performing a few gigs together, the pair decided to give a musical partnership a shot. And thus, shortly after graduating from Belmont in 2016, Ni/Co was born.

They spent the next two years writing and collaborating with other pop and R&B musicians in the Nashville area. And, perhaps most importantly, they started a YouTube channel, where they’ve been posting covers and mash ups of popular pop music ever since. Several of their videos have gone viral, racking up hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions of views. By far Ni/Co‘s biggest cover has been The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love”, currently sitting at over three million views and over two million Spotify streams. Watch it below:

After landing a publishing deal in 2018, the duo relocated to their current home base in Los Angeles. They’ve continued to hustle, and their reputation has only grown, with music from the duo featured on TV shows and used in ads for Spotify and Ralph Lauren. In addition to a regular schedule of uploaded covers, Ni/Co has released a handful of originals, most recently “my wants, my needs”. The song allows the pair to show off their vocals and lyrical aptitude and makes great use of a sample from Christina Aguilera’s seminal 1999 song “What a Girl Wants”.

Read our interview with Ni/Co here.

Population: 721k, roughly equivalent to the population of Montenegro

Musical Heritage: Metal, folk, indigenous

Notable Homegrown Talent: 36 Crazyfists, Portugal. The Man, and … Jewel

In a state that, on average, receives only five to six hours of sunlight during the winter months, it should come as no surprise that Alaska is home to a thriving hard rock and metal scene. (If Lordi has a US-counterpart, they would no doubt come from this northernmost state.) The bigger cities have a number of popular rock venues, and local rock and metal acts take center stage at annual events like The Summer Meltdown Festival in Anchorage. The metalcore band 36 Crazyfirsts originated in Anchorage and has since recorded eight studio albums, released a number of charting singles, and toured all over The US and Europe. But, perhaps more relevant to the matter at hand, there’s a large culture of country and folk music in Alaska, much of it brought by Russian and English immigrants and, later, laborers from the southern US who relocated to the state to work in the oil and gas industry.

Childhood photo of Jewel on her family’s bare-bones homestead.

In the early ’90s, that tradition of Alaskan folk music birthed Jewel, unquestionably the state’s most iconic musical export. She will be competing at the American Song Contest with the song “The Story”. Raised on an Alaskan ranch with no heating or in-door plumbing, she grew up singing folk music at local venues with her dad. (Her extended family are the stars of Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier, a show that chronicles their continuing rustic lifestyle, and her cousin Q’orianka Kilcher is an actress most known for starring as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s film The New World.)

With a partial scholarship and some help from the local community, she studied opera and guitar at an Arts Academy in Michigan before making her way to Southern California. She infamously lived out of her car during that time, writing music and performing small gigs, before she was discovered by record executives. Her debut album, 1995’s Pieces of You, was a monumental success, selling over 12 million copies in The US alone. The album spawned three hit singles, including “You Were Meant for Me”. Watch that song’s official music video below:

Since her breakthrough, Jewel has released over a dozen albums, written two poetry collections, served as judge on three music competition shows, and even starred in her own series of murder mystery movies for the Hallmark Channel. Her most recent career achievement came on The US edition of The Masked Singer last year. As ‘Queen of Hearts’, she performed songs by Patsy Cline, Lady Gaga, Sia, and Edith Piaf. And in the season’s final face off, Jewel emerged victorious! She celebrated her victory by releasing an EP of all the songs she covered on the show, aptly titled Queen of Hearts. Watch her unmasking, and her encore performance of “La Vie En Rose”, below:

 

Population: 5.961 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Denmark

Musical Heritage: Jam band, folk, jazz

Notable Homegrown Talent: The String Cheese Incident, India Arie, OneRepublic

Beginning in the late 1800s, the city of Denver had a large population of African American transplants. As a result, the 1920s and 1930s saw the growth of a large jazz music scene in the state. Through the ’60s and ’70s, folk and bluegrass sounds began to dominate the local scene. But as perhaps the … chillest state in The US (if you catch my drift🌲), it should come as no surprise that Colorado became a bit of an epicenter of the booming jam band craze of the ’90s. A hybrid of jazz, funk, rock, and metal, the jam band tradition saw local and touring acts perform extended jam sessions and freewheeling live concerts. The String Cheese Incident, a jam band that originated in Telluride during the genre’s heyday, has been steadily recording and releasing music since the mid ’90s, but it’s the psychedelic spectacle of the band’s live shows that have earned it a loyal fanbase.

Ross, Riker, Rydel, (Ellington) Ratliff, and Rocky of R5 in the pages of ‘Tiger Beat’.

Pop rocker Riker Lynch has a similarly devoted fanbase that he is hoping to tap into during tonight’s performance of his song “Feel the Love”. One of the biggest names competing this week, Riker comes from a big showbiz family. The eldest of five siblings, he grew up in Littleton Colorado, with his brothers Ross, Ratliff, and Ryland and sister Rydel. (Say that five times fast.) After obsessively watching VHS tapes of NSYNC concerts as a kid, he caught the performing bug, dancing competitively, learning the piano, and acting in children’s plays. At age 16, Riker announced his desire to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He and his siblings were all attending a performing arts school at the time and, in an unorthodox move, the entire family packed up and relocated to California to pursue Hollywood dreams. The wholesome, All-American crew quickly began booking commercials and landing TV shows. Riker landed a recurring role on Glee. His brother Ross booked a series regular gig on the Disney channel show Austin & Ally (and has since appeared in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and the Teen Beach Movie franchise.)

Running parallel to the brothers’ acting careers was the formation and success of a pop-rock band made up of the four eldest siblings of the Lynch clan and Ellington Ratliff, an actor and LA-native who became the band’s drummer after meeting the family in a dance class. Together, they became R5 and chronicled their journey to the top on a YouTube channel. After playing local gigs for a couple years, the band landed a record deal and would go on to release two albums, five EPS, and a number of chart topping singles over the next four years. (Riker was R5’s bass player and provided co-lead and backing vocals.) You can watch the official music video for R5’s 2015 single “All Night” below:

After selling millions of records, writing dozens of songs, and touring all over the world, the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2018, with brothers Rocky and Ross continuing on as pop duo The Driver Era. After initially coming up with the idea to move to LA in the first place, it was time for Riker to head out on his own. (OK, he techinically came 2nd on Dancing with the Stars in 2015 on his own, but you get it.) He launched his own YouTube talk show, directed some short films, and, eventually, launched a new music project. Riker & The Beachcombers. His first single under this new moniker, 2019’s “Sex on the Beach”, re-introduced his music with the more citric, summer sound that Riker will be bringing during tonight’s show. (Watch the music video below.)

Read our interview with Riker Lynch here.

Population: 999k, roughly equivalent to the population of Estonia

Musical Heritage: Blues, jazz, classical

Notable Homegrown Talent: Clifford Brown, George Thorogood, Spindrift

Delaware is the second smallest state in The US. Nevertheless, there are a number of professional music institutions flourishing within its borders, including The Delaware Symphony Orchestra and OperaDelaware. The latter is one of the oldest opera companies in The US, regularly putting up productions since the ’40s.  Delaware is also home to a small, but mighty, blues scene. Blues rocker George Thorogood and his band The Detroyers began their careers playing in venues near the University of Delaware and eventually went on to record a number of rock standards, including the ubiquitous “Bad To The Bone”.

The many lives of Nitra.

Nitro Nitra is hoping to make Delaware proud at the American Song Contest with her performance of the song “Train”. Nitra (a shortening of her given first name) has been singing since she was a kid in Wilmington. After graduating with a degree in hospitality from the College of Southern Nevada, Nitra spent the next two decades moving from city to city, unsure of her destiny.

She was a singing waiter. She signed to a Las Vegas modeling agency, doing both print and runway work. She worked at a bank. She performed in a wedding cover band. She was a Zumba instructor. In the early ’10s, she was the lead female vocalist of the Philadelphia hip hop electronica group The Rebel Yell. (Watch one of the group’s music videos below.) In 2014, she assembled a band and began performing as simply ‘Nitra’. She even released a single in 2015.

By 2018, Nitra had lost everything to a combination of self-doubt and an addiction to Percocet, and she returned home to Delaware. One night, she had a vision, an astral being standing atop a clock tower as if to say, “your time is now.” She spent the next year slowly putting her life back together and rediscovering that childhood love of music and performing she had lost along the way. She wrote. She reflected. She made connections. She performed. A self-described ‘astral pop’ artist, the new and improved Nitra aims to bring her audience to another plane through an audio-visual experience. Her deeply personal debut album, Unearthed, was released in 2021 alongside corresponding music videos. The videos take the audience on a journey of self-love and spiritual enlightenment, the same one she had spent the past two years traveling. Her most recent output has been a little less heavy. Purged of her past pain, she’s been releasing energetic, country-tinged pop rock tracks like “Just Right”. Watch that song’s official music video below:

Read our interview with Nitro Nitra here.

Population: 22.178 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Romania

Musical Heritage: Pop, southern rock, Latin

Notable Homegrown Talent: Gloria Estefan, Tom Petty, NSYNC

The north and panhandle regions of Florida are more typical of states in the southern US, while south Florida is heavily influenced by the large Latin population, many of them Cubans who resettled in Florida after fleeing the Cuban Revolution. Because of this, Florida has two distinct, parallel music traditions. Beginning in the ’70s, many names in the southern and alternative rock worlds have come out of Florida. Conversely, the ’80s saw the beginning of a huge boom of Cuban and other Latin music genres that continues to this day. The third most populous state in The US, there has been plenty of room in Florida for other pockets of musical innovation to pop up, but perhaps nothing can compare to the boy band boom of the late-’90s and early-’00s. Orlando, Florida, is the home of Disney World and was the filming location for the revival of The Mickey Mouse Club that starred (among others) Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling. Also in the cast were Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez, and the pair were teamed up with three other teen heartthrobs to form the boy band NSYNC in 1995. The group was managed and shepherd along by now-disgraced record producer Lou Perlman, who had previously assembled the Florida-based boy band Backstreet Boys just two years earlier.

Ale in the studio, circa 2019.

Bringing Latin pop flair to the stage of the American Song Contest is Ale Zabala, performing the song “Flirt”. Born and raised in Colombia, she grew up singing and playing guitar. She also studied music at EMMAT, a Bogotá music academy and global partner of Berklee College of Music.

At age 20, she immigrated to the US to attend Florida Atlantic University, studying Music Business. She also spent some time at Berklee College of Music in Boston, honing her skills and writing songs. It was there she met Diego Andrés Contento, a songwriter and music engineer who became a frequent collaborator. In 2019, she released two singles under the name Alexa Rosado, “Falso Amor” and “Lo que pasó entre tú y yo”. (Watch the music video for the latter below.) Ale hustled around Miami, making connections and performing gigs, before the pandemic brought her promo activities to a halt.

Still, she had a fruitful 2020. She began working with a management team that helped her get press and promote her music. She released two singles that performed well on streaming platforms. She worked with experienced, respected music producers. In 2021, Ale co-wrote a song with Diego Andrés Contento for Puerto Rican pop idol Pedro Capó and released four new singles of her own. (The music videos for those tracks have hundreds of thousands of views.) Her most recent single, “Ocean Drive”, was released last month to similar success. You can watch that song’s music video below:

Read our interview with Ale Zabala here.

Population: 4.616 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Croatia

Musical Heritage: Dixieland jazz, Creole, blues

Notable Homegrown Talent: Louie Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Lil Wayne

Louisiana is one of the most musically-rich states in The US, with a diversity of sound that dates back to its tangled cultural history. As an important stop for the European shipping industry to North America in the days of colonization, the region was flooded with cultures from all over the world, and several nations had laid claim to it before The US purchased it from Napoleon in 1803. By that time, a unique ethnic class of Louisiana Creoles were a major presence within its borders. A complex mixture of primarily Spanish, French, African, and Native American ancestry, the Creole population had their own blend of Afro-Caribbean folk music that survived the transition to statehood and has maintained prominence to this day. Any number of rock, pop, and hip hop performers have come out of Louisiana over the years, but the jazz scene of New Orleans is perhaps the most important and influential. Dating all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, jazz music has been the iconic sound of the region. Louie Armstrong, a vocalist and trumpet player active from the late ’20s to the early ’60s, is an iconic cultural figure, not just in jazz but in the entire canon of American popular music. And as a pioneer of scat music, Alexander Ryback owes his ghost an apology.

Brittany training on pole vault, circa 2013.

Indie singer-songwriter Brittany Pfantz is bringing Louisiana’s rich music history to the American Song Contest-stage with her song “Now You Do”. Her passion for performance developed later in life. In high school, she was a champion pole vaulter, and she continued to compete in the sport while attending Southeastern Louisiana University. She was all set to graduate and put her degree in exercise science to good use. That is, until she was gifted a ukulele for Christmas during her junior year.

The art of songwriting and music performance came naturally to Brittany, and soon her dreams of becoming a physical therapist were replaced by a desire to be a working musician. After college, Brittany traveled the world doing missionary work in places like Hawaii and Brazil, all the while continuing to develop her artistic voice. It was while in Brazil that she recorded her first EP, titled Free Birds. (You can listen to it here.) She soon returned to Louisiana, making a name for herself in the local club scene and releasing the single “Merman” in 2015. (Listen below.)

After relocating to Nashville, she was a finalist in the 2016 Nash Next Challenge, a competition for up-and-coming talent vying for exposure and record deals. Brittany ultimately turned down a major label record contract, wishing to stay true to her own voice and vision. Since then, she has been hustling, competing in songwriting competitions, releasing singles (and a second EP in 2017). Her songs have been featured in a number of commercials and episodes of television, and rich, soulful R&B vocals have netted her hundreds of thousand of Spotify streams. Brittany‘s most recent release, uploaded just this week, is a duet with her fiancé, singer-songwriter Ben Masterson. The video ends with footage of his proposal, taken in early March of this year. Watch it below:

 

Population: 8.871 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Austria

Musical Heritage: Rock, hip-hop, punk

Notable Homegrown Talent: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen, Queen Latifah

Though there is a rich history of both jazz and folk music in The Garden State, rock is the most quintessentially-New Jerseyan art form. Some of the most legendary, most influential, most beloved rock musicians of the 20th century got their starts there and still define the rest of the country’s perception of the state’s music scene. No one is this more true for than Bruce Springsteen, the heartland rocker who has released twenty studio albums through the course of his nearly five decade long recording career. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 23rd on the list of greatest artists of all time, and his music has been the voice of generations of blue collar, working class Americans. They don’t call him ‘The Boss’ for nothing.

Baby Brooke, repping her Japanese heritage.

Representing the state with the song “I Don’t Take Pictures Anymore” is self-described girl-next-door Brooke Alexx. She grew up loving musical theater, auditioning for shows in New York City from the age of seven. At 13, she saw the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Love Song” and immediately switched gears, focusing on a dream of becoming a pop singer-songwriter. She played at talent shows and uploaded covers to YouTube throughout her teen years, eventually attending Elon University in North Carolina to pursue a degree in music production.

As a sophomore, Brooke recorded and released her very first single, the country pop break up track “You Already Knew”. The song was recorded with help from members of the school’s a capella groups and other on-campus music clubs. A music video shot in and around the university was uploaded to her YouTube channel shortly thereafter, and you can watch it below:

After graduating in 2017, Brooke moved to Nashville where she lives and works to this day. In addition to working in video content at Warner Music Group, she has competed in local music competitions, released a number of singles and EPs, and (during the pandemic) focused on growing her TikTok following. She played at the Lollapalooza Music Festival last year and even partnered with a make up company for a lipstick collection. Proceeds from the sale of that lipstick went to initiatives aimed at stopping hate crimes against Asians in The US, a close cause for the half-Japanese Brooke. She grew up isolated from her Asian heritage and clashing with her Japanese mother. In recent years, Brooke has gotten more in touch with both her family and her cultural roots. Her most recent EP, I’m Sorry Tokyo, features four songs written in tribute to her family, including heartfelt songs about Brooke‘s relationship with her mother and her growing love for her cultural background. Also on that EP is “Summer in the Hamptons”, a breezy, joyous ode to her parents very first date. Watch that music video below:

 

Population: 5.342 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Norway

Musical Heritage: Country, rock, beach shag

Notable Homegrown Talent: Dizzy Gillespie, Linda Martell, Josh Turner

South Carolina is popularly considered the birthplace of ‘beach music’, a genre of swing that saw the soul music of the local African American community interacting with the rock and pop influences brought by white vacationers to the state’s coast. Rock has remained a significant presence in the South Carolinian music scene, but, unsurprisingly due to its geographic location in The US, the history of country and bluegrass music in the state is especially ingrained. Linda Martell, a pioneering African American female country artist, was born and raised in South Carolina. After touring the state as part of an R&B family band, she was scouted by country music producers, eventually releasing the album “Color Me Country” in 1970. She was one of the first black artists to see commercial success in the country genre and performed at legendary venues all over the South. As an African American artist in a traditionally white space, her experience was not always easy, and her recording career was depressingly short. But, in more recent years, she has come to be recognized as a trailblazer and was given a momentous tribute at last year’s Country Music Television Awards.

Jesse and his parents, circa 2016.

R&B singer Jesse LeProtti will be representing South Carolina at the American Song Contest with his track “Not Alone”. Born and raised in the city of Columbia, Jesse was a performer from the very beginning. In the ’70s, his father was a vocalist and drummer in the local legends The Erly Wilds Band and went on to sing with funk masters like Rick James and George Clinton. Jesse recorded his very first song at the age of 11, continuing to hone his writing and performance abilities throughout his adolescence. The music of Michael Jackson was a particular influence on him.

After high school, Jesse relocated to Atlanta and (eventually) Los Angeles, pursuing a recording career in earnest. He put out mixtapes and performed on demos for Waka Flocka Flame, Young Thug, and 21 Savage. He collaborated with up-and-coming music producers Supah Mario, an up-and-comer who has since produced an album for Drake, and Evan Joseph of Digital Sauce. One ofHis most recent collaboration with the latter is “Rid of Me”, released last summer. Watch the music video for one of this most recent collaborations with the latter, “Mustard”, below:

Jesse‘s father suffered from addition issues throughout his childhood, and Jesse‘s mother suffers from debilitating cases of multiple sclerosis and lupus that require constant attention. Thankfully, the darkest days are behind them, and Jesse and his parents are closer than ever. He told the story of his tough upbringing in the vulnerable and honest 2021 song and music video for “My Story”. Both of his parents feature heavily in video clip, in which Jesse sings frankly about his childhood and his mother displays the effects disease have had on her body. You can watch that video below:

 

Population: 903k, roughly equivalent to the population of Cyprus

Musical Heritage: Indigenous, country, rock

Notable Homegrown Talent: Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Indigenous, Brulé

South Dakota’s music scene is dominated by two parallel cultures, with heavy representation of both country and indigenous music. The state is home to the National Cowboy Song and Poetry Hall of Fame and a number of annual country music festivals, but it also houses nine Native American reservations with their own sounds and traditions. Bridging those two worlds was Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, a country singer and Native American activist whose heyday came in the ’70s and ’80s, when he collaborated with artists like Willie Nelson and Joni Mitchell.

The original lineup of Judd Hoos, playing a gig in early-2009.

There is also an indie rock scene within South Dakota’s borders, and Judd Hoos is representing that scene at the American Song Contest with the song “Bad Girl”. The history of Judd Hoos dates all the way back to 2004, when local rock mainstay Bob Zwarte joined up with musicians Shane Funk, Drew Lerdal, and Chris Hornick. Primarily a cover band for the first few years of existence, Judd Hoos toured all over the Midwest US. In 2009 alone, they played 114 shows in nine different states. They also opened for well-known acts like Billy Idol, Third Eye Blind, and Puddle of Mudd.

In 2008, the band began recording, releasing, and performing new music. There have been three self-released albums-2008’s Better Intentions, 2013’s Two, and 2017’s Music in the Dark-and, in more recent years, a host of singles and music videos. Through extensive touring, the band’s reputation has grown steadily over the years. In 2009, they were featured on an episode of the local PBS-affiliate’s live performance show No Cover No Minimum. You can watch that set below:

 

The lineup of Judd Hoos has been ever-evolving over the years. In fact, after Bob Zwart retired from performing in 2016 and Chris Hornick left the band in December 2021, the only original member standing is Shane Funk. The current membership is as follows: Tyler Bills (guitar and lead vocals), Shane Funk (drums), Andy Young (guitar), and the two newest additions, Chase Huseby and Keithan Funk (both on bass). The band has become a bit of a family affair. Keithan is Shane’s son, and Andy is married to Shane’s daughter. Lead singer Tyler Bills, formerly a musician in Colorado, moved to South Dakota to front the band in 2013. The group’s most recent release was the 2021 song “Numb” (watch the official music video below), but “Bad Girl” will be Judd Hoos‘ first song in its current incarnation.

 

Population: 7.002 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Bulgaria

Musical Heritage: Rock, soul, blues, jazz, and the list goes on

Notable Homegrown Talent: Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton

Where to even begin? What Sweden is to pop music in the European music market, Tennessee is to Americana. Nashville, the home of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, has been a hub of both local and touring country music talent from the genre’s very beginnings, and some of the very first commercially recorded country music came from the nearby city of Bristol. Nashville has been colloquially known as “Music City, U.S.A.” for more than a century, and it remains one of, if not the, biggest music towns in The US. Going down the list of competing artists at the American Song Contest, you will find that many of them either live or work there with regularity. Three hours northeast of Nashville is Memphis, home to the Blues Hall of Fame and the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum. The famed Beale Street has been an epicenter of blues music for almost a century, and both Stax and Sun Records, two labels that were instrumental in defining the sound of modern soul and rock ‘n roll music, are also Memphis institutions. Elvis Presley, perhaps you’ve heard of him, grew up and began his career in Memphis. He came of age surrounded by the sounds of gospel, soul and jazz music, specifically created by African American musicians, and used those influences (some may saw … borrowed) to redefine the sound of modern rock ‘n roll music. He is ‘The King’, after all.

Tyler Braden, needless to say, will have some big blue suede shoes to fill when he takes the stage to perform his song “Seventeen”. Born and raised in Alabama, Tyler‘s parents instilled in him a love of classic country music. Surrounded by a family of singers, including an uncle who worked as an Elvis impersonator, it was inevitable that Tyler would take up performing. In high school, he began playing local gigs, a hobby he continued on the side after graduating and becoming a firefighter in Montgomery, Alabama.

Tyler (third from the right) pictured with his Tennessee brothers in firefighting earlier this year .

With the encouragement of a friend who had already moved to Nashville, Tyler took the plunge and moved to “Music City, U.S.A.” to give a career in music a real shot. He continued to work as a firefighter in his new town, performing gigs and continuing to raise his profile. The gamble paid off, and soon his two released singles were racking up millions of streams on Spotify. He had to hang up his fire boots for good once he signed a record and publishing deal with Warner Music in 2019, but he didn’t forget the people who had helped get him there. Tyler’s first major label single, a cover of the NEEDTOBREATHE hit “Brother”, was released in the early months of the Covid-19 lockdown and paid tribute to front line workers in the official music video. (Watch below.)

For an artist whose career has largely taken off during the pandemic, Tyler has kept busy. He has released a number of hit singles over the last two years, raking in millions of streams and music video views, and his debut EP What Do They Know came out in November of last year. (Watch the one take, acoustic performance of the album’s most recent single, “What I See”, below.) Competing at the American Song Contest will be the literal biggest stage of Tyler‘s career, but he has already accomplished his biggest musical dream. In January, he was booked to perform on the Grand Ole Opry for the very first time, one of the biggest honors in country music.

 

Population: 30.098 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Australia

Musical Heritage: Tejano, country, hip-hop

Notable Homegrown Talent: Janis Joplin, Selena, Beyoncé

The second largest state by both population and area, it would be impossible to sum up the state’s long and continuing history of music. Europeans will not be surprised to learn that the state’s country music artists and traditions have been heavily influential since at least the late-1800s,What non-US residents may not know is the state’s history of rock luminaries, innovative psychedelica acts, punk pioneers, and metal and rock musicians. There is also a healthy indie rock and pop culture, with the annual South by Southwest Music festival, held in the state’s capitol of Austin, one of the largest of its kind in the world. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the city of Houston has a hugely influential and nationally-recognized indie hip hop scene that has created some of that genre’s most important modern names. Texas’ proximity to Mexico and the more Latin-influenced culture of the southwestern United States has produced ‘Tejano’, a distinctly Texas music genre that’s a hybrid of Mexican vocal styling and Anglican dance rhythms. Due to her continuing cultural legacy, and the fact that Jennifer Lopez once played her in a movie, Selena is internationally recognized as the ‘Queen of Tejano music’, despite dying tragically at just 23 years of age.

Grant, posing with one of the Kidz Bop releases he is featured on.

Representing the Lone Star State at the American Song Contest is fresh-faced 19 year old Grant Knoche. Born outside of Dallas in 2002, Grant grew up in a family of performers. His father is a guitar player and his brother is a drummer. For his part, Grant‘s first foray into performance came as a dancer. He began taking lessons from an early age and eventually ended up performing competitively as part of a dance troupe. On the side, he began teaching himself piano and guitar, performing in public for the first time at an open mic at the age of nine.

In 2013, Grant began posting covers to YouTube and came to the attention of Kidz Bop, the children’s media company responsible for recording and releasing kid friendly covers of chart topping pop songs that are performed by a revolving stable of adolescent singers. Grant was invited to audition and, ultimately, was selected to join the troupe. He was featured on nine of the group’s albums, recording covers of songs like “Safe and Sound” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling“, performed all over the country on the Kidz Bop World Tour, and was prominently featured on the company’s YouTube channel. Kidz Bop allowed Grant to showcase both his singing and dance talent. (Watch a treadmill dance challenge he did to the group’s cover of “Uptown Funk” below.)

Kidz Bop may have a niche market, but make no mistake … the project has a huge built-in fanbase, producing sold out concerts and music videos with half a million views. Notable alumni include Zendaya and the previously-mentioned Ross Lynch. Grant‘s time with the group led to a number of opportunities, including acting in teen-oriented web series and landing guest spots on Nickelodeon. In 2017, he released his first single as a solo artist and has been steadily releasing singles and touring the country ever since, playing to his longtime fans and gaining new ones along the way. His most recent single, the decidedly un-kid friendly “WISH U WERE DEAD”, was released in February. (Watch the official music video below.)

 

Population: 58k, roughly equivalent to the population of Andorra

Musical Heritage: Indigenous folk, Oceanic dance, American & Asian imports

Notable Homegrown Talent: Bernice Shane Sabino, Fakiezero, Big Beats Band

The US became a trustee of the Northern Mariana Islands in 1947. Previously territories of Japan, they were ceded after that country’s defeat in World War 2. Traditional indigenous sounds and dance rituals on the island date back thousands of years. As a US territory located at a crossroads between that country and various Asian cultures, music from both sides of the Pacific Ocean are popular among the local population. There isn’t a large music scene in the commonwealth, but there are still pockets of music talent, mostly concentrated on the island of Saipan. Arguably the local voice who has had the most crossover recognition is wunderkind sensation Bernice Shane Sabino. Besides winning a number of local singing competitions before the age of 10, she has a YouTube channel with 147k subscribers and has gone viral with her covers of “You’re Welcome” from Moana and “Flashlight” by Jessie J, both of which have over 20 million views.

Sabyu busking on the streets of Seattle as a teenager.

Hoping to use his time at the American Song Contest to bring more glory to this tiny US territory is Sabyu, with the song “Sunsets and Seaturtles”. He spent his younger years on the island of Saiban, absorbing both the local island sound and rock and folk music from The US. After his family relocated to Seattle, Washington, Sabyu developed a keen interest in music, learning the guitar and playing around with hip hop beats on his computer.

In high school, he and his friends began recording music, burning CDs that they handed out in the halls of their high school. Sabyu also continued performing around the Seattle area, and began uploading covers and music videos for his original songs to a YouTube channel under the name M. Royale. Were you hoping to see a music video he made with four of his friends for economics class, updating the lyrics to Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow”? Well you’re in luck. Watch it below. It’s a little rudimentary, but even here Sabyu‘s musicality and rhythm stand out from the rest of the pack.

After high school, Sabyu attended the University of Washington, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Ethnomusicology. During his studies he absorbed music styles from all over the world, and that influx of influences has shaped the sound of his music to this day. He has been a fixture in the Seattle music scene, playing gigs, releasing music, and collaborating with other US transplants from the North Mariana islands on various projects. His most recent release is the song “The Giver (Where the Buffalo Roam)”, a country rock track honoring the traditions of indigenous people around the globe. (Watch a live performance of that song with his collaborator, Ninguy, below.) In addition to performing, Sabyu has been busy educating the next wave of Seattle’s music talent, teaching audio engineering at his alma mater and serving as an artist mentor at nonprofit music organization for at-risk youth.

Read our interview with Sabyu here.

And, with that, we bring week 3’s American Song Contest primer to a close. Hopefully this context can give you a better understanding of these 12 acts and musical tradition of the states they are representing. The third qualifying round airs tonight at 8/7c  (1 AM Central European Time for all you insomniacs) on NBC, with performances uploaded to NBC’s YouTube channel 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 last week’s competitors Yam Haus provided a helpful explanation in a video that can be found here.

Who are #YOU rooting for tonight? Will #YOU be blasting “Summer in the Hamptons” in your car for the next three months? Just me? Sound off in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited.

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One Comment

  1. […] Prior to this week’s episode we were able to sit down with four of this weeks artist for an interview which are all posted here. You can also read more about the different states, territories, and artists from this week’s episode from William’s in-depth pre-episode 101 article here. […]

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