Who is the future king of Canadian country music?

Ranking the breakthrough artist nominees at the 2023 CCMA Awards.

Ranking the breakthrough artist nominees at the 2023 CCMA Awards

From left to right: Nate Haller is a white man with long straight brown hair wearing a black t-shirt and a black trucker hat; Griffen Palmer is a white man with short dark hair wearing a black t-shirt; Orville Peck is a man wearing a black leather face mask with long black fringe from nose down to chest and a large red stetson-style hat; Josh Ross is a white man with a baseball hat, a white shirt, and beard scruff; and Dax is a Black man with short dread twists wearing a pale pink hoodie under a camo-patterned jacket.
From left to right: Nate Haller, Griffen Palmer, Orville Peck, Josh Ross and Dax are the 5 nominees for breakthrough artist at the 2023 Canadian Country Music Awards. (Submitted by artists; design by CBC Music)

Five men (and cisgender men only) comprise the nominees for breakthrough artist of the year at the 2023 Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs). But what makes a "breakthrough" artist? How have these five bucked ahead of every other emerging and upstart country music act of the last couple of years? And given the pedigree of previous nominees and winners of this illustrious category (previously called the Rising Star Award) —  k.d. lang (1987), Blue Rodeo (1989), Susan Aglukark (1994), Terri Clark (1996), Tim Hicks (2014) and Megan Patrick (2017)  — could we be looking at one of the future kings of Canadian country music? 

CBC Music has taken a thorough look at the five nominees — Josh Ross, Griffen Palmer, Orville Peck, Dax, and Nate Haller — and considered their biggest hits, best songs and, in many cases, truly astounding streaming numbers in order to predict who might be the voice of a new generation of country music.

Artist: Josh Ross

Who is he? An athlete turned country sensation, Ross traded football in for penning heart-wrenching country ballads after suffering an injury at Western University. 

Biggest hit song: "Trouble," which has nearly 30 million streams on Spotify and reached No. 21 on the Billboard Canada Country chart. 

Best song: "First Taste of Gone," a breakup ballad that went viral last year and sonically feels inspired by Lewis Capaldi's "Someone You Loved." (In a recent Billboard interview, Ross said Capaldi is a dream collaborator of his.) 

Streaming numbers: 2.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify; 4.1 million likes on TikTok. 

What makes them special: Ross has quickly built a strong following over the past four years with his lovesick country anthems. Whether he's describing his dream girl as a song that he would play all night long ("If You Were a Song") or lamenting on post-breakup loneliness ("Trouble"), Ross knows how to turn love into richly detailed stories. Inspired by both country and rock music, Ross has been able to flex a harder-hitting sound while opening for Nickelback on tour. (Ross also shares the same management team as Nickelback.) In 2020, he released his EP Do What You Love, which has earned more than 1.7 million streams on Spotify. He has yet to release a full-length album yet, but has teased its potential release next year.  

Will they reign as the future king of Canadian country? 3 Stetsons out of 5. 

Artist: Griffen Palmer 

Who is he? A former rugby star, Palmer has since relocated from Pickering, Ont., to Nashville to become a country star, working behind the scenes with Keith Urban, Chelsea Cutler, Mackenzie Porter, Jade Eagleson and more while simultaneously building his own solo career. 

Biggest hit song: "Second Guessing" is his only track to surpass a million streams on Spotify; it has 4.5 million streams to date. Palmer pitched this song to Florida Georgia Line in 2020 on the NBC series Songland, and the Nashville duo selected Palmer's song, which appeared on the duo's 2020 EP, 6-Pack, and later on its fifth studio album, Life Rolls On. Florida Georgia Line's version has accumulated more than 24 million streams. 

Best song: "Unlearn," the title track of his album, which dropped earlier this year. An anthemic love song, the track examines Palmer's past and present experiences with love, how his parents' failed marriage shaped him and how he is only now undoing the toxic patterns he learned because he is finally in a good relationship. 

Streaming numbers: 247,985 monthly listeners on Spotify. 

What makes them special: In many ways, Palmer is being primed as the next big country star. He's signed to Big Loud Records, home to Morgan Wallen, Mackenzie Porter and Dallas Smith; he's appeared on numerous high-profile TV shows (the aforementioned Songland and a cameo on The Bachelor); and he's already amassed a number of songwriting credits for Jade Eagleson, Tyler Shaw and fellow breakthrough artist nominee Nate Haller. While his own streaming numbers don't compare to the other nominees, Palmer's star is quickly rising — but splitting his time between songwriting for himself and others is perhaps slowing down that ascent just a bit. 

Will they reign as the future king of Canadian country? 2 Stetsons out of 5. 

Artist: Orville Peck

Who is he? A mysterious masked crooner whose music combines rock, shoegaze and classic American outlaw country.  

Biggest hit song: "Dead of Night," a track off his 2019 debut album, Pony, which has been featured on HBO's Euphoria and FX's American Horror Story. It now has more than 51 million streams on Spotify. 

Best song: "Drive Me, Crazy," which tells the romantic tale of "two truckers who are passing each other constantly, and they're in love, and their story exists entirely on the highways," as he explained to Billboard

Streaming numbers: 886,654 monthly listeners on Spotify; 1.7 million likes on TikTok. 

What makes them special: While country music continues to be dominated by straight, white, male artists, there has been some progress in recent years with the rise of Lil Nas X (whose first single, "Old Town Road," caused a stir on the country charts), Mickey Guyton and Peck. Born in Johannesburg but moved to Vancouver as a teenager, Peck performed in punk bands for several years until he went solo, donned a fringe mask and started performing under the moniker Orville Peck. This project has also allowed Peck to openly embrace his queerness, which he centres in his persona and art because, as he told Variety in 2022, "I now know how important it is to people who maybe didn't have the same experience that I had." In addition to that, Peck's signature baritone voice sets him apart from many other country acts, and that combined with his confessional songwriting, charisma and A-list circle of friends and collaborators (Shania Twain, Trixie Mattel, Lady Gaga), Peck is already on his way to becoming the new king of country. 

Will they reign as the future king of Canadian country? 4.5 Stetsons out of 5 

Artist: Dax

Who is he? A former basketball player turned poet, rapper, songwriter and surprise country-crossover hitmaker.  

Biggest hit song: "Dear Alcohol," which Dax initially wrote as a poem before releasing it as a single on March 11, 2022. He followed that up in June of the same year with a country crossover remix featuring vocalist Elle King. Since then, both versions have racked up big numbers online. Dax's original version has almost 64 million streams on Spotify, and 72 million views on YouTube. The Elle King version has almost 18 million streams on Spotify, and 10 million views on YouTube. 

Best song: "Dear Alcohol" is a winner, and Dax's voice is an exciting and refreshing addition to the new generation of country artists who love to blur genres and create chart-topping crossover hits. 

Streaming numbers: 3,203,989 monthly listeners on Spotify; 117 million likes on TikTok. 

What makes them special: Dax is a young, Black poet turned rapper who was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, raised in Ottawa, and now lives in LA. Like Orville Peck, Dax is blowing past the traditional country music gatekeepers and finding success on his own terms. In taking up a time-honoured country music topic — alcoholism — and putting his own twist on it, Dax has crafted an instant classic that will likely be covered by other country and non-country artists for decades to come. His faith in his own art toes the perfect line between cowboy swagger and inspirational how-to for artists on the come-up. "My goal is, every single day, I'm trying to get my impactful songs to more people because I think what you consume determines your life," Dax told CBC Music earlier this year. "I think the world would be a different place if my music was more popular." 

Will they reign as the future king of Canadian country? 3.5 Stetsons out of 5 

Artist: Nate Haller 

Who is he? Nate Haller honed his skills as a guitarist playing in Kira Isabella's band as well as with the Reklaws, before launching his solo career with his first single in March 2021. Eight months later, Haller released his debut album, Party in the Back.

Biggest hit song: "Lightning in a Bottle" was an apt title for Haller's first-ever single. The song details falling hard and fast for a new face at the bar — "Ain't it funny how one drink/ turns into two/ turn the two of us/ into me and you" — and is Haller's biggest hit to date with more than two million streams on Spotify. 

Best song: "Somewhere to Drink" is a party bus of a sing-along featuring Canadian country faves the Reklaws and Brett Kissel. 

Streaming numbers: 47,978 monthly listeners on Spotify; 112,700 likes on TikTok. 

What makes them special: He's paid his dues as a backing and touring musician for other big names in Canadian country, so props to Haller for biding his time and working on his craft until he was ready to make his debut. Hard-launching one's new solo career in the middle of a pandemic is no easy feat, but his hard-partyin', hard-lovin' vibes make him an instant peer of contemporary country chart-toppers as well as beloved country veterans. (Is there a duet in Haller's future with Terri Clark? If not, there should be!) But because Haller's lyrical subject matter often borrows from extremely well-tread ground, he may need to dig deeper in order to stand out from the crowd. 

Will they reign as the future king of Canadian country? 3 Stetsons out of 5