Country music can be a horse race, and we’re the bettors cheering them on with tickets in hand. For a third straight year, Taste of Country has chosen 10 artists to watch, and we’re confident about our choices of the artists who will dominate country music in 2016.

An artist is one to watch if they have not notched a major hit at radio or found success in nontraditional ways (a long stretch of television or digital success, for examples). Any artist included on previous Artists to Watch lists is ineligible. Unsigned artists are certainly eligible — in fact, you’ll find four independent artists on this year's list.

There’s going to be controversy. There’s going to be artists missing. There are going to be names we’re celebrating next December that didn’t make this list in January. Cam was that artist in 2015. She didn’t make our list last January, but artists like Old Dominion, Chase Bryant and Mo Pitney did.

The thing that ties all 10 of our Hot Artists to Watch in 2016 names together is a belief that each is in position to make an impact in the year ahead. “I like them a lot” isn’t enough. These acts show undeniable promise, in addition to a hunger to take that next step, be it a tour or an album or both.

Kane Brown presents a problem (Who is Kane Brown?). He’s a star on Facebook, and even put two songs near the top of the iTunes sales charts this fall. But he’s reliant on covers and being raw. There’s this air of mystery around him, and while he’s promising big news early in 2016, there’s a long track-record of radio programmers simply choosing not to breathe air they don't recognize. To date, there have been zero country artists who started a career on Facebook, YouTube or other modern social media networks. There’s been no country Justin Bieber. Perhaps there just hasn't been enough talent, but a more likely explanation involves how country fans and country music programmers feel about internet stars. We think of the web (and increasingly, television) as disposable. Brown is fighting those preconceptions as he begins his journey.

But his unmatched viral success thus far earns him a place in our Top 10. Bieber never relied on pop radio on his way to superstardom, and Brown could be planning something similar.

We haven’t missed at No. 1 yet. On the 2014 Artist to Watch list we named Sam Hunt, becoming the first major digital outlet to embrace the still-unsigned artist. At that point only SiriusXM had trumpeted the future star. Many were confused as to why we picked him over our No. 2 that year, Cole Swindell.

2015 brought Chris Lane to No. 1. Ten months into the year, fans finally found out why. “Fix” is just now beginning its run at radio, and there’s a lot of buzz around this talented (and good-looking) singer from North Carolina. We still stand by that choice, even if Lane took his sweet time in providing evidence for others.

The Taste of Country 10 Hot Artists to Watch in 2016 list will roll out two a day over the next week, with No. 1 revealed in our January cover story on Jan. 11. Follow these artists closely this year, and you'll be able to say you knew them when. Fans of contemporary and traditional country will discover something new to hold close. Every passing day opens a new door to "make it" in Music City, and we're as excited as anyone to see who comes walking through in 2016.

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