Ann Powers

Sometimes a word doesn't reveal its entire meaning upon first utterance. "Deadpan" is a word like that: It signals a certain comical lack of emotion, yet the great deadpan performers, like Buster Keaton in The General or Laurie Metcalf on Roseanne, communicate great depth of feeling with each slow melt. So, to be sure, calling Kelsey Waldon a fantastic deadpan singer is a compliment.

The next time somebody asks what makes Lori McKenna's 10th album one of 2016's best releases — and people should, because it is — the answer involves a root-beer popsicle. McKenna uses that homely metaphor a few verses into "Humble & Kind," a litany in 3/4 time that Tim McGraw recently took to the top of the country charts. McKenna wrote the song for her kids; she has five, and the youngest is almost in high school, so some life advice seemed in order.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

The writing rooms of Nashville aren't always magical places. Though many top-notch creative minds meet in those Music Row offices to pen country hits, the marketplace demands that they produce highly average material for stars seeking to dominate the radios inside American SUVs. Every so often, though, a truly original voice emerges from within Nashville's workaday milieu. Brent Cobb is one.

Over two decades and 11 studio albums, the Alabama-born, Georgia-bred band Drive-By Truckers has crafted a multifaceted vision of a stubborn, changing South, decimating stereotypes by excavating the truths from which those myths had sprung. The Truckers' sound has always been an equal mix of punk and Muscle Shoals, freshly inked graffiti and used-car exhaust; over the years, its messages have grown both more refined and thicker with meaning, more historically informed, more urgent.

Very few musical gatherings during the crowded summer festival season have been going on as long as CMA Music Fest, which launched under the name Fan Fair in 1972 and now descends upon Nashville just after the heat and humidity set in each June. One of the secrets to its longevity is that it's always been a place where country fans can encounter artists up close; folks who get a bit of face time with their favorite artists, maybe even a hug, are prone to keep coming back.

For every country star and insurgent new sensation, Nashville boasts a dozen musicians who've perfected their art over many years. Tomi Lunsford is one such exceptional, undersung talent. She hails from a prestigious family — her great-uncle was the revered folklorist and songwriter Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and her father, fiddler Jim Lunsford, played with the likes of Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. Tomi herself began singing professionally as a teen with Jim and her harmonizing sisters.

Nashville may be famous as the country music capital, but it's also a great rock 'n' roll town. In recent years, the city's spawned a new generation of joyfully ragged garage-punk purveyors, currently represented on the national scene by enduring bands like Jeff the Brotherhood and newer ones like Bully. Thelma and the Sleaze's Lauren Gilbert, who goes by the initials LG, has been part of that community since moving to Nashville from Iowa to study audio engineering.

In this age of peer-policed hyperproductivity, the practice of pausing and thinking is fetishized but rarely truly supported. Reflection has become yet another goal achieved through an app: something to show off on our socials within an anxiously curated stream of fresh plans, ideas and accomplishments. This is true for musicians just as it is for mommy bloggers and tech entrepreneurs. Time spent outside the spotlight, it's assumed, isn't quiet time, but another occasion for overwork.

Among the younger artists who live on the border between traditional country music and singer-songwriterly Americana, women are currently leading the way. Kelsey Waldon is one of the best among them, crafting musical commentaries on 21st-century American lives that honor the past while remaining fiercely engaged with the present.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Esmé Patterson is one of several young women — others include Frances Quinlan of Hop Along, Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield, and Julien Baker — making music that could be called synapse-rock.

Somewhere in the back of my closet is a torn photograph from a party in Seattle in 1982. Dig if you will the picture: It's me, in a second-hand chiffon dress that (though the photo is black and white) I'm sure is violet. My hair is a two-toned mass of strawberries and cream, my neck's draped in my mom's big costume pearls; a bracelet of pretend diamonds dangles from my wrist. This is an ordinary look for a college girl with a nightlife obsession in 1982. I'm gazing into a mirror; behind me is my friend Pete, holding the camera, laughing his head off.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Breakups are heart-shattering, life-changing, momentously difficult, clinically depressing, spiritually enlightening, and many other things. They can also, at times, be tedious. Dodging vindictiveness, awkward silence and plain unavoidable pain becomes a consuming preoccupation. Good-party rage and bad-party guilt collide in breakfast nooks.

The most meme-able moment of Michelle Obama's keynote event at yesterday's South by Southwest conference and festival came when she responded to a question from her friend Queen Latifah by crooning a few bars of the Motown weeper "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." The novelty of a first lady si

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

A certain musical and spiritual condition defines Wynonna Judd's first album with her band The Big Noise — not to mention the first album of original material in 13 years from one of country music's supreme redheads. That quality is joy. It dominates, not just because Judd is performing with a small group led by her husband, the drummer and producer Cactus Moser, letting loose on songs she hand-selected because she liked them rather than out of concern for padding her remarkable roster of hits.

I am a Bowie girl. Not literally: I'm a little too young to have swiped my face with glitter and run out in lime-green platforms to see David Bowie storming through America in 1972 and 1973 with the Spiders from Mars, when he sent queer and alien dispatches across a heartland primed for them by Stonewall and women's lib and the sexual revolution but also feeling the slap of the Silent Majority as the Nixon era lumbered on.

"Lyrics drove me to country music," said the producer Dave Cobb in an interview we published yesterday about his path from the L.A. rock scene to producing a handful of albums that signal a return of traditional country to Nashville's main stage, including ones by Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. "I think maybe what I wanted to do is to find a way to make country records feel like all the other records I adored, but with those lyrics. And voice. I'm always looking for a voice."

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