Jewly Hight

If Willie Nelson hadn't fashioned himself into the artist he is over the course of thousands of performances and some hundred-plus albums, who could've dreamed him up? He's been the epitome of consistency, each of his shows an easygoing epic, each album loosely held together by a narrative or stylistic thread, each project expanding on country's troubadour tradition.

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

One day in late February, the five members of Front Country were warming up for their record release show at the renowned bluegrass club the Station Inn, in their new home base of Nashville, Tenn. They'd never played most of these songs live before.

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


"As of this writing, I am sixty-one years old in chronology," the novelist Madeleine L'Engle once mused. "But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and... and... and..."

The profoundly personal side of tragedy often gets lost when stories of horrendous events become a sort of public property, taken up by reporters, bloggers, tweeters and talk-show hosts, even claimed as fodder for sensationalized television documentaries. Flesh-and-blood people whose ordeals are broadcast far and wide can easily get reduced to one-dimensional characters and their suffering abstracted.

All manner of differences can seem like unbridgeable chasms in a social and political climate like this one, but East Texas singer-songwriter Sunny Sweeney happens to be quite practiced at bridging divides.

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

This was the year that all discussion of Guy Clark, standard-bearer of narrative-unfurling Texas songwriting, slipped from present tense into past. After his death in May came innumerable published remembrances, a sold-out tribute show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium featuring the cream of the writerly Americana crop and a meticulously researched biography, Without Getting Killed Or Caught: The Life And Music Of Guy Clark, all of it celebrating the singular sturdiness of his canon.

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.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, show producers worked a truly impressive number of performers into the Nov. 2 telecast, utilizing everything from moving medleys to photo montages and mentions of legends seated in the audience.

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.

Few in the roots scene had heard of Yola Carter before she made her first appearance at Nashville's Americana Fest in September, which might've suggested that she was some sort of musical rookie. In fact, the 33-year-old black, British singer-songwriter is a seasoned studio and stage pro.

Five years ago, Drake captured the millennial mood with a track abounding in bulletproof swagger and boasts of unconstrained indulgence. "You only live once," he luxuriated. "That's the motto."

Ponder for a moment the intensity of devotion that Gillian Welch has commanded among a certain highbrow listenership for the better part of two decades. She and her musical partner Dave Rawlings — who perform together under her name — have become archetypes of entrancingly austere, two-voiced artistry.

Contrary to institutional narratives and popular perception, there's a place more significant to the country-music imagination than Nashville: the small town. It's impossible to miss the number of song lyrics and music videos set there. The humble hamlet is symbolic ground on which many artists choose to stand, idealizing it as a site of possibility — the notion that a meaningful life can be lived either by staying there or staying true to small-town values even when you make good elsewhere — and insisting that cosmopolitan elitism not render it invisible or inferior.

"Everything's cyclical" has become a common refrain in the country music industry of late, a way of acknowledging that country radio's domination by R&B-juiced, summery jams this decade is neither the format's first swing toward popular sounds and sensibilities nor a permanent state. What would follow, some predicted, was a race to the opposite extreme: a hardcore country resurgence.

Has any country artist made a more convincing case for the hipness of hillbilly sensibilities than Dwight Yoakam? He's built a singular career out of challenging the opposition between what's perceived as artless and rustic and what's seen as cultivated and citified.

To older country fans, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are the ultimate examples of superstars who stayed true to their humble roots. Tara Thompson, 28, happens to come from Parton's mountains and Lynn's bloodline. The younger singer, typical of her oversharing generation, translates their down-home pride into tell-all songs.

An empowerment anthem can be a beautiful thing, a dramatic transcending of suffering's isolating power. But what's glorious about Sarah Potenza's blistering, riff-propelled personal anthem "Monster" is that it doesn't seek to transcend the unpleasantness of her reality — the fact that she's been told countless times in countless ways that the body she inhabits is socially unacceptable. Instead, we hear a woman's fierce determination to stay present, to stare down those who would shame her, to revel in her corporeality.

Realness is one of the most malleable and fetishized concepts in 21st century popular music. And nothing's revered as realer in the country-punk scene that Lydia Loveless emerged from than the contrarian rawness listeners found in her first two albums, The Only Man and Indestructable Machine.

For much of the post-Dylan age, and particularly in such self-consciously cerebral genres as indie rock, contemporary folk and Americana, artists have been more likely to command critical respect for cultivating their songwriting voices than for interpreting songs from others' pens. But John Prine, who was once pegged as a new Dylan, seems to be having a fine time toying with that modern musical hierarchy.

NPR listeners first met fiddle player Sara Watkins in Nickel Creek — the trio of prodigies that brought a youthful spirit to a bluegrass world that reveres its elders. Once she started making solo albums, however, she figured out what maturity sounds like for her.

If Sara Watkins hadn't thrown a fistful of salad, toppled a pineapple and squished a deviled egg during the otherwise well-mannered, family-dinner-themed music video for "Move Me," a potent song from her new album Young In All The Wrong Ways, there probably wouldn't be any footage of her behaving badly. And to think that the 35-year-old fiddle player first stepped onto the national stage in her late teens.

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