Jewly Hight

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.

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.

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.


The subject of motherhood is often heaped high with social and cultural expectations. When a woman takes on the role of raising children, she may find herself defined primarily by those attachments in others' eyes, regardless of how she views her own multifaceted identity. And she may decide that this dissonance calls for a creative and conscious response.

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.

So often, we celebrate a singer-songwriter's most personally revealing work as the loftiest of artistic achievements, an accessing of autobiographical authority, a consummate, confessional window to the soul.

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.

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.

It is a familiar posture: the popular musician who heroically resists the demands of mainstream popularity, aiming instead for loftier notions of statement making, authenticity flaunting, muse following and the like. Yet country acts tend to avoid such passion projects, at least until they've aged out of competing for radio hits and are repositioning themselves, perhaps as emboldened individualists or intrepid interpreters of musical traditions they hold dear.

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