Jewly Hight

John Prine never really liked his singing voice. "The only reason I figured out I didn't like my old records to listen was I could hear how nervous I was, and how uncomfortable I was," the venerated musician says. "And who would want to sit around and listen to yourself being uncomfortable?"

Today, Prine is releasing The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years, to an audience that spans generations.

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.


When an artist frames a new album as the product of therapy, we've learned to expect a work of acute self-examination, unreserved confrontation or potent purging whose songs feel like they were inspired by highly individualized experiences and emotions.

You're probably used to hearing artists who are eager to set their latest albums apart from their previous work speak of breaking free from formula, the idea being that they've grown dissatisfied with strictures imposed on their music-making. But not everyone shares that philosophy.

Mary Bragg and Becky Warren are nursing beers and comparing notes on their conscientiousness.

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.


Lately, certain troubling and regressive aspects of our national discourse have veered dangerously close to casting economic, mental and emotional instability and uncertain legal status as moral failings. According to that way of thinking, empathy is an unwelcome distraction. Prosperity comes to those who deserve it.

Ashley Monroe was barely old enough for a driver's permit when she first began making the rounds on Music Row, trying to get her country career going and envisioning the inevitable progression it would follow.

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.


Empowerment anthems have had a good run since the early aughts, during which time we grew accustomed to hearing powerhouse pop singers turn downtrodden verses into launching pads for triumphant hooks. That tried-and-true way of displaying feminine strength made the moment of overcoming tribulation feel almost inevitable.

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.

Any artist who's in it for the long haul is bound to weather changes and collect experiences over time. And when enough history builds up behind them, they may feel the irresistible tug of nostalgia and find ways to revisit the past — with songs idealizing the "old home place," albums of time-tested standards, lavishly packaged reissues or anniversary tours. Those reflections on the bygone days tend to be reverent affairs.

But for Wade Bowen, conjuring the musical melting pot of a youth and young adulthood spent in Texas has yielded the most wild-eyed work of his career.

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.

No music scene is monolithic, but few encompass the extremes of the bluegrass world. Both musically and ideologically, it runs the gamut from conservatism to progressivism, a range of sensibilities that it's rare to see commingling elsewhere in American society at this polarized moment.

Bobby Osborne is trying to find his way back to the lakeside home where he first heard "Rocky Top," the song that would define his career as one half of the Osborne Brothers, one of bluegrass' most popular and innovative groups.

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.

For decades now, country's aesthetic and ideological sensibilities have been shaped as much by the music's modern, middle-class suburban appeal as its rural working-class roots, which can make for quite the rhetorical push-and-pull (likely one of many factors that contributed to the Dixie Chicks' famed expulsion from the format over voicing distaste for the second President Bush during a U.K. concert). Working-class political speech hasn't always been recognized as political at all; it's just as likely to be dismissed as class resentment.

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.

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