Jewly Hight

There's a perception these days (not entirely unfounded) that country music rewards its male performers for following a particular formula. The combination of gleaming, rhythmic Top 40 hooks, flirtatious frat-party swagger and small-town backdrops has served as a pattern in the industry, largely because it works., and artists who helped lay out the template, like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, have contributed mightily to the growth of country's millennial fanbase.

Pop music is an ideal vehicle for emotional catharsis — for the confessional plunge into anguish, the gathering of strength and the phoenix-like rise to empowered new heights. But while such songs can feel like potent, highly individualized expression, their impact can also be interpreted in vastly different ways.

The archetype of the wanderer, that alluringly elusive figure who chases whims and sidesteps attachments, is an implicitly masculine one in the '60s and '70s bohemian folk, country and pop singer-songwriter fare that informs Azniv Korkejian's music. But she performs as Bedouine, a name that signals she's staked her own claim on the spirit of wanderlust.

There's a presumption among some people who have little contact with old-time, string band, bluegrass and folk music that those are mostly stagnant traditions, stuck in some sort of distant, Arcadian past and locked into so-called primitive patterns. The truth of the matter is that those traditions can be strikingly elastic, and they continue to attract new generations of keen musical minds, like Chicago-bred banjo and fiddle player Rachel Baiman.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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