Ann Powers

Angaleena Presley tells it like it is. The Kentucky native first gained national attention as one-third of the Pistol Annies, the groundbreaking country trio that also included Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe.

The nominations are in for the 16th annual Americana Awards, to be held Sept. 13 in Nashville as the signature event of AmericanaFest — and in at least one category, they tell a tale of how this progressive yet traditionalist community is rising to the political challenges of a complicated historical moment. Four of the five releases in the Album of the Year category have protest at their core, demonstrating how the genre is stretching itself even as it builds on long-established artistic family ties.

Ruby Amanfu is a treasured member of Nashville's creative community and a star on the rise. Born in Ghana, she moved with her family to Nashville when she was 3; her musical gifts emerged soon after.

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.

Charlie Worsham is ready for his close-up. The 31-year-old Mississippi native moved to Nashville 10 years ago after attending Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. He's been a favorite of country music insiders ever since. Worsham released his first solo album, Rubber Band, in 2013; now, he's offering his second, Beginning Of Things, out April 21.

Not much in contemporary music rivals standing under a roof with Chris Stapleton and his band as they raise it in honor of American music. Stapleton ascended to stardom after sweeping the 2016 CMA Awards for his powerful debut album Traveller, but by then the 38-year-old Kentuckian Nashville mainstay had spent a young lifetime in the slipstreams of Southern sound, and already understood how commitment, craft and love can make listeners' preconceptions about what's cool or current fall away.

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.

If you're out in the clubs in Nashville in 2017, you have a good chance of discovering the powerful, lyrical voice of Kyshona. The South Carolina native came to Nashville after a long stint in Athens, Ga.'s singer-songwriter circles. She soon found her place in the city as part of both the soul and rock scenes and has released two independent albums since then: 2014's Go and 2016's Ride.

When Chuck Berry died last week, the music-loving world rose to acknowledge his status as, in Bob Dylan's words, the Shakespeare of rock and roll. The man was 90; people were ready. Jon Pareles, chief pop critic of The New York Times, and David Remnick, editor at The New Yorker, both immediately published lengthy obituaries. Musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Questlove to Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones – Berry's famous protégé – rushed to pay tribute.

Marty Stuart is a walking, talking, singing, guitar-slinging repository of American popular music. The multiple-Grammy winner has had a long and storied career rooted in country music, but spanning everything from honky-tonk to "hillbilly rock" and from Southern gospel and blues to Native American balladry.

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.

Almost a month ago, President Trump's immigration ban pushed words with long histories back into the foreground of the public conversation; one was "refugee." Since then, much analysis and inflated rhetoric has attached itself to that word, but not that many Americans have had (or have taken) the chance to interact directly with those to whom it applies. Music has long provided one way for outsiders to connect with refugees' hopes and fears. A recent encounter in Nashville reminded me of the revelations it bears.

Little Bandit is a group devoted to the songs of Alex Caress, who's making classic country music with a sassy and subtly political twist. Caress first impressed Nashville audiences as part of the dream-pop band Ponychase, which was led by his sister, Jordan. More recently, he's played keyboards in breakout punk-blues star Adia Victoria's band.

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.

Adele broke her Grammy award in half Sunday night. It might have seemed like the careless act of someone with plenty to spare; the 28-year-old powerhouse vocalist has 15 of the music industry's most coveted statues, including the five just presented for her latest album, 25. She did so charmingly, with a characteristic big laugh, and apparently by accident, severing the statue's gramophone horn from its base as she nervously handled it.

Wanderlust is at the heart of the music The Wu-Force makes and the lives its members lead -- but so is its opposite: homesickness. The trio's members, two American and one Chinese, are all inveterate world travelers who've forged unexpected musical connections.

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.

"Waiting 4 it," one Lady Gaga fan wrote on her Facebook wall before the Super Bowl halftime show last night. "Gaga, say some s***." The multiplatinum pop rabble-rouser's reputation as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, feminism and general freakery left her with a certain burden of proof as she took on America's biggest annual slice of family entertainment. Would she speak out about the need to preserve civil rights as a new administration already establishing a spotty record on that front reshapes the presidency?

Revivalism in music often seems to be no more than a matter of style: a perfectly greased pompadour, a well-pressed rack of vintage dresses, some vintage equipment and the careful mimicry of a particular "hi-de-ho" or drawl. It's the rare living musician who does the extra work to comprehend the past she or he pursues in its entirety, from the flashiest trends of the time to the notes in the margins. Paul Burch is that extra-hard worker who also happens to be gifted with an easeful way of getting his messages across.

If they're lucky, talented and charismatic, young musical men in Nashville can find themselves playing a game of musical Let's Make A Deal. Behind Door No. 1 is a truck, a beer cooler and a lady in snug jeans; the challenge is to make anything out of these party-anthem ingredients that feels fresh and isn't insipid. Door No. 2 conceals the tools of traditionalism — a cowboy (or, currently, trucker) hat, an acoustic guitar and a solid but burdensome set of assumptions about what authentic storytelling can be. Behind Door No. 3? That's the hot spot for people who like to dance.

Top 10 Top 40 For 2014

Dec 22, 2014

Pages