Jewly Hight

The perception that Appalachian culture is a hotbed of backwards thinking and crude expression is hardly new, but it's found renewed currency following the publication of books like Hillbilly Elegy and the political profiling of the hinterlands spurred by last November's election results.

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.

From the sounds of things on the phone, Lizz Wright is going about the business of her daily life while she gives thoughtful responses to her interviewer's questions. There's the ding of a bell as a shop door closes behind her, a whispered "Hi" and, later, the electronic chiming that reminds you to fasten a car's seatbelt.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Failure has always been a favorite topic of Texas troubadour Hayes Carll. Much of the songwriting catalog he's built up over the last dozen-plus years revolves around dashed dreams, doomed romance and drunken predicaments. Very often, though, he's leavened the losing with cleverly deployed gallows humor, self-deprecation and yarn spinning, linking his work to his native state's tradition of wryly winning musical wit, a writing trait he shares with Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett and even Miranda Lambert.

There's a certain sort of vacancy to many holiday songs, their picturesque settings and sentiments functioning a bit like portrait studio backdrops, ready and waiting for somebody, anybody to walk into the frame and momentarily own and animate it with their presence.