Jewly Hight

When Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear first came on the scene a few years back, it was only natural that people would fixate on the familial facet of the folk duo's identity — a mother, Ruth Ward, and her son Madisen making music together — particularly with a back story as charming as theirs.

Ask Rodney Crowell to point out musical mementos in his home 40 minutes south of Nashville, and he'll hurry you past the plaques commemorating his professional success. "I didn't put these up," he calls over his shoulder, striding down the hallway. "My wife did."

Katie Herzig's trajectory probably doesn't much resemble what you'd expect a professional Nashville songwriter's career to look like, which seems to suit her just fine. She fell into what you might call commercial songwriting almost by accident, when she discovered that the sort of breathy, intimate folk pop tunes she was already writing for her own albums were an excellent fit for the soundtracks to prime-time dramas like Grey's Anatomy.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.