Ann Powers

I imagine Joni getting ready, again, to explain that masterpiece. She unwraps a pack of smokes.

There are only a couple of weeks left in 2020 and a lot has happened. So, it's understandable if you maybe didn't hear all of the great music that came out – there was a lot of it. In this episode, World Cafe's Nashville correspondent and NPR pop critic Ann Powers is bringing you some of the artists from the Music City that you might have missed this year.

The Highwomen's "Crowded Table," an exuberant anthem evoking both the progressive political spirit of 2020 and the longing for connection at the heart of this complicated year, won song of the year Tuesday as part of the 19th annual Americana Honors & Awards.

The prize was part of a three-category sweep by the genre-crossing supergroup, which includes Brandi Carlile (2019's artist of the year), Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. The four women also won duo/group of the year and album of the year for The Highwomen.

It's a busy time for music critics as they prepare for the annual tradition of identifying the year's best albums and songs in listicle form. World Cafe Nashville correspondent Ann Powers took a break from her NPR deliberatons to share one more roundup of new songs coming out of the Music City.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

Can you believe it's almost the end of August and that summer's almost over? Seems like it was just yesterday that World Cafe's Nashville Correspondent, Ann Powers of NPR Music, was here in May to talk about her favorite new tunes.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years.

In the liner notes to John Coltrane's 1964 album Live At Birdland, Amiri Baraka (then writing as Le Roi Jones) contemplated the gift the saxophonist and his band offered with this music inspired by the horrific deaths of four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing inspired by white supremacist hatred. "Listen," Baraka wrote. "What we're given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature... a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds.

"Say their names," the signs read in the streets of America. In 2020, one reckoning shares an unstable boundary with another as protesters masked against the coronavirus expose a different kind of deep debilitation: the racism that permeates American history and the present day, resulting in sudden deaths now recorded and shared on social media, but always present within history, from the arrival of enslaved Africans on the Virginia Coast in 1619 onward.

As technology evolves, so does protest. Awareness of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers could only inspire an international grassroots movement because a teenager, Darnella Frazier, decided to record his arrest using her phone and post it to social media. Activists are organizing marches and rallies on Twitter and Instagram, even as they warn participants to be careful of surveillance on those platforms.

Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it's hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The last decade of music saw major artists break many of the rules about how to release an album. Beyoncé and Drake popularized the "surprise release" — putting out albums with little to no roll-out at all. So in the era of surprise digital drops, and at the beginning of a new year of music, how do you make predictions about what's coming?

When Brandi Carlile decided to perform Joni Mitchell's 1971 album Blue in its entirety at Disney Hall – the primary home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the site of many classical music premieres — one reason was to remind the audience of the 75-year-old's near-singular status among popular musicians of the past half-century. "We didn't live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven," she said before she began her October 14 performance. "But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell."

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The first single from Madonna's upcoming Madame X suggests that the doyenne of dance pop is making canny decisions in her 60th year.

"I wouldn't have pursued music but for trouble," Joni Mitchell once said. Mitchell was referring to real problems — her childhood time spent bedridden with polio and the life-shaping loss she experienced after giving her daughter up for adoption in 1965. Those events solidified the drive that pushed Mitchell forward from small-potatoes rural Canada toward the American meccas where she would prove to be the magnet shifting the needle of pop. But trouble, in all its manifestations, is also Mitchell's muse.

The story of how Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter met, wooed, married and became The War and Treaty says so much about our present moment. She began her music career as a teenage R&B ingenue, navigating the ups and downs of the music industry with resilience and sharp wits.

Last night in Nashville's CMA Theater, Miranda Lambert described Pistol Annies' work dynamic as a rolling slumber party. But — to turn a phrase that is, as Lambert herself might say, corny as hell — these women are wide awake.

AMERICANAFEST just ended and we're back from Nashville with 10 thrilling tunes for you. The artists are, for the most part, emerging musicians who tackle this diverse genre from all angles.

Defining Americana isn't easy. At the festival, there were musicians from all around the world. Some were rooted in blues, jazz, boogie rock, bluegrass, soul, gospel, comedy, country, Tejano and much more.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

We are heartbroken to report this morning that the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76 years old. Ann Powers is with me now. She's NPR's music critic and correspondent. Good morning, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

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.

On the day we talked to him, Joshua Hedley came into the studio with a cold; he was all apologies and sniffles, a cough chasing his hello. Yet when the longtime Nashville favorite entered the recording booth, a seeming miracle occurred. His trademark tenor emerged clean, warm, and on point, rounding out each note beautifully within his classic country songs.

The results are in for the first-ever NPR Turning the Tables readers' poll, and they send a strong message to anyone fancying themselves a cultural justice warrior in 2018. It is this: check your intervention.

Mention Erin Rae's name in Nashville indie music circles and you'll get a certain reaction: people's eyes light up, they sigh, and use words like "angelic" and "mesmerizing." Rae's gentle voice and subtle, deeply insightful songwriting have made her a standout among the city's folk and Americana artists for years.

This is NPR Music's live blog of the 2018 Grammy Awards. The telecast of the awards show is scheduled to run from 7:30 until 11:00 p.m. ET. We'll be here the whole time, updating this post with every award or performance.

Wrapping up a year of some incredible sessions, this week, World Cafe is digging into the archives for some of its best performances and interviews of 2017.

Willie Watson feels his way through America's musical history by sliding an old bottleneck against the strings of his acoustic guitar. He finds it in the grain of his own voice, cultivated over 20 years of singing old songs his own way. First as a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show and now in his own solo career, Watson has brought folk-based roots music alive for new listeners in the 21st century.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

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