Ann Powers

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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. He discovered his musical gifts as a soldier in Iraq and became a kind of spiritual advocate for fallen soldiers, composing songs about them for their memorial services.

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.

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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.

Some people float through change; others aggressively swim. Still others find themselves deeply challenged to find ways to follow a current that can carry them to a safe shore. The Lone Bellow, the Brooklyn-born trio of Zach Williams, Kanene Donehy Pipkin and Brian Elmquist, negotiated many changes while making its third album, Walk into a Storm. Babies were born; a close friend of the band committed suicide. One member sought and found a way to deal with alcohol addiction.

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.

There are very few artists who can bring the past into the present in a way that captures both the nuance of history and the immediacy of now. But Rhiannon Giddens has done it, beautifully, on her second solo album, Freedom Highway.

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.

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.

Alison Krauss has been a musician her whole life, and a major star for the past 30 years. A vocalist known for her remarkable grace and purity of tone, Krauss is also a dazzling fiddler and an accomplished record producer. She began her career in bluegrass as a teenager playing with the band Union Station, with whom she still collaborates.

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.

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 playlist at the bottom of the page.

History moves through all of our voices, in inflection, tone and vocabulary. Some people call this collective language "the spirit"; to others, it's "the voice of the people." Valerie June just calls it song: the ongoing record of human sorrow and delight that she shapes into tunes and verses that may start small, but open up to the centuries.

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.

Artists are supposed to be unafraid. We want them to take those risks, symbolically and sometimes personally, that reasonable people would caution against: Defy physical limits. Risk offending others. Expose unmanageable emotions to the open air. Do these things, we say to our painters and writers and singers, so that we can imagine, through you, what it feels like.

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