Jewly Hight

Over the last couple of decades, Allison Russell has preferred to do her songwriting, singing and playing alongside others. She's been the consummate collaborator, bringing exceptional emotional intelligence to a series of respected roots groups. In the process, she's gained necessary perspective on her own experiences and abilities, and worked her way toward readiness to step out front.

The only true constants in the music industry during the tumultuous pandemic era have been fantastically sobering ones: lost livelihoods; interrupted career momentum; belated recognition of the brokenness of a system built on the exploitation of Black innovation and labor.

To be a respected citizen of the bluegrass world, no matter how far newgrass, jamgrass, folk-rock, pop, indie and classical offshoots push its boundaries, requires being able to play in a traditional style with real command and grit. The band Sister Sadie has certainly lived up to that musical ideal over the past eight years through various festival and club dates and two album releases.

Founding singer-guitarist Dale Ann Bradley describes, with conviction and an evocative gardening tool metaphor, how her band mates attack their instruments:

"I feel like we kind of manifested this."

That's Becca Mancari's playful, pop-psychology-informed proclamation to her music-making peer and fellow interviewee S.G. Goodman, near the end of our three-way Zoom session. Mancari is referring to the sense of kinship the two singer-songwriters have shared ever since a six-month period several years back, when they were both based in Nashville. Of course, we at World Cafe were unaware that they had a track record of comparing outlooks, talking shop and even, on one occasion, sharing the use of a tour van.

While Nashville's standard studio music-making processes remain at a quarantined standstill, here's another roundup of compelling new and recent music from visitors, part-timers, newcomers and lifers alike.


Since new release season is rolling on while the Nashville music community and the rest of us remain holed up at home, here's another round-up of music that shouldn't be missed.


The fact that Nashville's famously bustling live music scene has temporarily gone silent — first partially interrupted by the March 3 tornadoes, then halted altogether in response to COVID-19 — makes this an opportune time to catch up with the loosies, EPs and albums that either went overlooked in the crowd of early 2020 releases or won't be getting signal boosts from now-canceled promotional performances.

The circumstances of David Olney's death have been widely reported, not least because people were struck by what seemed like a poetic end for such a poetic presence. Onstage last Saturday during the 30A Songwriters Festival in the Florida panhandle, Olney reportedly paused mid-song and bowed his head to his chest, suffering another heart attack.

Joy Oladokun and Mercy Bell grew up trying to exist as members of multiple communities whose boundaries, organized around race, culture, region, class, religion or sexuality, didn't always overlap. For them, contemporary folk music made self-expression and a sense of belonging not seem mutually exclusive. From opposite sides of the country — Arizona in Oladokun's case and Massachusetts in Bell's — they embarked on journeys to become singer-songwriters who close the gaps between the particulars of who they are and what they've lived and the potential for broad connection.

Maybelle Carter apparently made a mean chicken gizzard soup, which called for chicken livers, necks and backs, besides the gizzards. Her daughter June Carter Cash published that recipe, along with a host of others, in Mother Maybelle's Cookbook: A Kitchen Visit With America's First Family of Song in 1989, a little over a decade after her mother's passing. Only those who'd had the privilege of being guests in Maybelle's home had witnessed what she could do with soup pots and frying pans in the name of painstaking hospitality.

It wasn't that long ago that Jessy Wilson and Maya de Vitry's musical reputations were inextricable from the groups they had helped build.

Origins, the first album from the old-time duo Giri and Uma Peters, is stocked with songs that have long been in circulation. The Indian-American siblings bring zippy concision to their Appalachian fiddle and banjo selections and springiness to their Piedmont blues numbers, all of which — aside from for the Giri original "Old Joe" — have come to be closely associated with white musicians and audiences and shown up in folkie repertoires and Grateful Dead set lists.

Up until pretty recently, nostalgia for country music from the particular moment of the early-to-mid 1990s was as likely as not to be expressed with a playfully knowing wink. A few years back, the canny, established hit-maker Dierks Bentley and his touring band cooked up a nutty but clearly affectionate, costumed caricature of '90s country singers and songs and dubbed themselves the Hot Country Knights. Their set lists have included versions of songs by Alan Jackson, Tracy Byrd, Shania Twain and an array of other past hit-makers, but inevitably there's a Brooks & Dunn cover.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.

From the front, the unassuming Nashville building that's home to Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio looks like a place more likely to house drab offices than creative labor. In fact, its proprietor confirms a call center once operated inside its walls before he bought the facility and had tracking and control rooms built to his specifications.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple Music playlists 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 and Apple Music playlists 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 and Apple Music playlists 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 and Apple Music playlists 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 and Apple Music playlists at the bottom of the page.

The names Natalie Hemby and Luke Dick have appeared side-by-side in the songwriting credits of some of the most ambitious albums generated by the Nashville mainstream in recent years.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.


Folk music can offer its performers and listeners a sense of sturdiness, of grounding, of being tethered to an established, easily traceable lineage. Kaia Kater puts folk's connective potential to a more imaginative test on her wholly immersive new album, Grenades.

The new music that's come out of Nashville in recent months is an embarrassment of riches. There's so much of it, in fact, that we risk overlooking a slew of notable new albums, EPs and tracks from artists who are either building on initial buzz, following up quiet debut efforts with bolder sophomore statements, reemerging after significant stylistic reinvention or delivering on their established reputations. Here's a wide-ranging roundup of talent in chronological order.


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.

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.

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.

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