Jewly Hight

There's a fascination with music-makers who go from creating behind the scenes to working in the spotlight, like Carole King, Bruno Mars, Chris Stapleton and so many others have. That strikes us as the natural progression for someone motivated by artistic vision, ego, ambition or any combination of the three.

Country music is a genre whose stars tend to grasp the importance of maintaining their fans' trust. Even so, few country luminaries can match the shrewdness and dedication with which Eric Church has cultivated his fans' belief in him. Over the past dozen years, he's fleshed out a heroic image alongside a meaty catalog, inextricably entwining the two.

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.

The Best Of AMERICANAFEST 2018

Sep 18, 2018

On the coffee table of his cozy East Nashville apartment, Aaron Lee Tasjan has a notebook open to autobiographical scrawling — it's a kind of cheat sheet to his musical past, which he prepared, with his mother's help, just in case he forgot anything during his interview with NPR. To be fair, it isn't all that simple to retrace his weaving, winding musical path. The singer-songwriter tried out a variety of musical niches, cities and scenes before landing in Nashville.

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.

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."

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.

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.

Few periods of country music history have received more popular attention (or rock press) than the outlaw movement. Decades later, its towering personas — Willie and Waylon chief among them — remain a subject of fascination, immortalized as leathery, long-haired stoners and speed freaks who operated entirely outside the law of the country music establishment. By the time the movement had run its course, it had become a marketing tool for the industry.

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.

Some relationships in our lives are so vital, constant and ordinary that it seems nearly impossible for any expression of affection to do them justice. Thankfully, immortalizing everyday intimacy is a specialty of Lori McKenna.

It's not surprising when contemporary artists invoke Loretta Lynn as a template. But country icon's younger sister, the urbane country-pop balladeer Crystal Gayle, is a far less likely reference, particularly for an artist like Kelly Willis.

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.


Throwback soul and honky-tonk never seem to go entirely out of fashion. Both breakthrough acts and performers building small followings on the vinylphile fringes have embraced those aesthetics as vehicles for emotional grit and analog authenticity. That hasn't been as true of country-funk, a vintage style far more prone to periods of obscurity, but which is now enjoying a quiet resurgence.

A couple of hours before he's scheduled to show up for an interview, Tim Gent sends a text message asking if it would be alright to bring one of his managers along. When he arrives at a Nashville deli with his videographer, Devyn Betancourt, it's immediately clear that the twenty-something rapper and singer doesn't roll with an entourage in some attempt to boost his ego and muscle-up his image.

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.

John Prine never really liked his singing voice. "The only reason I figured out I didn't like my old records to listen was I could hear how nervous I was, and how uncomfortable I was," the venerated musician says. "And who would want to sit around and listen to yourself being uncomfortable?"

Today, Prine is releasing The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years, to an audience that spans generations.

Pages