Jewly Hight

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:

In 1966, Charley Pride's debut country single, "The Snakes Crawl at Night," was deliberately mailed out to radio stations without a photo of him. That way, his label strategized, his voice alone would inform the industry's first impression before Pride's African American identity was widely known. On the one hand, this oft-repeated tale underscores the blatant racism of the 1960s country music business and, on the other, the belief that his singing could nonetheless sell itself.

Nashville's Namir Blade seemed to emerge out of nowhere with the fully formed vision of Aphelion's Traveling Circus, a concept album with an elaborate sci-fi narrative, witty, theatrical skits and prismatic musicality released on the respected indie hip-hop label Mello Music Group in late September.

A.B. Eastwood traveled to the star-studded Miami studio scene to learn the fundamentals of production. He returned with a vision for elevating his hometown.

How Tim Gent and Bryant Taylorr, a rapper and singer respectively, began cultivating their talents and strategizing how to open the door to the insular world of professional songwriting.

Entrepreneurial Mychael Carney helped his poet-rapper sibling, The BlackSon conceive of music as a business. Their BlackCity collective has grown into a model of community-minded and empowered economic self-sufficiency.

Daisha McBride, The Rap Girl, has channeled her performing abilities, affably clever personality and college-level industry studies into her own version of artistic and professional equilibrium in Music City.

It's no wonder that journalistic surveys of Nashville's hip-hop underground typically frame the mere fact of its existence as a big reveal. To a large degree, the scene here is the creation of Black music-makers and entrepreneurs who came up in the city or surrounding region.

These days The Mavericks are known as a hot, swinging nine-piece outfit. Before that, there were country record deals, and even further back, a stint in the South Florida alternative scene. The one thing the group hadn't done in its 30-year existence was record an album entirely in Spanish, until now; its new full-length is called En Español.

Long before Raul Malo became The Mavericks' famously expressive lead singer, he learned how to communicate growing up in a bilingual Miami household.

"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.

When Orville Peck's first couple of songs popped up on streaming platforms in 2017 and 2018, he was a virtual unknown, and not just because he constantly obscured his face behind a fringed, leather mask. Eventually, the seemingly contradictory elements of his image became a calling card, so that it didn't seem unfathomable that he'd be able to land Shania Twain as a singing partner for his upcoming, major label EP.

Artists who deliberately and publicly claim LGBTQIA+ identities and country or roots affiliations exist across a rich spectrum. Some performers, like autoharp-strumming drag queen Trixie Mattel and piano bar expat James Wilson of Paisley Fields, build their flamboyant identities just as much around the exaggerated cowpoke campiness of their stage wear and the winking humor in their demeanors as their stylistic sensibilities.

When Mickey Guyton signed a Nashville record deal nearly a decade ago, after growing up in Texas on Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston and doing a bit of work in the LA entertainment industry, she approached the country music scene with tremendous respect. Cognizant of her newbie status, she showed how serious she was about becoming a part of that professional community by learning its culture and customs and taking its conventional wisdom to heart. Soon, she came to see what she was actually up against.

Congregating in person for concerts is out of the question this spring and for the foreseeable future, so music fans have gotten used to watching performers livestream from home. What's less obvious is that segments of the Nashville music community that work out of view have been equally resourceful in finding virtual stopgaps during lockdown.

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 arrival of the coronavirus to Nashville came early in March, but Joe Diffie's passing yesterday, at the age of 61 — just two days after releasing a statement about his diagnosis through his publicist — marked the first reported loss of a country star to coronavirus-related complications.

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.

One of the more remarkable features of Bobbie Gentry's recordings is their lavish embroidery of down-home sensibilities.

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.

It's common practice for chart-topping Nashville songwriters to see their accomplishments celebrated with lawn signs in front of industry offices, but Jenee Fleenor arrived at Sound Emporium Studios for her NPR interview to see a banner congratulating her on a different kind of milestone. This November, she became not only the first woman to win the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year award, but the first fiddle player to be honored in more than two decades.

In any given year, Nashville's splashiest releases invariably benefit from name recognition and multi-pronged promotional muscle — so a lot of the music bubbling out of scenes that are slightly less visible, or more self-sufficient, might not get its due. In the interest of fairness, then: Here are seven strong debut projects from Music City this year that shouldn't escape notice.

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.

Behind the microphone in a club a fraction of the size of her usual venues, Miranda Lambert was nervous. "We always get a little jittery when we play in Nashville," she admitted briskly, "'cause the energy is high and the expectations are high."

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

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Girl group vocal pop has evolved across many generations, without always getting its due as a legitimate musical tradition. Thanks to gendered, rock-centric notions of artistry, people have tended to overlook the creative labor and performing precision it takes to not just polish a multi-voice sound and repertoire, but present a cohesive and engaging group identity.

Some of the friskiest country music made by previous generations was paired with sounds and sensibilities that registered as hard-edged and undiluted in twang (see: Hank Williams, John Anderson, Alan Jackson and countless others). But that hasn't been the case for many years now.

Nashville's star-making machine has been the subject of countless articles, several films and six seasons of a prime-time soap opera — but there are plenty of emerging music-makers who operate at the fringes of that world, or well beyond it. Some value indie-style self-reliance, while others tap into popular movements that transcend geography. Here's a roundup of some of these artists' compelling recent offerings, in the midst of perfecting their angles on an array of styles.

It's been more than 20 years since the late sociologist Richard Peterson argued, in his landmark book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, against the perception that country music tends to evolve in one direction, from traditional sounds toward pop-influenced ones.

In the pop music world, artists' windows of opportunity to break through seem shorter than ever. As quickly as they make names for themselves, they're pushed aside by the next big batch of next big things, whose use of social media is even more savvy, up-to-the-minute and meme-worthy.

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