Jewly Hight

For decades now, country's aesthetic and ideological sensibilities have been shaped as much by the music's modern, middle-class suburban appeal as its rural working-class roots, which can make for quite the rhetorical push-and-pull (likely one of many factors that contributed to the Dixie Chicks' famed expulsion from the format over voicing distaste for the second President Bush during a U.K. concert). Working-class political speech hasn't always been recognized as political at all; it's just as likely to be dismissed as class resentment.

Going The Distance

Sep 7, 2017

I first stumbled onto a music festival-sponsored 5K race by accident. On a humid June morning in 2013 at Manchester, Tenn.'s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I went out for a run, rounded a corner and came upon a group of festival goers safety-pinning paper race numbers to their clothes, very possibly hungover or sleep-deprived , but nonetheless motivated enough to rouse themselves from sleep and run 3.1 miles at 9 am, several hours before the day's first performances were scheduled to start. Glad to have found company, I slipped into the herd just before someone shouted, "Go!"

Many a singer has sung of mustering the strength to overcome hardship; it's the stuff of blustery power ballads, irrepressible empowerment anthems and aggressively aggrieved rock sing-alongs. But it's a simpler thing to narrate that act through lyrics than it is to embody that experience through a vivid performance.

From the sounds of things on the phone, Lizz Wright is going about the business of her daily life while she gives thoughtful responses to her interviewer's questions. There's the ding of a bell as a shop door closes behind her, a whispered "Hi" and, later, the electronic chiming that reminds you to fasten a car's seatbelt.

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.

One day in late February, the five members of Front Country were warming up for their record release show at the renowned bluegrass club the Station Inn, in their new home base of Nashville, Tenn. They'd never played most of these songs live before.

Few in the roots scene had heard of Yola Carter before she made her first appearance at Nashville's Americana Fest in September, which might've suggested that she was some sort of musical rookie. In fact, the 33-year-old black, British singer-songwriter is a seasoned studio and stage pro.

"Everything's cyclical" has become a common refrain in the country music industry of late, a way of acknowledging that country radio's domination by R&B-juiced, summery jams this decade is neither the format's first swing toward popular sounds and sensibilities nor a permanent state. What would follow, some predicted, was a race to the opposite extreme: a hardcore country resurgence.

For much of the post-Dylan age, and particularly in such self-consciously cerebral genres as indie rock, contemporary folk and Americana, artists have been more likely to command critical respect for cultivating their songwriting voices than for interpreting songs from others' pens. But John Prine, who was once pegged as a new Dylan, seems to be having a fine time toying with that modern musical hierarchy.