Jewly Hight

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."

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Longtime fans of Buddy & Julie Miller know better than to expect new music from them at predictable intervals. Throughout the 1990s, the married collaborators (and their co-written songs) constantly appeared on each other's solo albums. But this millennium, their output has slowed to a trickle of duo projects (the most recent arriving a decade ago) and Buddy's outside undertakings. Julie's ability to go out and perform was severely hampered by chronic pain and other difficult-to-manage health issues, though she hadn't given up songwriting.

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.

Yola Carter caught the music bug as a small child growing up in a tiny seaside town in southwest England.

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.

After being summoned by phone on a December afternoon, A.B. Eastwood (who goes simply by A.B.) leads the way into a window-lined lobby, up an elevator and down a carpeted hallway into the Nashville apartment he shares with a couple of other young music-makers.

Petty, a rapper who's not among the roommates, is slouched on the living room love seat, a Santa hat on his head and a matching red and white robe draped over the cushions behind him.

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