Ann Powers

Willie Watson feels his way through America's musical history by sliding an old bottleneck against the strings of his acoustic guitar. He finds it in the grain of his own voice, cultivated over 20 years of singing old songs his own way. First as a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show and now in his own solo career, Watson has brought folk-based roots music alive for new listeners in the 21st century.

It's always a little irritating when women in rock bands are dubbed "vulnerable." The word is often meant as a compliment, but one given without consideration to the fact that music always opens up its makers to a wide range of emotions. And as if women, in particular, bear some magical burden of openness, lacking the ability to rage and strut and cause trouble like guys do.

What does vulnerability sound like, anyway? Maybe it's just the willingness to occasionally sound awkward. To hit a bum note. To say the thing that makes you look a little dumb.

Becca Mancari likes to take the long way around. The Nashville singer-songwriter was born in Staten Island, grew up in Pennsylvania, and developed her love of American roots music during her student days in Virginia. She's traveled the country and the world; some of the spaciousness in her hypnotic, subtle songs comes from lessons she learned while on a walkabout in India.

Growing up outside Philadelphia, Devon Gilfillian learned about the working musician's life from his father, a singer and percussionist in a beloved local party band. He found his own path as a singer-songwriter and moved to Nashville just a few years ago, in hopes of finding a community appreciative of his blend of social consciousness, rootsy melodies and soulful grooves. Like so many before him, Gilfillian found those peers while waiting tables in a popular local venue, where he also absorbed the musical lessons of the stars who stopped by on tour.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

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.


"I want to see growth in wood, time in stone, nature in a city," the sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy has said of his ephemeral works – giant snowballs that slowly melt on the streets of London; leaves formed into a spiral pattern, undone one by one by a river current. Goldsworthy is a naturalist whose work reminds us that life is a cycle of growth and decay.

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.

In this special episode, we're having a listening party inspired by Turning the Tables, NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women. It was spearheaded by Ann Powers, our Nashville correspondent. She joins us — along with Alisa Ali from WFUV in New York City, Andrea Swensson from The Current in Minneapolis, and me, Talia Schlanger — to focus on a couple important records from that list that came out in the '90s.

Some people float through change; others aggressively swim. Still others find themselves deeply challenged to find ways to follow a current that can carry them to a safe shore. The Lone Bellow, the Brooklyn-born trio of Zach Williams, Kanene Donehy Pipkin and Brian Elmquist, negotiated many changes while making its third album, Walk into a Storm. Babies were born; a close friend of the band committed suicide. One member sought and found a way to deal with alcohol addiction.

"I don't shine if you don't shine' is a lesson I learned from my best friend," wrote the journalist Ann Friedman in 2013, coining the term "shine theory" to describe her commitment to sharing credit and the power it brings. Friedman's pal (and podcast cohost) Aminatou Sow, she wrote, had helped her realize that instead of competing, women make greater progress by banding together and highlighting each other's strengths. From comedy to indie rock to celebrity posses, shine theory is a major force today.

Today we're heading to Nashville to hang with a band that sounds nothing like what you might expect from Nashville: a new-wave-ish party band called Republican Hair. The band draws inspiration from the sounds of the 1980s — in particular from Prince. And as band leader Luke Dick tells us, they're having a pretty great time with it.

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.

Tristen Gaspadarek and Buddy Hughen share a house in the graveyard of a golf club, where they make music that captures the stubborn hope and creeping obsolescence at the heart of modern life. Tristen, who performs and records under her first name, was raised in Chicago but moved to Nashville a decade ago. There she met the guitarist and producer Hughen, and the pair was soon collaborating.

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.

If you stumble into the right basement in Nashville, Tenn., you will hear some of the most inventive and lovely psychedelic rock being made just about anywhere. Sun Seeker is one of Music City's freshest new rock bands. It's inspired by 1960s legends like The Band and '90s rockers like Pavement, creating a unique blend of Southern whimsy and fuzzy, melodic rock.

A mysterious photograph appeared across various social media platforms Monday morning, depicting three dashing women — two in cowboy hats, one holding a pair of spectacles — lounging at a wooden table teeming with the evidence of a long night out. NEW BAND ALERT: BERMUDA TRIANGLE, the caption read. Anyone attuned to the Americana scene recognized the one in the middle: Brittany A. Howard, the main rule-breaker in Americana music's most exciting band of this century, the Alabama Shakes.

Daddy Issues formed out of friendship in 2014 and has become one of Nashville's most exciting punk bands. Guitarist Jenna Moynihan, bassist Jenna Mitchell and drummer Emily Maxwell all came to the city to attend Belmont University and met through its thriving DIY scene. Blending a love of noise with powerful melodicism and a knack for capturing the ups and downs of millennial life, Daddy Issues is part of a wave of young women challenging the clichés of both rock music and feminism.

There are very few artists who can bring the past into the present in a way that captures both the nuance of history and the immediacy of now. But Rhiannon Giddens has done it, beautifully, on her second solo album, Freedom Highway.

When Tyler Childers was 20, he was living in Lexington, Ky., playing in bars where he couldn't yet legally drink and gaining a reputation as a redheaded wunderkind. Even then, Childers had a rich and earthy voice, with a bit of gravel that lent him gravitas. He sang the blues and country classics, but wrote his own songs too, determined to capture the rhythms of his region in the stories he shared.

Pages