Jewly Hight

In late September, the annual Americana Music Conference and Festival returned to in-person programming in Nashville. A pared-down virtual version had served as a stopgap in 2020, but for many involved in the industry ecosystem of Americana and its rootsy country, indie folk and bluegrass tangents, this marked the long-awaited return of irreplaceable interaction, at and between showcases, panels and cocktail meet-ups at rooms big and small around town, many of which were sponsored by music companies.

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"I don't like to talk down to children," Tom T. Hall told me over a decade ago. He didn't condescend to me either, even though I was a young, somewhat green interviewer back then, probably overreaching in the questions I asked on the two occasions when he welcomed me into the studio behind his home, and he was a beloved and revered Country Music Hall of Famer. From the mid-1960s, when first started working as a songwriter, until he died Aug. 20 at the age of 85, he was never one to talk down to an audience.

Pop music has its expected moves, its reliable strategies to get a musical payoff by making the melody's apex the main event. Torres isn't interested in reserving her intensity for the high notes. She engineered the chorus of "Don't Go Puttin' Wishes In My Head," a muscled-up power-pop song on her ravishing fifth album, Thirstier, so that it has a dramatically shifting center of gravity.

Over the last couple of decades, Allison Russell has preferred to do her songwriting, singing and playing alongside others. She's been the consummate collaborator, bringing exceptional emotional intelligence to a series of respected roots groups. In the process, she's gained necessary perspective on her own experiences and abilities, and worked her way toward readiness to step out front.

In the 167 years since the Stephen Foster-penned sheet music for "Hard Times Come Again No More" went on the market, the parlor song has been done, and done, and done again, by performers of numerous generations and styles, long ago passing into the desensitizing familiarity of the American folk songbook. Still, the rendition that Miko Marks recorded for her third overall album, and first in more than a dozen years, Our Country, stands out, even from her own past studio performances.

The only true constants in the music industry during the tumultuous pandemic era have been fantastically sobering ones: lost livelihoods; interrupted career momentum; belated recognition of the brokenness of a system built on the exploitation of Black innovation and labor.

Country music's longstanding race problem suddenly became a hot topic in early February after the white, twenty-something, good ol' party boy and newly minted country chart-topper Morgan Wallen was caught on tape drunkenly shouting a racist slur.

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.