Ann Powers

Gala event tribute speeches are often so much fluff—in the right hands, however, they ascend to the level of the poetic. On Wednesday night in Nashville, Robyn Hitchcock's paean to his longtime friends and collaborators Gillian Welch and David Rawlings hit that high mark. Handing them a Lifetime Achievement prize at the Americana Honors and Awards, Hitchcock wove a tale that was also a dream history of American roots music itself. It was so good we decided to publish it. Do they give awards for awards show speeches? The man in the polka-dot shirt deserves one.

When the renowned radio personality and Grand Ole Opry fixture Bill Cody walked onto the stage at the Ryman Auditorioum to welcome Dolly Parton there for the first time in twelve years, he called her "the most beloved artist of all time." Then he quickly, almost imperceptibly, corrected himself, adding a qualifier: female artist." Who knows what flashed in Cody's mind in that moment — perhaps the face of Johnny Cash, the patron

Last week, a story about The Runaways' Jackie Fuchs, centered around her account of being raped by the late music entrepreneur Kim Fowley in a motel room full of people on New Year's Eve in 1975, challenged the very idea that rock and roll is something worth loving.

For anyone more interested in Amy Winehouse's music than in her martyrdom, the most shocking images in Asif Kapadia's new documentary Amy may not be the ones showing her strung out and terrifyingly thin at the end of her short life, nor those capturing her turn into serious addiction in filthy, paraphernalia-strewn rooms she shared with her enabler and eventual husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.

Where do music historians go to find the sounds that shape the stories they tell? There are some obvious places, like the Library of Congress, whose National Jukebox offers more than ten thousand songs from the dawn of the modern age, or the Internet Archive, which overwhelms with its vast array of material and is especially rich for live recordings.

Digital Underground

Jun 3, 2015

The music sharing platform imeem thrived from 2004 until its shuttering in 2009 as a safe haven in the wilds of the semi-legal Internet. It was Napster without the piracy, a legal space for music makers and fans to share bedroom composition, videos of their latest dance moves, and the latest streamed — not downloaded — hits.

Rickie Lee Jones needs no introduction. Seriously. The singer-songwriter is so elementally articulate, so gifted at grasping both the rawest and the most complicatedly cooked emotions in her compositions, that critical framing best comes after the experience of listening to her.

The nominees for the 2015 Americana Honors and Awards were announced today at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. This year's slate shows how the definition of Americana is gently expanding to include more generationally, racially and stylistically diverse stars, while remaining grounded in its country-leaning, singer-songwriter-dominated definition of roots music.

Sympathy For The Devils

Feb 28, 2015

It's been five years since Kanye West raised his glass to "the a--holes" in the song "Runaway," a poetic taxonomy of bad behavior that formed the emotional center of his masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It's a sad song about romantic failure, but also a strong statement connecting West to popular music's longstanding practice of being dangerously outrageous.

Top 10 Top 40 For 2014

Dec 22, 2014

2014 was a divisive time in popular music, with no single album or song seeming to capture the year's mood and no trend pointing clearly toward the future. But most music lovers could agree on one thing: Beyoncé was flawless. The 33-year-old powerhouse set every standard by which pop music and celebrity are judged.

Nora Jane Struthers is guided by fire. Coming up within the tradition-minded bluegrass world, she spent her youth in a family band with her father, a good daughter learning tradition. But since she's been leading her own band, the Party Line, Struthers has poured more and more emotion into her songwriting, coming up with some of the most quietly powerful narratives within the new wave of Americana artists.

In April 2015, Duncan Sheik, a songwriter who has had hits on both pop radio and the Broadway stage, will release Legerdemain, his first album of original material since 2009's Whisper House and the first not connected to a theater piece since 2006's White Limousine. Sheik crafted the album in his Garrison, N.Y. studio, and he's sharing two songs from that album via NPR Music; you can listen and download both of them below.

The last short story Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote is about being seriously ridiculous. In "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," an intellectual prone to existentialist despair is saved from suicide when, in a vision, he discovers a parallel planet where humanity has never sinned. "It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling," he tells the reader. This contact with Eden reinvigorates him, but then, during a playful moment, he teaches the planet's innocents how to deceive each other — and this leads to a catastrophic, Biblical fall.

Roots, Plugged In

Sep 24, 2014

When I put Jonah Tolchin's performance at Third Man Records on my schedule for Americana Fest, the annual gathering of roots-minded musicians that took over Nashville last week, I thought I was going to see a young artist playing old-timey music. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old New Jerseyite released an album, Clover Lane, that gently ranges from countryish ballads to uptempo numbers with a country blues feel.

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