Ann Powers

Birdtalker's music arises at the point where intimate exchange connects with community. Zack and Dani Green were a newly married couple when, one afternoon, the guitarist and singer asked his spouse for input on a song he was writing. Within hours, they realized that Dani's background as a student of literature and inherent talent as a harmonizer brought Zack's music to another level.

Southern friendship is all about porches. The craftsman cottages of East Nashville were designed for afternoon sweet tea and guitar picking with the perfume of whatever's on the smoker (these days, it's as likely to be tofu as hog) wafting by. Bars like Mickey's on Gallatin Pike have great porches, too — a famous local might come in for a cold beer and leave hours later in a new super group.

R.LUM.R is all about 'framily.' That's the word — a mix of friends and family — that Reggie Williams, who records under the all-caps moniker, uses to describe the tight network he's created as he has established himself as a star on the streaming pop charts. This is how pop artists rise in the South beyond the nerve center of Atlanta: They work together across genres and become masters of the internet.

Ashley Campbell's singing voice is sweet and a little sly, suggesting that she knows a listener might underestimate her and she's about to prove them foolish. There's no reason to low-ball the potential of a woman who has perfected the arts of both banjo picking and improv comedy, but Campbell is a young woman and the daughter of a famous man — two facts that, for artists, can lead to surface judgments.

On the day we talked to him, Joshua Hedley came into the studio with a cold; he was all apologies and sniffles, a cough chasing his hello. Yet when the longtime Nashville favorite entered the recording booth, a seeming miracle occurred. His trademark tenor emerged clean, warm, and on point, rounding out each note beautifully within his classic country songs.

If John and T.J. Osborne hadn't been born brothers, each might have found artistic success in his own lane. John's a hotshot guitarist who developed his smooth, inventive style emulating hard rockers and bluegrass pickers. T.J. has the resonant baritone of a classic country crooner, with a little Eddie Vedder thrown in.

Mention Erin Rae's name in Nashville indie music circles and you'll get a certain reaction: people's eyes light up, they sigh, and use words like "angelic" and "mesmerizing." Rae's gentle voice and subtle, deeply insightful songwriting have made her a standout among the city's folk and Americana artists for years.

Caitlyn Smith has a voice that grabs you the first time you hear it. Her high register conjures thoughts of purple mountain majesty. When she drops into a murmur, it feels like she's telling you a secret she's never told anyone before. Considering those pipes, it's surprising that it took Smith 15 years to find her footing in Nashville.

Nashville rock is fun, loud and often trashy, but the best bands push themselves beyond mere noise into visionary territory. Idle Bloom is a band that's grown from its roots in the all-ages punk scene to become one of the city's most musically compelling and lyrically insightful ensembles.

When people ask about the rock 'n' roll sound of Nashville, locals might direct them to the garage rock scene, to Jack White's Third Man Records, or to guitar-slinging country outlaws like Sturgill Simpson or Eric Church. But they'd be remiss to leave out Moon Taxi, a band that's grown a large and devoted fan base in Music City since forming at Belmont College 10 years ago.

If you travel in Nashville's singer-songwriter circles, or literary circles, or progressive activist circles, you've probably witnessed Mary Gauthier bring a room to tears. Born in New Orleans, Gauthier has lived in Music City since 2001 and made her mark on both the mainstream country and Americana worlds.

Here's a fact few white American musicians feel comfortable facing: every kind of American music, from Top-40 pop to high mountain bluegrass, has some root in the work and creativity of people of color. Arguments about appropriation surface most commonly when artists are clearly borrowing from well-known sources; Justin Timberlake's decision to repackage his blue-eyed funk in Ralph Lauren-style quasi-neutrals is the latest example of white performers side-stepping the fact that they owe their very souls to black collaborators, acknowledged or not.

Wrapping up a year of some incredible sessions, this week, World Cafe is digging into the archives for some of its best performances and interviews of 2017.

In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. This conversation is one of five with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.

Pages