Jewly Hight

Any artist who's in it for the long haul is bound to weather changes and collect experiences over time. And when enough history builds up behind them, they may feel the irresistible tug of nostalgia and find ways to revisit the past — with songs idealizing the "old home place," albums of time-tested standards, lavishly packaged reissues or anniversary tours. Those reflections on the bygone days tend to be reverent affairs.

But for Wade Bowen, conjuring the musical melting pot of a youth and young adulthood spent in Texas has yielded the most wild-eyed work of his career.

No music scene is monolithic, but few encompass the extremes of the bluegrass world. Both musically and ideologically, it runs the gamut from conservatism to progressivism, a range of sensibilities that it's rare to see commingling elsewhere in American society at this polarized moment.

Bobby Osborne is trying to find his way back to the lakeside home where he first heard "Rocky Top," the song that would define his career as one half of the Osborne Brothers, one of bluegrass' most popular and innovative groups.

Dan Tyminski might have one of the most recognizable voices in acoustic music. He grew up in southern Vermont, fixated on traditional bluegrass and old country. While his friends were buying Def Leppard and AC/DC records, he was playing banjo.

Bryant Taylorr eyes the glass of milky-looking kombucha that his sister has placed on the table in front of him in an East Nashville tea shop. "I don't know what this is," he says, before taking a tiny sip, pushing the cup away and wryly expressing his skepticism: "Is it doing something to my soul? Is it cleansing it?"

Nashville gospel singers the McCrary Sisters know how to make a 500-strong crowd feel like they've been personally invited to the party.

By now, we've been living with the popular archetype of the singer-songwriter for half a century or so, and multiple generations have worn their grooves into it, accumulating familiar lexicons along gender lines. We learned to expect our troubadours to work with particular personas, settings and themes, depending on whether they were women or men. Depictions of self-discovery through restless rambling were often heard as expressions of masculinity, while femininity was more closely associated with craving a settled existence and valuing intimate attachments.

We don't tend to give much thought to how aesthetic choices shape the sounds and self-presentations of artists working in the country tradition. Countrified musicians strike us as guileless and natural, as though they're simply living out their cultural and musical birthrights. It's easier to wrap our heads around the flaunted elasticity of pop performers, who always seem to be fashioning and refashioning themselves into timely, new incarnations.

One day in late February, the five members of Front Country were warming up for their record release show at the renowned bluegrass club the Station Inn, in their new home base of Nashville, Tenn. They'd never played most of these songs live before.

Few in the roots scene had heard of Yola Carter before she made her first appearance at Nashville's Americana Fest in September, which might've suggested that she was some sort of musical rookie. In fact, the 33-year-old black, British singer-songwriter is a seasoned studio and stage pro.

For much of the post-Dylan age, and particularly in such self-consciously cerebral genres as indie rock, contemporary folk and Americana, artists have been more likely to command critical respect for cultivating their songwriting voices than for interpreting songs from others' pens. But John Prine, who was once pegged as a new Dylan, seems to be having a fine time toying with that modern musical hierarchy.