The most commercially successful music to come out of Nashville this year mainly sounded like a male voice in a mainstream country song. But for those who listened a little more closely to the sounds of the city, there were creative country women making music off the charts while surprising scenes in other genres were popping up far away from Music Row.
NPR Music Critic Ann Powers and Stephen Trageser, music editor of The Nashville Scene, joined WPLN's Jason Moon Wilkins for an insider’s look at the year in Nashville music for 2018. Listen to the interview above or read excerpts below.
Ann, you've written extensively about women in music. When you look at Nashville in the last year, do you see women leading in the same way as they have on the national stage?
AP: I think women are leading from the ground up in Nashville. A major story of 2018 is, of course, the resistance to mainstream country radio's unwillingness to play women artists. You've seen women organizing this year in Nashville. I think of the Change the Conversation advocacy group, the Song Suffragettes, the great songwriters round and great individual artists like Kacey Musgraves.
Can you give us a little bit of insight into why you think Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour was such an important record?
AP: Absolutely. Golden Hour is one of those albums that transcends and explodes its genre while also being in the pocket with it. People might say Golden Hour it doesn't sound like a country record but it still adheres to the themes, uses imagery prominent in country and uses some of the instrumentation. It's just the future.
Watch: Kacey Musgraves "Space Cowboy" from Golden Hour
Well, before we turn to other genres we have to acknowledge a recent sad moment in country music. In December, the Billboard Country Airplay chart, for the first time in its history, which dates back to 1990, had zero female artists in the top 20. Ann, if you could barge in to one of those meetings with a radio programmer and say ‘You have to play this song by this female artist right now!’ what would it be?
AP: I totally know what that song would be and it would the “Best Years Of My Life” from the new Pistol Annies record Interstate Gospel. First of all it has to me the best first line of any song this year – "I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet" — that is a classic country line. Pistol Annies, the trio of Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert — that is the cream of the cream. The record is so great. They’re at the top of any chart, as far as I'm concerned.
Watch: Pistol Annies "Best Years Of My Life" from Interstate Gospel
So Steven on the cover of Nashville Scene’s year-end music issue you chose, appropriately enough, a transplant. Julien Baker came over from Memphis this year. Her supergroup boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus had their debut at the Ryman. Why did you choose Julien Baker as representative of the Nashville music scene this year?
ST: Well, she represents a lot of the things that people traditionally associate with Nashville in terms of really great emotionally intense, nuanced songwriting. She is also representative of a group of people that are not traditionally associated with taking positions of power in Nashville and that's helping show some of the way forward.
Watch: Julien Baker sings "Stay Down" with the group boygenius from their self-titled debut EP
One of the things in the Nashville Scene’s year-end wrap up is a look back at Nashville hip hop. There wasn't a single artist who necessarily broke through to a larger audience, but what have you seen of the scene itself in this past year?
ST: One of the stories that I really enjoyed following this year was Daisha McBride. She's a Knoxville native who graduated from MTSU this year and chose to move to Nashville over moving somewhere else like Atlanta or New York place with an established hip hop scene. And she’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons and tons of writers in the hip hop community in Nashville who are doing incredible work. But there is such this weird disparity where you see singer-songwriters in every bar on every corner while hip hop shows, especially from local artists, are fairly few and far between.
Watch: Daisha McBride "Nothing Else" feat. Mike Floss
AP: Let's put that on the list of goals, Nashville, for 2019. Let's see more venues booking hip hop.
ST: Yes please.
AP: We do have to mention one more thing. We have to give a shout out to the heart and soul of Nashville this year — John Prine. He had such a year — making great music, playing the Ryman numerous times, being nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Thank you John Prine for being our guiding spirit.
Watch: John Prine "When I Get To Heaven" from The Tree Of Forgiveness
As you might suspect when you get three music fans together trying to pin down an entire year — things spill over. So here's a link to a playlist featuring some of the other songs and artists we discussed that did not make the radio interview, as well as other notable Nashville releases from 2018.