Jewly Hight

It's common practice for chart-topping Nashville songwriters to see their accomplishments celebrated with lawn signs in front of industry offices, but Jenee Fleenor arrived at Sound Emporium Studios for her NPR interview to see a banner congratulating her on a different kind of milestone. This November, she became not only the first woman to win the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year award, but the first fiddle player to be honored in more than two decades.

In any given year, Nashville's splashiest releases invariably benefit from name recognition and multi-pronged promotional muscle — so a lot of the music bubbling out of scenes that are slightly less visible, or more self-sufficient, might not get its due. In the interest of fairness, then: Here are seven strong debut projects from Music City this year that shouldn't escape notice.

Joy Oladokun and Mercy Bell grew up trying to exist as members of multiple communities whose boundaries, organized around race, culture, region, class, religion or sexuality, didn't always overlap. For them, contemporary folk music made self-expression and a sense of belonging not seem mutually exclusive. From opposite sides of the country — Arizona in Oladokun's case and Massachusetts in Bell's — they embarked on journeys to become singer-songwriters who close the gaps between the particulars of who they are and what they've lived and the potential for broad connection.

Behind the microphone in a club a fraction of the size of her usual venues, Miranda Lambert was nervous. "We always get a little jittery when we play in Nashville," she admitted briskly, "'cause the energy is high and the expectations are high."

Girl group vocal pop has evolved across many generations, without always getting its due as a legitimate musical tradition. Thanks to gendered, rock-centric notions of artistry, people have tended to overlook the creative labor and performing precision it takes to not just polish a multi-voice sound and repertoire, but present a cohesive and engaging group identity.

Maybelle Carter apparently made a mean chicken gizzard soup, which called for chicken livers, necks and backs, besides the gizzards. Her daughter June Carter Cash published that recipe, along with a host of others, in Mother Maybelle's Cookbook: A Kitchen Visit With America's First Family of Song in 1989, a little over a decade after her mother's passing. Only those who'd had the privilege of being guests in Maybelle's home had witnessed what she could do with soup pots and frying pans in the name of painstaking hospitality.

It wasn't that long ago that Jessy Wilson and Maya de Vitry's musical reputations were inextricable from the groups they had helped build.

The entertainment industry has given us countless tales of romantic pairings that were products of proximity or convenience — on film sets, club stages and world tours, in TV and recording studios — but didn't survive the transplant to other, more mundane settings. Buddy and Julie Miller have lived a different narrative: persevering, continually adapting companionship, in public and private.

Origins, the first album from the old-time duo Giri and Uma Peters, is stocked with songs that have long been in circulation. The Indian-American siblings bring zippy concision to their Appalachian fiddle and banjo selections and springiness to their Piedmont blues numbers, all of which — aside from for the Giri original "Old Joe" — have come to be closely associated with white musicians and audiences and shown up in folkie repertoires and Grateful Dead set lists.

Up until pretty recently, nostalgia for country music from the particular moment of the early-to-mid 1990s was as likely as not to be expressed with a playfully knowing wink. A few years back, the canny, established hit-maker Dierks Bentley and his touring band cooked up a nutty but clearly affectionate, costumed caricature of '90s country singers and songs and dubbed themselves the Hot Country Knights. Their set lists have included versions of songs by Alan Jackson, Tracy Byrd, Shania Twain and an array of other past hit-makers, but inevitably there's a Brooks & Dunn cover.

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