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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Mainstream country music has been dominated by men in cowboy hats for a long time now, even with the crossover success of stars like Taylor Swift. Some industry watchers think 2013 will go down as the year a new batch of young women emerged, big-time.

To explain the latest trends in country music and bring us a sampling of some of those sounds, we turn to NPR's music critic, Ann Powers. Nice to talk to you again.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, why don't you begin by explaining what you might call the voice of these new female musicians, what they're bringing that's different to country music?

POWERS: Renee, as you know, there's always an amazing women working in country music, from the Carter family to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, all the way up to the Dixie Chicks, and more recently, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert.

But this year there's been such a return to that gritty, honest, and very classic country sound, that really looks at the lives of young women in small towns or suburban America who really are the main audience for country music.

MONTAGNE: Well, one of these new artists is Holly Williams. She's Hank Williams' granddaughter. Tell us about her.

POWERS: She made a couple of records that were more commercial, more mainstream. But now she's returned with this album called "The Highway." And this album is just gorgeous, like the song, "Giving Up," which is about a wife and mother who just can't kick her addictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVING UP")

HOLLY WILLIAMS: (Singing) We're only human and we can't change somebody's will to leave their ways. The doctor said you'd die if you had another drink. Well, I wonder...

MONTAGNE: OK, Holly Williams. Another artist you recommend is Caitlin Rose. And I gather she grew up in the music business herself.

POWERS: Caitlin Rose's mom has written songs for Taylor Swift. Her dad is also in the country music industry. She has a different sound than Holly Williams. It's more, kind of, vintage and its part of a change that's happening in Nashville itself, which is this company town, is becoming more and more eclectic. Caitlin Rose reminds me a lot of early country artists like Patsy Cline with that country-politan sound.

And here's one of my favorite of her songs. It's called "Pink Champagne."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK CHAMPAGNE")

CAITLIN ROSE: (Singing) Here's to you. Here's to me. And may we always feel the same. Let's drink ourselves another glass of pink champagne...

MONTAGNE: So a little bit, as you said, a little vintage there. So in this year of country women, I bet there's at least one more up-and-coming star that you find intriguing.

POWERS: Oh, Renee. I have so many, but I want to share a scoop with everyone today. I'm really excited about this singer/songwriter whose name is Brandy Clark. She's part of this group of women, including Miranda Lambert and Casey Musgrave. They often work together. And her own songs and voice, I think, are some of the most clear-eyed and tough-minded of the new country artist. She just has a no BS attitude...

(LAUGHTER)

POWERS: ...about representing life. And I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DAY SHE GOT DIVORCED")

BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) We just said we're going to have to stop. Left the party of the second part 'cause the party of the second part was MIA. He was getting drunk just like the day before, the day she got divorced...

POWERS: That's "The Day She Got Divorced," a great description of what it's like when a marriage falls apart. Written by Brandy Clark, was recorded once by Reba McEntire, but you hear Brandy's own beautiful voice in that version.

MONTAGNE: Now that we've spent some time here in talking about these new female country music stars, what about a veteran - someone that you think is especially exciting this year?

POWERS: I think there's no greater evidence that women in country are in a renaissance moment right now, then the new album "Spitfire," by Leann Rimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPITFIRE")

LEANN RIMES: (Singing) If I was to untie my tongue, I could use it like a whip and watch you run...

POWERS: Leann Rimes, formerly a child star, recently fodder for the tabloids with her marital problems. But this new record "Spitfire," it's deep. It's intimate. It has an amazing sound. It's just an excellent record. And Leann Rimes coming out on top, that's a beautiful midyear capper to this women in country music year.

MONTAGNE: Ann, thanks a lot for sharing all that music with us.

POWERS: Thank you so much Renee.

MONTAGNE: Ann Powers is NPR's music critic. She joined us from member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPITFIRE")

RIMES: (Singing) You make me want to spit fire, spitfire, spitfire...

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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