Jewly Hight

For decades now, country's aesthetic and ideological sensibilities have been shaped as much by the music's modern, middle-class suburban appeal as its rural working-class roots, which can make for quite the rhetorical push-and-pull (likely one of many factors that contributed to the Dixie Chicks' famed expulsion from the format over voicing distaste for the second President Bush during a U.K. concert). Working-class political speech hasn't always been recognized as political at all; it's just as likely to be dismissed as class resentment.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards, show producers worked a truly impressive number of performers into the Nov. 2 telecast, utilizing everything from moving medleys to photo montages and mentions of legends seated in the audience.

"Everything's cyclical" has become a common refrain in the country music industry of late, a way of acknowledging that country radio's domination by R&B-juiced, summery jams this decade is neither the format's first swing toward popular sounds and sensibilities nor a permanent state. What would follow, some predicted, was a race to the opposite extreme: a hardcore country resurgence.

NPR listeners first met fiddle player Sara Watkins in Nickel Creek — the trio of prodigies that brought a youthful spirit to a bluegrass world that reveres its elders. Once she started making solo albums, however, she figured out what maturity sounds like for her.