There’s been a storm brewing in Nashville, epicenter of country music, for some time now. Black, female, and liberal-minded artists are finding audiences like never before—but are also invariably shunted over to Americana, a distinct (and arguably contrived) genre. That separation keeps them off the radio, and out of the upper tiers of success. In investigating how one music can have two souls, Emily Nussbaum covers the waterfront with nuance and expertise.

Whenever I talked to people in Nashville, I kept getting hung up on the same questions. How could female singers be “noncommercial” when Musgraves packed stadiums? Was it easier to be openly gay now that big names like Brandi Carlile were out? What made a song with fiddles “Americana,” not “country”? And why did so many of the best tracks—lively character portraits like Josh Ritter’s “Getting Ready to Get Down,” trippy experiments like Margo Price’s “Been to the Mountain,” razor-sharp commentaries like Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus”—rarely make it onto country radio? I’d first fallen for the genre in the nineties, in Atlanta, where I drove all the time, singing along to radio hits by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood—the music that my Gen X Southern friends found corny, associating it with the worst people at their high schools. Decades later, quality and popularity seemed out of synch; Music Row and Americana felt somehow indistinguishable, cozily adjacent, and also at war.