NPR “Turning the Tables” List: A Conversation, Part One: The NPR Top 50

Part One: The NPR Top 50

11. Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors

NPR said:

For most of Dolly Parton‘s performing career, it’s been impossible to separate the sequins and spangles of her outsize image from her humble, hardscrabble mountain roots, so intertwined are the two in the persona she’s presented. Her 1971 album Coat of Many Colors was a formative moment both in the way it helped established her artistic self-sufficiency — no longer viewed simply as Porter Wagoner’s “girl singer,” she was making her mark on the country charts as a standalone singer-songwriter — and how it sketched the contours of her enduring narrative. —Jewly Hight

Kevin: Dolly Parton’s long run of studio albums for RCA were always stronger than those of her female peers because her songwriting was so prolific. Even though I suspect this album was largely chosen because of its title track, it still has more gems than could reasonably be expected from a country album of that era. Is it the best representation of her work from that period? No, that would be My Tennessee Mountain Home. But she didn’t put out an album that wasn’t chock full of great songs until the nadir of her crossover years a decade after Coat was released.

Jonathan: Jewly Hight has been one of my favorite music writers for years now, and I love that she highlighted how this album changed the perception of Parton’s role as Wagoner’s “girl singer”– and any argument regarding the genre’s latent sexism can use that as Exhibit A– into one of the most vital artists in country music’s storied history. I agree that, song for song, My Tennessee Mountain Home is the better album, but “Coat of Many Colors” casts such a long shadow that I can’t quibble too much with the selection of this album to represent Parton.

18. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road

NPR said:

In the late 1990s, alternative country was still a nascent scene with a palpable absence of both female voices and female songwriters in the genre. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road changed all of that. The album won the 1998 Grammy Award for Contemporary Folk, and also went golda first for Williams. Tracks like “Can’t Let Go” and “Right In Time” became modern classics and solidified Lucinda’s position as one of the best American songwriters of our time, thanks in part to her talents for capturing granular slices of life, delivering them with a poet’s eye and a craggy, world-weary voice. Jessie Scott

Jonathan: If anything, I’d argue that Car Wheels is ranked too low at #18, and there’s a case to be made that Williams’ self-titled album is even stronger. But Car Wheels is truly a landmark album; Williams was already a Grammy winner before its release, but this was the album that broke her to the wider audience that her talent deserves. Songs like “Drunken Angel,” “Joy,” and “Jackson” may not be the standards they ought to be, but they’re songs that defined Americana music in its purest sense long before that became a catch-all term for everything from contemporary folk to too-country-for-country music.

Kevin: The mainstream female country artists of the nineties are sorely underrepresented on this list, but NPR did a bang up job at selecting folk and Americana albums to represent the time period. I can’t quibble with Car Wheels either, though I wouldn’t put up a fit if Lucinda Williams or Sweet Old World had also been included!

24. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter

NPR said:

If Loretta Lynn is one of the queens of country music, Coal Miner’s Daughter is the jewel in her honky-tonk crown. By 1971, Lynn was already a well-established Nashville songwriter, had sung her way onto the Grand Ole Opry, and had a reputation for her boundary-pushing, feminist songs about infidelity and domestic abuse. While the album doesn’t betray those roots, its most beloved song is a sentimental autobiography. Lauren Migaki

Kevin: A mixed bag of okay original songs and decent covers, Coal Miner’s Daughter is a brilliant title track accompanied by the standard filler of early seventies country albums. That era of Lynn’s work is best represented in compilations, which weren’t eligible for this list. Van Lear Rose, her epic comeback album from a few years back, should’ve been included instead of Daughter.

Jonathan: I agree whole-heartedly. I’ve read “hot” takes that Van Lear Rose is more of a Jack White album that Lynn happened to sing lead on, but that’s a gross exaggeration that denies Lynn’s agency as an artist. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” is Lynn’s defining single, sure, but Van Lear Rose is her career-best album by a huge margin, with its rough-and-tumble production a perfect match for Lynn’s plainspoken but brilliant lyrics and lived-in performances.

39. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)

NPR said:

The result is a raw, emotionally stirring collection of songs that are at once deeply influenced by various southern music traditions, including string band gospel, country-blues and Appalachian old-time, while definitively contemporary and palatable to twenty-first century listeners. It’s been almost two decades since it’s been released, and hindsight makes it even more clear that Welch and Rawlings’s approach to roots songwriting on Time (The Revelator) has proven to be a guiding force in roots and Americana. Kim Ruehl

Jonathan: Welch and Rawlings are powerful arguments against the “authenticity” fetish that plagues so much discussion about country music and who belongs under the cover of its tent. It’s hard for me to fathom how someone could listen to Time (The Revelator) and come away feeling like Welch doesn’t fundamentally get it. She’s been a consistent album-artist over the course of her career, and I think the NPR crew chose both her best album and ranked it about where they should have.

Kevin: The NPR list did a better job with this type of music than any other. You can tell that they get it, too, in a way that they don’t quite get it with pop and mainstream country music. Time looms large over Welch’s impressive catalog.

46. Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball

NPR said:

It was a courageous reinvention that gave Harris’s career a second wind and left the music world questioning what was thought of as roots music, which previously would have been fiddles, pedal steel guitar and maybe a banjo. But this album helped to opened up endless possibilities within Americana and country. —Cindy Howes

Kevin: With a career defined by the highest level of excellence, Emmylou Harris could be represented on this list with several entries. My personal favorites remain Cowgirl’s Prayer and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, but Wrecking Ball captures her innate song sense while also pushing the sonic boundaries of her work like never before.

Jonathan: I get the selection of Wrecking Ball based upon its overall impact– along with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, it’s one of the albums that alt-country / Americana artists have been trying to re-record for the past two decades, and it definitely served as the album that rebooted the latter half of Harris’ career. My pick for the list, though, would have been her sterling Bluegrass collection, Roses in the Snow.

9 Comments

  1. I agree with Kevin that Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town is one of my personal favorites from Emmylou. Wrecking Ball is good but there are better representatives for her music and albums.

    I also agree that Dolly’s My Tennessee Mountain Home album is better than Coat Of Many Colors. I personally would’ve chosen ‘Here You Come Again’ for Dolly but her earlier works are also outstanding and definitely more traditional country.

  2. Wrecking Ball was indeed a good choice here, but that could be said for a great deal of what Emmy has recorded throughout her career. It’s a shame that most of what she recorded in the 1970s would probably be relegated to oblivion in today’s market if it were released today (IMHO).

  3. Great analysis, guys. I love Coat Of Many Colors, but song for song, My Tennessee Mountain Home beats it. Dolly’s songwriting and storytelling has evolved, especially in the last decade. Lucinda’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is still a masterpiece 19 years later. Her self-titled might be the best album of Lucinda’s career, but Car Wheels On A Gravel Road I gravitate towards more. Lucinda has always adapted with the times. Thank goodness I’m not the only who feels Loretta’s Van Leer Rose is her best album. When I first heard it, I was blown away. It’s one of the greatest comeback albums ever. Gillian’s Time (The Revelator) is rated perfectly. Emmylou, what more I need to say. Wrecking Ball is still a great album (even though I prefer Cowgirl’s Prayer). Her amazing catalog speaks for her song.

  4. I agree with Jonathan that I would have liked to see Roses in the Snow on the list over wrecking Ball. I feel like both the Dolly and Loretta albums may have been selected on the strength of their title tracks more than being their best albums.

  5. ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Car Wheels…’ are excellent and have held up really well — I was super-glad to see them so relatively high on the list. :)

    Also glad to see Loretta and Dolly represented in some way, though I agree with Kevin & Jonathan that ‘Van Lear Rose’ would’ve been a stronger Loretta pick.

  6. I would choose Loretta’s 1966 album I LIKE ‘EM COUNTRY as her strongest album. Her own compositions are fresh and fearless and when she turns to outside material or covers , the material is well chosen.

    I would certainly go along with ROSES IN THE SNOW as being THE representative Emmylou Harris album, although her album 1992 album AT THE RYMAN was outstanding

    For Dolly, MY TENNESSEE MOUNTAIN HOME seems the obvious choice although I really like HALOS AND HORNS

  7. VAN LEAR ROSE was a very controversial album. Many of Loretta’s long-time fans absolutely hated the album. Others, like myself liked and appreciated the songs but thought that Jack White’s production was (mostly) flawed. Still others loved the album, although few of those that loved it could be described as avid Loretta Lynn fans.

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