Part Five: NPR MIA
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Stones in the Road
Kevin: Mary Chapin Carpenter followed her commercial breakthrough, Come On Come On, with her finest album to date. On her earlier records, Carpenter’s twin personalities existed, alternating clever, catchy ditties with introspective folk ballads. On Stones, she combined the two approaches into one. The hooks are plentiful even when the lyrics get heavy. With all thirteen songs penned by Carpenter alone, it’s a breakup album for the ages, though she still cuts loose a bit along the way.
Jonathan: I love those clever, catchy ditties of Carpenters a whole lot, though, and I think much of the work she’s done in the decades since Stones has wanted for the feistiness of an “I Feel Lucky” or a “Shut Up & Kiss Me.” If I could only choose one album to represent her, I’d still go with Come On, Come On, but only by a hair over Stones or Shooting Straight in the Dark. Those first few albums of hers are all terrific; she’s another of the many, many women who elevated country music in the 90s.
Kevin: Before Taylor Swift and k.d. lang, Olivia Newton-John demonstrated how liberating it can be to leave country music fully behind. Physical is a declaration of independence, completing the transformation from girl-next-door to woman of the world that Newton-John began with Grease. This woman is aggressive and in charge of her own desires, as the title track, which was written with Rod Stewart in mind, and the uninhibited opening track, “Landslide,” best demonstrate. But she’s also socially conscious (“Silvery Rain,” “The Promise”) and doesn’t mind being alone, if that’s her ultimate fate (“Recovery.”) The accompanying video album was groundbreaking in its own right, earning her a Grammy, but it’s the audio that holds up best over time. This is one of the best pop albums of the eighties.
Jonathan: I love how much you love Olivia Newton-John. She’s someone I’ve always admired as a celebrity more than as a recording artist, and I think your comparisons to Swift and lang are spot-on here. Physical is a far better album than her country efforts, and it serves as a clean break rather than an awkward attempt to keep one foot in each genre.
Jeannie C. Riley
Harper Valley P.T.A.
Kevin: The list tripped up a bit by choosing female country albums on the strength of their one hit single. If they’d chosen to do so for Harper Valley P.T.A., they’d have stumbled upon a true gem of an album. Willie Nelson is generally credited for starting the concept album in country music, but Jeannie C. Riley had him beat by a few years. Harper Valley uses its title track to frame a deep dive into the secrets of a small town, the limitations it puts on its women, and the social consequences for varying from social norms. Some of the lessons are timeless, but a few others serve as a remarkable time capsule for how life was in a southern town fifty years ago.
Jonathan: Yes yes yes. Harper Valley P.T.A. is as much a coherent, thematically rich album as either Ode to Billie Joe or Delta Sweete by Bobbie Gentry. This one was another significant miss on the part of the NPR list.
Homeward Looking Angel
Kevin: If Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me was the culmination of country music’s ladies graduating from victim queens to independent women, Homeward Looking Angel best captures that transition as it happened. The women of Homeward Looking Angel get their hearts broken, but they move on (“Let That Pony Run.”) They chase dreams and learn hard lessons (“Homeward Looking Angel”), but get back up again when they fall (“Rough and Tumble Heart.”) Tillis isn’t about flipping the power scales; she’s just looking to balance them. Both men (“Shake the Sugar Tree”) and women (“Do You Know Where Your Man Is”) are expected to show respect and affection. And at all times, there is a self-awareness that peaks with “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” the definitive send-up of the classic country victim queen. Play it in between “Stand By Your Man” and “Any Man of Mine,” and you’ve got your evolution of country music women right there.
Jonathan: Tillis remains such an underrated artist. While I wouldn’t rate her albums quite as highly as those of Trisha Yearwood or Patty Loveless, they’re still impressive, essential efforts that showcased her killer pop sensibilities and her vintage country vocal phrasing. Homeward Looking Angel would also be my pick for her finest album, with Rhinestoned coming in a close second. I’ve always loved that “Shake the Sugar Tree,” one of the decade’s best country singles, was an absolute last-minute addition to the album– the final version of the track is Tillis’ scratch vocal take without any overdubs, which is a testament to what a tremendous singer she is– but ended up being a song that fits perfectly with the album’s overall POV.
Kevin: Twenty-five years later, when it’s taken for granted now that Wynonna is a bluesy force of nature to be reckoned with, it’s easy to forget what a shock her solo debut was upon release. During her run with the Judds, the roles were clear: Wynonna was the pipes, Naomi was the personality. There were some hints along the way that she had some grit, but it wasn’t until she emerged from the shadow of her mother that the world discovered the fully realized artist that had been waiting in the wings. Wynonna is a confident, progressive, and intelligent album, showcasing the singer’s ability to rip at our heartstrings (“My Strongest Weakness,” “It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye”), and then casually rip a man (“I Saw the Light”) or life itself (“What it Takes”) a new one. The set’s biggest hit, “No One Else On Earth,” is a tour de force, with her vocal performance communicating multiple layers of feeling at once: anger, disbelief, helplessness, and lust all present in any given growl. It’s no surprise that for a few years, this held the record for the top-selling female country album ever released.
Jonathan: Wynonna’s restless artistic spirit– and some of her campier instincts, to be fair– have unfairly diminished her reputation over time. She’s never quite recaptured the raw power of Wynonna in her vocal delivery, song selection, or production style. That isn’t to say she hasn’t produced some killer albums since then– Tell Me Why, Sing, and Wynonna & The Big Noise are all terrific– but it’s a matter of setting an impossibly high bar for herself. This is one of the handful of country albums of its era that still sounds fresh today; she was so far ahead of her time with this record that much of country music still hasn’t caught up to it.