NPR “Turning the Tables” List: A Conversation, Part Five: NPR MIA (Jonathan’s Picks)

Part Five: NPR MIA

Jonathan’s Picks

Neko Case

Jonathan: In another generation, “Neko” would have taken her rightful place alongside the likes of Dolly, Loretta, Tammy, and Emmylou. Though her more recent albums have veered in an adult-pop direction, her earlier work stands as some of the most powerful country music of the aughts. Furnace Room Lullaby and especially Blacklisted are miracles of American Gothic style and tone, and Case’s astonishing voice is a force of nature. I’m honestly surprised that she wasn’t included on the final list.

Kevin: The preference this list showed for Americana and alternative country acts make the exclusion of Neko Case particularly baffling. Blacklisted lived up to its title in that regard!

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

Jonathan: Dickens and Gerrard were pioneers in Bluegrass music; they were the leaders of their own band in an era when Bluegrass bands were exclusively the domain of men. After the duo broke up, Dickens went on to have the more celebrated solo career, recording albums that were as noteworthy for their aggressive political bent– she was a tireless campaigner for labor unions for coal miners– as for Dickens’ inimitable voice. But, song for song, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard from 1975 remains their strongest.

Kevin: Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard does such a great job of marrying a feminist point of view with traditional bluegrass sounds. “What you see as want in my eyes in merely the reflection in your own” ranks up there with the best rejection lines of all time.

Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul

Jonathan: This is the single biggest oversight on the NPR list, full-stop. Loveless’ masterpiece belongs in any serious conversation of the finest albums released by any artist recording in any musical genre in this century. Mountain Soul isn’t just a testament to the range and power of Bluegrass music, it plays as an insightful, probing sociology of a region that is often underestimated, overlooked, or outright forgotten.

Kevin: Mountain Soul is a career-defining record for Patty Loveless and ranks among the best work that anyone has released this century. Loveless also released one of the finest country albums of the previous century in When Fallen Angels Fly, which features revelatory vocal performances of intelligent compositions, most notably “Here I Am” and “A Handful of Dust.”

Kim Richey
Kim Richey

Jonathan: Already an accomplished songwriter, Kim Richey’s extraordinary self-titled debut should have launched her onto the genre’s A-list. Buoyed by Richard Bennett’s vibrant production, Kim Richey captures the artist’s clever wordplays and memorable melodies in ways that, two decades later, still sound fresh. Fully half the songs on the album have been covered by artists like Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss, Lorrie Morgan, and Mindy McCready, but Richey’s original versions remain definitive and essential.

Kevin: Kim Richey remains her finest effort, but I also strongly recommend Bitter Sweet and the criminally overlooked Rise, her final album for Mercury Records.

Trisha Yearwood
Hearts in Armor

Jonathan: The most consistent album artist of her generation, Trisha Yearwood has elevated country music for over two decades now with her incomparable vocal skill and her ability to choose phenomenal songs that work together to create records of real scope and vision. While I was tempted to go to bat for either Real Live Woman or Heaven, Heartache, & The Power of Love as her best album– and either of those would have deserved a spot on NPR’s list on their own merits– if I could only choose one album for her, it would be Hearts in Armor.

Kevin: Hearts in Armor is the nineties country album against which all other artists should be judged, particularly those who interpret rather than write their material. It’s a tribute to Yearwood’s high standards and remarkable consistency that another half-dozen of her albums could also be part of this conversation. In addition to Jonathan’s recommendations, I add Thinkin’ About You, Everybody Knows, and Inside Out.




  1. Can I just say you guys are awesome? :D

    I’m not overly familiar with Neko’s work beyond a handful of solo tracks and some of her New Pornographers stuff, but yeah, she seems like an especially egregious omission.

    As for my personal faves:
    Patty — ‘Mountain Soul’ is one I actually thought about (particularly while considering the Alison Krauss & Union Station pick on the list, since it originally came out around the same time); I would also agree that, among the rest of her output, ‘When Fallen Angels Fly’ is probably her most powerful effort.

    Kim — ‘Bitter Sweet’ is my favorite with ‘Rise’ not far behind, but I would agree her self-titled debut is loaded with strong songs, has held up reasonably well sound-wise, and should’ve been recognized for its influence on other ’90s popular-country female artists.

    Trisha — probably the closest ’90s mainstream country had to a Linda Ronstadt figure (the diversity of material on ‘Real Live Woman’ may be the best example of this — she even covered “Try Me Again,” a deep cut Linda co-wrote on 1976’s ‘Hasten Down the Wind’); while I would agree that ‘Thinkin’ About You,’ ‘Everybody Knows,’ ‘Inside Out,’ and ‘Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love’ are all solid-to-strong efforts, I also think ‘Hearts in Armor’ still stands out as an especially elegant, tasteful and classy piece of work.

    I would also like to mention Mary Chapin Carpenter, as I can think of at least three albums of hers in particular that were overlooked:
    ‘Shooting Straight in the Dark’ — commercial breakthrough that gave us “Down at the Twist & Shout” (a rousing ode to cajun music), and balanced her signature folky/rootsy style with more accessible pop-country hooks while holding everything together with literate, thoughtful lyrics
    ‘Come On Come On’ — continued the previous album’s formula to massive success, spawning several hit singles (including covers of Lucinda Williams and Dire Straits)
    ‘Stones in the Road’ — dared to follow up these hits by taking a mostly less-mainstream direction, with MCC writing every song herself

  2. I agree 100%. I was shocked it wasn’t no mentions of Neko, Patty, Kim, and Trisha. They all have critically acclaimed albums. I always enjoyed Neko’s work with The Pornographers, but Blacklisted represent Neko’s solo work perfectly alongside Furnace Room Lullaby. Patty’s When Fallen Angels Fly is one of the best country albums of the 90’s (and it’s one of my all time favorite albums) and Mountain Soul is one of the best country albums of this century. It’s really hard to decide which album is better because they both captures Patty at her finest. Kim’s self-titled album is a ’nuff said. Her writing ability is amazing. Trisha’s Hearts In Armor (also one of my all time favorite albums), next to Patty’s When Fallen Angels Fly, and Reba’s From My Broken Heart is the perfect example of the golden era of 90’s female country music. Trisha is arguably the best vocalist of the last 2 decades of country music. Her voice and the knack for finding the right song to suit her beautiful voice is truly amazing.

  3. Gena R, great choices for Chapin-Carpenter. I would also add State Of The Heart because it includes my favorite song of hers, Goodbye Again.

  4. 80’s Ladies by K.T. Oslin ought to be on there. Same for Why Not Me by the Judds. Both were fully-thought, ahead-of-their-time albums when hardly anyone (women, men or groups) was doing anything besides slipping 2 singles into an album of filler and calling it a day.

  5. Chely Wright should also be included. Probably Lifted off the Ground. Notes to the Coroner is a wonderfully clever song.

    But then also Matraca Berg and Mary Gauthier.

  6. My favorite artist of this group is Trisha Yearwood. For best album I’d agree with “Hearts in Armor” although the 3 mentioned by Kevin are all excellent. One of my favorite Yearwood songs, Hugh Prestwood’s “The Song Remembers When”, is the title track of one or her weakest albums IMHO.

    These days whenever I hear Patty Loveless mentioned, I immediately think of her Gary Nicholson song “The Trouble with the Truth”.

    First time I saw Kim Richey she was opening for Kathy Mattea at Westbury in the late 90’s. The song that stuck with me was “Don’t Let Me Down Easy” from Bittersweet.

  7. The last show my wife and I saw at Westbury was Linda Ronstadt in the summer of ’06. At that time, she still sounded great. We also saw the Everly Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama, Anne Murray, Suzy B, MCC, Patty Loveless, Collin Raye, Terri Clark, Vince Gill & probably a few others. I think the seating capacity was less than 3,000. For us, Westbury was convenient and it sure beat going into Manhattan.

  8. Hazel Dickens should have entered the IBMA Hall of Fame years ago as she was a far more important figure than Alice Gerrard (they were both inducted this year). Problem is that Hazel was such an intense singer that she was an acquired taste to the same degree as was the great bluesman “Howling Wolf” (although not nearly as intimidating)

    I think Heather Myles and Rosie Flores were unfairly overlooked. Both are brilliant, yet solid, artists

  9. Wesbury was such a perfect venue for country artists to play when visiting the NYC area. Despite how big the genre was in the nineties, only the very biggest – Garth, Reba, Shania, Chicks are the only four I believe – could headline the larger venues here.

    I got to see Pam Tillis there twice as a headliner – Shenandoah opened one show, Wade Hayes the other. I remember seeing Kathy Mattea there, too, but it was around the time of Walking Away a Winner and she had Dan Seals open.

    I saw both Trisha Yearwood and Olivia Newton-John there multiple times, and I remember going to a Brooks & Dunn show there because Martina McBride was opening. She was still promoting The Way That I Am at the time.

    Since it was rebranded by the bank, it hasn’t been the same.

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