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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's that time of year when we reflect on 2013 and talk about who had a good year. Well, NPR's Neda Ulaby would like to nominate an entire category: women in country music.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: You know who's absolutely nuts for commercial country? The music critic for New York Magazine. Jody Rosen has dug albums this year by Ashley Monroe, Kelly Pickler, the Pistol Annies and the Courtyard Hounds, the group that's two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks. But he really, really loves one by Brandi Clark.

JODY ROSEN: That's my favorite record of the year, bar none, across all genres.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: The album, "12 Stories," is darkly funny and for country, provocative. It follows the travails of individual women getting divorced, popping pills or, as in the song "Stripes," considering shooting a lover and going to jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRIPES")

BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) If I squeeze that trigger tonight, I'll be wearing one or the other. There's no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion. The only thing saving your life is that I don't look good in orange and I hate stripes...

ULABY: NPR's Ann Powers sung the praises of half a dozen women country musicians this year, including Hank Williams' granddaughter, Holly, another young artist named Caitlin Rose and an older one.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: I think there's no greater evidence that women in country are in a renaissance moment right now, than the new album "Spitfire" by Leanne Rimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPITFIRE)

LEANN RIMES: (Singing) If I was to untie my tongue, I could use it like a whip and watch you run...

ULABY: Here's the thing, big city critics love these female country singers but they're not selling especially well. In fact, says Jody Rosen, except for a few huge solo acts - Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift - women are basically marginalized on the country charts right now.

ROSEN: Generally speaking women don't do well on country radio where you hear the hits, you know. You'll hear 17 men for every one woman.

ULABY: A slight exaggeration, but only slight. If there's an upside, Rosen says, it's that female country musicians don't face the same pressure to follow a rigid Nashville template, churning out songs that romanticize, for example, the joys of small town living.

ROSEN: It's not all people smiling on the front porch drinking sweet ice tea and going off to church, all happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY GO 'ROUND")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) If you ain't got two kids by 21, you're probably die alone. Least that's what tradition told you...

ULABY: Musician Kacey Musgraves takes an unsentimental look at the broken realities of many small towns in her 2013 album. It's called "Same Trailer Different Park."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY GO 'ROUND")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Mama is hooked on Mary Kay. Brother is hooked on Mary Jane. And daddy is hooked on Mary, two doors down.

ULABY: In an NPR interview earlier his year, Musgraves talked about growing up in a tiny town in Texas. She was frank about the opposition her song, "Merry Go Round," got from some radio programmers.

MUSGRAVES: I had one guy, I think, on the radio tour say: This is the anti-country song. And I had to say I'm sorry, no, it's just an anti-small mind song.

(LAUGHTER)

MUSGRAVES: Anti-settling but, yeah, I'm all abut small towns. I really am. I think it's a great place to grow up. But I think it might be a little more comforting to some people to hear it from a real perspective, instead of one that tries to sweep things under the rug.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MERRY GO 'ROUND")

MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Mary, Mary quite contrary. We get bored, so we get married just like dust, we settle in this town on this broken merry go 'round and 'round, and 'round we go. Where it stops nobody knows...

ULABY: So why are these women not owning the country charts? Critic Jody Rosen has absolutely no idea.

ROSEN: I just simply don't think these songs these women making are not viable commercially. It fails to make sense, logically, that a female audience doesn't want to hear women sing.

ULABY: Historically, Jody Rosen says, he looked at women in country - the women like Kitty Wells, or June Carter Cash or Loretta Lynn - and you saw artists who were the moral center of the genre. Today's female artists still are, he says. But the moral center appears to be out at the edges.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE TO CALL")

CAITLIN ROSE: (Singing) So long ago my radio heart got broken. Now the songs I want to hear they never play...

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE TO CALL")

ROSE: (Singing) Is your red light on? Can you play that song...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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