Album Review: Dolly Parton – Dolly
No pun intended, but Dolly Parton cuts a striking figure in country music. Growing up destitute in the mountains of West Tennessee, she showed a strong musical talent as a child and cut her first record before she was a teenager. Since then, she has recorded frequently and adventurously, surveying a wide swath of American music that ranges from country and bluegrass to pop, soul, and gospel. Her music is as luxurious as her image, full of downhome details, spry vocal performances, and a surfeit of personality. She has songs that will make you cry, others that will make you smile, some that will (yes) get you laid, and many that will make you cringe. So, taken as a half-century whole, her long career as both a musician and an icon seems as large and as unwieldy as her–wait for it–‘60s beehive. More than even Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, or Porter Wagoner, Parton is an awkward fit for an easy, straightforward retrospective.
Dolly is not the first attempt to box Parton’s career, but it may be the best. It covers nearly half a century of successes and failures, making room for the big hits (“Jolene,” “9 to 5”) as well as previously unreleased obscurities (“Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can),” “Eugene Oregon”). Even at twelve years old, singing “Puppy Love,” she displays remarkable self-possession, delivering the throwaway pop ditty with surprising sass and confidence. She was Dolly even then, and she remained Dolly when she tried the pop circuit, when she was Wagoner’s effervescent sidekick, when she set off on her own, when she appeared in movies, and when she went bluegrass late in her career. She has always been ineffably Dolly: a one-woman genre.
Dolly hints at the full breadth of her range as well as her limitations. Even though she presented herself as happy-go-lucky, with a perky spirit that turned the trials of an impoverished upbringing into a goldmine of nostalgia, Parton slipped easily into sentimental kitsch, especially during her early twenties. “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” and “Coat of Many Colors” play into some of the sappiest clichés of country music, with nostalgic details painted on thick. “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” foretells the swamp of cancer ballads that became obligatory among less ambitious acts this decade, and “What Will Baby Be” is a moralizing sap—one of the few times Parton comes across as a scold.
Perhaps these songs are simply dated—the product of bygone musical trends and values—but they suffer for their proximity to the tougher-minded material on Dolly. Ironically, Parton sounds most convincing and commanding when she’s writing and singing not about happiness, but about happiness denied. “Jolene” thrums with romantic distress, and the frailty of her vocals, coupled with the urgent minor key, only underscores the hopelessness of the situation she describes. Likewise, “I Will Always Love You” is both heartbroken and wistful, her spoken-word delivery on the verses conveying both vulnerability and steadfastness.
Dolly shows Parton to be an expert interpreter, fully inhabiting all of her songs and conveying a range of emotions. “Touch Your Woman” and “The Last One to Touch Me” understate an erotic thrill not often associated with country music of the era. And Parton is particularly devastating on “Down from Dover,” which turns her downhome reveries inside out and allows her girlish voice to sell a southern-gothic story of a deceptive lover and an unwanted pregnancy.
When Parton broke free of Wagoner’s influence in the late 1970s and established herself as a truly solo artist, she became much more adventurous both musically and professionally. She made compelling concessions to pop music with “You’re the Only One” (with its lovely George Harrison-style guitars) and the Donna Summer cover “Starting Over Again,” and appeared in movies like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 9 to 5, and Rhinestone, for which she recorded the award-winning soundtracks. Loosing herself from the strictures of the industry, she became a synthesizer of styles and sounds. “Islands in the Stream” was written by the Bee Gees, but it’s the chemistry between Parton and Kenny Rogers that has made it a staple of karaoke nights and wedding receptions. It’s a shame that her two Trio albums with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are only mentioned in the liner notes and not represented on the tracklist, and her ‘90s and ‘00s are compressed into just a handful of tracks, despite the fact that albums like The Grass Is Blue and Halos & Horns garnered her a considerable Americana audience.
Despite its shortcomings, Dolly ultimately feels like so much more than the sum of its parts, just as Parton’s appeal and popularity transcend any one song, album, or trend. It’s much more satisfying than it should be, due not to any curatorial control the producers exerted over the tracklist, sequencing, or packaging, but to Parton’s sassily endearing and enduring persona, which can redeem even the weakest material. She shines through unmistakably on every note here.
- Janice Brooks: Hopes somebody gets those memos about drinking songs. Meanwhile I'm feeling a lot of slots with Bluegrass.
- Leeann: Great news about Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White's duet album! Absolutely appalling about the Keith Urban concert!! Both the rape and …
- bob: I found the Billboard article about country music radio needing an alcohol intervention interesting. Songwriter Adam Wright is quoted as …
- Matt: Definitely agree with C.M. about Maddie & Tae. Certainly not the tidal wave of change some claimed it is or …
- Dave D.: Good stuff, as always. My copy of Producing Country arrived yesterday, and it looks to be as good as …
- Scooter: I agree Holly Williams can do no wrong in my eyes. Such a good album and great to see live …
- Carrie Mclaughlin: Your my Hero Mr. Jim Lauderdale!!! Come to Alaska Please? hehehehe
- Jeremy Dylan: You should check it out Dave D. It's from the first (and strongest) season.
- Leeann: Wow! I love that Holly William's cover of "No Surrender"! She's gotten to be so good.
- luckyoldsun: I made it through a minute of that "Girl In a Country Song Video." Man, that sucks.