Album Review: Dolly Parton – Dolly

Stephen Deusner | October 29th, 2009

dolly-box-setNo 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.

4 Stars

  1. Razor X
    October 29, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I was on the fence about ordering this since I already have the majority of the songs on the tracklist. I finally ordered the other day when I saw that Amazon had it on sale for $30.99.

  2. Nicolas
    October 29, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I got mine in the mail already =) Yay

  3. Dan Milliken
    October 29, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Solid review, but I’m amazed that you cited “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” and “Coat Of Many Colors” as examples of Dolly’s limitations. In my mind those are two of the greatest songs in country music history, let alone her oeuvre.

  4. Scott Peterson
    October 29, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Great finish on the article – as you said – Dolly is her own genre and most of her fans like me – base her on that – and in my opinion – she has fewer peers with each album she creates for us. Got the box set – awesome !

  5. Cakiea
    October 29, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Uhh Dolly grew up in the Smokey Mountains which are in East Tennessee not West.

    I lurk for years and this is the first thing that drives me to comment. LOL

  6. Jim Malec
    October 29, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for the correction–I don’t know how both a writer and his editor missed that one!

  7. Jon
    October 29, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Hard to trust a man who disses “Coat Of Many Colors.” Although I did get a kick out of the phrase “considerable Americana audience.”

  8. Razor X
    October 29, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    My copy arrived today and I’m listening to it now. I could have done without the recordings she did as a pre-teen and the bubble-gum pop records she made for Monument before they would let her record country. The first 9 tracks are throwaways; interesting only as historical footnotes. I wish they had devoted this disk space to some previously-unreleased-on-CD album cuts from her early RCA LPs. Like most Parton anthologies, the Columbia years are glossed over; there are some worthwhile album cuts from that period that could have been included.

    Overall, this is a decent compilation and an excellent starting point for those who don’t have any of Dolly’s music in their collections. For die-hards who already have the big hits andare looking for rare tracks, last year’s Tour Collection , which was released in the UK offers a more interesting selection.

    October 29, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    i would buy it just for down from dover

  10. Leeann Ward
    October 30, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I agree with Razor. And I agree with Jon’s first observation.:)

  11. Paul W Dennis
    October 30, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Interesting review, although I think Dolly’s artist peak ended (or at least adjourned for many years) when she left Porter Wagoner. Porter may have been a control freak but at least he reined in her leanings toward kitsch

  12. merlefan49
    October 31, 2009 at 9:03 am

    I’m gonna put this one on my wish list!

  13. luckyoldsun
    November 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    The reviewer has his head up his keister when he attacks “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” and “Coat of Many Colors” for having some of the sappiest cliches of country music.

    Actually, Dolly’s early songs are so good because they AVOIDED the standard cliches. The typical country song (from Jimmie Dickens to Alan Jackson)talks about how unstintingly wonderful poor, rural life is. Dolly’s songs like “Good Old Days” are much more nuanced. And “Coat of Many Colors” is an obvious fable–a retelling of the biblical fable with a twist–that works remarkably well.

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