november 2009

Dolly Parton: The greatest female country artist of our time gets treated right in a box set

Of Many Colors, Indeed

By David McGee

Dolly PartonDOLLY
Dolly Parton
RCA Nashville/Legacy

Jesus H. Christ amighty, it’s about time! What’s a legend gotta do to get a box set around here? With the CD era reportedly in its twilight stage, finally—finally—the greatest female country artist of our time, if not of all time, merits a four-disc overview of the biggest chunk of her career, from its indie label beginnings in 1959 to the close of her fruitful tenure with what is now Sony BMG in 1995. Consider the preceding carefully, because yours truly considers “the greatest” part indisputable (Loretta fans, please save your stamps for a winnable war), so focus on the “biggest chunk” part as the point of it all. Because as remarkable as most of these 99 songs are, the box set does not go on to chronicle the continuing productive phase of Dolly brilliance, when post-RCA she gave a figurative middle finger to the country mainstream in response to it doing the same to her, and journeyed anew to her mountain roots, more than she had ever done on record before, in fact, by exploring and expanding upon traditional bluegrass over the course of three stunning albums for Sugar Hill (which were packaged together in 2006 as The Acoustic Collection: 1999-2002—the first great box set in Dolly history). Of late, in launching her own label, she has shown a disturbing proclivity to re-embrace the dreaded all-around entertainer model that nearly short-circuited her credibility from the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s; but if Dolly has taught us anything in her history, it’s that the worst sin we can commit, no matter our enduring affection for her, is to underestimate this Smokey Mountain gal. However close she’s tiptoed to the precipice of self-caricature, there’s always been a White Limozeen or The Grass Is Blue moment when she got back to where she once belonged.

Some will insist this box set is the greatest thing to happen to country music since producer Billy Sherrill detonated in apocalyptic, thermonuclear fury over critic Nick Tosches suggesting Tammy Wynette sounded as if she awoke every morning with a dick in her mouth.

But to the work at hand. For starters, for the Dolly enthusiast this set doesn’t exactly supplant, say, The Essential Dolly Parton, or even the out of print double-disc box set from 1993, The RCA Years—1967-1986, for despite its 99 tunes, some will invariably be puzzled by certain omissions: for example, why the absence of the 1974 Porter Wagoner-produced, Parton-penned "We Used To," which cops the opening of Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven" and some of its melody and arrangement? Seems someone should have known Dolly later recorded a pretty cool version of “Stairway” for Sugar Hill and been sure to include the earlier song for matters of historical linkage. But critical snobbishness aside, given the broad, deep catalogue Parton fashioned through these years, the principal themes of the artist’s oeuvre are well represented in the four discs. So much so that when it really gets rolling with Dolly’s first chart hit, 1967’s “Dumb Blonde,” and courses through some truly breathtaking writing and singing, some will insist, adamantly in fact, on calling this box set the greatest thing to happen to country music since producer Billy Sherrill detonated in apocalyptic, thermonuclear fury over critic Nick Tosches suggesting Tammy Wynette sounded as if she awoke every morning with a dick in her mouth. 


Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors,’ live acoustic version from a Top Of the Pops performance, January 1979

That said, for those who have what they want on, say, the double-CD The Essential Dolly Parton (which in fact contains the abovementioned “We Used To”), or Ultimate Dolly Parton, Disc 1 remains a must-have addition to anyone’s Parton library. This is the beginning of the story, literally, starting with the twangy, chirpy-voiced 13-year-old Dolly and a ramshackle band led by her uncle Bill Owens knocking out a catchy, rockabilly-influenced ditty they co-wrote, “Puppy Love,” a song and a wide-eyed, innocent performance so utterly charming as to melt the heart of any Dolly skeptic, if such a breed exists. This tune was recorded for and released on the Goldband label out of Louisiana; its B side, another Parton-Owens original, a honky tonk heartbreaker titled “A Girl Left Alone,” on which young Dolly sounds both every bit her tender years but also preternaturally soulful, is the second song on this disc. Then things really get interesting on a series of demos plus a couple of previously unreleased studio recordings offering a very different Dolly from the one who surfaces on cut 11, her first charting single, 1967’s Top 30 single, “Dumb Blonde,” which, though not a Parton original (it came from Curly Putman, one of George Jones’s favorite writers), was the first of an ongoing string of seemingly self-referential tunes in which the abundantly endowed Dolly either refutes or laments the charge that you can judge a book by its cover, lashes out at those who do or even seems to regret putting herself in a position to be judged on appearance alone—the same year she recorded “Dumb Blonde” she later cut “False Eyelashes.” The latter, though not written by her, and hardly relevant to her own career arc, nonetheless expresses credible anguish about the “empty search for fame” and all its accoutrements, each one of which might have been Dolly’s—“a pair of false eyelashes and a tube of cheap lipstick/a pair of worn out high heel shoes/and a dress that doesn’t fit…” (she’s still taking ‘em on, too: in the title track from her 2008 album, Backwoods Barbie, she asserts, “I might look artificial but where it counts I'm real.").

But before she emerged with “Dumb Blonde,” the same year she made her debut on Porter Wagoner’s popular syndicated TV show, some interesting if unproductive casting was going on behind the scenes. Someone somewhere along the way decided she had it in her to be a teen queen. So on three 1962 Mercury recordings, produced by the redoubtable Jerry Kennedy and featuring a host of Nashville’s A-team session players, she sounds alternately like a pubescent Connie Francis or Brenda Lee’s lost sister, working with arrangements and a smooth pop backing chorus (billed as the Merry Melody Singers) straight out of the classic early ‘60s pop playbook. Of these the best is the lone Parton-Owens original, a beauty of a teen breakup lament, “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt,” all woeful pining and brokenhearted melody of the sort the gifted Ms. Francis was eating up at the time, but with the slightest tinge of country in Dolly’s trebly, drawling vocal. Another Mercury recording, another teen tearjerker, “The Love You Gave,” features not only an assured, emotional performance from Parton but a whimsical, high-pitched organ riff courtesy Ray Stevens, who three years later produced Parton’s first Monument single, “Busy Signal” b/w “I Took Him For Granted” (the latter is not included in this collection), and was taking her in a whole other direction, with big, booming pop productions and melodramatic orchestrations that are less Spectorian than Greenwichian, as in Ellie Greenwich, and more specifically, akin to the pop masterpieces Greenwich and her songwriting partner/husband Jeff Barry were turning out as producers for Redbird Records, for the Shangri-Las, Dixie Cups, et al. The Brill Building connection between the sound and style of these songs was even more pronounced on the Stevens-produced “I’ve Known You All My Life,” written by none other than Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This is a chapter of Parton’s history that had all but disappeared (you can buy the Goldband recordings from the Goldband website, but the Mercury material is exceedingly rare, even on eBay), so the inclusion of these tracks, for those who care about such things, provides a fuller portrait of how Dolly became Dolly. And darn if that “Puppy Love” isn’t the cutest thing! 

Once signed to Monument, her evolution would proceed at a rapid pace. By the time of her 1968 album, Just Because I’m a Woman (her third album total, but her first for RCA after two for Monument), she was writing most of her own material and sounding more assured than ever—listen to her strong, confident pairing with Porter Wagoner in 1967 on their driving, hard country cover of Tom Paxton’s folk classic, “Last Thing On My Mind,” their first recorded duet on the first of their several exquisite duet albums, and a top 10 country single to boot. At this point she is firmly in control of her identity and singing with unabashed emotion and deeply felt conviction, and Porter is giving it his all in response—truly an amazing performance that grows richer every time around. One of the treats of this collection, in fact, is its inclusion of several Dolly-Porter duets. With all due respect to George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, June and Johnny, Porter and Dolly had a special, singular magic on disc, and the records they made together sound as fresh as ever, maybe even more so now that duets ain’t what they used to be.

Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner, ‘The Last Thing On My Mind,’ their first duet, a top 10 country hit, 1967; clip from Porter’s TV show

From here we’re taken into the heart of the matter, as Discs 2 and 3 chart the monuments Dolly bequeathed to country music as she ascended to legendary status. Producer Bob Ferguson is the man steering most of the sessions; in the early ‘70s he ceded the position to Porter; by 1976 Porter and Dolly were co-producing her underappreciated and largely unacknowledged conceptual masterpiece, All I Can Do, which is woefully missing in action, with only the title track representing this pivotal, emotionally compelling long player; and by 1977’s New Harvest…First Gathering, Dolly was her sole credited producer. What to say about these incredible tracks? The Dolly template was constructed fully during these years: songs reflecting on her humble, hardscrabble upbringing (“My Tennessee Mountain Home,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Daddy,” “In the Good Old Days [When Times Were Bad],” “Daddy Was An Old-Time Preacher Man” and, interestingly, “Daddy’s Moonshine Still”); backwoods characters from her childhood reimagined in song, many of them social outcasts she befriended (“Joshua,” “Applejack,” “My Tennessee Mountain Boy”); rustic romantic imbroglios (“Jolene,” “I’m Not Worth the Tears,” “Daddy,” about a father who deserts the family for a woman younger than his own daughter); spirituality (“Sacred Memories,” “Comin’ For to Carry Me Home,” “The Golden Streets of Glory”); of course love songs, both warm and tender (need we mention the required classic, “I Will Always Love You,” written in the aftermath of her breakup with Porter, and how Dolly’s heartfelt but subtle and nuanced reading is what great singing is all about, as opposed to the sorry-ass Götterdämmerung-style pyrotechnics of this song’s other infamous practitioner?) and instructive (“Touch Your Woman”). The daunting catalogue even includes an occasional nod to songs that shaped the child Dolly’s musical sensibilities—notably her acclaimed reading of Jimmie Rodgers’s “Muleskinner Blues.”

Dolly Parton, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ performed live in 1974, a few months after the single’s release

A snippet of Dolly’s beautiful, touching tribute to Porter Wagoner on the occasion of the Wagonmaster’s 50th year on the Grand Ole Opry, May 19, 2007. Hankies are required—even this slight 1:15 snippet will get the waterworks flowing.

A year after New Harvest…First Gathering, less than two years removed from the magnificence of All I Can Do, Dolly went for the gold, as was her right. She signed with The Entertainment Group, which was headed by cigar chomping music biz impresario Charles Koppelman and offered a game plan every bit as ominous as you would expect from something called The Entertainment Group (there’s no evidence to suggest Koppelman was being ironic in selecting his company name). Artistic decline quickly ensued, culminating in total disaster in 1984 with the movie Rhinestone, starring Dolly and a woefully miscast Sly Stallone (even then it had been awhile since Sly had been properly cast). It was painful to see the gifted Dolly flaunting her considerable physical assets in gaudy outfits that were Mr. Blackwell’s worst nightmares (it was about this time, though, that Dolly came up with the perfect retort to those who lambasted her appearance, to wit: “It takes a lot of work to look this cheap.”). It was even more painful to hear her gamely trying to slog through the Entertainment Company-produced recordings (well represented on Discs 3 and part of Disc 4), rarely writing her own songs, and being backed by huge aggregates of rock, jazz and even Latin musicians, in addition to multitudes of strings and synths. Most of these recordings are unworthy of being discussed in the same breath as her earlier, populist-oriented, vividly and intimately personal art. For God’s sake, she even cut a duet with Kenny Rogers. Really, WTF?

Fortunately, these missing years—call them Dolly’s Dark Delirium (and no wisecracks about the triple D acronym, please)—receded with the ascension of country’s New Traditionalist movement, which seems to have jolted her back to her senses in the early ‘90s. In explaining her Hollywoodization (and, to be fair, she did win a Grammy for the title song from her first movie, 9 to 5; and the ensuing, like titled album, though produced by Mike Post, the king of TV show theme songs, and pockmarked with howling rock guitar and stomping rhythms, did contain two blinding glimmers of hope in powerful, spare interpretations of Merle Travis’s coal miner’s lament, “Dark As a Dungeon,” and Woody Guthrie’s topical "Deportee [Plane Wreck At Los Gatos]") the prodigal artist told the authors of the liner notes to the abovementioned 1993 box set, “I didn’t leave country; I took it with me.” Gong! Thank you for playing, Dolly. She might better have phrased it, “I didn’t leave country; I took it for a ride.”

Dolly, ‘Eagle When She Flies,’ performed live at the 25th CMA Awards, dedicated by Dolly to First Lady Barbara Bush, who was in the audience, and ‘to all the women here’ (1991)

Dolly sings ‘Silver and Gold,’ crafted for her by Carl Perkins, for the Eagle When She Flies album. It was the last hit song of Perkins’ lifetime.

But when she came back, it was neither with a bang nor a whimper, but rather with a sturdy, steady focus, low-key by her standards, on songwriting craft and musical integrity. She ended her RCA years strong, starting with 1991’s beautiful Eagle When She Flies, titled after a lovely Dolly song paying tribute to women’s fortitude, heart and strength of character, produced by Steve Buckingham and Gary Smith. It yielded the #1 country single, “Rockin’ Years,” a duet with Ricky Van Shelton, but far better were Dolly’s own thoughtful title track and the pragmatic philosophy of riches being measured in love, not money, as she expressed so tenderly in “Silver and Gold,” a song crafted for her by Carl Perkins (which turned out to be the last Perkins song to be a hit in the Original Cat’s lifetime). 1992’s Ricky Skaggs-produced White Limozeen found her teamed with the likes of Barry Beckett, Mac MacAnnally, Albert Lee, Eddie Bayers, Vince Gill, Reggie Young, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck—musicians boasting impeccable taste, style and restraint as well as being deeply, profoundly rooted in traditional music. Her “Yellow Roses” showed the deft, subtle, poetic touch of “Eagle When She Flies,” a sure sign this great artist’s faculties were indeed intact. Though the chart topping single from that album was not a Dolly composition, the energy and exuberance—even silliness—of “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” spoke Dolly’s language.

It wasn’t enough to keep her in the Sony fold, though, and so yet another reinvention was in order. It was spectacular, too. Despite a niggling air of desperation in the relentless hawking of her current Backwoods Barbie record and persona, anyone who’s been tagging along with Dolly for awhile surely has learned to trust the lady’s instincts. Sometimes you can only get there from here by riding the rapids. As the lady herself might say, bring it on. The journey is exhilarating, guaranteed.

A classic moment with Dolly and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, 1977

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