As Dolly Parton is set to release her forty-third studio album on August 19, Getintothis’ Alex Joynes reflects on her illustrious career and his top 10 Dolly tracks.
As performers go, few can be more inviting or accessible than Dolly Parton. Her Glastonbury set in 2014 was the perfect distillation of her appeal: fun, charming and sparkling with life (plus the odd rhinestone). Packed with her self-deprecating wit and memories of her childhood in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dolly got the mood of the Sunday Legends slot spot on.
When we view Dolly purely as a singer-songwriter, however, the story is altogether different. She has defied convention from the very start, producing songs that confront economic inequalities and gender politics. Just as she sings in Backwoods Barbie: ‘Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe/That I’m as shallow as I look/Cos I run true and deep’. Dolly Parton invites listeners to look beyond what’s on the surface to go with her on a journey through songs that get to the very heart of society and life itself.
With her singing career established while still a child, Dolly moved to Nashville the day after she graduated from high school. Her first country hit came with Dumb Blonde in 1967, the success of which led to her becoming a series regular on Porter Wagoner’s television show, at the time one of the most popular music programmes on American television.
Together they formed one of the most popular and enduring duos in country music history with a string of hits throughout the late 60s. Dolly’s solo output at this time was altogether less successful, perhaps owing to the fact that much of her material was deemed too risqué in the conservative world of country music.
The title track of Dolly’s second album, Just Because I’m a Woman, sees her confront the double standards of a man questioning his wife about how many men she slept with before him. A string of under-appreciated albums followed that have since been recognised as establishing the hallmark of Dolly Parton’s work: heartfelt, often tragic stories told by a soaring soprano voice.
It was her single Joshua in 1971 that earned Dolly her first number one country single. What followed were the songs for which Dolly is arguably best-known, culminating to create a country superstar who both defined the genre while also transcending it.
Leaving Porter Wagoner’s TV show in 1974 that heralded the beginning of Dolly as a performer in her own right. With country music conquered, she set her sights on moving into the pop world – a controversial move to some country puritans. Here You Come Again, penned by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, hit the top 5 of pop music charts and saw the start of Dolly’s move towards recording songs written by others in the next few years. If these songs aren’t the most personal or profound of her career then they are at least the ones which helped to imprint Dolly on the international imagination.
Ever full of surprises, Dolly has juggled her more commercial output with some brave and bold musical endeavours. 1987’s Trio, the first of two collaborations with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, is a triumph. A mix of Southern gospel and traditional country songs sit happily alongside a cover of Phil Spector’s To Know Him is to Love Him. The achingly beautiful melodies create an album that is a masterpiece: soulful and tinged with longing.
The other important trio in Dolly’s work are her three bluegrass-inspired albums, starting with The Grass is Blue in 1999. Together they pay loving homage to the great mixing pot of influences that create bluegrass. This is Dolly’s most honest and revealing work, music as old as the mountains telling us the stories of today, none more so than 2002’s Halos and Horns: an exploration of her faith and the healing power of music in a post-9/11 world.
At her best, few others can touch Dolly Parton: At age 70, she gets ready to release her 43rd studio album Pure & Simple on August 19. I hope we will continue to see her explore the musical traditions which inspire her. Whatever comes next, we can be sure that here is an artist who tells us beautifully-crafted stories stunning in their simplicity. The world is all the richer for her presence. So, while we anticipate her return, lets reflect on our personal top 10 Dolly Parton classics.
10. Travelin’ Thru from the Transamerica soundtrack (2005)
Written and recorded for 2005’s Transamerica, Travelin Thru’ sees the singer reflecting on the path her life has taken so far and pondering where it’ll lead next. The traditional imagery of a religious pilgrimage is imbued with new meaning as the film tells the story of a transgender woman on the road with her son.
9. Wildflowers from Trio (1987)
Evoking childhood memories of seeing wildflowers blossom wherever they landed, Dolly sings of her childhood dreams and the courage needed to pursue them. It’s one of her many songs that describe the nature that abounded in her childhood home in the Smokey Mountains.
8. Better Get to Livin’ from Backwards Barbie (2007)
This is the song where Dolly Parton is most aware of being Dolly Parton. Taken from the underrated Backwoods Barbie album of 2007, Dolly dishes out advice in her own unique style. While professing that she’s no Dalai Lama, the song confirms Dolly’s status as the ‘Fairy Godmother’ of modern music
7. I Will Always Love You from Jolene (1974)
Written for Porter Wagoner following her decision to leave his show, Dolly’s version is markedly different to the Whitney Houston cover that came years later. As a quiet but emotional farewell to a loved one, it is all the more powerful for the restraint Dolly shows.
6. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind? from Heartbreak Express (1982)
This beautiful a cappella song shows off Dolly’s voice at its best. The composition pays homage to the folk tunes that Dolly grew up with to such great effect that it sounds like it existed long before her.
5. 9 to 5 from 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs (1980)
An anthem for office staff all over, ‘9 to 5’ is the perfect song to dance to when your working week feels like a world away. Yet for all its fun, the lyrics are a damning indictment of the everyday injustices faced by the average working man and woman. Only Dolly could create a pop classic about job dissatisfaction.
4. Down from Dover from The Fairest of Them All (1970)
Taken from Dolly’s fifth album, The Fairest of Them All, Down from Dover was one of the songs deemed too controversial to release by record bosses at the time. It tells the devastating story of a young woman left alone by the father of her unborn child. It remains a fan favourite to this day.
3. Little Sparrow from Little Sparrow (2001)
Dolly’s voice is at its most beautiful and tender in this tale of a fragile soul crushed by heartbreak. This is one of the many highlights of the album as a whole, perhaps Dolly’s greatest and most accomplished to date.
2. Jolene from Jolene (1974)
Tales of cheating partners and broken hearts are a common theme of country music, but Dolly’s decision to address the song to the ‘other woman’ takes it in a whole new direction. 2007’s Cologne is an interesting comparison piece to this song- one in which Dolly now sings the part of the other woman.
1. Coat of Many Colors from Coat of Many Colors (1971)
Described by Dolly as her favourite song of the many (allegedly 3,000) she has written, Coat of Many Colours is ultimately a tale of self-belief in the face of adversity. It’s as vivid and hopeful as the coat of its title. The coat in question, which saw Dolly get mocked by her school-friends, now takes pride of her place in her own theme park: dreams really do come true.