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Dolly Parton

Perhaps more than any other female C&W legend, DOLLY PARTON embodies the rags-to-riches, poor-girl-made-good myth upon which the genre has always thrived. Nowadays, the grand ol’ dame of country, DOLLY PARTON remains the genre’s most visible female figurehead, a seemingly shining example of the American dream’s promise. It’s a story compellingly told in some of her more autobiographical songs, songs which have also marked her out as one of country music’s most talented female songwriters, as well as performers.
After battling through the early years and developing an impressive solo career alongside an apprenticeship with C&W dude, PORTER WAGONER, Dolly went her own way in the mid-70s, veering ever more into pop crossover territory as the decade drew to a close. By 1980, she’d become a Las Vegas mainstay, diversifying still further into acting and film scoring. Her wisecracking part opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, in feminist comedy, 9 To 5, was sufficiently well received to secure her a starring role in the screen version of Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1982). Dolly composed the themes for both movies, with the classic `9 To 5’ single topping both the US pop and country charts.
Born Dolly Rebecca Parton, January 19, 1946, Locust Ridge, Sevier County, Tennessee (child number four alongside eleven siblings), she had it as hard as any other family struggling to eke out a living from farming in the Smoky Mountains. Yet her sights were always set higher and at the age of only ten she began making regular appearances on Cas Walker’s popular Knoxville radio show. Granted, she was from musical stock – her fiddle-playing father had a song recorded by KITTY WELLS – but her prodigious talent was to take on a momentum all of its own over the coming decade.
Dolly’s debut single, `Puppy Love’ (for the Goldband label in 1959), followed hot on the heels of her inaugural Grand Ole Opry appearance, aged only 13. Although a subsequent deal with Mercury Records only amounted to a solitary flop single, `It’s Sure Gonna Hurt’, the teenage hopeful plugged away in the studio throughout her high school years. While these recordings were to surface at a later date, the C&W public would get their first taste of the young singer late in 1966 via her breakthrough bubblegum-pop single, `Dumb Blonde’ (from HELLO, I’M DOLLY (1967) {*5}).
By this point she’d long finished school, relocated to Nashville and begun a successful songwriting partnership with her uncle, Bill Owens; she’d also inked a deal with Monument Records in 1964. The self-deprecating tone of the aforesaid track (her sixth for the label) was to become a hallmark of the singer’s career, a modesty that failed to fool shrewd country personality PORTER WAGONER. He recognised her talent immediately and successfully signed her up for his hit TV variety show. Porter also used his music biz muscle to persuade RCA Victor to give her a major deal, even putting down his own royalties as collateral. Still, the company were initially unprepared to risk recording her solo and paired Dolly with WAGONER for a debut duet, `The Last Thing On My Mind’. The single reached the country Top 10 in early ‘68 and initiated a string of hit duets over the ensuing few years, including the likes of `Just Someone I Used To Know’ and `Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man’.
Although her sophomore album JUST BECAUSE I’M A WOMAN {*6} established her solo credentials later summer ‘68, Dolly’s attempts to kickstart a career in her own right were continually frustrated by the runaway success of the WAGONER/PARTON double act; solo sets IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD) (1969) {*6}, MY BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAIN BOY (1969) {*6}, THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL (1970) {*6} and a concert document, A REAL LIVE DOLLY (1970) {*7}, ultimately sparkled like the big hair she paraded for all and sundry.
Any concern was finally remedied in 1970 when the petite platinum blonde unleashed her bubbly soprano on JIMMIE RODGERS’ `Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No.8)’. The record hollered its way into the country Top 3 and finally launched DOLLY PARTON as a star in her own right; her gospel GOLDEN STREETS OF GLORY (1971) {*4}, enlightened some fans but was certainly not her best set by a long shot. The frantic, tongue in cheek charm of `Joshua’ landed the singer her first country No.1, while the album of the same name (er… JOSHUA (1971) {*6}) highlighted the burgeoning songwriting talent which had remained partly obscured thus far.
Her 7th studio album, COAT OF MANY COLORS (1971) {*6}, meanwhile, underlined her bid for long term residence in the C&W pantheon. The autobiographical poignancy of the title track hinged on the recurring theme of grinding childhood poverty, the experience of which she would never again distill with such heartbreaking clarity. Unsurprisingly, the song became Dolly P’s calling card and would subsequently be covered by EMMYLOU HARRIS, amongst others. Elsewhere on the album, the glorious, gospel-like `Here I Am’, ostensibly a bolshy message to a would-be suitor, could just as easily have been read as a stirring declaration of newfound artistic independence.
For the time being at least, the WAGONER duets continued alongside the solo hits, although it was only a matter of time before the partnership reached the end of its natural life span; of course there was still room for 1972’s Dolly Parton sings “MY FAVORITE SONGWRITER, PORTER WAGONER” {*6}. Both TOUCH YOUR WOMAN (1972) {*6} and MY TENNESSEE MOUNTAIN HOME (1973) {*7} remain minor C&W classics, lyrically harking back to her childhood and revisiting her deeply entrenched folk and bluegrass roots via an array of traditional instrumentation, including fiddle, dobro, banjo and harmonica; her 12th LP, BUBBLING OVER (1973) {*5} was considered a low point.
Dolly took a different tack completely on 1974’s JOLENE {*7} album; the title track’s haunting, melancholy refrain and pop/rock-orientated structure heralding a new era in the singer’s career. Its minor crossover success signalled the way forward as clearly as `I Will Always Love You’ signalled her imminent break from WAGONER; the song’s spare, unadorned beauty stands in stark contrast to the more famous, overblown version with which WHITNEY HOUSTON entered the record books almost two decades on.
Emboldened by Jolene’s success, Dolly stopped touring with WAGONER and increasingly moved into more experimental waters. LOVE IS LIKE A BUTTERFLY (1975) {*6}, THE BARGAIN STORE (1975) {*6}, THE SEEKER / WE USED TO (1975) {*4} and ALL I CAN DO (1976) {*6}, followed in quick succession, while her newfound creative freedom in the studio resulted in 1977’s rockier NEW HARVEST… FIRST GATHERING {*6}.
PARTON’s peers had also begun to take note and singers from across the country spectrum – from ROSE MADDOX to LINDA RONSTADT – began recording her material. The slick new marketability finally paid off in 1977 when the candy-floss pop of Mann/Weil’s title track from HERE YOU COME AGAIN {*6}, breezed into the Top 3. Not only was Dolly the toast of the country establishment (she received the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in ‘78), she was now a bona fide superstar when `Two Doors Down’ also went Top 20. Her flowing blonde locks graced every front cover in town and she even released an obligatory disco single, `Baby I’m Burning’, her follow-up hit to the title track from HEARTBREAKER (1978) {*6}. It was indeed hardly noticeable that her GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1979) {*5} LP – featuring modest hits `You’re The Only One’ and `Sweet Summer Lovin’ – failed to impress all but her faithful.
The turn of the decade saw her commercial star continue to rise as she embraced the glitz of Las Vegas and notched up further Top 40 hits, including the DONNA SUMMER-penned `Starting All Over Again’ (taken from 1980’s DOLLY, DOLLY, DOLLY {*5}). With the ubiquitous `9 to 5’ chart-topper, the country-disco theme tune to the film of the same name, the song soundtracked Dolly’s acting debut alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, a performance which earned her an Oscar nomination. It was therefore an easier vocation to spur on sales of parent set, 9 TO 5 AND ODD JOBS (1980) {*5} – not the soundtrack! – and its attendant synth-country/folk adaptations of `House Of The Rising Sun’ (like `Working Girl’ referring to prostitution) and `Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’.
Further movie appearances included a co-starring role alongside Burt Reynolds in 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, from which the various artists soundtrack unveiled an updated minor hit re-tread of `I Will Always Love You’. But in over-exposure to an 80s post-new wave world, albums and mostly everything that sailed on board them, slumped unceremoniously. However squeezed somewhere in between albums HEARTBREAK EXPRESS (1982) {*5}, BURLAP & SATIN (1983) {*5} and the un-country karaoke-ish THE GREAT PRETENDER (1984) {*4}, was her chart-topping, BEE GEES-penned KENNY ROGERS duet, `Islands In The Stream’, of summer ’83. But long-time acolytes of Dolly’s country roots were beginning to tire of her MOR-lite transformation.
Another starring role, this time opposite a sweaty Sylvester Stallone in RHINESTONE (1984) {*4}, wasn’t quite so successful, nor was the shared soundtrack, her first attempt at scoring a full movie. Five-foot Dolly was head and shoulders above her other singing contenders, which incidentally include wee sister Stella and younger brothers Randy and Floyd. Not one of PARTON’s best moves in the fickle world of Hollywood showbusiness, record-wise she still managed to air that high-octave singing larynx to everywhere in the room; she also wrote “every” song. Then again, GLEN CAMPBELL (author of the film’s spiritual song, `Rhinestone Cowboy’) might well’ve been handy to have around. On lonesome ground, Dolly tracks such as `Tennessee Homesick Blues’ (competing with annoying canned clap-ter), `One Emotion After Another’ and `What A Heartache’, were basically bread-and-butter dirges, like some leftovers from previous sets. Her best solo cues stemmed from the spiritual `God Won’t Get You’ (with enough country song cliches to sink any boat) and her ever-present theme of `Butterflies’ (already in use as a theme to a TV sit-com). However, when “The Backwoods Barbie” met “The Italian Stallion”, things went from quite bad to warblingly worse as the big two (no pun intended) got to grips with some duelling duets.
When R.C.A. failed to renew her contract after a disappointing `Once Upon A Christmas’ (with KENNY ROGERS) and follow-on set REAL LOVE (1985) {*4}, Dolly was up for anything to quickly re-establish herself as the Queen of Country. Having worked with both LINDA RONSTADT and EMMYLOU HARRIS, she forged an inspired partnership with the pair on the million-selling, Grammy award-winning TRIO (1987) {*7}. By far her most popular and critically acclaimed work of the decade, the album earned PARTON a weekly Stateside variety show, though this proved short-lived. And who really needed Hollywood, when one had Dollywood, a perennially popular Smoky Mountain theme park which the shrewd singer added to her bulging business portfolio in ‘86.
Inking a solo deal at Columbia Nashville, she finally made a genuine effort to rekindle her country roots. While the underwhelming RAINBOW (1987) {*4} failed to capitalise on her renewed popularity; her own couple of compositions were no better than covers of SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `Two Lovers’ (`I Know You By Heart’ had the Motown man as guest) and David Beatteau & Darrell Brown’s `The River Unbroken’.
The RICKY SKAGGS-produced WHITE LIMOZEEN (1989) {*6} spawned a couple of country No.1s if not exactly thrilling the critics; one ditty in particular, `Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That’, was certainly designed to raise a smile, while a cover of REO SPEEDWAGON’s `Time For Me To Fly’ brought her into the AOR spotlight; MAC DAVIS penned the title track and `Wait ‘Til I Get You Home’, for which, on the latter, he also guested.
Although it’d taken five years before she’d returned to the big screen, she again put in a notable performance in the 1989 film version of stage play, Steel Magnolias, another comedy vehicle where she essentially played herself and made creative capital out of her own down-home personality. Along with many of the C&W stars who’d reached their creative zenith in the 70s, the ageing chanteuse increasingly found herself at odds with the radio programming policy and polished veneer of the 90s New Country establishment; an album such as the festive HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (1990) {*3} did not help her cause.
On the back of a largely self-penned Top 30 return-to-form, EAGLE WHEN SHE FLIES (1991) {*6} – featuring duets with RICKY VAN SHELTON (`Rockin’ Years’) and Lorrie Morgan (`Best Woman Wins’), PARTON’s acting career continued with a starring role (next to James Woods) in the movie STRAIGHT TALK (1992) {*4}, for which she also composed the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the set smothered Dolly’s songs in L.A. studio gloss.
PARTON even revisited one of her earliest songs, `Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’, and swapped its coat of many colors for a power suit and heels. Despite the best efforts of the pony-tailed session musicians, the uplifting Appalachian beauty of the chorus shines through, whilst the rest of the album was much less successful. `Dirty Job’ saw her try her hand at a rock number and she didn’t do too badly. Sadly, the producer ruined it with tacky synthesized pan pipes, gated reverb drums and a sub-Clarence Clemens sax solo.
`Blue Me’ had potential as a melancholy country swing ballad, but the cocktail jazz arrangement, complete with suspiciously fake double bass, brought it unpleasantly close to Ally McBeal territory. Similarly, there was a decent mandolin-laced country number fighting to escape in `Livin’ A Lie’. The title track came straight from the BILLY OCEAN book of yuppie soul music, with its plastic horns and mechanical rhythm, while `Burning’ (a duet with BILL OWENS), underlined the redemptive qualities of PARTON’s voice. But even she couldn’t save `Thought I Couldn’t Dance’ or the egregious `Fish Out Of Water’, where she rapped – yes rapped! – over oleaginous guitar licks and naff synth hits.
Further filmic exposure came by way of Penelope Spheeris’ film version of the comical TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies (in which she really did play herself), which kept Dolly’s profile reasonably above board. But it was in her Top 20 return, SLOW DANCING WITH THE MOON (1993) {*6}, that guaranteed her first-class reviews. Now over 30 albums on her CV, a cover of JACKIE DeSHANNON’s `Put A Little Love In Your Heart’ was slightly overshadowed by the stellar cast “friends” list (MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER, PAM TILLIS, BILLY RAY CYRUS, KATHY MATTEA and TANYA TUCKER) that graced the Top 50 breaker, `Romeo’.
To her credit, Dolly had stuck to her guns, hooking up with fellow legends TAMMY WYNETTE and LORETTA LYNN for the subsequent HONKY TONK ANGELS (1993) {*6} album, while her country gospel was spread over the double-disc concert document, HEARTSONGS: LIVE FROM HOME (1994) {*6}, and the timely publication of her autobiography, My Life And Other Unfinished Business.
While her self-scribed SOMETHING SPECIAL (1995) {*5} – featuring re-takes of `Jolene’, `The Seeker’ and a duet with VINCE GILL of `I Will Always Love You’ – kept the wolf from the door, 1996’s TREASURES {*6} found her in cloud-covers-land once again; NEIL YOUNG’s `After The Gold Rush’, `KATRINA & THE WAVES’ `Walking On Sunshine’, RANDY VANWARMER’s `Just When I Need You Most’, sandwiched between bookends of CAT STEVENS’ `Peace Train’ and KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `For The Good Times’, among others.
Getting back to her country roots courtesy of HUNGRY AGAIN (1998) {*6}, there was actually more media attention surrounding her TRIO II (1999) {*5}, another attempt at regurgitating older pieces (recorded back in 1994) with legends EMMYLOU HARRIS and LINDA RONSTADT. Although the hits had dried up in the 90s, DOLLY PARTON remained one of the most readily identifiable female figures in country music history and her legendary status seemed assured.
She continued to record and perform into the new millennium; the independently released solo sets THE GRASS IS BLUE (1999) {*7} and LITTLE SPARROW (2001) {*7}, featuring some of her best material in years. The Top 60 HALOS & HORNS (2002) {*6} once again found PARTON tugging at the seams of her smoky mountain roots, even in the context of her much talked about closing cover of LED ZEPPELIN’s `Stairway To Heaven’. Dolly succeeded in transforming rock’s holy grail without losing the mystical slant, while her dusting down of long discarded songs like `Shattered Image’ and `If Only’ seemed to confirm a continuing sense of creative rebirth; despite nearly over-baking BREAD’s `If’ which, with banjos and OTT production, even DAVID GATES might’ve thought it a touch too much.
A spiritual and patriotic PARTON in full flow in a belated answer to the 9/11 attacks, FOR GOD AND COUNTRY (2003) {*4}, retained her in good stead as she reeled off `The Star-Spangled Banner’, `When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ among her own compositions. Turning back a little to present songs from her “Halos & Horns Tour”, Dolly’s all-encompassing CD/DVD concert package, LIVE AND WELL (2004) {*6}, proved beyond doubt her ability to simply entertain.
Approaching 60 but still looking as if she could give The DIXIE CHICKS a run for their money, THOSE WERE THE DAYS (2005) {*6} was a bluegrass album of collaborative covers and their inspirators as star turns, although several artists (JONI MITCHELL, for `Both Sides Now’ and DYLAN for `Blowin’ In The Wind’, among them) could not attend due to illness and contractual problems; their respective berths filled by RHONDA VINCENT/JUDY COLLINS and NICKEL CREEK. Alongside other country/folk/pop/rock legends like NORAH JONES, ROGER McGUINN, ALISON KRAUSS et al, were tracks once associated with guests KRIS KRISTOFFERSON (`Me And Bobby McGee’), YUSUF ISLAM/CAT STEVENS (`Where Do The Children Play?’), TOMMY JAMES (`Crimson And Clover’) and MARY HOPKIN (`Those Were The Days’).
Inevitably someone at Dolly Records was going to half-inch her often misinterpreted moniker of BACKWOODS BARBIE (2008) {*6}, an album that recouped lost time when hitting the Top 20 (UK Top 40). Co-produced with stalwart guitarist Kent Wells, alongside several of her own pure pink-lipstick-and-powder country songs, were covers of SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `The Tracks Of My Tears’ and the FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS’ `Drives Me Crazy’.
On the back of another concert piece, LIVE FROM LONDON (2009) {*6} – that obviously fared better in the UK (Top 40) – BETTER DAY (2011) {*7} spoke for the country contingent when it soared into the UK Top 10. Although sales were decidedly poorer Stateside (#51), there was a sense that at 65, Dolly was again finding a resurgence within the contemporary pop establishment. An album of hope and good-will to all her country-fied kin-folk who’d ever bought into her faith and boundless spirit, she was on form with `Somebody’s Missing You’, `In The Meantime’, `Just Leaving’ and the title track.
Who would’ve guessed that Michael Eaves was a huge fan, but there was proof in the pudding when the Glastonbury Festival director invited the effervescent Dolly to headline in June 2014. To coincide with her star-studded appearance was her most fruitful album of all-time: BLUE SMOKE (2014) {*7}. Not only a commercial, transatlantic Top 10 affair but a critical rainbow of sorts, there was room for old pals KENNY ROGERS and WILLIE NELSON on respective tracks, `You Can’t Make Old Friends’ and `From Here To The Moon And Back’, whilst readings of DYLAN’s `Don’t Think Twice’, BON JOVI’s `Lay Your Hands On Me’ and the traditional `Banks Of The Ohio’, raised a smile or two for her sheer hootspa.
Keeping it PURE & SIMPLE (2016) {*6}, as her near UK chart-topping album more than suggested (it stalled just outside US Top 10), 70 year-old PARTON was now well over the 40 studio albums mark in her quest to become the ultimate country star. Bought by fans as much on a curiosity whim, or for the bonus CD of her “Glastonbury” greatest hits gig, here on the main disc, the first lady of country oozed class on such Sunday morning slices of pseudo-nostalgia; whatever way one looked through her rosy-tinted compositions, there’d be tears for `Say Forever You’ll Be Mine’, `Can’t Be That Wrong’, `Tomorrow Is Forever’, et al.
It was only a matter of time until DOLLY got around to putting her name to another movie soundtrack. 2018’s DUMPLIN’ {*6} found the queen of country collaborate on a dozen cuts alongside stars and cast members; SIA helping out on opening track, `Here I Am’, MAVIS STAPLES on `Why’, and Jennifer Aniston and leading lady Danielle Macdonald on `Push And Pull’, were just a sample of best ones; all topped off with a new string version of `Jolene’.
© MC Strong 2004-2008/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Mar2016-Dec2018

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