Dolly Parton
The Essential Dolly Parton

alfred: I got The Essential Dolly Parton and, wow, what a voice! Apart from the skronky guitar hook and fantastically sad lyrics, “Jolene" is also a stunning vocal exercise (it's a song I can imagine Tracy Thorn covering). I'd never heard "Joshua," "Just Because I'm A Woman," and "Coat of Many Colors" before. On the second disc there's a great '80s ballad produced by Kim Carnes' producer Val Garay featuring syndrums that sounds great. (But the Donna Summer song [“Starting Over Again”], borrowing Aretha's Humpty Dumpty metaphor from "All The King's Horses," sucks.)

Thomas: And isn't "Dumb Blonde" a charming little throwaway? Another thing about the Dolly comp that kills me is how great her songwriting is. I mean, really—people talk about Carole King, but fuck me, Dolly laps her repeatedly (maybe that's a poor example).

Alfred: I didn't mention Ms. Parton's songwriting because I wanted to extol a talent for which she rarely gets credit: her voice. But, yes, she's so good. Christgau nailed it many years ago: "At least half of these songs have an imaginative power surprising even in so fecund a talent—images like the bargain store and the coat of many colors are so archetypal you wonder why no one has ever thought of them before." Now I'm curious as fuck about her bluegrass albums (isn't that a killer version of "Shine"?).

Thomas: Re: the "great '80s ballad" on disc 2—you mean her cover of "Save the Last Dance for Me"? I'm not sure how I feel about this weird nothing-but-synths version; in a fashion, I feel like just being sung by Dolly makes it country, but I'm not sure (especially as I'm not sure I'd say the same for "Here You Come Again," an astoundingly great pop single, likely my favorite of all 37 songs present here).

And you're so right about her singing being underrated. But will you come around on "Why'd You Come In Here Lookin' Like That"?

Alfred: Yes, I did mean "Save The Last Dance For Me.” See, I love the juxtaposition of those warm synths against Dolly's equally warm voice. Maybe I’ve heard it before and don't remember it, like "Here You Come Again," which, I swear, I haven't heard since I was four years old and now am fairly astounded that it's (a) Dolly Parton; and (b) it was a fairly huge hit, her biggest pre-“9 to 5.” "Here You Come Again" is professionalism of a high order: a generic ballad that Parton sings with a minimum of fuss (would that her other would-be '80s crossover ballads were this tasteful).

Thomas: Yeah, "Here You Come Again" was massive (#3 pop/#2 AC/#1 country), and got her on the cover of Rolling Stone (the first cover story written by the superb Chet Flippo, now CMT’s editorial director - really). And I retract something I said earlier - I guess it is kinda country, at least for that soupy guitar lick in the song's bridge. That counts, right? And you know, that "Here you come again, and here I go" line is such simple brilliance.

Also: did you notice that its follow-up, "Two Doors Down," wasn't even released to country? They got the disc one-ending "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right" while "Doors" went to pop & AC. To think people think Shania invented that radio strategy! And then a run of 5 consecutive country #1s, of which Dolly very oddly wrote not a one. The Billy Vera-penned "I Really Got the Feeling" is a bit slack to my ears, but both Carole Bayer Sager contributions, "Heartbreaker" and "You're the Only One" just nail it—and me.

Alfred: The more I listen to this collection, I more I acknowledge that Parton needed rhythmic frisson. When she gets high on her own ether—as it does, for example, on "You're The Only One" and "Old Flames Can't Hold A Candle To You"—I'm left in the company of a goodhearted teen who manipulates her cuteness in order to get an older stranger to buy her a six-pack at the convenience store. It's not cloying exactly, but tolerable it's not; the half-life of cuteness in music is directly proportional to its radioactivity. This is not the case with “Jolene.” When it arrives on the collection, anchored by those rather odd chords, the break from the past is abrupt and striking. And the vocal swoop on that first mention of Jolene conveys terror in a way she never quite managed again.

Thomas: Well, sure, though terror's not an emotion one generally associates with Dolly records. But I know what you mean. And I'm so with you on her vocals on "Jolene," they're just stunning. A Tracey Thorn cover is a fine idea, but probably better in theory than practice (I fear a d'n'b take). What about Sinéad?

As far as it being such a "break from the past," I won't disagree - but let's not shirk her previous work accordingly. I love the mountain grit in her almost-warbling vocals on "Joshua," and how about those many notes she holds in her cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues"? Remember, that's not Pro-Tools, that's Dolly knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Can we admit, too, that "My Tennessee Mountain Home," lyrically speaking, is oh-so cloying (albeit unintentionally)? I love both Dolly's and the backing vocals on it (particularly the chorus), but it's just so over-sugared.

I find it interesting that she went back and cut the Porter ‘N’ Dolly album with Porter Wagoner in '74 after she'd become a huge star in her own right - kind of akin to Beyoncé doing this most recent Destiny's Child album. But boy, while I know they co-wrote the song, it sounds much more Porter than Dolly to my ears, heavy on the cornpone. I love, as well, the cleverness of this album's compiler, slipping "I Will Always Love You" out of time slightly to place it after the Porter duet. (Did you know that the song is a goodbye to her duet partner Porter, with whom she got her start and established in Nashville? They had a somewhat ugly "divorce," and this song was her very public goodbye to him. They later reconciled; she inducted him into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.)

Alfred: My attention starts to flag from "All I Can Do" to "Here You Come Again.” You'll disagree, but I don't find this phase of Parton's career remotely interesting. Better country filler than AOR filler. Most of the '80s stuff is anonymous mush, the monotony unrelieved until, ahem, "Why'd You Come In Here...?" (co-written by Bob "Butterfly Kisses" Carlisle!), and the song from Trio (“To Know Him Is To Love Him”). The level of generalization in these songs forces Parton to indulge in the cutesy-pie singing for which I indicted her a few paragraphs up. Most of these songs ARE sellouts in the most basic sense of the word; she eschews the vocal and compositional intensity which redeemed, say, the icky-poo simile of "Love Is Like A Butterfly."

Thomas: Okay, I'll grant you the icky-poo-ness of "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" and "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right"—even though I like both, they're a bit heavy-handed (even great songwriters such as Dolly have their not-so-great moments). But we haven't even touched on her gifts as an interpreter of other people's songs, such as her take on Collective Soul's "Shine," from her recent trio of bluegrass albums (and which closes The Ultimate). She takes a craptastic grunge-pop refugee from the '90s and makes it a transcendent gospel anthem (with help from Nickel Creek)! One of the wonders of modern music to me is that, even with the amazing 40-year career Parton's already had, she keeps forging new paths for herself to walk down. Another wonder is truth in advertising: this comp really is the Ultimate Dolly Parton.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Thomas Inskeep and Alfred Soto
Reviewed on: 2005-09-08
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