[12 June 2009]
This bawdy, backwoods warbler rose to international stardom from the poverty of a Tennessee mountain shack among 11 other siblings and became owner of an amusement park, a successful business woman, a Golden Globe nominated actress and a household name who rivaled Johnny Cash’s late crossover capital to the mainstream. Above all, Dolly Parton is a magnificent writer and singer and an indisputable sex-pot poster girl for the American dream.
Dolly started singing on local radio and TV programs as a child, moved to Nashville right after high school and started her remarkable songwriting career that has produced over 1000 songs and 55 top-ten hits. She got her big break replacing Norma Jean on the Porter Wagoner show in 1967, producing a series of top 20 hits that stretched into 1975. Meanwhile, she launched her meteoric solo career with the number-one blockbusters “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” in 1974 (the latter becoming a smash also for Whitney Houston in 1992, whose fans often had no clue about the song’s origins). She then split off into a pop-country direction that also yielded number-one fruit (in every sense) with “Starting Over Again” (1980 and written by Donna Summer!), “9 to 5” (1980) and “Islands in the Stream” (the blockbuster duet with Kenny Rogers in 1983).
For all the new crossover pop fans she made, she also lost a few old-time-lovin’ devotees who lamented her success as a sellout. It proved lucky for her career that in the ‘90s sappy pop country showed the old-timers to the retirement home and made way for Achy Breaky Heart generation. In that same decade, she was inspired to revisit her classic-country roots, ranging from honky tonk (with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette) to the three highly acclaimed bluegrass albums from 1999 to 2002. In 2008 with the mediocre offering, Backwoods Barbie, she returned to ‘80s pop and even tried to address the electro-disco youth culture with, for example, a cheesy cover of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy”. The best song on that album is arguably the classic-country title track, which is back to her “Coat of Many Colors” and “Dumb Blonde” themes, rooted firmly in her poor origins, as well as her repetitive insecurity about American popular-cultural myths that reduce looks-conscious women to their surface. Regrettably, 9 to 5 Work Songs is, though an overhauled re-release, musically consistent with her latest return to pop trends.
Why re-release this with “bonus” (a patently misleading adjective) tracks now? The economic crisis calls, and Dolly Parton answers with an album about labor, exploitation and material inequality offset by the consolation of love. Overall, this album is syrupy Nashville country pop that only someone with a perverse nostalgia for the industry’s ‘80s period could like (it’s also consistent with the Dixie Chicks phenomenon and Parton’s refusal to be tagged just classic country). The core of the album was originally recorded in 1980, the period when she really went pop (and Lord, does it ever show).
The best song on the album is her own, “9 to 5” (not the lead track or the last track, which are her attempts to break into electro dance-pop with fiddles, and it’s really as bad as it sounds). Johnny Cash could do NIN better than NIN. Dolly can barely save her own ass on these new 9 to 5 mixes. Her own “Hush-a-Bye” hard times is replete with ‘80s and ‘90s pop-country guitar. “Deportee” (written by Woodie Guthrie) is also a beautiful showcase for Parton’s signature vocals, but it’s accompanied by a piano beamed in from Bruce Hornsby and the Range (who, if you like, then you’ll love this).
The album is also full of bad covers: She does no favors to Merle Travis or Johnny Cash in her butchering of “Dark as a Dungeon”, shoved into the Nashville meat grinder to re-emerge as a new age folk song (think stripped-down tingling acoustic guitars on the cheesy soundtrack playing at chez your masseuse). So, too, does she bomb the classic “Detroit City”. Just recently John Doe and the Sadies released a country-classics album featuring a virtuosic interpretation of the same song. At least her vocals are more savory on this song than on others, as she sings: “Think I’ll put my foolish pride / On a southbound train and ride / Head on back to the loved ones I left waiting there behind.” But those vocals are atrociously backed by some cheesy George Winston-ish piano. Call it a sign of the times, but the ‘80s rootsy electric-guitar riffs and easy-listening keyboard sound weighs down her own otherwise nicely written songs, such as “Sing for the Common Man” and “Working Girl”, both of which seem to cry out for emancipation from the overproduction. Welcome to easy-listening hell.
The song standing the best chance of wide circulation today is the the 9 to 5 dance remix, which might very likely kitsch-tickle the dance floors from Paris to Tokyo. Critics loved this album when it came out, perhaps partly because Parton was joined by a flurry of pop-country crossovers, including Eddie Rabbit and Ronnie Milsap. They also, no doubt, liked her version of feminism and her homage to working people (an older theme in country music that almost never makes it into a sappier lovelorn mainstream). These are also the best qualities of this release. Some things from the ‘80s hold up sometimes for kitsch value and other times by standard. But Dolly from the Porter Wagoner years and “Jolene”, even the airy “Love is Like a Butterfly”, is worlds apart from this album deserving of an airtight chamber. It should only be released to have its schlock fury unleashed on ‘80s nostalgics.