Dolly Parton the icon is on full display on the cover of her new album Backwoods Barbie, dressed in hot pink and leopard print, sitting in the back of a pickup truck. Her signature, also in hot-pink, is scrawled across the cover: “Dolly”, big and bright, like a corporate brand name. Backwoods Barbie is billed as her first commercial country album, after a series of bluegrass ones, and the cover fits it well, presenting us with the Dolly of Dollyworld, with the image most people think of when they think of her.
There may be a dichotomy in people’s minds between the bold, outrageously unnatural look of “Dolly” and the serious musician and songwriter Dolly Parton, who has written and sung ample hit songs across the decades. She turns that perceived dichotomy into a brilliant song with “Backwards Barbie”. It’s an autobiographical account of Parton’s wanting to make herself into a Barbie doll, with the moral being not to judge her by her looks. “Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that I’m as shallow as I look / ‘Cause I run true and deep,” she sings, singing that last phrase with all the sincerity of her less-flashy bluegrass material while giving the rest of the song an “aw-shucks” quality that makes it less a cry of outrage than a loving slap on the hand.
That song is playful but serious, which is the tone as well of Backwards Barbie the album. It has dramatic cheatin’ songs and giddy fun pop singles alike, with Parton tapping into both her tacky-glamour persona and the serious storytelling side of traditional country music songwriting to create an appealing, varied collection of songs that, in terms of likeability, ranks among her best.
The most explicitly fun song on the album is her giddy cover of – of all things – Fine Young Cannibals’ 1989 hit “She Drives Me Crazy”, refashioned as the less-gendered “Drives Me Crazy”. It’s a “huh?” moment when it first comes on, until you realize how well she’s turned it into a country hoedown, with fiddle breaks and a sped-up breakdown at the end, complete with new countrified lyrics like “I’m gonna love you ‘til the cows come home”. It’s big and cartoonish, but at the same time not. And her singing at the center doesn’t play it as a novelty song. As she performs it, it’s a simple, giddy love song. Fun too is “Shinola”, as in “you don’t know love from shinola”. It’s a kiss-off she sings with a playful sense of anger, right down to the bleep over a dirty word. Even the lyric sheet reads, “You’ll be bleep out of luck”.
Yet the most obviously fun songs aren’t the only places to look for great songwriting that doubles with serious entertainment value. It’s all over the place. The lead-off single “Better Get to Livin’”, a slightly preachy track where she tells us to stop moping about our problems and get back to living, has a punny joke built-in right at the start, with her lyric, “Well, I’m not the Dalai Lama, but I’ll try to offer up a few words of advice”. That wink at the audience through the Dalai/Dolly play on words is just one small example of Parton’s demeanor on the album. It expands well beyond the jokes, or the songs that come off as goofy. No matter what she sings, from the earthly serious gospel tune “Jesus and Gravity” to the Smokey Robinson and Fine Young Cannibals covers, it sounds like she’s having an absolute ball.
It’s an album that’s optimistic in tone, even with several songs about heartbreak and despair. “Better Get to Livin’” is dead-serious about its message, but also not serious. It betrays the knowledge that at the end of the day it’s still a pop song, but it’s also clear she’s expressing a point. She sings with a casual, almost uncaring snarkiness, but ends up in the spiritual realm: “The day we’re born we start to die / Don’t waste one minute of this life / Get to livin’ / Share your dreams and share your laughter / Make some points for the great hereafter.”
A solid half of the album’s songs fall into the classic country-music category of heartbreak songs, one way or another: divorce songs, cheating tales, lonely-night confessions. Yet there’s no danger that these songs on similar topics will blur together, because each takes its own approach. “Cologne” is a perfect little soap opera of a song, repetitive and built on hooks, both the melody and the concept, where a man asks his mistress not to wear cologne so he doesn’t carry the tell-tale scent back to his wife. “I Will Forever Hate Roses” is similar in symbol-association, but different in style: a laid-back country ballad about how she’ll always associate roses with getting dumped, since he left her roses and a goodbye note. There’s also the wistful, even meditative “Only Dreamin’”, the jazzy lonesome-country tune “The Lonesomes” and the more intense jealousy song “Made of Stone”. Each in its own way turns human despair into entertainment, skillfully.
Parton’s first stab at commercial country success in a while, released under her own label Dolly Records, is currently #2 on the country album charts. Country radio stations haven’t picked up on it yet, and probably won’t, but they should. What’s so non-commercial about a silly and smart, emotion-charged and well-crafted album from a colorful, talented country-music icon known the world over?