Country’s latest embrace of mall-glam sophistication (see: Faith Hill’s wardrobe for the Breathe booklet) has meant the much-noted betrayal of the music’s old guard, a shameful rejection of history and experience that sets country about even with such equally use-‘em-up-and-get-‘em-out questers after the novel as hip-hop and rock. Which may be, after all, just what the Vast Entertainment Conspiracy is out for.
But such rejection has proven a boon (artistic if not financial) for the immortals of the form. Hence, Johnny Cash flips off pop taste with a couple of sets of stark death ballads and Merle Haggard essays gospel to the everlasting glory of both himself and the Lord. And hence Dolly Parton offers this, her first bluegrass record.
Working with such topflight musicians as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Stuart Duncan and with such vocalists as Allison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, Parton reconfigures Billy Joel’s “Travellin’ Prayer” and comes close to wresting the Louvin Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead” from Gram Parsons’s still-defining grasp. And “Will He Be Waiting,” a song Parton wrote and first recorded in 1972, reveals itself here to be nearly as fine a driving song as “Train, Train.”
But the standout track is “Silver Dagger,” Parton’s chilling take on a murder ballad that, she has said in interviews, is one of her mother’s favorite songs. Put it in the player when you’re driving and you’ll need to pull over, especially if it’s night and the trees are casting significant shadows.
Not everything meets that level of achievement. “I Am Ready,” an a capella gospel song by Parton’s sister Rachel, is thrilling by itself and perfectly ends the album—but, in this case, the perfection seems a bit too pat, too professional, to be true. And so too with both her version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and the self-written title track, precise, wonderful songs that display Parton’s awesomely dead-on vocals to the slight detriment of the songs’ sincerity.
Of course, one reason for thinking so hard about Dolly Parton over the years has been her (perhaps instinctively, perhaps calculated) PoMo juxtaposition of subtle content and not-so-subtle style, a disorienting, breathtaking strategy that makes her more mid-‘60s Dylan’s peer than early-‘90s Madonna’s. In that case, disregard any and all qualifications in this review’s praise. Consider:
In the 1970s and 1980s, Parton would often appear on the Tonight Show, where she and Johnny Carson would charm each other and the audience. After performing with her band and bantering with Johnny, Parton would take up a guitar or often a banjo from behind the show’s couch and sing with only her own accompaniment. Once you got around wondering how she played with those awe-inspiring fingernails (one of several physical traits for which Carson trotted out the Yiddish zaftig), you settled in and heard a song of terrifying purity, this surreal woman, simultaneously a tiny thing and the very incarnation of Larger-Than-Life, dropkicking you with a song as beautiful as “Jolene” or “Coat of Many Colors.”
And then, when she finished and the crowd cheered—when Carson, the biggest softy in TV history, gazed, simply gazed, in amazement—Parton would set her guitar or banjo down and, get this, she would giggle. Always that little laugh (as Elvis sang, have a laugh on me) let us know that Parton knew who she was and what it meant to be Dolly.