[12 January 2006]
Well, hello, Dolly. Since 1999, The Divine Ms. Parton has released a trio of top notch bluegrass, country, and old time albums for Sugar Hill Records: The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, and Halos and Horns. Now, following her recent live album, she’s turned her tonsils to something slightly different. Having covered “Stairway to Heaven” on the last of those studio albums, she’s finally succumbed to the obvious temptation and recorded a covers album that features a dozen songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, drafting in an all-star cast of supporting characters and as many of the original artists as she could track down.
Sadly, of course, the First Lady of Country now stands accused of being a hippie.
Still, it’s not all bad news. The last song on Those Were the Days is “Imagine”. I loathe this song with a vengeance, and yet by the time she’s finished with it, Parton has me entirely on her side. In a way, this is the story of the album as a whole.
Inevitably, Parton starts with “Those Were the Days”. Although the song is mostly known as “Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were the Days’”, the origins of the melody are Russian and date from the 19th century. It was in 1962, when Gene Raskin penned a set of English lyrics, that it became popular in the West. And it was only when Paul McCartney recruited Welsh teenager Hopkin to record the song in 1968 that it became little short of a sensation. Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” was released simultaneously with the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as the twin debut singles from the mop-tops’ fledgling Apple Records, and it was every bit as successful as Hopkin’s mentor’s own sing-along song. Indeed, “Those Were the Days” was subsequently adopted for use at British football matches, where it is still in use today. Something that could never be said about “Hey Jude”.
I hope you found all those facts interesting, because they’re significantly more fascinating than Parton’s lettuce-limp version of “Those Were the Days”, which sounds every bit as authentic as a three dollar bill and as much fun as a root canal in a back street dentist’s office. Without anesthetic.
Next up, a pedestrian version of “Blowing in the Wind” threatens to throttle Those Were the Days at birth. It’s not as bad as Neil Young’s attempt, admittedly, but still, there are limits. Putting a little Nickel Creek bluegrass—presumably Bob had a previous engagement—under such a hackneyed old piece of pig’s ear does not make it a silken purse. And it never will.
Fortunately, and curiously, it’s Parton’s arrangement of the insufferably twee “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” that revives Those Were the Days. Norah Jones and Lee Ann Womack join La Parton on harmonies. Even the most educated ear will struggle to tell Womack and Parton apart, and in this context, this is most definitely a good thing. From here on, Parton’s on a clear winner. The subsequent standouts are the center-piece of the collection: “Where Do the Children Play” (where Parton comes close to rockin’ out), “Me and Bobby McGee”, and “Crimson and Clover”.
Her phrasing on the first of these is sufficiently precise to make lesser singers (most of them) give up and get proper jobs, and to make me forgive the irritatingly coy little girl whisper she sometimes employs. Parton then takes her reading of “Me and Bobby McGee” from Janis Joplin, rather than Roger Miller, and makes their song most definitely her own. “Crimson and Clover” is just a little bit of Dollywood magic underpinned by delicate power chords and illuminated with yet more country music stylings.
Elsewhere, Parton wisely sequences her duet with Keith Urban (“Twelfth of Never”) long before the much more impressive “If I Were a Carpenter” (sung with Joe Nichols), while “The Cruel War” recognizes that there is a very thin line between camp and class, and plunges headlong over it with glee. Similarly, “Imagine” is as camp as a field of tents surrounded by more tents. As the overwrought and unbearably “sensitive yet epic” instrumentation proceeds, Parton slowly sings the heart, lungs and spleen out of Lennon’s hypocritical doggerel until, at the end, you’re left wishing for more.
Still looking swell, still glowing, still getting glances from all the handsome men, Parton is one of the greatest American idols. Frankly, it’s hard to think of anyone else—besides the Ramones—who could have made such a success out of a project like Those Were the Days. So feel the room swayin’, while that ole band keeps on playin’ one of her old favorite songs from way back when.