In Dolly Parton lore, “I Will Always Love You” was a bittersweet message to ease the pain of separation. After all, she was the genius singer-songwriter who found success with the support and tutelage of Porter Wagoner, chafed underneath his overbearing Svengali control across her career.
Parton is a country artist whose life lends itself to mythology; her rags to riches story has been spun many times through song, creating the rich legend of a woman who escaped grinding poverty in rural Tennessee and made it big in Hollywood by using her brains, talent, drive, and beauty. With the canny brilliance of the greatest comedic mind, Dolly took her natural beauty and exaggerated it to cartoon proportions, crafting a jokey public persona that is equal parts Mae West, Minnie Pearl, and Mozart.
Though Wagoner was an estimable talent in his own right, Parton quickly outshone him. To lessen the sting of her departure, she turned to her superlative gift—songwriting—to sew a lacey tale of dedicated, undying love. Leaving his television show was just the first phase of their separation, as Wagoner and Parton were still working together on music (they continued to record albums, and he continued to produce her work). However, that union wouldn’t last long, with Parton’s 17th studio LP, 1976’s All I Can Do (RCA Victor), serving as their last collaboration.
Parton’s loyalty was always with country music, and her ultimate goal was to become a superstar. She was one of the few celebrities who openly embraced fame and fortune, freely copping to the fact that her ambition was to become rich and famous along with making music. Despite Porter Wagoner being an important figure in her early career, he ended up impeding her ambitions since playing a wisecracking sidekick to him limited her potential. Parton also wanted to tour with her own band, separate from Wagoner and his crew.
None of this would be possible if she stayed with him. She wanted Hollywood superstardom, a pop career, and national recognition. By 1976, Parton had amassed 10 top ten country gem on the Billboard charts—with five making it to number one—but she was yearning for a crossover pop hit. Though purists would see this as abandonment, she would repeatedly insist that she wasn’t intent on leaving country music; on the contrary, she planned to take country along with her.
From the beginning strains of the first track—the title track—of All I Can Do, it’s clear to see that Parton was listening to what was happening in pop music at the moment. Wagoner’s arrangement is jaunty but with a glancing influence of disco via its tumbling bass. (Parton would actually record disco music later in the 1970s.) Yet, there are also harmonic and guitars to maintain Parton’s country sound. Likewise, the lyrics are classic Dolly Parton, with the bouncy instrumentation, as well as the sprightly singing, belying her anxious words. Specifically, she writes of someone falling in love with someone despite her best intentions; she has ambitions and plans for something larger, and she believes that if she goes through with the relationship, her plans will be derailed.
So much of Parton’s ’70s story-songs are about women who find themselves trapped in unsatisfying relationships, doomed to be stuck with little options for escape. Thus, this one is the kind of lived-in feminism that marks much of Parton’s music. She’ll rarely announce her feminist politics, choosing instead to pen songs about women who are looking to transcend their limited circumstances. As with her working woman’s anthem, “9 to 5”, she wraps the worried sentiment in a fun, bubbly tune here.
The second tune, “The Fire That Keeps You Warm”, starts with similar pop-country production as “All I Can Do”, yet it differs in that it begins with a rather hot-sounding electric guitar that seems far removed from country music (especially country music made by women). The other notable difference is when we get a mighty wail from Parton via a spirited “Hey!” before the lyrics set in.
So much of Parton’s talent is wrapped up in her songwriting that her incredible singing is sometimes ignored; some of this is due to her favoring a laidback, simple warbling in which she sounds angelic, charming, and lovely. But Parton is a church-reared singer who also has a large, expansive, and expressive voice. In addition, Parton’s pinched soprano can grow into a gospel shout (at her full capacity, her singing is truly something to behold). During the rest of the duration, she is joined by the Lea Jane Singers, and the brisk, driving beat of the song makes it sound closer to ’70s R&B. Though an album track, this is easily one of Parton’s best songs of the decade because it shows the promise of both her wide versatility and her incredibly voice (that she too rarely hides behind her fragile, hushed phrasing).
Next, “When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow” sees Parton touching upon a common theme in her career: the country girl who returns home, humbled and longing. When she discusses her early days in Nashville, trying to make it as a singer, she describes a difficult, Dickensian time of tough poverty and loneliness. Though she makes it (becoming a big local TV star before becoming one of the most beloved entertainers of her time), she often writes about her native Tennessee, particularly about returning home to a quieter and simpler place.
This song is especially fascinating because the lyrics predict another hit: “Tennessee Homesick Blues” from the soundtrack to her 1984 film vehicle, Rhinestone. That one came about when Parton was fully into her Daisy Mae in Hollywood persona; in the lyrics, she laments that “New York City ain’t no kind of place for a country girl with a friendly face / If you smile people look at you funny, they take it wrong”. These lyrics are directly lifted from “When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow”, as she sings about a sheltered young girl who is seen as “square” and “unsophisticated” by the city folks. Of course, there are other markers of socio-economic class (a major concern within Parton’s music), including the details of moving with all of her clothes in a paper bag and being mocked for her country diction and poor clothes. (We’ll hear this concern again in the utterly heart-breaking “Coat of Many Colors”.)
The sequencing of All I Can Do is pretty interesting because it immediately goes from a love letter to Parton’s home (“When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow”) to a song about being loose and a vagabond (“I’m a Drifter”). It’s a beautiful tune—with a fantastic banjo solo during the bridge—in which she tells the story of someone who feels adrift and tied to endless traveling. True to the art of Dolly, she admits that although she’s addicted to wandering, she feels conflicted about her life, confessing that she’s “got an empty feeling down inside” but that to “stay alive”, she needs to journey to see what “waits beyond this road”.
It’s an interesting pairing of the songs because one tells the story of a young woman who comes back home, stung by the big city, whereas the other is about a young woman who feels compelled to stay on the road. These two sides are seemingly pulling at Parton simultaneously. In one case, she’s piling on the makeup, the rhinestones, and the wigs as armor to conquer Hollywood; in the other case, she’s taking pen to paper to lament about leaving the pastoral beauty of Tennessee behind. For a mainstream commercial record like All I Can Do, the pair offers a surprisingly deep look at a complex contradiction in the life of a famous woman who wears a wide smile like a shield.
The other beautiful contradiction about Dolly Parton is the juxtaposition of her fragility and her strength. She once likened it to a “steel magnolia” in her 1989 song “Eagle When She Flies”, and she’s a singer who can write some of the most empowering songs in country music. These songs are imbued with a determined and unflappable grit; yet, she’s also potent when she uses her music to focus on her more sensitive side. (The aforementioned “I Will Always Love You” is a great example of the tear-stained Parton, destroying the reserves of listeners with bruising lyrics and heart-wrenching singing.)
On “Falling Out of Love with Me”, she writes about a woman who leaves a relationship before it stagnates and her lover loses interest. It’s a curious premise because she doesn’t list the reasons why she believes her lover is falling out of love with her; instead, her narrator has a premonition that the relationship is doomed, so she cuts out before being hurt. She mournfully trills that the love “was dying” and she’d “rather [she] didn’t have to watch it die”. It’s a powerful sentiment, but we’re never privy to what evidence she had to prove that the love was dying. Of course, her singing is stunning, yet this is also where the production fails the song. It’s far too honkytonk, with an almost cliched C&W arrangement that feels as if it works against the sincerity of the song’s grief.
One of the most potent things about Dolly Parton is her intelligence in her songwriting. She weaves her wit and common sense in her music. For instance, in “Shattered Image”, she uses pastoral metaphors to warn against being judgmental. So much of Parton’s image is that of an accepting embrace (“I don’t judge”, she repeatedly says, often reminding listeners that she isn’t God and only God can judge, which is one of the many reasons why gay audiences have embraced her.) Here, she again mines her personal convictions and morality to condemn pejorative attitudes.
Next comes “Boulder to Birmingham”, which features another stunning performance by Parton, one that is lifted by spirituality. The song is written by another country legend, Emmylou Harris (with whom she worked a lot throughout her career, popping up on Harris’ albums for harmony vocals and later recording a pair of albums with her and Linda Ronstadt). Dolly’s take on “Boulder to Birmingham” is a revelation: it’s a sonic departure from the rest of the record because Wagoner’s ebullient production is tamped down considerably. Instead, we get a churning, churchy, and dirge-like tune. Appropriately, we get Dolly’s church-inspired vocals as she passionately emotes the Biblical imagery in Harris’ song. Though Parton is a first-rate songwriter, All I Can Do doesn’t contain her greatest compositions, but it does contain one of her greatest vocal performances with this emotional rendition of a country classic.
The smoldering sacredness of “Boulder to Birmingham” moves on to another good-natured track. Yet again, it’s a piece that speaks to Parton’s faith. Like many country singers, the church was central to her community; as such, “Preacher Tom” is a tribute to a kindly preacher who inspired Parton to write a cheerful tune. Far from the fire-and-brimstone, “Preacher Tom” and its titular hero is a figure of kindness and love. So much of religiosity—particularly, Southern American religiosity—is marked by judgment, so a figure like Preacher Tom works as a heartwarming tonic. A genuinely good person who wants to help, he aligns perfectly with Parton’s own brand of devout Christianity (one that embraces her queer fans as well as the nonbelievers who fell under her spell).
The other cover on All I Can Do is Merle Haggard’s “Life’s Like Poetry”, an interesting choice given that Parton is one of pop music’s greatest poets, yet she chooses another songwriter’s song to express her feelings of love through the imagery of writing poetry. Haggard’s lyrics are good and Parton performs the song well; however, given that she’s such an inventive and innovative lyricist, it’s a bit of an odd inclusion.
One of Parton’s greatest songs is her 1973 classic “Jolene”, which told the story of the titular heroine, a gorgeous woman from the town who threatened to steal Dolly Parton’s man. The song was reportedly inspired by a bank teller who caught the fancy of Carl Dean, Dolly’s mysterious husband. This story is apocryphal, told in a laughing jest by Parton herself during her live shows. (One thing about Dolly Parton is that she’s a fine-tuned comedienne with stage patter at the ready.) It finds itself as yet another tale in Dolly Parton mythology. What’s so striking about the lyrics of “Jolene” is that despite the verses’ intricate and complex narration, the chorus is catchy in its simplicity (after all, it’s just Parton singing “Jolene” over and over again). Fittingly, she returns to the theme of a wronged woman who loses a guy to another woman on album closer “Hey, Lucky Lady”. As with the rest of All I Can Do, the anguish of her words is obscured by the grinning performance.
All I Can Do is concurrently a (relatively) minor entry in Parton’s discography and an important one. The title track is a slight classic, but otherwise, its songs aren’t regularly referenced when assessing Parton’s work as a whole. That said, it’s also the final album with Porter Wagoner, whose relationship with Parton would haunt the country diva throughout her career (even placing her in court when he sued her for a cut of her fortunes after she left him). The album’s sunny, poppy production doesn’t give listeners a clue of the fractured relationship that Parton and Wagoner had at this point in their lives and careers. Though Parton would remain loyal to her former mentor—regularly giving him credit for her success—she also readily admitted of their tension, describing their relationship as follows: “Porter and I fought like cats and dogs.”
Nonetheless, listening to All I Can Do clearly reveals that Wagoner had some audio sympathies for Dolly’s pop ambitions. The record looks to the more polished sounds of Las Vegas as much as it does or the more natural sounds of Nashville. While she would immerse herself far more into the pop world afterward (in particular, her next album, 1977’s New Harvest…First Gathering, would be a much more concerted effort to record mainstream crossover material), Wagoner’s last time with Parton would provide her with an important path toward countrypolitan Nash Vegas.