Growing Up Hurts: Dolly Parton’s Albums of “Independence”

Dolly Parton
Coat of Many Colors

“Dolly Parton’s Declaration of Independence” is how RCA/Legacy is branding their new reissues of her albums Coat of Many Colors (1971), My Tennesse Mountain Home (1972) and Jolene (1974). As Chet Flippo notes in the album’s liner notes, it’s Jolene that truly marked her freedom from Porter Wagoner, the singer to whom she played a supporting role on television, stage and records, starting in 1967. Or at least it marked that freedom in idea, since she was under contract with him as her producer for another two years. Yet it feels strange to think of these albums, or even just Jolene, as the first signs of an independent Parton, considering that the boldness of her singing was a major part of her appeal from the start.

Even just the 1967 album Just Because I’m a Woman, released when she was 22 years old, presents the young Parton as a complicated, headstrong figure, with stirring performances of sad love songs like Harlan Howard’s “I Wish I Felt This Way at Home” and Neal Merritt’s “The Only Way Out (Is to Walk Over Me)”, not to mention her own title track, with its dismissal of the hypocrisy that brands women “ruined” and men studs for the same sort of sleeping around. It’s hard from those songs to imagine Parton as a singer who had yet to find her own voice, or a songwriter without the freedom to express herself. I wonder if the independence in question — breaking free from what she had come to think of as a stifling business arrangement — isn’t mostly a matter for biographers, and those who keep consideration of music tied closely together with the musician’s biography.

At the same time, “independence” works as a theme for these three albums because of how focused they are on growth from childhood to adulthood, on the gap between the carefree life of a child and the confusing, complicated world of an adult. Taken together, these albums fill out that story in remarkable ways. Across them, Parton is perpetually singing songs of deep sorrow about the pain that comes from seeking love, and perpetually looking back on her childhood as an idyllic time. And in that way the songs — whether drawn directly from her own experiences or not — do echo Parton’s own story of attaining stardom, of growing up in a one-room cabin in the mountains of Tennessee as one of 12 children and then leaving that all behind for a career in Nashville. On these albums she writes the story of growing up, and the hurt, loss and sacrifice that accompanies it, into the timeless language of country music, using the classic elements of song to make the good and bad times seem even better and even worse.

“Back through the years I go wandering once again / Back to the seasons of my youth,” she begins on Coat of Many Colors‘s opener, the title track, and it’s a place where her mind seems to take her often. That now-classic song has a story of a mother’s love as its basis. Later in this album of jukebox-friendly ballads you get a sense for why it’s idealized, unconditional love that her protagonists dream of: because the men in their lives keep letting them down. She sings of men running away (“My Blue Tears”) and women stealing men away (“She’s Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like)”). As one of the Coat of Many Colors reissue bonus tracks, “The Tender Touch of Love”, puts it, she’s experienced every variety of touch — even “the sting of love’s burning pain” — but not the touch of true, understanding love. “On “Travelling Man” even her own mother steals her man away. That song’s rollicking style reveals a sense of humor, while Parton sings it in a light voice that suggests the whole tale’s the dream of a little girl with a schoolyard crush. More devastating is the story told in the Wagoner-written “If I Lose My Mind”, where a woman tells her mother about the vicious games her lover played with her mind and body. “Yes I know that I look a little weary,” she sings, “but Mama I have been through living hell.” In a trembling yet forthright voice she brings to the surface the question lurking behind the most tortured, heartbroken songs on all three of these albums: “Mama, can I be a little girl again?”

While the biggest hits from this period (#1s “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”, off Jolene) document the pain of adulthood, My Tennessee Mountain Home is an album-length expansion of the theme of looking back with wistful eyes. Opening with Parton reading the first letter she wrote her parents after arriving in Nashville, the album is easily the most sentimental of the three, and the most autobiographical (with every song written by Parton), in that way showcasing the down-home sincerity that remains a central part of Parton’s personality, as a musician and a celebrity, to this day. It’s the autobiography of a burgeoning star trying to stay connected with her roots, nearly a decade after leaving home, and that shows in both the lyrics and the music. For while her exuberant descriptions of the details of rural life (her father’s working hands, her mother’s simple kitchen, the sounds of nature) over banjo and fiddle might seem like country kitsch to listeners who prefer sincerity in music only when the messages are dark and cynical, the music taps into country roots and traditions more fully than either of the other two reissued albums. As a concept album, it seems as much about Parton’s musical upbringing — country church songs, in particular — as the physical trappings, and emotions, of childhood. Vocal group the Nashville Edition support Parton like a homegrown church choir would, giving the songs uplift while deepening their roots. The album ends with Parton bringing these influences to Nashville — “Down on Music Row” — because the pull of stardom is too strong to shake. But this reissue follows that ending with another reminder of the roots of her music, through the bonus track “Sacred Memories”. A track from her 1975 album Love Is Like a Butterfly, it’s a tour de force synthesis of old-fashioned spirituals, a celebration of their power.

The roots music on My Tennessee Mountain Home prefigures not only Parton’s return to Apalachian folk and bluegrass songs decades later, on a series of albums for the Sugar Hill label, but also the backwards-looking work of so many folk/country artists over the years. (For just one minor example, listen to Iris DeMent’s Lifeline album in the context of this album.) Parton sings these songs with the same spirit of joy that informs their lyrics; the essential message being “the days that I knew then are the happiest I’ve known.” Just once does she poke a small hole in that bubble of nostalgia, with the song “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”, where she notes that, as fondly as she remembers these times, she doesn’t want to return to them. That song has little of the exuberance of the others, though, making the dominant portrait one of a time when things were easier, happier, simpler. As she sings on “Old Black Kettle”, these days “folks are doing away with the simple things.” The implicit contrast throughout the album, as on Coat of Many Colors, is with the messier present. This point is made most emotionally on “The Wrong Direction Home”, the album’s gentle show-stopper. Here home is a state of mind she escapes to, to forget the complicated present. “And mountain streams and fields of green and rolling hills stay in my dreams,” she sings, “but I’m many, many miles from Tennessee.” Escape is what most of My Tennessee Mountain Home is, but eventually real life keeps back calling. The awareness of that fact makes the country-living reminiscing more powerful, and an integral part of the greater story told across these three albums.

Parton’s first #1 country hit, “Jolene”, is by now a familiar classic. In the context of these albums, it’s another moment of heartbreak, if an especially soap-opera one, with the protagonist begging for the title character not to tempt her man away. It’s a proper introductory note for an album that, like Coat of Many Colors, includes as its themes both goodbyes (“When Someone Wants to Leave”,” the Wagner-written “Lonely Comin’ Down”, and the immortal-for-good-reason “I Will Always Love You”) and daydreaming about better times. This time, though, the dreaming is tilted more towards the future, whether it’s a general hope that love and happiness will someday come (“River of Happiness”) or a specific wish that a love will work out (“It Must Be You” and “Randy”, with its lyric “In your eyes I see promise of the future”). Taken next to Coat of Many Colors and My Tennessee Mountain Home, Jolene seems like a progression from those albums’ theme that the modern world is a maddening, sad place. Jolene acknowledges that heartbreak — turned it into hit songs, even — but also pushes away from it, with an overall idealism. It’s an idealism with nuance and sophistication, where sadness is always on hand, but she’s trying to push against it, to move on. Even “Living on Memories of You”, where she sings of being tortured by the past, has it sweetness to it — amplified by the gentle tone of the piano, bass and steel guitar — that suggests the dark days will be overcome. The album’s final note is a love song that could as well be a spiritual testament, “It Must Be You”. It reflects this determination to move forward, to be independent of the past and the pain it holds: “Together we’ll look back / But we won’t shed a single tear.”

Musically Jolene represents sophistication, maturation as well. It’s the same instrumentation, the same producer (Bob Ferguson) and many of the same session musicians, but the overall sound is smoother, slicker. The saloon-jukebox ballads of Coat of Many Colors and the rustic, carefree, old-time gospel style of My Tennessee Mountain Home have turned into a polished country sound with a density that points towards the rock leanings of the “outlaw country” crowd and a lightness that hints toward Parton’s soft-pop ’80s direction, and towards Whitney Houston making “I Will Always Love You” sappier and even more ubiquitous. In Jolene it’s easy to hear why Parton’s leap of independence was ultimately also a cementing of her larger-than-life celebrity status: the birth of Dollywood, of 9 to 5, of Dolly Parton, the icon.

RATING 8 / 10
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