When one hears the words “American music”, who comes to mind? For me, it’s Dolly Parton. Hers is in fact, the most American of all stories. She grew up in the ’40s and ’50s dirt poor in Tennessee with no electricity, singing and playing the guitar with her family. At a young age she landed a spot on a local television show, and is quoted as saying, “I was on TV before we even owned one.” Right out of high school she began writing songs, landed a record deal, and started releasing hit singles. By the late 1980s, she was one of the most famous country singers in the world, a movie star, and had her own theme park. No one completes the American dream quite like sweet little Dolly.
RCA/Legacy’s new The Essential Dolly Parton is comprised of twin discs that span her legendary career, from her first 1967 single, “Dumb Blonde”, to 2001’s cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine”. If you’re a big Dolly fan, you might want more, but this collection has pretty much everything necessary for casual Dolly lovers. (And who among us isn’t, really?) The discs run in chronological order, following Dolly’s sweet soprano through the little-known ’60s recordings (such as “Just Because I’m a Woman”) and into the heavy catalog of the ’70s: the decade of Dolly. Here’s where The Essential Dolly Parton really becomes essential. The soulful “Touch Your Woman” is deeply satisfying country, and the mega-hit “Jolene” is a menacing, pleading songwriting feat. “I begging of you please, don’t take my man,” Parton sings, playing as she always has, both the feminist and the anti-feminist.
Dolly is larger than life and in control. She has sold herself as a commodity, an idea, a cultural artifact. But she knows it, and she does it for no one but her. Dolly is one of the most real women making music today, but also, in some ways, incredibly fake. Her wigs, her nails, her breasts, her theme park, they are all symbols of plastic, cheap, false culture. But Dolly herself is honesty, reality personified. Her music is so simple and real, it seems clichéd, but it’s not. One can see this in her most popular song to date, the heart-wrenchingly sweet “I Will Always Love You”, which was given the power-ballad treatment by Whitney Houston for a third time on the charts in 1990. Dolly’s soprano is so pure and unaided, and the lyrics are so simple, it’s likely to move anyone; it is an example of a song that can last forever and take many forms, but not really change. She sings to an ex-lover in a remarkable display of selflessness, “I wish you joy and happiness, but above all this, I wish you love”.
The collection then moves on to the 1980s, when Dolly became larger-than-life, and though her music suffered slightly from too many collaborations, and though the decade’s tendency to excess slightly marred her pure sound, she stayed on top. Songs like the pop hit “Here You Come Again”, and the rollicking “9 to 5”, from Dolly’s movie of the same name, show that not only has she still got it, she doesn’t mind mixing things up a bit. The collection ends with only one song from the ’90s and then 2001’s “Shine”, which gives Collective Soul’s brooding original a real kick in the ass, proving that Dolly could show any modern rocker the proper way to structure a song.
The Essential Dolly Parton makes me feel as though I suddenly understand the cultural fascination with Dolly Parton. She’s a queen of contradiction: she may have outlandish style, but she makes honest, pure, American music and has a true American story to tell.