Various Artists: Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton
Without exception tribute albums travel treacherous terrain. Tampering with material so closely associated with the original artist, especially one with as robust a presence as Dolly Parton, can prove an insurmountable challenge, both to the tributee and to those paying tribute. Material strong enough to stand alone is evident even in a bad rendition, and weak songwriting is conversely exposed for what it is. Outshining the original in quality is a somewhat less frequent occurrence with solid music like Parton's, and is something she need not worry about on Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton. In the liner notes, Parton says "Any songwriter can tell you, there is no greater compliment than to have someone else sing a song that you've written. It's like bragging on your kids. Thank you for being kind to my children." Parton's wonder at the touching gesture of others paying her tribute is a testament to her genuine humility but clearly precludes her from objectivity.
The most interesting aspect of this album is the unobvious group of artists featured. While the label could merely have picked from a slew of country stars they opted instead for a more eclectic grouping of female artists of several different genres, including country. The extent of Parton's often underrated influence as a songwriter and vocalist is illuminated best by the more idiosyncratic, least country-ish renditions featured here.
Shelby Lynne covers the gospel song "The Seeker" but strips down the sound, keeping the music completely acoustic and dubbing herself in for the gospel chorus of the original, allowing the easy power of her stark voice to carry the song -- hand clapping might even be elicited by this one. Norah Jones takes "The Grass Is Blue" off the recent album My Grass Is Blue and characteristically re-imagines it as a piano-dominated ballad, nary a blade of bluegrass on the horizon. A similar country-free treatment was given to Hank Williams's "Your Cheatin' Heart" on Jones's debut album Come Away with Me. Me'Shell N'Degéocello's neo-soul transports "Two Doors Down" from small-town to city, her coy, sultry whisper smoothly sailing over a funky drum beat. The real gem on this album is Sinead O'Connor's cover of "Dagger through the Heart", originally off the album Halos and Horns, wherein Parton covered such disparate acts as Led Zeppelin and Bread. I dare say O'Connor gives Parton's version a run for its money. The music is faithful to the original in its bluegrass-country feel, and strongly characterized by the beautiful, melancholy sound of the dobro courtesy of Jerry Douglas, widely regarded as one of the best dobro players around. But it's O'Connor's anguished delivery that really hits every nail right on the head. The connection between traditional Irish music and that of Appalachia is startlingly close: Neo-Celtic band The Chieftains recently put out two albums (Down the Old Plank Road and Further Down the Old Plank Road) featuring a multitude of American roots and country musicians that brought to light the compatibility of the two deceivingly similar musical styles. O'Connor fittingly embodies this link and brings out all the hurt that Parton herself put into the lyrics: "Oh I know I'm a fool to keep stayin' / When you've made hurtin' me such an art". The song comes off sounding equal parts country and Celtic and a perfect reworking of the original. This song also happens to be O'Connor's last recording -- reportedly she has since retired from making music altogether.
Joan Osborne's soulful take on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" is pleasant and certainly does no disservice to the original but is simply not all that compelling. Alison Krauss's decelerated "9 to 5" features excellent music -- Krauss is a virtuoso fiddler -- but her delivery, rather than coming off as an interesting departure from the original simply seems dull. Parton's version may have been a slice of '80s pot pie but the fast pace and schlock somehow worked, and whatever guilty fun this song may have held is completely absent in this version. Shania Twain's "Coat of Many Colors" holds interest only if you know the reason she picked this song. Written about Parton's own experience of being mocked by her classmates for wearing a coat her mother made from scraps of old clothes, the song was particularly close to Twain's heart, having grown up, much like Parton, in rural poverty. But despite being backed up by the technically talented Alison Krauss & Union Station, Twain's version is a blatant remake, with little original input. A real disappointment is Emmylou Harris's "To Daddy", which was just pulled from her 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. Her rendition is quite good but the fact that she didn't bother to record a new version of a different song is a shame.
Mindy Smith, Kasey Chambers, and Allison Moorer give vocally pretty but uninspired performances. Smith's Jolene is particularly disappointing considering the magnitude of the original. If being female hadn't been the requisite to be on this album, Jack White's excellent Black Sabbath-laden version would have been a welcome addition. Melissa Etheridge's cover of "I Will Always Love You" is, simply put, unmentionable -- Whitney Houston's histrionics sound like God's own angelic chorus compared to this hatchet job.
To restate, tribute albums travel treacherous terrain. While there are a few shining moments on this collection, it is ultimately a letdown. In this case I believe it reflects mostly upon the performers, but it's also, in a small way, an indication of Parton's uneven career. However, to Parton's credit -- and much is due, a career spanning three decades with nearly 70 albums to show for it, is bound to have some doozies. Although Parton may have felt her "children" were treated kindly, those of us lacking the benefit of authorship and simple pride in the fact that others even deigned to sing one of our songs should beg to differ. Dolly Parton is an original in nearly every sense of the word and doing that justice is a feat to say the least.