It’s remarkable that the new Dolly Parton box set is the first release of its kind. For at least 20 years, Parton’s incredible career has demanded this kind of panoramic overview. As she grew from a precocious country chirper to a lovable TV personality, Nashville powerhouse, pop star, movie scene-stealer and cultural icon, the singer/songwriter has always been that rare musical bird that adapts to ever-evolving tastes without surrendering her intangibles. This four-disc set reaches across just as many decades, resulting in a complete, and completely satisfying, study of Parton’s rise from the hills of East Tennessee to the hills of Hollywood.
It’s no surprise that the middle section of Dolly is essential stuff, largely made up of the trio of early-’70s masterpieces on which her status as a songwriting genius still rests – Coat Of Many Colors, My Tennessee Mountain Home and Jolene. And disc one is a goldmine as well, which documents the road to those seminal works starting with her very first recording (the short and sugar sweet “Puppy Love”). From the poppier mid-’60s tracks, like the Everly Brothers-ish “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt” and the girl group R&B of “Don’t Drop Out,” to Parton’s first twangy coups, especially the double standard-slaying ballad “Just Because I’m A Woman,” and some choice duets with Porter Wagoner, the man who brought her to the small screen in 1967, the disc gives us an intimate look at how that trademark vocal vibrato came into being.
But the final disc is the revelation here – at least for me, who missed out on the days when the focus was solely on Parton’s music. I grew up in the post-9 to 5, theme park/rhinestones/Julia Roberts diabetic freakout era, where Dolly Parton was a big, cartoonish personality first and an artist second. There are corny elements for sure on these ’80s and early ’90s cuts, but Dolly makes them into sweet corn. Take “Potential New Boyfriend,” which employs a “Power of Love” synth line as its main instrumental force. Even this can’t stop Parton’s performance from resonating; her stalker narrator is endearing in her desperation, and the chorus – “Better keep your hands of my potential new boyfriend” – sticks with you. There’s something to like on all of these later-period tracks, even the horribly produced cover of “Save the Last Dance For Me,” where Parton brings out the loneliness in that person waiting in the wings for her love to come back. Musically, the biggest home runs are the lilting “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” a precursor to the Transamerica cut “Travelin’ Thru,” and believe it or not, a bluegrass rave-up version of REO Speedwagon’s “Time For Me To Fly.” The banjos, fiddles and three-part harmonies all shred here, turning a ball of cheese into a sweaty hoedown of the highest caliber.
Dolly has a handful of treats for hardcore followers as well, in the form of seven previously unreleased tracks, all from the early years. “Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can),” a very early demo written by Dolly and her uncle Bill Owens, is a stripped, tender country ballad with a classically incongruous lyric. “Nobody But You” is a Shirelles-ish pop cut from the mid-’60s era; “I’ve Known You All My Life” is a Goffin/King tune from the same period that’s a bit on the sappy side. “Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way)” is a late-’60s Parton original, with the kind of “what a wonderful world” sentiment that’s always more depressing than straight-up sadness. “God’s Coloring Book” is a fanciful take on Mother Nature from the Coat of Many Colors sessions. “Eugene Oregon” and “What Will Baby Be” were recorded during the My Tennessee Mountain Home sessions, the former the most indelibly catchy of all these unearthed songs, and the latter a tragic English folk song of the highest caliber, which doesn’t pull any punches on its opening line – “A young couple married, already fighting/Along comes baby, making them three.”
I could go on and on about the many other moments of openhearted majesty that Dolly brings to the table. Dolly Parton has written and performed so honestly, passionately and successfully for so many years – the liner notes (which are worth reading, despite some unforgivable proofreading mistakes) estimate that she’s written more than 3,000 songs and released 75 albums over the last 50 years or so. And after close inspection of her definitive career retrospective, there’s not a moment of insincerity to be found.
Here are a few of my favorite tunes off this set, starting with the classic “Just Because I’m A Woman”:
The previously unreleased “What Will Baby Be”:
And the early ’80s gem “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”: