Coat of Many Colors
My Tennessee Mountain Home
Before she became a cartoon character, Dolly Parton
was one heck of a country singer and songwriter. She first appeared on
the Grand Ole Opry in 1959 at the age of 13, but she really began to
achieve public prominence when she joined Porter Wagoner's regionally
syndicated TV show in 1967. Her first major country hits were duets with
Wagoner and they were named CMA Vocal Group of the Year in 1968.
Her first solo foray into the Top 10 came with a cover
of Jimmie Rodgers' old "Mule Skinner Blues" in 1970. For the next decade
and a half, she rode high on the country charts with a series of
self-penned songs and albums. Three of her best were recently reissued
by RCA Nashville/Legacy.
The first, Coat of Many Colors, was originally
released in 1971. The title track became Dolly's theme song and also set
forth the theme that would dominate much of her songwriting-growing up
poor but still holding your head high. Songs like "A Better Place to
Live," "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)" and "Travelin' Man" may
be obvious, but Dolly's heartfelt delivery makes them believable, as
though she sings from experience. And who can resist lines like "Mama
didn't allow me goin' courtin'/and I'd tell her lies that I reckon I
My Tennessee Mountain Home from 1973 is a full
blown concept album that opens with Dolly reading a letter she wrote to
her folks on June 2, 1964, when she first arrived in Nashville. The
lonesome harmonica playing "No Place Like Home" in the background gives
the monologue too much corn, but the rest of the disc is rootsy
country-folk at its best. "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)"
is a mournful waltz leavened by gorgeous string band accompaniment; "Old
Black Kettle" cooks up a country breakfast of dobro, banjo, harmonica
and guitar; the title track paints a vivid picture of Dolly's childhood
on the edge of the Smokies.
"Dr. Robert F. Thomas" was a real person, a minister
and physician, who traveled through the area, set up clinics,
administered shots and delivered lots and lots of babies, including one
Dolly Parton. The song that bears his name is a joyfully upbeat tribute.
"Daddy's Working Boots" is a classic country remembrance of life in the
rural south; "The Better Part of Life" conjures up a family reunion
recalling "that ol' swimming hole" and "the time we all got drunk on
homemade wine; while "Down on Music Row" is another unadorned slice of
autobiography that takes the singer from Nashville newbie to hitmaking
star in three short verses.
Jolene shot Dolly to country superstar status when
it was released in 1974. The infectiously relentless title track,
irresistible though it is, serves as the lyrical antonym to Loretta
Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough," ironic considering what a tough
businesswoman Dolly turned out to be. The other touchstone here is the
original recording of "I Will Always Love You," a country number one at
the time, and much more powerful in this understated rendition than in
Whitney Houston's soulless, over-the-top take 18 years later.
"Early Morning Breeze" is a beaut, spare and tasteful
folk with pedal steel trim (a slightly different arrangement from its
initial appearance on Coat). Dolly sings the blues while "Living
on Memories of You," wanders into "Happiest Girl in the USA" territory
on "The Highlight of My Life," sits on the banks of the "River of
Happiness" and discovers that it can be "Lonely Comin' Down" from a
After Jolene, Dolly Parton began to turn herself
into a brand. Within three years she was crossing over to the pop
mainstream with the silly and frilly "Here You Come Again," and by the
'80s, she was a movie star, television mainstay, country icon and theme
park owning caricature of herself. But these three albums provide ample
proof that she was, first and foremost, an affecting singer and
plainspoken songwriter deeply rooted in her Tennessee Mountain Home.
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.