Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dolly Parton [extended]

  • The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970] A
  • Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971] A-
  • The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1971] B
  • My Tennessee Mountain Home [RCA Victor, 1973] B+
  • Bubbling Over [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • Jolene [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Love Is Like a Butterfly [RCA Victor, 1974] B
  • Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975] A+
  • Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981] B+
  • The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982] B-
  • Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982] B-
  • Trio [Warner Bros., 1987] B+
  • White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither
  • Honky Tonk Angels [Columbia, 1993] Neither
  • Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud
  • Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud
  • The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999] **
  • Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither
  • Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008] Choice Cuts

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970]
The clear little voice is camouflage, just like the big tits. When she's wronged, as she is in five of this record's six sexual encounters (four permanently premarital, one in which hubby throws her into a "mental institution"), her soprano breaks into a cracked vibrato that for me symbolizes her prefeminist pride in her human failings ("Just Because I'm a Woman") and eccentricities ("Just the Way I Am"). Not all of these mini-soaps are perfectly realized and "In the Ghetto" is a mistake. But as far as I'm concerned she rescues "How Great Thou Art" from both Elvis and George Beverly Shea, maybe because a non-believer like me is free to note that the one who ruined her only happy love affair (with her fella Joe and her dog Gypsy, both of whom die) was the Guy in the Sky. A

Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971]
Beginning with two absolutely classic songs, one about a mother's love and the next about a mother's sexuality, and including country music's answers to "Triad" ("If I Lose My Mind") and "The Celebration of the Lizard" ("The Mystery of the Mystery"), side one is genius of a purity you never encounter in rock anymore. Overdisc is mere talent, except "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)," which is more. A-

Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton: The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1971]
There are real pleasures here, but they're chiefly vocal. The surprises are few, the jokes weak and infrequent, the sentimentality overripe ("Jeanie's Afraid of the Dark," yeucch), and the best song's by Paxton, nor Parton. In short, a lousy ad for couple-bonding, though whether Porter is repressing Dolly or Dolly holding out on Porter I wouldn't know. B

My Tennessee Mountain Home [RCA Victor, 1973]
This concept album begins with the letter Dolly wrote her mom and dad when she was first pursuing her dreams on Music Row. Fortunately, its subject isn't Music Row, except by contrast. Unfortunately, its pastoral nostalgia, while always charming, is sometimes a little too pat. Sentimental masterpieces like the title track are no easier to come by than any other kind, and the slowed-down remake of "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)"--the early hit in which she declined to go back--doesn't add as much bite as this city boy needs. B+

Bubbling Over [RCA Victor, 1973]
A better-than-average Parton album in many ways, but beyond the usual dull spots two cuts really bother me. Often her genteel aspirations are delightful--who else would pronounce it "o'er our heads," just like in poetry books, instead of slurring "over"? But when her sentimentality becomes ideological--"Babies save marriages," or "Stop protesting and get right with God"--you remember why most great popular artists have rebelled against gentility. B

Jolene [RCA Victor, 1974]
"Jolene" proves that sometimes she's a great singer-songwriter. "I Will Always Love You" proves that sometimes she's a good one. Porter Wagoner's "Lonely Comin' Down" proves that sometimes she should just sing. Her own "Highlight of My Life" proves that sometimes she should just shut up. And the rest proves nothing. B-

Love Is Like a Butterfly [RCA Victor, 1974]
Except for the title tune, the only really interesting songs here are two by Porter Wagoner--Dolly's already done a whole album of "Take Me Back," and "Bubbling Over" is a lot more effervescent than "Gettin' Happy." Still, she repeats herself (and apes others) nicely enough. And blues strings followed by gospel medley rescues side two at the close. B

Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975]
In her productivity and devotion to writing Parton is like a nineteenth-century woman novelist--a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott. What's best about her is her spunkiness and prettiness (Jo crossed with Amy); what's worst is her sentimentality and failures of imagination (Beth crossed with Meg). And this is the best of her best. At least half of these songs have an imaginative power surprising even in so fecund a talent--images like the bargain store and the coat of many colors are so archetypal you wonder why no one has ever thought of them before. The psychological complexities of "Jolene" and "Traveling Man" go way beyond the winsome light melodramas that are Parton's specialty. And even when the writing gets mawkish--"I Will Always Love You" or "Love Is Like a Butterfly"--her voice is there to clear things up. A+

Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975]
Another concept album, this one about--uh-oh--love. All that salvages what would otherwise be atrocious greeting-card doggerel is her singing, and it's not enough. C+

All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976]
Emphasizing Dolly's perky, upbeat side, this doesn't offer a single must-hear track, but it's remarkably consistent. Songs like "When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow" (country girl goes home) and "Preacher Tom" (saving in the name of the Lord) reprise old themes with specificity and verve, and the covers from Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard broaden her perspective without compromising it. Intensely pleasant. B+

New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977]
Aficionados complain that her sellout has become audible, but while I admit that the cute squeals on "Applejack" are pure merchandising, she's always been willing to sell what she couldn't give away. I think Dolly has made the pop move a lot more naturally than, say, Tanya Tucker. The problem here afflicts every genre: material. B-

Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978]
Her singular country treble is unsuited to rock, where little-girlishness works only as an occasional novelty. As a result, the rock part of her crossover move fails, relegating her to the mawkish pop banality that tempts almost every genius country singer. This she brings off, if you like mawkish pop banality; I prefer mawkish country banality, which is sparer. C

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981]
How you respond to this quasi-concept album about (of all things) work, which offers exquisitely sung standards from Mel Tillis, Merle Travis, and (I swear it) Woody Guthrie as well as Parton originals almost as militant as the title hit, depends on your tolerance for fame-game schlock. I'd never claim Johnny Carson's damaged her pipes or her brains, but that doesn't mean I have to like Music City banjos and Las Vegas r&b. B+

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee: The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982]
This twenty-song mix-and-match isn't even monumental in theory, because two of these "kings and queens of country music" haven't earned their crowns--BL is a rock and roll princess who never really graduated, KK a frog ditto. But BL is also a pleasing bedroom-voiced journeywoman who turns in half of a surprisingly definitive "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning." The other half comes from WN, who's on nine cuts and sounds like he's thinking even when he also sounds like he's asleep. DP teams with WN on a surprisingly definitive "Everything's Beautiful in Its Own Way," but sounds more at home on the album's two utter unlistenables--"Ping Pong," in which DP at her cutesiest is outdone by KK at his klutziest, and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," in which DP kisses KK's warty little head and he croaks back. B-

Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982]
If Willie and Merle, her equals as country artists, can turn into premier pop singers, why can't Dolly? Maybe because she's justifiably smitten with her physical gifts. Just as she can't resist pushup bras, she can't resist oversinging, showing off every curve of a gorgeous voice that's still developing new ones. On the other hand, maybe it has to do with why she wears wigs, which if I'm not mistaken is because she doesn't really like her hair. B-

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio [Warner Bros., 1987]
By devoting herself to Nelson Riddle and operetta, Sun City scab Linda Ronstadt has made boycotting painless, but her long-promised hookup with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris will be hard to resist if the vocal luxuries of the mainstream biz make you swoon. Acoustic country delving from "Farther Along" and Jimmie Rodgers to Kate McGarrigle and Linda Thompson, it's a slightly scholarly yet sometimes thrilling apotheosis of harmony--three voices that have triumphed in the winner-take-all of the marketplace making a go of cooperation. Free of tits, glitz, and syndrums for the first time in a decade, Parton's penetrating purity dominates the one-off as it once did country music history. The only one of the three who's had the courage of her roots recently, Harris sounds as thoughtful up front as she does in the backup roles that are her forte. And while Linda's plump soprano will always hint of creamed corn, she's a luscious side dish in this company. B+

White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989]
The crossover that marked her new label affiliation never got to the other side, so she lets Ricky Skaggs call the shots--these days he's commercial. Except on the Easter song, he cans the production numbers, and since she can still sing like a genius anytime opportunity knocks, her most country album in years is also her best. Of course, even genius country singers are dragged by ordinary country songs. And though the borrowings are better-than-average, she no longer writes like a pro without help--here provided by, such is life, Mac Davis. B

Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither

Loretta/Dolly/Tammy: Honky Tonk Angels [Columbia, 1993] Neither

Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud

Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud

The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999]
Bluegrass isn't magic--she could put her back into these songs because she didn't get a hernia writing them ("Cash on the Barrelhead," "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open"). **

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither

Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008]
"Backwoods Barbie" Choice Cuts

See Also