Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris [extended]

  • The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970] A
  • Silk Purse [Capitol, 1970] B
  • Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971] A-
  • The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1971] B
  • Linda Ronstadt [Capitol, 1972] B-
  • My Tennessee Mountain Home [RCA Victor, 1973] B+
  • Bubbling Over [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • Don't Cry Now [Asylum, 1973] C+
  • Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974] C+
  • Jolene [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Love Is Like a Butterfly [RCA Victor, 1974] B
  • Different Drum [Capitol, 1974] B-
  • Heart Like a Wheel [Capitol, 1974] A-
  • Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975] A+
  • Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975] C+
  • Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • Prisoner in Disguise [Asylum, 1975] B
  • Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976] B
  • All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • Hasten Down the Wind [Asylum, 1976] B-
  • Greatest Hits [Asylum, 1976] B+
  • New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • A Retrospective [Capitol, 1977] B+
  • Simple Dreams [Asylum, 1977] B+
  • Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978] B+
  • Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • Living in the U.S.A. [Asylum, 1978] B
  • Mad Love [Asylum, 1980] B-
  • 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981] B+
  • The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982] B-
  • Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982] B-
  • Get Closer [Asylum, 1982] C+
  • What's New [Asylum, 1983] C-
  • Trio [Warner Bros., 1987] B+
  • White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither
  • At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992] **
  • Honky Tonk Angels [Columbia, 1993] Neither
  • Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud
  • Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994] *
  • Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995] B
  • Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud
  • Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud
  • The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999] **
  • Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions [Asylum, 1999] *
  • Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither
  • Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000] C
  • Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008] Choice Cuts

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Dolly Parton: 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

Linda Ronstadt: Silk Purse [Capitol, 1970]
This ought to be a good record. She's tough (and sexy) live, and she sure does pick good tunes--Mickey Newbury's new-Nashville "Are My Thoughts With You?," which in Newbury's 45-rpm version has gotten a lot of play on my bedroom jukebox, says a lot about love and its dislocations, but so does Mel Tillis's old-Nashville "Mental Revenge," which I'd never heard before. Country material over rock-flavored arrangements is the concept, and the honky vulgarity of Ronstadt's voice the reason. But only occasionally--"Lovesick Blues" and "Long Long Time" are both brilliant--does she seem to find Kitty Wells's soul as well as her timbre. B

Dolly Parton: 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

Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt [Capitol, 1972]
In which she makes a silk purse out of Silk Purse, not such a great idea--smoother, better crafted, more beautiful, and decidedly less interesting. Hardcore country songs are down to three, and here's the giveaway: four entries from the Sensitivity Squad (Jackson Browne, Livingston Taylor, and the Erics Kaz and Andersen). B-

Dolly Parton: 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+

Dolly Parton: 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

Linda Ronstadt: Don't Cry Now [Asylum, 1973]
In which whatever was raunchy and country about her is laundered in David Geffen's homogenizing machine, manned this time by John David Souther, who must have told her that "Sail Away" was just another pretty song. You think she's gotten so used to playing the dumb chick that she's turned into one? C+

Emmylou Harris: Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974]
Abetted by Brian Ahern, who would have been wise to add some Anne Murray schlock, Harris shows off a pristine earnestness that has nothing to do with what is most likable about country music and everything to do with what is most suspect in "folk." Presumably, Gram Parsons was tough enough to discourage this tendency or play against it, but as a solo mannerism it doesn't even ensure clear enunciation: I swear the chorus of the best song here sounds like it begins: "I will rub my asshole/In the bosom of Abraham." C+

Dolly Parton: 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-

Dolly Parton: 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

Linda Ronstadt: Different Drum [Capitol, 1974]
With any suggestion that she can rock expunged from this compilation, we get five (out of ten) cuts by the Stone Poneys, the two good ones composed by none other than Michael Nesmith and the worst by Tim Buckley, who inspires her to imitate Joan Baez imitating (if that's necessary) a snooty spinster. We also get Jackson Browne and Livingston Taylor. Hey, maybe she can't rock. B-

Linda Ronstadt: Heart Like a Wheel [Capitol, 1974]
For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice--and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody. A-

Dolly Parton: 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+

Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975]
This flows better than the first, but it also makes clear that Emmylou is just another pretty voice, a country singer by accident. I mean, Linda Ronstadt has the best female voice in country music, and even she doesn't satisfy the way an original like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn does. And since there's not a cover version here that equals its prototype, all she accomplishes with her good taste in material is to send you scurrying for the sources. I prefer Donna Fargo. Not Lynn Anderson, though. C+

Dolly Parton: 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+

Linda Ronstadt: Prisoner in Disguise [Asylum, 1975]
I agree that this is a letdown after Heart Like a Wheel, but I wish someone could tell me why. Maybe the explanations are vague--she's repeating a formula, she's not putting out, etc.--because a singer like Ronstadt, who specializes in interpreting good songs rather than projecting a strong persona, must achieve an ineffable precision to succeed. But maybe it's simpler than that. People say her versions of "Tracks of My Tears" and "Heat Wave" are weak, but they're not--they simply don't match the too familiar originals. "When Will I Be Loved?" and "You're No Good," on the other hand, were great songs half-remembered, kicking off each side of Heart Like a Wheel with a jolt to the memory. And this album could sure use a jolt of something. B

Emmylou Harris: Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976]
Not content with her corner on the wraith-with-a-twang market, some folk's favorite folkie manque has added funk and raunch and echo and overdub to her voice. The result is a record I play some, perhaps out of sheer surprise. Song selection also helps--an unforgettable Townes Van Zandt melody is unearthed, and the two Gram Parsons selections don't automatically shame themselves by recalling the originals. B

Dolly Parton: 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+

Linda Ronstadt: Hasten Down the Wind [Asylum, 1976]
Linda's always wanted to be a Real Country Singer, but RCS put out two or three LPs like this every year. You know--find some good tunes, round up the gang, and apply formula. Like the great RCS she can be, she comes up with some inspired interpretations: the flair of "That'll Be the Day" and "Crazy" do justice to the originals, and her version of the title song almost makes you forget its unfortunate title. But you cover Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" at your peril even if you believe not one in ten of your fans remembers it, and the three Karla Bonoff lyrics make her (I mean Karla, but Linda too) sound like such a born loser that I never want to hear anyone sing them again. B-

Linda Ronstadt: Greatest Hits [Asylum, 1976]
Because it compiles work from both Capitol and Asylum, I anticipated an ideal sampler, especially when the first side induced me to enjoy "Desperado," which she sings real purty. But the second side features her inferior versions of no less than three songs, suggesting that one might be better off obtaining her best music from its corporation of origin. B+

Dolly Parton: 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-

Linda Ronstadt: A Retrospective [Capitol, 1977]
Safe (five cuts from Heart Like a Wheel, worth owning itself), genteel (six from Linda Ronstadt, her most conventional album for the label), and occasionally tasteless ("Hobo" is pure artysong and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" failed nostalgia), this is nevertheless a listenable compilation. "Lovesick Blues" and "Rescue Me" rock a lot better than "Heat Wave," the Stone Poneys stuff surpasses that on Different Drum, Capitol's 1968 "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" sounds fresher than Asylum's 1973, and the genteel stuff does mix well, as they say. B+

Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams [Asylum, 1977]
In which Andrew Gold goes off and Pursues His Solo Career, enabling Ronstadt to hire herself a rock and roll band. She's still too predictable--imagine how terse and eloquent "Blue Bayou" would seem if instead of turning up the volume midway through she just hit one high note at the end--but she's also a pop eclectic for our time, as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Dolly Parton, interpreting Roy Orbison as easily as Buddy Holly. Even her portrayal of a junkie seeking succor from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" isn't totally ridiculous. And I admit it--she looks great in a Dodger jacket. B+

Emmylou Harris: Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978]
Lucky for Emmylou I don't know as much about country music as she does--the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" may well render her versions forgettable. But as it is, hers sure are pretty, like almost everything here, sung with undeniable care and charm. She also defines Dolly Parton's previously unrecorded "To Daddy," as great a song as that great songwriter has ever come up with. And does all right by Chuck Berry. B+

Dolly Parton: 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

Linda Ronstadt: Living in the U.S.A. [Asylum, 1978]
This one divides right down the middle. The last four covers on the second side are so clumsy that I may never again hear the opener, Little Feat's "All That You Dream." But I do kind of like the first side, specifically including the forced intensity of the Chuck Berry and Doris Troy remakes. Only on "Alison," though, does she enrich what she interprets. B

Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love [Asylum, 1980]
I had hopes for this album--Linda's always been underrated as a rocker--but it falls way over on the strident side of powerful. The songs could be sharper, although except for "Justine" those from Richard Perry's prefab Cretones are more than adequate, but the real problem is the basic fallacy of L.A. punk--Linda doesn't understand that the idea is to use a sledgehammer deftly. This is how Ethel Merman would do Elvis Costello, only Ethel Merman has a better sense of humor. And though the other covers sound pretty good, only "I Can't Let Go" fits in conceptually, and I'd rather hear them from Little Anthony or Young Neil or Ye Olde Hollies. B-

Dolly Parton: 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-

Dolly Parton: 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-

Linda Ronstadt: Get Closer [Asylum, 1982]
Could be her, could be us, probably's both, but never has Ronstadt sounded more the art singer than on this painfully precise collection. James Taylor, of all people, saves the Ike & Tina cover, and Rod Taylor, of all people, adds one more great ballad to her canon, but I suggest that she git while the gitting's good. C+

Linda Ronstadt: What's New [Asylum, 1983]
Especially given the rich little rich girl's South African connection, I ignored this airless atrocity--lots of bad records sell, and parents do need X-mas gifts. But when it scored in my own critics' poll I could remain silent no longer. Forget phrasing, interpretation, or--God knows from someone who had trouble rocking "Heat Wave"--swing. All Ronstadt does with these fine-to-middling pop standards is stifle them beneath her moderately gorgeous voice. Her triumph is conceptual--genteel neoconservatives, kneejerk pluralists, one-upping convolutionists, and out-and-out ignoramuses all get off on the idea of a "rock" performer validating the prerock values such songs signal. And may every one of them wear a tie, a garter belt, or both for the rest of their shrinking lives. C-

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+

Dolly Parton: 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

Dolly Parton: Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither

Emmylou Harris: At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992]
grand old newfangled one-woman hootenanny ("Hard Times," "Guitar Town") **

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

Dolly Parton: Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud

Emmylou Harris: Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993]
"Jerusalem Tomorrow" Choice Cuts

Emmylou Harris: Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994]
selflessly serving the song for 17 years ("Queen of the Silver Dollar," "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose") *

Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995]
The reason Harris's instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, is that the inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup singer has no vision of her own for Daniel Lanois to ruin. Her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it's fraying with age is ripe for Lanois's one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul. I doubt she would have nailed the songs anyway--often she doesn't. But she would have come closer than this. B

Emmylou Harris: Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud

Dolly Parton: Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud

Dolly Parton: 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"). **

Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris: Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions [Asylum, 1999]
tribute to the modern art-song, country-folk division ("Western Wall," "1917") *

Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither

Emmylou Harris: Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000]
What a weird (dishonest? ironic? clueless?) name for a record that's all literature and arty sound effects. Even the title song, while indeed describing the white South of the artist's putative roots, balances on the fulcrum of a four-syllable word: Meridian, which joins allelujah, sanctuary, Antonia, and great big Michelangelo in reminding us that Harris has put away childish things. Instead we get a record worthy of her (to mush up review gush) "celestial" and "eminent" voice, one that "shimmers with poetic imagery and soul." Mortality, redemption, angels, all the important stuff, adorned with Daniel-Lanois-once-removed soundscape. Nary an antiwar song, yet you know Joan Baez is proud. C

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