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CD Review: The Essential Dolly Parton

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What really needs to be said about Dolly Parton? She is one of the few country artists to have completely transcended country music to become a legitimate superstar, and unlike latter day superstar crossovers such as Garth Brooks, Parton has become a touchstone, an institution, worthy of enshrinement on the Mount Rushmore of country-music transcenders right next to Elvis, Johnny and Willie. They’d have a hard time holding up the boobs though. Some sort of flying buttress system, I suppose.

The Essential Dolly Parton (Sony Legacy, 2005) provides absolute proof that Parton is the whole package. I recently accused Marty Robbins of not having one of country’s great voices. Well, Dolly Parton does have one of the finest voices in country music, a bold and expressive soprano that can either whoop or quaver depending on the need. Few singers have the ability to sing a “white tone” (that is, without vibrato) if they have a strong natural vibrato. Parton, however, has total control over her entire considerable range.

And the songs. The songs! Nearly everything you need is here: “Joshua,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” and even the immortal (and oft-repackaged) “9 to 5.” As Al Barger has noted in a previous review for blogcritics.org, even material that was considered at the time as not so good has aged remarkably well. Songs like “Here You Come Again” and even the execrable “Islands in the Stream” hold up better than you might remember, sitting comfortably alongside true greats like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.”

That being said, some of the selections here are interesting more for their cultural baggage than for their intrinsic value. For example, “The Bargain Store” in which Dolly’s protagonist sings that she is damaged goods that gives quality service for cheap, over (by the way) a melody lifted from “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” harks back to the days of live radio shows. Radio revues from the 30s through the 50s were packed full of slightly chintzy, maudlin story songs just like this one, and that Parton wrote it in the first place gives us a clue as to where she first learned about music. As a period piece and as biography, it’s interesting. Whether or not it is truly “essential” is an open question, but its inclusion does round all sides of Parton’s career.

The greatest drawback of this collection – if there is one – is that it leaves off most of Parton’s recent resurgence as a bluegrass singer. She has been recording for Sugar Hill records, and rather than pay a few dollars in licensing fees to do the job right, Sony includes just one song from these albums, substituting in their place second-tier offerings like the surpisingly weak “To Know Him Is to Love Him” from the Trio album with Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstat. Worse yet, the included latter-day track is a cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine.” Although Parton does the song proud, that doesn’t change the fact that “Shine” is to begin with a crap song.

Al Barger probably has it right when he recommends that anyone interested in this collection should probably buy it, but also buy a Dolly/Porter Wagoner duet album and at least one of her more recent bluegrass offerings. The Essential Dolly Parton is a better-than-decent start to your collection, but some spotty track choices (especially on disc two) and two short discs means that there’s plenty more from Dolly Parton’s long and glorious career that can truly be rated essential.

(Also reviewed on blogcritics.org by Tan the Man.)

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