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Music Review: Dolly [Box Set]

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Although Vanity Fair has dubbed her the "The Queen of Country", Dolly Parton's eminence as a gutsy musician and self-built American icon is too easily taken for granted.

Hits like "9 to 5" and "Islands in the Stream" guarantee sales for the dozens of Dolly compilations available now at your local grocery store. But the folks at Legacy — who call their new box set simply Dolly — recognize that her eventual chart-toppers would've been impossible without her earlier self-exploration and innovation. I remain suspicious of any career-spanning collection that includes neither "Smoky Mountain Memories" nor her cover of "In the Ghetto", but this project is put together with so much love I pardon those omissions. Dolly is a gratifying intellectual and aesthetic experience.

Five reasons you should upgrade whichever "Greatest Hits" or "Essential" Dolly Parton CD/cassette/8-track you already own to this new collection:

01. The Liner Notes. I use the phrase here gingerly because what's included under the guise of "liner notes" is actually a brief picto-biographical book — It even has a spine!

Written by Holly George-Warren, who just published a biography on Gene Autry, the Dolly notes are hands-down the finest Dolly-related liner-material to date. Not that there's much competition: Whereas performers like T.Rex and the Beatles have had their albums rereleased with extensive written explications, thus far even Dolly's vastly acclaimed albums have been reissued without literary treatment. This set admirably corrects that oversight.

In particular I appreciate George-Warren's playful analogies. "If there was a Mount Rushmore of American song," she writes, "the face of Dolly Parton would be front and center." Imagine!

02. The First Ten Tracks. Dolly's first bona-fide hit, "Dumb Blonde," which peaked at #24 on the Billboard country charts in 1967 and opens the Essential Dolly Parton album, is the eleventh track on this collection. Preceding it are nearly a decade's worth of false career starts that I dare you not to enjoy.

"Puppy Love" and "Girl Left Alone", co-written by Dolly and her uncle, Bill Owens, were recorded in 1959. Dolly was thirteen at the time, and they provide a captivating glimpse into Dolly's adolescent perspective on romance: "Pull my pigtails and make me mad / Then you kiss me and make me glad / Sometimes you even make me sad / Still you're the best sweetheart I've ever had". Not hard to see in this the threads that would later weave into tapestries of nuanced love, like "Touch Your Woman" and "God Won't Get You."

In the late 1970s, when Dolly turned her attention to pop and disco, she was criticized by some for deserting her country roots. These first Dolly tracks prove that a false criticism, for Dolly's pop sensibilities have been with her from the start. The horn blasts in "Nobody But You," the voices that mimic dial tones in "Busy Signal," the doo-wop of "Don't Drop Out" — all proof that Dolly is impossible to pigeon-hole in any particular genre. She is, as Stephen M. Deusner muses, a "one-woman genre".

03. "The Bridge" and "Down From Dover". Dolly's comments on the female condition are not confined to her famous "Just Because I'm a Woman". Her critique of male-female power structures recurs, and someday, when her songwriting is scrutinized in Ph.D. dissertations á la Bob Dylan, these two cuts about women impregnated then abandoned by shady boys will feature prominently. Both women's stories end in tragedy, one in suicide, the other in a still-born baby birthed without a doctor/midwife in a field of clover.

Gender politics aside, "Bridge" and "Dover" showcase some of Dolly's loveliest poetry: "The bridge so wide / The bridge so long / Where once we stood together / Tonight I stand alone".

04. You Still Get the Chart-Toppers. Most of these are clustered on disc four, which chronicles 1980 ("Old Flames Can't Hold A Candle to You") through 1993 ("Romeo"). With just a few exceptions, like "What A Heartache", lifted from the Rhinestone soundtrack, this last disc features the usual suspects you'll find on every other career-spanning Dolly anthology.

But here these commonly-compiled tunes are preceded by context that enriches them: "Islands in the Stream", Dolly's smash duet with Kenny Rogers, begs for comparison to the twangier collaborations with Porter Wagoner; "Tennessee Homesick Blues" and "Eagle When She Flies" rekindle the themes of homesickness and female strength that characterized Dolly's earliest albums, from a matured perspective; "Romeo", which essentially places Dolly's veteran stamp of approval on newcomer Billy Ray Cyrus, isn't altogether different from the radio introduction she herself received from Bill Phillips thirty years prior.

Dolly presents the chart-toppers not out of obligation but as an invitation to ponder their relationship to the larger earlier bulk of her oeuvre. But that doesn't mean you can't toss Disc 4 in your car and self-karaoke, for it's here that you'll find the most sparkling pop-radio singles.

05. We Want More! As this set reveals, with its bevy of "previously unreleased" and otherwise unavailable on CD tracks, Dolly's catalogue is deeper than anyone really knows. Certainly no collection of a mere 99 tracks can do her justice. So how about a More Dolly follow-up? Better yet, how about some remasters of the many classic Dolly (and Porter & Dolly) albums from the 1960s and 1970s that haven't yet met the digital age? How about a reissue of Dolly's first million-seller, Here You Come Again, available in LP bins in flea markets everywhere but withheld from CD since 1998?

Legacy has assembled a fine compendium of music that should appeal not only to Dollyites seeking rarities, but also to curious casual fans willing to delve a tad deeper into the painted-nail guitar-picker's discography — and for an extremely reasonable price.

But allow me to hope this new box set signifies the commencement, rather than the culmination, of the studio's probe into the unexplored recesses of Dolly Parton's possibly bottomless catalogue. Dolly is an opulent treasury, but there is more work to be done.

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