For all her flamboyance and showbiz kitsch, Dolly Parton is, at heart, an exceptional songwriter. Having written country classics like “Coat of Many Colors” and “Jolene” as well as crossover pop hits like “Here You Come Again” and “9 To 5,” Parton stands as one of music’s most inimitable storytellers. On Backwoods Barbie – marketed as her first mainstream country release in 17 years – she contributes 9 original compositions and, in doing so, delivers a rewarding album that plays to her greatest strength as an artist.
Actually, it seems a bit of a slight to pigeonhole this album as strictly country music, as the songs vary in style to include elements of Celtic, pop, and even jazz. The saucy lament, “The Lonesomes,” for instance, sounds like something Norah Jones could sink right into with its piano-bar melancholy. As well, “Only Dreamin’,” in its striking use of a tin whistle and bodhran drum, summons a mystical, almost primeval mood. And though the music never leans drastically toward disparate genres, it doesn’t sound entirely characteristic of the Grand Ole Opry either.
What’s invariable on this album is Dolly Parton’s distinctive ability to tell a story through song. In the poignant ballad, “Cologne,” she assumes the role of the other woman in an extra-marital affair, having to quit wearing perfume so as to not leave a scent on her man when he returns to his wife. Conversely, in “Made Of Stone,” she plays a woman scorned, the one forced to confront her husband’s transparent infidelity. And on “Shinola,” she’s been wronged one too many times as she sings with venom in her voice, “I’m calling you out ‘cause I don’t need this crap/I’m gettin’ myself out of Dodge.” If the latter was inspired by real life events, someone got seriously dissed by Dolly.
Perhaps because she’s a songwriter first and foremost, Parton understands full well how to interpret a song, even ones she hasn’t written. Of the three songs that didn’t originate from her own pen, “Jesus And Gravity” towers above the rest. To call it inspirational would be a vast understatement. The remaining two covers, “Drives Me Crazy” (edited from the Fine Young Cannibals’ original) and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks Of My Tears,” have their intrinsic merits, yet they pale in comparison not only to “Jesus And Gravity,” but also to Parton’s original contributions to the album.
So while Dolly Parton’s often-cartoonish image may overshadow it at times, her talent as a musician, but especially as a songwriter, is considerable and evident in this effort. In the self-describing title track, she comes to a similar conclusion, singing, “I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look/Don’t judge me by the cover ‘cause I’m a real good book.” And Backwoods Barbie is a real good album.