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Music Review: Dolly Parton – Backwoods Barbie

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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.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Joan Armatrading, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Great review Donald. Now if we could just convince Dolly to stay away from Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon…

    -Glen

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    Thank you, Connie. I appreciate it.

    – Donald

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    The promotional material was really working for me as I have no need for most mainstream country, but thoroughly enjoyed Dolly’s bluegrass records.

    With this review I might just give it a try anyways.

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    Mat,

    While the album is being marketed as mainstream country, it doesn’t sound much like what constitutes mainstream country (by lesser-talented artists, for the most part).

    I got the impression, in reading the press releases I was sent, that the album is being marketed this way in the hope of gaining airplay and exposure from the country music industry (Parton is quoted as saying that she released this on her own new label because the major labels didn’t want her anymore).

    The idea that Dolly Parton even needs to ask for acceptance in this genre says more about the industry than it does her. It’s a solid album whether country radio plays it or not.

    – Donald

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Thanks for the info Donald and I’m sorry I’m so late in that. I kind of forgot about the review until just now. I actually have a weird connection to Dolly as my uncle played guitar with her when they were both teenagers.

    Country music hasn’t been country in a long time. Its great that folks like Dolly are still trying their best to keep the real thing alive.