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REVIEW: The Essential Dolly Parton, your Dolly starter kit

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By any reasonable standard, Dolly Parton rates as one of the couple dozen greatest musical artists in the history of American popular music. She’s certainly one of the half dozen top songwriters in country music history.

RCA Legacy has just put out a two CD Dolly compilation, The Essential Dolly Parton with 37 songs that rates as probably the best Dolly Parton starter kit going. It won’t cover all your Dolly needs, but it mostly pretty well covers her 20th century solo career.

It has pretty near all the major early Dolly solo songs that are the backbone of her reputation. Of course, you’ve got your “Jolene” and “My Tennesse Mountain Home.”

Interestingly, they buried what is clearly way her biggest one hit, “I Will Always Love You” in the middle of the disc, rather than leading. They lead instead with her two big feminist statements, “Dumb Blonde” (a good song) and “Just Because I’m a Woman” (a great song).

In the range of Dolly country, I note the very unfortunate absence of the randy three way with the “Travelin’ Man” and her mama. Somewhere here, we also could have used “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) .” They’ve got most everything else there among the obvious basics, though.

This collection does an even better job of representing her later more pop oriented 80s records. As a self-respecting Kentuckian, I was naturally skeptical of this phase in her career. However, listening to them now, it’s hard to deny “9 to 5″ or “Here You Come Again.” Those are just flat superior pieces of pop songwriting. Elvis forgive me, but even the dreaded “Islands in the Stream” duet she recorded with the Antichrist sounds pretty strong now.

Actually, they somewhat overrepresent that stuff, with a number of flat weak pop songs wasting space on disc 2, such as “You’re the Only One” and “I Really Got the Feeling.”


The Essential Dolly Parton would give you a good start if you owned no Dolly Parton, but you’d definitely also need to follow up with a Porter & Dolly album. They were perhaps the best country duet act ever. You really can’t live without “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man” or “Holding On to Nothin’.” Especially though, you really need some of their good rockin’ battle of the sexes duels, particularly “Better Move It On Home” and “I’ve Been Married Just as Long as You Have.”

Perhaps most critically though, you need Porter and Dolly for “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark.” Dolly actually has a number of songs involving dead children, and several of them rate among her more memorable recordings. This duet with Porter was the main one of them that was a hit, but “Me and Little Andy” also gets into weird and compelling emotional territory. They should have put that on this essential Dolly set.

I would recommend their Two of a Kind collection as most preferred, but it seems to be out of print. Alternately, The Essential Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton will do nearly as good, though unfortunately lacking “I’ve Been Married Just as Long as You Have.”

This essential Dolly collection doesn’t do much for her later, off label work. They’ve got one track off the Trio album with Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris. But their cover of “To Know Him Is to Love Him” rates as one of the group’s least interesting recordings. Much better would have been to pluck Dolly’s “Wild Flowers.” This first Trio album would be worth getting in addition to the basic Dolly.

On a related note, she made the Honky Tonk Angels album with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. The resumes of her partners here sounds better, but the Trio album was a much bigger hit, and more memorable.

More critically, this collection doesn’t cover her post-RCA career, comprised of the Sugar Hill bluegrass albums, which rate among her finest. This collection does have ONE song from this period, “Shine.” It’s good, but it’d take a lot more than one bit of bluegrass era Dolly to do you. You’re just not up to speed on Dolly if you don’t have at least the title song of the Little Sparrow album. That’s as good a record as the woman’s ever made. The much more lighthearted “Cash on the Barrelhead” from The Grass Is Blue isn’t far behind, though. Just for a wildcard, note that Halos and Horns includes the best ever cover of “Stairway to Heaven.”

In short then, The Essential Dolly Parton would give you a good starting point. If you add in a Porter & Dolly collection, and Little Sparrow, you’ll be somewhere close to a minimally acceptable Dolly collection.

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  • uao

    I grew up in New York City, where there wasn’t even one country station at various times; still, from the very first time I heard Dolly’s voice, I was enchanted.

    She’s always been a good interview, both entertaining and frank, she’s still capable of good work, and she looks purtier than ever.

    Gosh I had (have?) a crush on her…

  • Al Barger

    And why wouldn’t you? If Dolly doesn’t do it for you, I just wouldn’t know what to tell you.

  • todd

    Kenny Rogers ain’t the antichrist! “Don’t take your love to town” is a great song, what with him killing his wayward wife and all, from his wheelchair.

    I got this from the library a few months ago.

    DP was my first big crush… I had this poster of her laying on straw with a tight blue-bandana pattern top on and daisy dukes.


  • todd

    She recently did a stripped down Johnny Cash American Recordings type record that got some talk on No Depression, iirc.

  • Mark

    The mid-70s – early ’80s pop crossover stuff wasn’t that bad in retrospect. It only *seemed* bad, possibly, because the stuff that preceeded it — “Jolene”, “Bargain Store”, etc. — ranked among the most ground-breaking, uncompromising artistic statements, not only of Parton’s career, but in all of country music. By comparison, her post-“Here You Come Again” period indeeded seemed like a letdown, relatively speaking, but twenty-odd years later, the stuff holds up pretty well. Actually upon listening to the “Here You Come Again” album again recently, it was an extremely well-crafted album, with a nice combination of Parton originals and covers, imnpecably produced, extremely well polished and with Dolly in fine voice. For me it provides a nice snapshot of its time, and it is as perfectly representative of 1977 as, say, “Sgt. Pepper” was of 1967.

  • Ray Rumble

    Love Dolly’s stuff right from her very first early singles I played as a Brisbane radio DJ back in the 60’s. Then I got out of Australia for a while and went to Nashville to live, where I was fortunate indeed to bag a gig on the new WSM-FM, the brand new FM station attached to the great WSM-AM of Grand Ole Opry fame. What a life!

    As a staff member, I had an open ident pass for the Opry and used to go down Friday and Saturday nights and help back stage loading and setting up the many scenary changes for each 15 or 30 minute live radio segment. Naturally, I got to talk with Dolly and Porter regularly when they appeared at the Ryman. That was 1968 when that fabulous duet album was released. I eventually came home to Australia and now run a West Sydney Country format radio station, AND play tracks regularly from that duet album.

    I might add, I also have every vinyl single, album and now of course CD release of Dolly. What a love affair!

  • Al Barger

    Ah Ray, I see you’re a real fan. Thanks for sharing.

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice Al, thanks