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.”
WHAT’S NOT HERE
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.