Parton’s return to mainstream country wasn’t as long a wait as press materials suggested. While she has championed this as her first regular country album in seventeen years, nearly all of her albums from the nineties fit that description, with the sole exception of 1999’s The Grass is Blue. It’s true, however, that since that project, she’s been more closely associated with the mountain sounds of her Appalachian roots.
This musical template was most effectively explored with 2001’s Little Sparrow, but was also referenced more recently on her Halos and Horns and Those Were The Days projects. As top-notch as those sets were, they have been an extensive exploration of only one part of Parton’s musical personality. With Backwoods Barbie, she widens the scope, revisiting both the traditional country and pop-flavored sounds she’s had success with throughout her career.
Parton’s always been known for her writing, but she’s frequently covered others over the years. You can hear her enthusiasm as she tackles the Fine Young Cannibals classic “Drives Me Crazy”, and there’s a fresh combination of mountain fiddle thrown in the mix, even as the rest of the production sticks closely to the original. There’s also a satisfying cover of “The Tracks of My Tears.”
But the real joy of discovery comes from hearing Parton’s new compositions, most of which would’ve been awkward fits on her roots albums but are right at home in these musical settings. She replicates contemporary country effortlessly on the stellar “Better Get to Livin'” and the tongue-in-cheek “Shinola.” There’s also a stunning Celtic-flavored ballad, “Only Dreamin'”, which has an atmospheric mood that couldn’t be created using just back porch instruments.
But the album’s greatest pleasures come from hearing Parton accompanied by steel guitar and fiddle, creating purely traditional country music. Such arrangements fit the autobiographical “Backwoods Barbie”, the cheating lament “Cologne” and the weepers “The Lonesomes” and “I Will Forever Hate Roses” perfectly. The album shows how well Parton can tackle many different styles, but when she comes home to good old-fashioned country, nobody does it better.