Earlier this month, my friend and colleague Leeann Ward shared her favorite songs by Dolly Parton. I’m happy to now share mine.
My respect for Parton as an artist knows no bounds. I don’t think there is another figure in country music that is visible in so many of the contours of the genre’s history. Given that I have a taste for country, pop, bluegrass, and damn fine songwriting, it was no small feat picking just twenty-five songs. This is just a sampling of her deep catalog, one that is long overdue to be fully reissued. Some of these tracks are hard to find, but most can be downloaded digitally or purchased on CDs, though you may need to scour compilations to find them.
The title track from Parton’s third collection of cover songs is all bittersweet nostalgia, looking back on the dreams of youth that time has revealed to be wide-eyed. “We’re older but no wiser,” she tells her old friend at the tavern, as she remembers how they thought life would really go: “We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.”
How does one retain the last shreds of their dignity and hope for the future after a particularly bruising relationship? Walk away, and promise not to come back until all of the wounds have healed. “Someday when I’m over you, and when I think I’m able to, then I might try to be your friend again. But I don’t want to see your face until then.”
Parton was so concerned about this song being used as evidence that she was leaving country that she made the producers add a steel guitar to the track. Not that it really mattered. A song this catchy was bound to conquer both the pop and country charts. Known up until then for her country work, she proved she could handle a pure pop melody as good as anyone else.
The minor chords are dark and foreboding, setting a mood of anxiety before Parton even sings a note. It may be hard to imagine that any woman could take her man, but the fear in her vocal performance makes it fully believable. This song has since been covered by scores of artists, with Olivia Newton-John having an international hit with it, but Parton’s original has yet to be surpassed.
Released two years before Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, Parton’s look back at her mountain upbringing expresses similar gratitude but quite a bit less nostalgia. Whereas Lynn longed for Butcher Hollow so much that she had a replica of her childhood home built on her Tennessee plantation, Parton built a theme park and bought books for all the children in her home county, hoping that no other children would struggle like she did. As she sings, “No amount of money could buy from me the memories I have of then. No amount of money could pay me to go back to live through it again.”
Nervous radio programmers were leery of playing this eventual #1 hit when first released, as they misunderstood the lyric and thought that Parton was selling her body for money. They could be forgiven for the mistake, given that she’d done that on a radio single before (see #12), but here she was feeling used and beaten down. Her heart had been thoroughly abused, but she was still willing to try love again. “The bargain store is open, come inside. You can easily afford the price. Love is all you need to purchase all the merchandise, and I can guarantee you’ll be completely satisfied.”
In the stage musical and the film, this song is sung by all of the ladies in the brothel, as they each voice what they might do now that their place of business has been shut down. In the studio version, however, Parton chose to sing all of the lines herself. Suddenly, the song is transformed into the internal dialogue of someone who isn’t quite sure what her next move is, and is willing to try just about anything, so long as she keeps moving forward.
I strive for full honesty on this blog, so I’ll confess that when I heard that Parton’s bluegrass album was called “The Grass is Blue”, I dismissed it as a corny marketing gimmick. Then I heard the song, a deliciously melancholy slice of self-aware self-delusion that ranks among her finest latter-day compositions.
A rambler’s lament that would make Dierks Bentley proud. If he’s secure enough in his masculinity, he might even cover it. It’s hard to imagine the results being any more heavenly than this recording, with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt supplying the harmonies. Even better, the production might as well have been lifted from Harris’ Roses in the Snow.
When Parton was getting ready to leave Porter Wagoner’s troupe, she composed “I Will Always Love You.” Even the most casual country music historian knows that. But what some might not know is there’s another great song on the same album that deals with the same issue, with Parton playing the role of the one being left behind. “It’s a sad situation, I must say,” she sings, “when someone wants to leave as bad as you want them to stay.”
Parton netted a Grammy for her cover of the Collective Soul hit, transforming the rock classic into a mountain number. It wasn’t exactly a new trick on her part, as she’d done it pretty effectively with “Help!” more than twenty years earlier, but when you have Nickel Creek backing you up, the resulting record is even more compelling.
If you believe, as I do, that the events leading up to Easter are far more interesting than those leading up to Christmas, you’ll understand my affection for this song. Parton takes the voice of Peter, the apostle who denied knowing Jesus three times, but was then chosen by him to start his church on earth. The tensions between faith and doubt, fear and loyalty, disappointment and trust, are all on full display here.
Parton’s life philosophy distilled into one catchy, melodic performance. With a laundry list of life advice, she advocates keeping an upbeat attitude without being blind to the challenges before you. She espouses the belief that happiness is in your own hands, and that your soul is weighed down by your reaction to life’s struggles, rather than the struggles themselves.
A young woman from a Virginia mountain town leaves her family and the boy who loves her behind, moving to the bright lights of New Orleans that she feels is more her style. However, loneliness and hunger pains lead her to a life of selling her soul, as she laments that “every night, a different man knocks on my door”, but “the men ain’t kind like my blue ridge mountain boy.”
It had already been a hit for several artists, including First Edition and Bill Anderson, but when Parton included it on her 1980 concept album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, she transformed it into a working woman’s anthem. As she sings about how she’d rather be at home with her man, she rues the fact that “we can’t live on dreams alone. Got to pay the rent, so I must leave you here alone.”
Parton’s songwriting renaissance reached its crescendo with this Oscar-nominated song from the film Transamerica. Inspired by the storyline of a transgendered person coming to terms with her identity, Parton tapped into the universality of that struggle, as the questions the character is struggling with are no different than the ones most people struggle with. “God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain”, she proclaims, and “redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain.”
There was no shortage of responses to the September 11 tragedies, but few responded as eloquently as Parton. Attempting to initiate a dialogue with a God that never answers back in words, she wrestles with the concept of holy war and wonders if God truly does have favorites among us: “We fight and kill each other, in your name, defending you. Do you love some more than others? We’re so lost and confused.” By the end, she’s begging on behalf of humanity for one more chance, crying out, “God, we’ve learned our lesson. Dear God, don’t let us go.”
Of all of Parton’s early story songs, this is the best. She takes the voice of a young and unwed pregnant girl who has been banished from her home, as “my Daddy said if folks found out, he’d be ashamed to show his face.” She ends up alone in a cold hospital room, still waiting for the man who promised he’d return, but after the baby’s born, she quickly notices “something’s wrong, it’s much too still. I hear no crying.” Her devastating conclusion: “I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her, and dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover.”
This stunningly forward-thinking feminist statement was inspired by Parton’s own marriage. Her husband asked her candidly if he had been the first, and she told him the truth: he hadn’t been. “I can see you’re disappointed by the way you look at me, and I’m sorry that I’m not the woman you thought I’d be.” But she will not allow the double standard to go unchallenged: “Yes, I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand. My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.” That was a bold enough statement in its own right for 1968, but she thoroughly rejects the “holier than thou” posturing by declaring, “When you look at me, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just think of all the same you might have brought somebody else.”
Don’t let the breezy pop production fool you. This song’s an indictment of the inequities in the business world, particularly the way the deck is stacked against those lowest on the ladder. “They just use your time and you never get the credit, ” Parton growls in one of her most forceful vocal performances, asserting that “it’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it, and you spend your life putting money in his wallet.”
Country music has a distinguished collection of songs dealing with a mother’s death. Among the masterpieces are the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and Patty Loveless’ “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.” The focus of those two classics is on the pain of those left behind, but “Let Her Fly” focuses on the mother being liberated from the chains of her earthly life. The pain of losing her is strong, but there is an unwavering faith that she’s going to a better place: “When God sees her coming, heaven’s choir will smile.” The separation is merely temporary, and part of the cycle of life, as Parton captures in my favorite line that she’s ever written: “The old family tree is shedding its leaves, but we’ll all meet in heaven again.”
“Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
New Harvest…First Gathering, 1977
An epic declaration of liberation from all that was holding you down and holding you back. For Parton, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” was her personal emancipation proclamation, and her performance captures the emotions of her release. Starting with a whisper and only a piano behind her, it eventually builds to a full gospel chorus that would do an old-time tent revival proud, as the girl who suspects that she has won her freedom transforms into a woman who fully believes it.
So many truths about self-worth, material worth, and the transforming power of love are sewn into this multicolored garment that it’s impossible to capture them all here, so I’ll just borrow the line from the song that I try to remember as often as I can: “One is only poor only if they choose to be.”
As much as I enjoy writing about country music, my profession and my calling is teaching. This song is a favorite of mine because it speaks directly to a core belief that I try to live by and pass on to my students: It’s easier to tear a person down than it is to build them up. As Parton sings about those “who shatter my image with the rocks you throw”, she doesn’t do so from a place of moral superiority. “I’m far from perfect, but I ain’t all bad, and it hurts me more than it makes me mad.”
But she also rejects those who will spend their time tearing others down when they have some repair work to do of their own: “If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones. Don’t shatter my image till you look at your own. Look at your reflection in your house of glass. Don’t open my closet if your own’s full of trash. Stay out of my closet if your own’s full of trash.”
Five years after first hearing it, this one still floors me. The theme of being welcomed home by a loving parent is revisited throughout the song, first as a father welcomes his son home from overseas. In the second verse, “a dreary rain was falling while another soldier fell, and a mother wakes up crying in the night. She thought she’d heard him calling, in that moment she could tell her only son had passed into the light.”
The fallen soldier is also welcomed home, but by his heavenly father. Parton uses this to connect the pain that humans feel when we suffer a loss to the pain that God himself chose to endure on our behalf. “I think of all the families that have lost a darling one, and I think how Jesus died for all their sins. And I think how much God loved us to send his only son to live and die and then to live again.”
If the song had ended there, it would already be a powerful piece, but she takes it to the next level as she prays to receive the same homecoming when her days on earth are through: “Welcome home, I hope to hear God saying when its my time to go.” It’s that added degree of uncertainity, the hope rather than the assumption that the work you’ve done on earth has warranted the award of heaven, that deepens the emotional impact of the heavenly homecoming she envisions: “The angels will be singing, and joy bells will be ringing. Rejoicing, I’ll shout and sing along. When there are no more wars to fight and we’re all children of the light. When the father and the son say, ‘Welcome Home.’”