Building a music collection used to be a far more difficult thing, a dogged hunt through record stores and mail order catalogs, hoping to find what you were looking for. The advent of the internet made things easier, but it wasn’t until music could be downloaded digitally that a deep music collection could be built with far less effort.
However, all of this available music can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on the catalog of an established artist. Country Universe is here to help. Our Buyer’s Guides will walk you through the music that is digitally available for a given artist, starting with the essential purchases for new listeners, and working through the entire digital catalog until even the completist fan will be sated. You can also sample each album in its entirety, and purchase any song or album that you like through Amazon’s MP3 store.
Our first Buyer’s Guide is for our artist of the month, Dolly Parton. Look for many more to come in the new year.
Starting Your Collection
Dolly Parton’s catalog is quite the labyrinth. Thankfully, there are several compilations available that are an excellent value, offering twenty tracks each for less than ten dollars. Casual fans can just pick up the first set, but serious country fans should skip the first and buy the other three.
Ultimate Dolly Parton
This collection is all that the casual fan will ever need, with twenty hits included for just under eight bucks. All of her big crossover hits are here, like “Islands in the Stream”, “9 to 5” and “Here You Come Again.” Also included are her country classics “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors” and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a bit too broad for studious fans of country music, but if you just want the big hits, they’re all here.
The Essential Dolly Parton, Volume Two
RCA has yet to issue a definitive box set for Parton, but their three Essential releases in the nineties are collectively effective in covering her tenure with the label. This is the strongest of the three sets, focusing on her sixties and seventies material. In addition to the big hits, including the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”, you also get lesser-known greats like “Touch Your Woman”, “Mule Skinner Blues” and “The Seeker.” Her transformation from mountain singer to pop sensation is captured here, as the set includes the first wave of her pop hits, too.
The Essential Dolly Parton One: I Will Always Love You
Even though it was released first, this set focuses on the latter years of Parton’s tenure, with nearly all of the cuts being released in the eighties. The rest of the big pop hits are here, like “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream”, along with some forgotten gems, most notably “Single Women”, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues.” Also of note is her recording of “To Daddy”, which she chose not to release when Emmylou Harris expressed interest in recording it instead.
The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton
Although they both are Hall of Famers, you can’t effectively tell the story of either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton without discussing their work together. They are the most successful collaborators in country music history, and nearly all of their hits are collected here. Classics like “Making Plans” and “Just Someone I Used To Know” are essential, as are “Burning the Midnight Oil” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
Building Your Collection
For all three women involved – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris – this was a career landmark, which brought them wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success. The harmonies are exquisite throughout, but the best moments are “The Pain of Loving You”, “Wildflowers” and “Telling Me Lies.”
Honky Tonk Angels
Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette earned their first gold albums in decades when they teamed up with Parton for this excellent traditional country set. They cover the gamut of classic songs, even sharing the mic with Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. But the best section of the album is when they each perform a lesser-known original – “Let Her Fly” (Parton), “That’s the Way it Should Have Been” (Wynette), and “Wouldn’t it Be Great” (Lynn).
The Acoustic Collection: 1999-2002
(The Grass is Blue/Little Sparrow/Halos and Horns)
Parton received renewed acclaim when she released this trio of roots albums at the turn of the century. Each one of them is essential listening, as these are arguably the finest three studio albums of her storied career. In this collection, you get them all for about nine dollars each. If you’re going to just pick one, do it by your own tastes. The Grass is Blue is the most bluegrass, Little Sparrow is mountain soul, and Halos and Horns is an eclectic mix of both styles.
I Will Always Love You and Other Greatest Hits
This ten-track retrospective of her Sony years begs to be cherry-picked, as it is no cheaper to buy it as a whole than it is to purchase the individual tracks. But all of her big hits for that label are here, including three #1 singles and appearances by Ricky Van Shelton, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, Tanya Tucker, Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Alison Krauss.
Completing Your Collection
Parton’s studio albums are collectively stronger than what’s currently available demonstrates, though much of her best work remains in print and some of her older sets have been augmented with additional tracks. Those four sets lead off this list, followed by seventeen other albums in descending order of quality. The last handful are for die-hards only, but may provide an entertaining listen for all those who are willing to indulge. The best tracks are noted for those who want to download the highlights.
My Tennessee Mountain Home
A tribute to her East Tennessee roots, this is the best of her early albums. In addition to the title track, highlights include “The Letter”, a recitation of a letter she wrote home after arriving in Nashville; “Daddy’s Working Boots”, and “Down on Music Row.”
9 to 5 and Odd Jobs
Parton used the title track of her first film as the starting point for a concept album about the trials and tribulations of the American worker. Everyone from factory workers (“Detroit City”) to prostitutes (“House of the Rising Sun”) are sung about. Most poignant and powerful is “Deportee (Plane Wreck at San Gatos)”, a stunningly sad lament from the perspective of immigrant workers.
Just Because I’m a Woman
Her first RCA album shows a talent in full bloom, with the title track and “False Eyelashes” among the biggest highlights. This remastered edition is especially valuable for its inclusion of an outtake from Parton’s first live album, A Real Live Dolly, where she debuts a song she has just written called “Coat of Many Colors.”
In addition to the legendary title track and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”, this fine album includes the gems “When Someone Wants to Leave” and “Living on Memories of You.”
Coat of Many Colors
The title track is arguably her finest composition of all-time, but there are plenty of other great moments on this 1971 album, including a pre-hit version of “Traveling Man”, the spiritual “Here I Am”, and the sordid “If I Lose My Mind.”
Parton’s most recent album showcases her versatility as a writer and performer. The title track will be included in the score she’s composed for the Broadway musical 9 to 5. Also worthy of attention are “Cologne”, “Only Dreamin'” and “Better Get to Livin’.”
Those Were the Days
Her previous covers albums Treasures and The Great Pretender are no longer in print, but this is a better collection that both of them anyway. She applies the roots sound she’s been recently known for to classic pop songs. Highlights include “Both Sides Now”, “The Twelfth of Never” and the title track.
Only the duet with Vince Gill on “I Will Always Love You” garnered attention from this set, but her writing renaissance began with this 1995 set. The whole album deserves to be rediscovered, but start with “Crippled Bird” and “Change”, then move on to “Teach Me to Trust” and “No Good Way of Saying Goodbye.”
Great Balls of Fire
There were three hits on this album, most notably the #1 single “You’re the Only One”, but the best moments were never sent to radio. The bluegrass-flavored cover of The Beatles classic “Help!” is surprisingly effective, and “Down” explores the same theme well. Best of all is the album opener, “Star of the Show”, where she shows a philandering lover the door.
This Grammy-winning sequel reunites Parton with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. While it’s not as cohesive as the first set, there are some great moments, particularly when Emmylou sings lead on “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”
Live and Well
A satisfying set from her Halos & Horns tour, it features all of her big hits, alongside many of the best songs from her roots albums. It’s not as good as Heartsongs: Live From Home, but it’s worth hearing, especially the “A Cappella Medley” that ends with a double-time rendition of “Two Doors Down.”
All I Can Do
Parton’s transitional album. It features the traditional country she’d been known for up until this 1976 release, with “Shattered Image” and the title track both worthy of attention. But the theatrical cover of Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is a prelude to the pop sound she was preparing to embrace.
Eagle When She Flies
Parton’s second wave of big commercial success crested with this chart-topping, platinum-selling album. The best moments are the title track, which was originally written for but ultimately rejected from the film Steel Magnolias, and her hit duet with Ricky Van Shelton, “Rockin’ Years.” There’s also an entertaining duet with Lorrie Morgan, “Best Woman Wins.”
New Harvest…First Gathering
It opens with “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, one of Parton’s best compositions. The rest of the album doesn’t approach that standard, but “Applejack” and “Where Beauty Lives in Memory” are worth a few listens.
For God and Country
This patriotic set reaches great heights with “Welcome Home”, provides surprising pleasure with a cover of “God Bless the U.S.A.”, and eventually devolves into pointless renditions of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
Her second Sony album was her first gold studio set in nine years, anchored by the #1 hits “Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That” and “Yellow Roses.” Highlights include a cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Time For Me to Fly” and the gospel closer “He’s Alive.”
Dolly Dolly Dolly
A mostly dull affair, the best moments were also the hit singles. “Starting Over Again” and “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” both topped the chart.
Far less entertaining than its predecessor, the unfortunately unavailable Here You Come Again. The most interesting moment is the disco hit “Baby I’m Burning.” It also produced two # hits, “I Really Got the Feeling” and the title track.
Her RCA swan song is drenched in synthesizers, but it’s the material that makes this set falter, not the arrangements. Three big hits are on this set, but the only one worth mentioning is “Think About Love.”
Burlap & Satin
A dull and lifeless set, noteworthy only for the excellent and essential “Appalachian Memories.”
Arguably the worst album of her career. It’s a sin that this is available and so many other albums are not. Opener “The River Unbroken” is decent, but it falls apart from there, with “Red Hot Screaming Love” and “Dump the Dude” the lowest moments.