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.”
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.
“Those Were the Days” Those Were the Days, 2005
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.”
“Change” Something Special, 1995
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.”
“Here You Come Again” Here You Come Again, 1977
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.
I wrote last week about my affection for sad Christmas songs. The only upbeat Christmas songs I usually like are the spiritual ones. But good Lord, do I love this piece of fluff from Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton:
“With Bells On” is one of the only country Christmas songs that won’t make me change the radio station. You can find it on Kenny & Dolly’s album Once Upon a Christmas.
When asked her favorite song among all those she has written, Dolly Parton always answers, “Coat of Many Colors.” It’s a true story from her childhood that speaks volumes about her pride for her own heritage, much like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
She writes in her autobiography that when she was a young girl, her family was “as poor as Job’s turkey.” People from the area would drop off bags of clothing scraps for them to use for clothing for the children. Parton’s mother usually tried to make the scraps match as much as possible when tailoring an outfit, but knowing Dolly’s personality, she decided to make a coat “out of the brightest, most different colors she could find. This was going to be a colorful coat with no apologies.”
As documented in the song, Parton’s mother told the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors as she sewed a coat for her daughter. What made the coat so special wasn’t just the design, but the amount of time spent on it. “When there are so many kids in a family,” she writes, “you can imagine how a mother’s time is to be divided up between them. So to see my mother spending this much time to do something just for me was special indeed.”
Tonight’s Recommend a Track, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?”, has been recorded three times by its songwriter Dolly Parton. First, as a solo tune, it was the B-side to the 1982 version of “I Will Always Love You.” Then in 1990, it was cut as a duet with Randy Travis on his album Heroes and Friends.
Tonight’s recommendation is the third recording of the song, this time with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Finally, the song is recorded in a pure country style, with Harris singing lead. It’s the best showcase for one of Parton’s best lyrics.