With more than a hundred chart hits to her name, including 25 #1 singles and 57 top tens, Dolly Parton is the most successful singles artist in country music history. But even before she was a hit on the radio as a singer, her songs had already been in heavy rotation. They were just sung by different artists.
Throughout the past five decades, there have been countless versions of her songs recorded, so narrowing them down to six is no easy feat. It might be best to look at this list as an introduction, rather than a conclusion. Either way, these six cuts are essential listening.
“The Last One to Touch Me”, Porter Wagoner
from the 1971 album Simple as I Am
Parton and Wagoner recorded quite a few of her songs together on their various duet albums, but Wagoner had a hit on his own with a Parton composition as well. This touching ballad is a forward-looking declaration of love, with one lover wishing the other is the last one to touch them – at the end of every day, right up until the last day of their life.
“Down From Dover”, Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood
from the 1972 album Did You Ever?
This is Parton’s heartbreaking tale of a shunned daughter sent away from home for being pregnant out of wedlock. It’s transformed into a downright creepy duet here, with Hazlewood cruelly mocking Sinatra as he repeats the promises he has no intentions of keeping.
“Kentucky Gambler”, Merle Haggard
from the 1975 album Keep Movin’ On
Haggard and Parton’s mid-seventies touring produced two #1 hits. One is “Kentucky Gambler”, which Parton penned. It remains the only #1 country hit that she’s written for another artist. It’s a great song, and is included on the same album as “Always Wanting You”, a #1 hit that Haggard wrote about Parton and his unrequited love for her.
“To Daddy”, Emmylou Harris
from the 1978 album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town
On her fourth studio album, Harris was determined to prove that she could record a collection of all-new songs by contemporary songwriters. Parton helped her along by giving her a masterpiece.
“I Will Always Love You”, Whitney Houston
from the 1992 album The Bodyguard
There have been so many great recordings of this song, including three hit versions by Parton herself, and solid covers by Linda Ronstadt and Melissa Etheridge. But none of them hold a candle to the tour de force that is the Whitney Houston recording. The a cappella opening verse, the slowly building emotional intensity, the explosive final stretch. If there was a better vocal performance anywhere on the radio in the nineties, I didn’t hear it.
“The Grass is Blue”, Norah Jones
from the 2003 album Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton
Putting Parton’s bluegrass arrangement to the side, Norah Jones went with her signature piano-based style instead. The result was a great song made even better, so much so that when Parton performs the song today, she uses Jones’ arrangement instead of her own.
Dolly Parton’s award mantle was greatly expanded when she started recording roots albums in the late nineties and through much of this decade, including three Grammys since the release of The Grass is Blue. Reconnecting with the mountain roots of her childhood and early musical output was a perfect fit.
There are several artists I can think of who would benefit from a similar approach. The one I’d be most interested to hear is Shania Twain. I’ve been craving an acoustic album from her ever since this CMT Awards show performance with Alison Krauss & Union Station:
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.
One of the landmarks of Dolly Parton’s career was the Trio album, her platinum-selling collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. It was one of the few country albums in history to receive a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and it won every major industry award, including the ACM for Top Album.
Just as compelling was Parton’s collaboration with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, which went gold despite zero support from country radio. After another collaboration with Ronstadt and Harris in the late nineties, there hasn’t been another collaboration of the sort from any major country artists.
I think this concept needs to be updated for the 21st Century. My vote is for a Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter album that fulfills the promise of their headlining 1996 tour.
Which three artists would you like to see put out a trio album?
Dolly Parton Week kicks off today with the first of two Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists entries. Mine will follow later in the week, along with Classic Country Singles, Retro Album Reviews, Six Packs, and an Ultimate Buyer’s Guide, all focusing on the legendary Hall of Famer. – Kevin
There really isn’t anything that Dolly Parton can’t do. She has a voice like an angel, but is also capable of showboating with the best of them. She plays several instruments, has written more than her share of classic songs, is an actor, owns a popular amusement park and, most importantly, is involved in many philanthropic efforts.
Starting with traditional annual viewings of A Smokey Mountain Christmas on the Disney Channel, Dolly Parton is one of those people that I loved before I even knew what music genres were, let alone country music in particular. So, while I was nervous about whittling down my favorite Dolly songs to a mere 25, I couldn’t resist the chance to participate in Dolly Parton week at Country Universe.
While this is a list of my favorite Dolly songs, I fully realize that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of her deep catalog with the songs that I’ve chosen.
“Joshua” Joshua, 1971
This is a strange little story, but Dolly proves that she’s a great storyteller. There’s talking, singing and even a little yodeling. What more can you ask for in a song?
“Jolene” Jolene, 1974
While it’s true that whenever I think of this song, I am reminded of The White Stripes’ intensely insane version that makes Parton’s version sound considerably tame, “Jolene” is still one of my favorite Dolly songs. She sings with her own quiet intensity that makes us appropriately feel for the jilted woman.
“Shinola” Backwoods Barbie, 2008
I just think this song is fun. She’s calling this guy out on all of his crap and I suspect that nobody can give a dressing down quite as effectively as Dolly can.
“More Where That Came From” Slow Dancing With The Moon, 1993
I was actually aware of this song before and liked it despite it being featured on recent Target commercials. She’s trying to convince her experienced man that she’s the one with whom he should settle down. After she gives him a list of things she can do to keep him happy, one can only imagine what she means by “There’s more where that came from.”
“Cry, Cry, Darlin’” Sing The Songs Of Bill Monroe, 2002
For the record, this tribute album to Bill Monroe, spearheaded by Ricky Skaggs, is no doubt worth purchasing. Dolly’s contribution is one of the clear highlights on an all around stellar record.