Tag Archives: Dolly Parton

Donna Summer: The Country Connection

Donna Summer, disco legend, passed away today at the age of 63.

Much like my earlier post on Whitney Houston's untimely passing, writing about Summer's death isn't completely foreign to our topic of country music.

Whereas Dolly Parton wrote a #1 pop hit by Whitney Houston, Donna Summer wrote a #1 country hit for Dolly Parton.

“Starting Over Again” is anything but a disco number.  It's a tender tale of a middle-aged couple divorcing after their children are grown:

Reba McEntire also covered the song in 1995, taking it back to the top twenty:

Summer co-wrote many of her classic hits, including “Love to Love You Baby”, “Dim All the Lights”, “I Feel Love”, “Bad Girls”, and “She Works Hard for the Money.” But my favorite of her compositions is “On the Radio”, which I actually heard first by Emmylou Harris as a straight-up heartbreaking ballad:

Needless to say, I was taken aback by the disco beat when I finally heard Summer's original version.

I haven't been writing much lately, but I couldn't let the passing of this timeless talent go by without comment.  Like Houston before her, she was a great singer who went too soon, and country music's legacy was just a little bit richer for her passing through.

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Album Review: Marty Stuart, <i>Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down</i>

Marty Stuart
Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down

The casual listener may remember Marty Stuart for the string of country radio hits he enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties.  However, Stuart’s legacy was cemented by groundbreaking projects released after his commercial heyday had drawn to a close, particularly 1999's landmark The Pilgrim as well as 2010's career-best effort Ghost Train:  The Studio B Sessions.  Through such critically lauded work Stuart has built up a reputation as an elder statesman of country music, acting to preserve country music's heritage and traditions, while simultaneously working to move the genre forward.

One important reason why Stuart has been such a fine advocate of traditional country music is that he does not treat it as a musical museum piece, but rather treats it as it is – as real and relevant now as it has ever been.  This is continually evident on Stuart’s new Sugar Hill release Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down.  The project finds Stuart graciously and sincerely paying tribute to country music’s storied past, at times through well-chosen cover songs.  He offers his own rendition of the Jerry Chestnutt composition “Holding On to Nothin,” which was a Top 10 hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1968.  The song’s brilliantly constructed lyric finds a couple’s desire to rekindle their romance colliding with the sad realization that there is little left to save.  “I feel guilty when they envy me and you” is arguably one of the best lines a country song has ever come up with.

But while the album respectfully nods to the past, the loose infectious energy of up-tempo tracks like “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Truck Driver Blues” is hardly derivative, adding to the project’s contemporary edge.  The latter finds Stuart both shredding the mandolin, and name-dropping wife Connie Smith.  The album also offers a more restrained reinterpretation of one song that previously appeared on Stuart’s 2003 effort Country Music, and “Sundown In Nashville” is a song that is most definitely worthy of a repeat release.  The lyric highlights the sad truth that for every performer who achieves the dream of becoming a country music star, countless others see their dreams “shattered and swept to the outskirts of town” – a sentiment that has remained of continued relevance on down through country music history.

On Tear the Woodpile Down, Stuart continues to indulge his penchant for collaborating with his like-minded friends.  Sadly, the list of collaborators does not include Connie Smith this time around, but the harmony vocals of The Carter Family descendant Lorrie Carter Bennett add a bittersweet touch to the beautiful steel weeper “A Song of Sadness,” while veteran guitarist and Jerry Lee Lewis-collaborator Kenny Lovelace appears on “A Matter of Time.”  The album closes on a high note with the Hank Williams III duet “Picture from Life’s Other Side” – a song originally written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr., and one that Stuart and Hank III have performed together live.  Stuart’s smooth vocal delivery contrasts nicely with Hank III’s gritty drawl.  The two are backed by a bare-boned acoustic arrangement, allowing the song itself to pull the full weight with its brilliantly dark take on human mortality.  While backed by his seasoned cohorts The Fabulous Superlatives – who get to twang it out on the rousing instrumental track “Hollywood Boogie” – the project also includes appearances by veteran steel player Robbie Turner, as well as multi-instrumentalist Buck Trent, who lends his banjo work to the comedic title track and to “Holding On to Nothin’.”  Such contributions aid in making Tear the Woodpile Down an endlessly cool-sounding record.

In classic Marty Stuart fashion, Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down shines with stellar, classic-worthy songwriting, bolstered by top-notch musicianship and restlessly creative arrangements.  It ranks as one of 2012’s best album’s yet – a thoughtful homage to country music's past that remains fully connected to the present, and one that will thoroughly satisfy any passionate devotee of pure, simple, non-hyphenated country music.

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Retro Single Review: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, “We Found It”

1973 | Peak: #30

Though it was their only A-side to miss the top twenty, “We Found It” is one of Porter & Dolly’s most entertaining romps.

What makes it work is the chorus, which lets loose in a southern gospel kinda way.  There’s more energy and enthusiasm than usual, making it a good title track for that eye-popping album cover.

Written by Porter Wagoner

Grade: B

Next: Traveling Man

Previous: My Tennessee Mountain Home

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Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

On the eve of the Grammy Awards, music lost one of its greatest voices, as Whitney Houston died at age 48.

Her only tangential connection to country was a big one.  Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”  is one of the most successful singles in history, spending 14 weeks at #1 and pushing its parent album, The Bodyguard soundtrack, to sales of 44 million worldwide.

When Michael Jackson died in 2009, it was the first time it felt like we lost an icon of our generation.  But Jackson hit the charts with his brothers in 1969.

Whitney Houston was all eighties.  Everyone my age can remember the first time they heard her sing, back when “Greatest Love of All” and “How Will I Know” dominated the airwaves.  There was no matching that voice.

In the years that followed, many superstars would surface who could hit the big notes like Whitney, but not one of them came even close to doing it with her soul and her style.   She’s best known for her eighties pop classics and soundtrack hits from the nineties, but her best work was her underrated studio albums from the latter decade.

For those of you ready to delve into her catalog, don’t overlook 1990′s I’m Your Baby Tonight, which featured the stunning “All The Man That I Need”, the funky title track, and the should’ve been smash “My Name is Not Susan.”   Her best studio album, 1998′s My Love is Your Love, includes the classic title track, the Grammy-winning “It’s Not Right but it’s Okay”, and the tabloid-countering “In My Business.”

Watching the Super Bowl Half Time Show this year, I was again struck by how the eighties icons are surviving the test of time.   Madonna’s still at the top of her game, as are U2 and Bon Jovi.   Prince and Bruce Springsteen aren’t getting a lot of love for their new music, but are still amazing live and are still making excellent music.

But Michael Jackson’s gone, and now Whitney Houston is, too.  There was something so unique about the eighties that produced these larger than life stars.  I don’t know that the various mediums will ever be aligned well enough to create stars that big again.   We’re always going to have ladies with big, booming voices, but there will never be another who makes our collective jaws drop like Whitney Houston did.

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, “My Tennessee Mountain Home”

1973 | #15

These days country radio is peppered with songs about where the singer supposedly grew up.  Though often commercially successful, they tend to fail on an artistic level.  Why?  They very often lack some vital ingredients:  DetailAuthenticity.  Sincerity.  That’s why Dolly Parton’s classic “My Tennessee Mountain Home” outclasses nearly all of them.

The single “My Tennessee Mountain Home” served as the centerpiece to Parton’s 1973 concept album of the same name, in which Dolly sang of her childhood memories of growing up in rural Tennessee, as well as her journey toward country music stardom in Nashville.  Contrasting with the mood of “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” which is much bleaker, “My Tennessee Mountain Home” plays like a simple laid-back celebration of Parton’s roots.  The song is ripe with vivid imagery of Parton’s childhood home, where “Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh,” which quite fittingly imbues an authentic lived-in quality to Parton’s performance.  And while it’s become common in modern times for backwoods-origin songs to adopt an attitude that is exclusive or confrontational, Parton’s “Tennessee Mountain Home,” with its warm accessible melody, practically grabs you by the hand and invites you to stroll through the countryside along with Dolly.

Though the single didn’t distinguish itself in Parton’s catalog from a chart perspective, topping out at #15, it has gone on to become one of Parton’s best-loved career hits, as well as a theme song for Parton’s successful theme park.  An unabashedly charming, sincere performance that, nearly four decades after its release, still sounds just as endearing as ever.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade:  A

Next:  We Found It (with Porter Wagoner)

Previous:  Together Always (with Porter Wagoner)

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Retro Single Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, “Together Always”

1972 | #14

It’s another Porter and Dolly love song, and such do tend to be less memorable then their heartbreak songs and bickering-couple songs.  The chorus of “Together Always” is rather blank lyrically, but it’s lifted to a higher level by Parton’s spirited performance.  The lilting melody and light piano-driven arrangement lend a subtly infectious, joyful sound to the record.

It’s not one of the biggest or best hits by the Parton-Wagoner duo, but the tasteful sonic packaging make “Together Always” enjoyable, if nonessential.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade:  B

Next:  My Tennessee Mountain Home

Previous:  Washday Blues

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, “Washday Blues”

1972 | Peak: #20

This is just plum terrible.

Loretta Lynn might’ve been able to make something useful out of it, a dime store take-off of “One’s On the Way” or something.

But there’s nothing domesticated about Dolly Parton.  Amazing how she’s much more believable as a lady of ill repute or a runaway teen than she is as a housewife.

It just doesn’t fit.

Written by Porter Wagoner

Grade: D

Next: Together Always (with Porter Wagoner)

Previous: Lost Forever in Your Kiss (with Porter Wagoner)

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Retro Single Review: Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, “Lost Forever in Your Kiss”

1972 | Peak: #9

This is one of their most beautiful duets, largely because Parton is at her peak as a singer and a songwriter.

She gets Wagoner to up his game in return, and he sounds fantastic singing the first verse.  But as was becoming the norm even outside of their duets, she simply outclasses him, taking the melody to new heights as she perfects her signature sound.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade: A-

Next: Washday Blues

Previous: Touch Your Woman

 

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Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, “Touch Your Woman”

1972 | Peak: #6

This may be the very moment where Dolly Parton emerges as a masterclass singer.

Goosebump-inducing vocal trills elevate an already excellent composition.  Listen closely, and you can hear the styles of Reba McEntire and Lee Ann Womack being born.

It’s just so, so good.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade: A

Next:  Lost Forever in Your Kiss (with Porter Wagoner)

Previous: Burning the Midnight Oil (with Porter Wagoner)

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