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.
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.
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: Detail. Authenticity. 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.
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.
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.
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.
A good old-fashioned cheating song, from the days when songs such as this were very much in fashion.
It’s not as interesting or deeply layered as Barbara Mandrell’s “The Midnight Oil”, released the following year. But it’s a more believable pairing than most of the duets they sent to radio in this time period.
It’s doubtful that any record could be universally agreed upon as the greatest country single ever made. But any conversation on that topic would have to include serious consideration of “Coat of Many Colors.”
It’s also doubtful that I can add anything meaningful to the conversation about the song itself. Better writers and historians have already covered it all, so much so that I can’t separate what I’ve read about it from whatever original thoughts I might have.
I will say that whenever I think about the autobiographical events in the song, it makes me sad. But when I actually listen to it, there’s an optimism that shines through. Maybe it’s just the perspective of having seen some success by the time she recorded it.
Or maybe the song taps into her resilient inner child, the one who had the strength to endure such humiliation without knowing what a bright future lay ahead of her.
Despite all the achievements and accolades she’s earned, “Coat of Many Colors” suggests that Parton’s finest moment might have been in that classroom all those years ago.
The title track got most of the love, and deservedly so, but the first single from Parton’s Coat of Many Colors album is a strong effort in its own right. Backed by Appalachian-flavored acoustic instrumentation, Parton mourns her lost love while expressing a desire for nothing more than solitude.
To the bluebird singing a sad song, she says “Spread your blue wings, and I’ll shed my blue tears.” To the bright sunshine, she says “Waste not your warmth on the coldness in here…. Go light your blue sky, and I’ll shed my blue tears.” The song’s brisk tempo belies its sad lyrics as Parton sings with an emotive quiver in her voice.
A minor Top 20 hit, “My Blue Tears” doesn’t stand quite as tall in Parton’s catalog as classics like “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors,” but its understated emotional qualities make it a gem worth hearing.