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.
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.
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.
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?
This Sunday we’ll be kicking off Dolly Parton Week at Country Universe, the first in what will be many weekly artist spotlights. But tonight’s Recommend a Track has Parton in a supporting role, as she joins Emmylou Harris in harmonizing with Linda Ronstadt on “Hobo’s Meditation.”
It’s one of many standout tracks from their landmark Trio album, which won them several industry awards. Several readers have mentioned this song in previous comment threads, and it seems only fitting during this particular holiday weekend to think about those who aren’t so fortunate as to have a a warm home and a hot meal this Thanksgiving.
I imagine if Ronstadt’s piercing vocal had been sung on the floor of Congress instead of the set of a television show, the homeless problem would’ve been eradicated two decades ago. You can also enjoy two other tracks from the album in the clip below, as “Hobo’s Meditation” is preceded by “My Dear Companion” and followed by “Those Memories of You.”
Linda Ronstadt Prisoner in Disguise
(Original Master Recording)
Anyone looking for the prototype of the modern female country singer can turn their attention to Linda Ronstadt’s classic 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise. Of all of her seminal albums from the seventies, it is this one that best illustrates her groundbreaking fusion of country, rock and pop. It’s a collection of songs culled from all over the musical map, with contributions from writers as diverse as Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Jimmy Cliff.
But it isn’t diversity for its own sake, and Ronstadt doesn’t simply record the songs in the style they were originally presented. Instead, she adapts the songs to her own vision, resulting in some stunning performances. She was savvy enough to pick up on the transcendance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, which she sings as a simple piano ballad that showcases her vocals. Neil Young’s “Love is a Rose” is turned into a bluegrass romp, the sonic cloth from which Patty Loveless would weave the bulk of her own classic album, When Fallen Angels Fly.
Hearing Prisoner in Disguise decades later, it is obvious just how influential Ronstadt’s approach to production and selection of material was on the work of Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss. This album came a good two years before Ronstadt’s more vocally adventurous records, though those overpowering performances would do some influencing of their own. Listen to “Blue Bayou” and you’ll find out pretty quickly where Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood learned how to whisper the verses and belt the choruses.
She emerged from poverty in the Smoky Mountains, the first of her family to graduate high school. She dreamed of being a country music singer, but it was her songwriting that got her in the door. Over the course of more than forty years, she has successfully navigated countless styles of country music, ranging from bluegrass to Hollywood pop-country, remaining a popular and relevant recording artist through the countless sea changes that occurred in the industry around her.
Dolly Parton’s story begins in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee, where she was the fourth of twelve children. She began writing songs before she had begun formal schooling, and would physically force her younger siblings to watch her performances. Her mother taught her the old mountain songs, with a penchant for those with tragic undertones. This was a big influence on Parton’s writing, particularly in the first decade of her recording career.
Her uncle, Bill Owens, was an early believer in her talent, and took ten year old Dolly to Knoxville to meet Cas Walker, owner a successful chain of grocery stores. He had a radio and television show that promoted the stores, and he had Parton sing jingles and entertain. She earned twenty dollars a week, and kept the gig while finishing her education.
When she was thirteen, Owens finagled studio time for Dolly in Louisiana, where she cut some sides for Goldband Records. She traveled with Owens to Nashville, with her recording of “Puppy Love” in tow, and hung around the back door of the Opry until she could meet Johnny Cash. She begged him to let her on the Opry, and he explained that to do so, another performer would have to give up their spot. Jimmy C. Newman graciously volunteered, and Cash introduced the teenager. She was only supposed to do one song, but she earned three encores.
The living embodiment of artistic integrity, Emmylou Harris has been creating acclaimed music for more than three decades, building up the most consistent catalog in the history of country music. In her early days, her mix of contemporary songs and classic country songs was seen as forward-thinking and progressive, but over time, she would be seen as a protective guardian of country music’s heritage, even when she strayed far away from it on her own recordings.
Her own roots were not in country music, as she was an aspiring folk artist in her early days. While she was also interested in drama, she was increasingly drawn to the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, eventually leaving college and moving to New York in 1968. However, the folk scene was beginning to die down, and though she found occasional work, it wasn’t much. She married in 1969, and worked as a waitress to supplement the meager income brought in by her Greenwich Village coffeehouse performances.
In 1970, she recorded her debut album, Gliding Bird, for the struggling independent label Jubilee Records, which folded shortly thereafter. Harris would later call the album a disaster, and disowned it so much that she named her fourteenth studio album Thirteen. Disenchanted with the New York scene, and her first marriage coming to an end, she moved to Nashville briefly, but then relocated to her parents’ home in Maryland, feeling disconnected from music until she discovered the music scene in Washington D.C., through which she would met a young performer named Gram Parsons.
“I’m a combination of Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn and Ralph Stanley.” – Patty Loveless, 1989
Patty Loveless may be the last of the great mountain singers who will ever find mainstream country success, but there has always been a country-rock undercurrent to her material. Beloved by fans of pure country music, her work is deeply rooted in the mountain sounds of her native Kentucky, but her years singing rock music carried over into the studio, making her something of a progressive traditionalist.
She was raised in Belcher Holler, a small Kentucky town where her father was a coal miner. He was struck by black lung disease, and the family moved to Louisville seeking medical care. Her older siblings Dotty and Roger performed in a country act they dubbed The Swingin’ Rameys, and when Dotty quit the band to get married, Roger coaxed Patty into taking her place. After earning $5 for her first performance, and loving the applause, she continued performing with her brother.
Roger’s love for country music led him to Nashville, where he became a producer for The Porter Wagoner Show. He cajoled Wagoner into listening to his sister Patty sing, and the high school girl sang her composition “Sounds of Loneliness” for the superstar. Wagoner was blown away, and vowed to help her break into the industry. He encouraged her to go back and finish school, but took her out with him on the road on weekends.
She has a restless musical spirit, recording so many different styles successfully that no genre can fully claim her as their own. But it is her country recordings that have had the most lasting impact, and her seminal seventies work permanently changed the female approach to country music.
She got her start in the country-rock scene of Los Angeles in the sixties, and she quickly became adept at fusing classic country with elements of the rock music of the day. With a handful of fellow musicians, she fronted The Stone Poneys. The band became a big hit on West Coast country and folk circuits, and the exposure earned them a recording contract. Their first album in 1967 didn’t go anywhere, but their second album featured “Different Drum”, a song clearly intended for a man to sing but in Ronstadt’s hands became an anthem for female liberation (“I’m not ready for any person, place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me.”)
When “Different Drum” became a pop hit in 1968, it was Ronstadt’s voice that garnered most of the attention. After the group released three albums, they disbanded, and Ronstadt went solo. She had a clear musical vision from the start. Her early albums reveled in traditional country music, featuring classics like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Lovesick Blues” and “Mental Revenge.” She added fuzzy guitar to her first recording of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” But she drew on other genres as well, covering R&B and gospel songs alongside the country songs she tackled.