Today is Dolly Parton’s 67th birthday. What better time to revisit and relaunch our ongoing feature that reviews every single that she’s released in her illustrious career?
This post will look at her four singles from late 1975 through the end of 1976. Three were solo efforts, while the fourth was her final release of the decade that was a collaboration with Porter Wagoner.
“We Used To”
Written by Dolly Parton
It was clear by this point that Parton had designs on the pop market, but she hadn’t yet found the right way to make her style work in that format. So we get overlong pop ballads like this, which ramble on forever because Parton’s restraining her vocal trademarks that would make the record too identifiably country.
“Hey, Lucky Lady”
Written by Dolly Parton
Then again, even when she was being proudly country at this period, the material still wasn’t always up to snuff. It’s a shame that “Shattered Image” wasn’t sent to radio as the lead single from All I Can Do instead of of this endlessly repetitive ditty. This probably held the record for the most times a title was repeated in one song until Little Texas released “My Love” two decades later.
There is something poetic about this being their final duet together, aside from some unreleased tracks that would surface in 1980 after a prolonged legal battle. They went out on a high note, perhaps because of the palpable sadness that permeates the proceedings.
“All I Can Do”
Written by Dolly Parton
Another ditty, which is surprising given the heaviness of the
Thankfully, this should be the last single this year from Carrie Underwood.
I say thankfully because a good “Best Singles of the Year” list needs some variety. Underwood’s been stacking the deck this year, putting out one outstanding single after another, and it’s really bad form to leave no room at the top for the rest of the competition.
“Two Black Cadillacs” revives the Southern Gothic murder ballad subgenre that was once far more prominent in country music. This is not to be confused with the wrongfully abused variety of murder ballad, which has only surfaced in the past twenty years.
A pure revenge fantasy mind you, as unbelievable and fantastical as anything Porter Wagoner ever dreamed up. Underwood’s the perfect narrator for the tale, her pithy descriptions punctuated by melancholy strings that would sound just as comfortable on American Horror Story as they do accompanying our favorite American Idol.
She lets her bias slip with a giddy “bye bye,” revealing she’s fully on board with the just desserts being served. It works because the scenario is simply implausible, which allows the listener to indulge in the darkness that would horrify us if it was actually reality.
It’s a testament to Underwood’s versatility as a singer and her credibility as a public persona that she can pull off something so wicked and not get an ounce of dirt on her squeaky clean image. But most of all, it’s a credit to her ambition as an artist. For someone so frequently accused of getting to the top without having to
“Forever is the love,” they sing, “that is true and undemanding.”
Which just goes to show that what makes for a great love doesn’t necessarily make for a great song.
As they were reaching the end of their professional partnership, “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” was as true to their original sound as it could be, but the song is so undemanding of their combined talent and energy that what we’re left with is as sterile as it is yawningly predictable.
They’re just going through the motions. The thrill is gone.
<a href=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Thomas-Rhett-Beer-With-Jesus.jpg”><img class=”alignright size-thumbnail wp-image-22676″ title=”Thomas Rhett Beer With Jesus” src=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Thomas-Rhett-Beer-With-Jesus-150×150.jpg” alt=”" width=”150″ height=”150″ /></a>Far better than its title suggests.
Thomas Rhett poses a hypothetical that brings Jesus into the contemporary world, but avoids recreating him in our own image. Every question that Rhett suggests he would ask of Jesus is believable, and I dare say that his belief that Jesus would sit with him in loving conversation instead of harsh judgment for his surroundings is more consistent with the Gospel than, say, Porter Wagoner’s <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yroypJB0XU”>”What Would You Do (If Jesus Came to Your House).”</a>
Rhett’s slightly ragged vocal is charmingly innocent and sincere, like an Eric Church from the right side of the tracks. The only thing that holds the song back from me is the second verse, which treads water by focusing on the jukebox instead of the conversation at hand. But redemption comes with a solid bridge and beautiful final chorus.
The production does such a great job of not getting in the way of the song. It makes me wonder how many more of today’s country songs I would like if I was able to hear them without interference. If the singer here believes in Jesus, the producer here believes in his singer. I don’t know that many souls will be saved by “Beer with Jesus”, but if Nashville listens to it carefully, they might learn something about saving country music.
<em>Written by Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller</em>
<strong>Listen: </strong><a href=”http://media.allaccess.com:8001/5076/1345652152_strm.mp3″>Beer with Jesus</a>
Known affectionately as the Thin Man from the West Plains, Porter Wagoner was a steadfast champion for the traditions of country music, even as he used forward-looking methods of delivering it to the masses.
Wagoner was a self-taught singer and musician, and first gained notoriety as a singing grocer. The store manager thought his young worker had great potential, and arranged for him to perform on the radio in West Plains, Missouri. This led to his own radio show in 1951, and then a high-profile stint onOzark Jamboree, a television show spearheaded by Red Foley.
His success on radio and television landed him a contract with RCA records, a label he would stay with for more than two decades. At his time with the label, he would be a pioneer for the genre in many ways. While recording popular country hits like “A Satisfied Mind” and “Misery Loves Company”, he also produced powerful spiritual numbers, including the evocative “What Would You Do? (If Jesus Came to Your House)”, helping to mainstream a southern Baptist perspective to the masses.
He also was an innovator both in album concepts and album artwork, creating bold designs for his LPs that explored themes like adultery, poverty, and alcoholism. His arresting visual style made him an ideal fit for television, and his wildly popular syndicatedThe Porter Wagoner Show made him a household name. It also led to his most high-profile musical partnership when he invited Dolly Parton to join the cast.
Wagoner’s show peaked in popularity with Parton as a cast member, and their memorable duet singles and albums kept him on the upper echelon on the country charts throughout the mid-seventies. While his solo career was cooling off at the same time, he remained a major presence in the Southern gospel market, the area which earned him multiple Grammy awards.
He left RCA in the early eighties, following a successful final duet album with Parton. By then, his show was also off the air, but as cable television began filtering into homes, Wagoner’s hosting duties on the Grand Ole Opry made him a familiar figure to a new generation of country music fans. He recorded sporadically for the next two decades, but received overwhelming critical accolades when he released Wagonmaster. Produced by Marty Stuart, his final album was a powerful swan song in 2007, and gave him one more moment in the spotlight, the same year that he passed away at the age of eighty.
Company’s Comin’, 1954
A Satisfied Mind, 1955
What Would You Do? (If Jesus Came to Your House), 1956
Misery Loves Company, 1962
Green, Green Grass of Home, 1965
The Cold Hard Facts of Life, 1967
The Last Thing on My Mind (with Dolly Parton), 1967
Their only chart-topping duet served as the mid-point between five consecutive #1 singles for Parton, while earning Wagoner his first #1 single since 1962.
As their remarkable partnership was beginning to break apart, the duo wrote this song together, and it speaks just as well to the impending doom of their professional life together as “I Will Always Love You” did.
Perhaps that’s what helped make it such a powerful song, with genuine desperation captured in the lyrics. From this point on, Wagoner’s few remaining hits would come only through his duets with Parton, while this entire era of her career would soon be overshadowed by her phenomenal success as a crossover singer and media personality.
But at least on record for just under three minutes in 1974, it sounded like they both needed each other equally.
Where to start? How do you begin a review of a song as seemingly universal as this one is? I could go on about what a massive success this song was in all the different versions that were recorded. But for now, I’ll just talk about what a fine record this 1974 original is on its own merits.
Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of country music history knows that Parton wrote the song for her mentor Porter Wagoner, from whom she was separating professionally at the time. The song deals with feelings personal to Parton, but they are conveyed in a manner just vague enough that virtually any listener can connect the story with his or her own experiences.
But for all of Parton’s formidable songwriting talent, what makes “I Will Always Love You” a great record goes beyond the lyric sheet. This original 1974 recording is simply one of the finest displays that can be found of the deep sincerity that Parton has always brought to her performances. Her vocal here is subtle and almost hushed, but she fills every crevice of the acoustic arrangement with her aching, nakedly honest delivery, while the melody of the song is just hauntingly beautiful.
There’s not a trace of anger or animosity to be found – just honest, heavy-hearted resignation that the relationship could not be made to work, coupled with ongoing love, and hope for the loved one to find happiness. Best of all, Parton is such a fine vocal interpreter that you get the sense that if she were singing the song directly to Wagoner, and to no one else, that it would still have sounded exactly as it does on the record here.
Without a doubt, there are clear reasons why “I Will Always Love You” is a classic. Though this is only the beginning of the life that “I Will Always Love You” would take on over the years, this 1974 recording remains the definitive version of the song.
Released just before Dolly Parton’s star would rise considerably, “If Teardrops Were Pennies” was a surprisingly big hit, becoming Porter & Dolly’s highest charting single to date.
It’s a simple country song, with their signature retro feel. As I’ve written before, they’re always most believable when they keep it country and focus on the heartache.
Originally a hit for Carl Smith in 1951, “Teardrops” sounds great on its own. But like all of their duets at this particular point in time, it suffers in comparison to the forward-looking material that Parton was writing and recording at the same time. They could have just as easily recorded this in 1967, and it would have sounded exactly the same.
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.