Dolly Parton Night on American Idol: Rating the Performances

I’d be hard-pressed to name a better catalog of country music to choose from for American Idol than Dolly Parton’s. It’s deep with fantastic songs, and she’s recorded them in enough styles for them to be adapted to each contestant’s personal groove. That being said, now that Dolly night is over on Idol, some of those contestants fared far better than others. Though I must say I’m amazed we got through nine songs and no “9 to 5” or “Islands in the Stream.” Who wants to bet those will be the group numbers tomorrow?

Here’s a recap of the night. I’ll update it with videos when they become available.

Brooke White, “Jolene”

Aside from “I Will Always Love You”, this is probably the most covered Dolly Parton song. Dolly had an enormous country hit with it in 1974, and Olivia Newton-John had as a big an international pop hit with two years later. In the years since, it’s been covered by everyone from Mindy Smith to The White Stripes. Brooke White’s folksy style would seem a good fit for such a song, but the arrangement was too busy and she never quite connected with the song as a result. If it had just been her and the guitar, it would’ve been better. B-

David Cook, “Little Sparrow”

Great song, first of all. I was impressed he took the time to find it. His falsetto sounded great, it worked as a sorta-rock song, and he made it completely his own. One of the best of the night. A-

Ramiele Malubay, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”

Her performance had the same problem as Dolly’s original: a pop production with too many backing vocalists. She should’ve used the Emmylou Harris arrangment from Trio II, which stripped it down more. She spent the whole time trying to stay aligned with the backup singers and couldn’t let loose with the song. C

Jason Castro, “Travelin’ Thru”

Again, great song choice. He didn’t start off strongly with it, but he put a folk rock spin on it toward the end and injected some personality into his performance. He didn’t do anything new with it, really, but not much new needed to be done in the first place. What’s the point of reworking a song that most people don’t know in the first place? B

Carly Smithson, “Here You Come Again”

Absolutely gorgeous performance. The song works as a slowed-down acoustic ballad, and Dolly was probably right when she said that Smithson’s voice is the type the song was written for in the first place. She loses points for being the only one to pick a song that Dolly didn’t write, but kudos otherwise. A-

David Archuletta, “Smoky Mountain Memories”

I was ready to hate this with every fiber of my being. Then the little guy sang the hell out of it, with so much sincerity and conviction that I momentarily believed he was a Smoky Mountain rube that had gone north to look for money to send home. A

Kristy Lee Cook, “Coat of Many Colors”

First problem: it’s an intensely autobiographical song that nobody besides Shania Twain has ever been able to cover convincingly, and that’s because her own childhood was so similar to Dolly’s. Second problem: there isn’t a line to spare in the song, and when you edit out two verses, it doesn’t make any sense. She sang it reasonably well but that’s not going to cut it when you’re covering a classic. This, not “I Will Always Love You”, is the one Dolly song that must be approached with caution. C

Syesha Mercado, “I Will Always Love You”

The judges were so unfair on this performance. The piano beginning was perfect, very similar to the version Linda Ronstadt released in the seventies, and when she went to the big finish a la Whitney Houston, she completely nailed it. What’s unfair is that the judges then proceeded to do what they always do when a Whitney ballad is performed – that it didn’t match the original. Enough already. It’s a live performance, and you can’t compare that to the record. I’ve seen Whitney Houston perform “I Will Always Love You” many times, and no even she comes close to her own studio performance. Check out this clip of Whitney opening the Grammys and tell me that I’m wrong. A

Michael Johns, “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right”

A number one hit that’s been unfortunately forgotten with time. It’s a classic country song, finding pleasure in a one-night stand so you don’t have to spend the night alone. He turned it into a blues number that worked in every single way it could possibly work. A

Final Thought

Overall, I thought it was a good night that showcased a great songwriting catalog. A good mix of the familiar and the obscure. I would’ve liked a Norah Jones-esque “The Grass is Blue” in there, or a little “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, but I think America was given a view of the songwriting legend Dolly, rather than the Hollywood Dolly that most non-country fans usually define her as.

Any thoughts on which country artist should guest next year? I’d love to see Trisha Yearwood as a vocal mentor, or maybe Vince Gill with his songwriting catalog. What do you think?


  1. It took some time, but I am now firmly in the David Cook camp. He’s the only one – besides Carly on occasion – who makes me feel like I’m watching something other than a bad karaoke contest. He really seems to “get” the music and attempts to interpret it in a way that suits him and he can totally own. He did it again tonight. He has the Daughtry vibe, but I think he’s better.

    Overall, there was a definite lack of soul on Dolly night. The lyrics provided the contestants with an opportunity to really connect with the audience, but few managed to do that. I love “Jolene” but Brooke ruined it, and “I Will Always Love You” remains the sole territory of Dolly and Whitney. Syesha knew Simon would hate it if she’s ever watched this show, so I’m very surprised she tried it (in Simon’s book, you don’t mess with Whitney). Jason is boring. David A. – can I use Simon’s cruise ship line? Ramiele and Kristy should both be booted off this week for a number of bad performances in a row (in particular, Kristy’s shameless performance last week). Who’s left? Michael Johns. He started the show off pretty good but has slowly declined.

    Now, I might just sit here and cry because I have been watching the show this season and have this much to say about it. I’ve only watched the show sporadically in the past…I’m picking up a book next week. ;)

    Lastly, I was surprised that only a couple of artists even attempted a country version of Dolly’s songs. Even Kristy’s was barely country. I think that just goes to show that good songs can work in any genre.

  2. This is the first time I’ve watched a whole show of American Idol. Before this, I’ve watched bits and pieces and clips on you tube. I couldn’t resist, though, when I knew it would be Dolly night. As one who knows me might guess, the guys are the ones who stood out for me. I liked Castro and Johns performances the best. I haven’t gotten to know them over the progression of the show though, so I can’t compare their performances to past performances of theirs.

    As for Simon being accused of not liking country music and then denying it by saying, “That’s not true, I love country music.”, I swear I’ve seen a you tube clip of him saying that country music isn’t his thing. Maybe he meant his expertise? I don’t know, because I can’t quite remember the quote.

    As for “Jolene”, I didn’t see the whole performance, because I was taking Amigo outside at the time. Bill liked it though. My only argument is that I always thought Dolly’s version was a little fast, actually. I think she could have slowed it down a bit and more emotion would have come out, though I love the song and I love Dolly.

    Okay, I think those are all of my thoughts for now. So, AI brought me in for one night. Don’t be surprised if Bill posts too. We completely disagreed on the show.

    Kevin, good point on “I Will Always Love You.”

  3. great synopsis kevin, i was getting ready for work during the show so i didn’t catch much of it, but I can commment on “Jolene”

    she sang it pretty well, but she was smiling the entire time, that song is about desperation and praying that something out of your control won’t happen… don’t smile through the whole thing…thats my only complaint for brook though

    thanks for your review on the others

    appreciate it!

  4. I usually love Brooke, but I totally agree she sang the song too hurried and I also did not like her smiling during the song….she def was not into it! I thought David did a great job with the “Sparrow” song…I’m beginning to like him better too! For some reason just cannot get into Carly! Maybe if I closed my eyes and just listened, I would like her better! Love David A. and the song he sang. Use to like Kristy Lee, but her singing was like Karaoke last night! Micheal Johns performance was a killer last night…..he was my favorite! Also I thought Syesha’s take on that song was beautiful and thought the judges were wrong also! Little Ramiele needs to go! She’s cute as heck, but needs to go!

  5. My issue with Brooke’s version of Jolene, is that she is supposed to the this perfect girl who has never seen an “R” rated movie, how is she going to understand what the song is even about…and Jolene is one of my favorite songs.

    I have to say that I am a fan of David, Carly and Michael, but then again they seem to be the most mature of the group and bring the most to the songs that they sing.

  6. I always choose my favorite based on how well they do n country week and I think despite good voices that boht Carly and David A. are over rated and have gained most of their popularity either from their looks or their media attension.

    Kristy Lee Cook needed to shine this time but didn’t, however for me anohter Cook did shine. David Cook did great on his song and made it his own. I agree with Simon a few weeks back when he said to Cook “if this compatition remains based on talent you could have a shot”. He’s the only one who really impressed me this week. I was a little disapointed by Brooke, but she gave it a decent go and did “Jolene” justice so I can failry say that David Cook and Brooke White are my favorties this season.

  7. Even with the Beatles and the Dolly songs, this has been a largely forgettable season of AI imo. I think we may be in shark terriroty for the show.

  8. I enjoyed the version of ‘Jolene’ myself, and would note that while it seemed a little rushed, the original has a quick pace as well. The Mandy Smith (and the White Stripes version for the brave) both actually slow the pace a bit. I thought tshe did a good job (better than most), even if she should not have smiled.

    Other than that “Little Sparrow’ was impressive (and Brave), Michael Johns reminds me of Michael Bolton (in a bad way), and ‘I will always love you’ was very good but suffered under the shadow of the Whitney version which is very long.

  9. I enjoyed Dolly week on Idol because I am a fan of country music, but for it being country night, there were far too few steel guitars or down-home stylings that are at country music’s heart. Simon is not big into country music and I cannot see why Paula would be a big fan when it was country’s emergence in the early 1990s that took attention off of pop music when her career was at its peak.

    Next year, they should approach George Strait, a man with over 50 #1 songs covering a span of 25 years, to be the country mentor. Dolly, Kenny Rogers, and Martina McBride are all venerable country stars, but it would be interesting to use a mentor that is more on the traditional wing of country music for a change.

    I enjoyed Dolly’s performance Wednesday night and hope she can get some play with the song.

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