Dolly Parton's legendary status as a performer and a country music icon has long been cemented. She's a living legend. Dolly's star peaked during the later 70s and early 80 thanks to the mainstreaming of Southern culture courtesy of Burt Reynolds movies, the Dukes of Hazzard, and the election of Jimmy Carter. Once southern became trendy, it was bound to crash, and it did.
Dolly might not have been able to top the pop charts any longer, but she never wavered. She had always been rooted in the country music ethic. Raised dirt poor in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dolly had been a groundbreaking country artist - from her early duets with the late Porter Wagoner to her early solo albums - before her pop hits, and she was never afraid to come home.
This homecoming came courtesy of a three album arch of acoustic music for Sugar Hill Records, a long time bluegrass stronghold. Those albums recorded around the dawn of the new millennium served to reinvigorate Dolly. Not only did she simplify things musically, but she also visited classic country songs and even threw in a bluegrass take on a Southern Rock classic, Blackfoot's "Train, Train".
With Dolly's music re-centered, Better Day finds her back reaching out to the widest possible audience through the diversity of songs on the album. Dolly Parton remains one of the world's greatest entertainers, but people often forget that she is an incredible songwriter. Whitney Houston recorded Dolly's "I Will Always Love You" in 1992, and that song became the first song since Ray Charles's "I Can't Stop Loving You" in 1962 to simultaneously hold the number one spot on pop, adult contemporary, and R&B charts. Dolly's own songs like "Jolene" and "The Coat of Many Colors" are country standards as well. With Better Day featuring an all-original lineup of songs, Dolly shows the world her songwriting skills are still strong as ever.
The album kicks of with "In The Meantime", a harmonica-driven tune that showcases Dolly's kind of country common sense. From there, the album combines classic country ballads ("Somebody's Missing You" I Just Might"), country rockers ("Country Is As Country Does"), bluegrass ("Just Leaving"), blues on the title track, and country-tinged pop ("Together You And I" "Holding Everything" "Shine Like The Sun").
Since Better Day serves as a showcase for Dolly's writing talents, two songs deserve greater mention. The first song is "The Sacrifice" which could be one of Dolly's most nakedly personal songs. For all of her personal and career accomplishments and her longstanding sense of optimism, she finally looks back on the costs of how her work became her life:
I was gonna be rich no matter how much it cost
And I 'uz gonna win no matter how much I lost
But I hope God will tell me "Well done, my child
You've won your reward through your sacrifice, the sacrifice"
Oh but sometimes I wonder in the still of the night
The second song "Let Love Grow" closes the album. Like the greatest of country songs, it sounds like it has been around for years. It could have come down the mountain into Bristol back almost a century ago and been part of the AP Carter catalog. It's a song that part folk song, part gospel and 100% country to the core:
Love can grow in the strangest places
Might find love in strangers' faces
Find it on a mountain top or a valley low
Love can grow where you least expect it,
Nurtured by a kiss or a tear that wets it
Love will grow if one just lets it
Let love grow
For all of Dolly Parton's skills as an entertainer, we should always treasure each of her albums when she takes the time to record and release them. Few artists have given so much love to her craft and her audience throughout the years.
- Jim Markel
EXPLORE FURTHER INTO SWAMPLAND...
Swampland Review of Charlie Daniels Band: Deuces
(features a duet with Dolly Parton)
Swampland Review of Solomon Burke: Nashville
(features a duet with Dolly Parton)
More Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country
(features a soul music cover of a Dolly Parton song)