The combined efforts of RCA Nashville and Sony’s Legacy Recordings imprint have been doing a pretty good job of slowly but surely bringing classic country recordings from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s back into print, but they’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the men-folk and not nearly enough on the female artists of the genre. Given that Dolly Parton’s one of the biggest names in country music, gender be damned, it’s about time her early ‘70s albums were given the appropriate reissue treatment that they deserve.
Coat of Many Colors Label: RCA / Nashville Legacy
Coat of Many Colors was, in many ways, a breakthrough album for Parton. She’d already begun the process of creating an identity for herself outside of her work with Porter Wagoner and had been doing pretty well at it, but it wasn’t until this 1971 release that she became a consistent force to be reckoned with on the country singles charts. Wagoner wrote three of the songs on the album – “If I Lose My Mind,” “The Mystery of the Mystery,” and “The Way I See You” – but, fine songs though they may be, they’re not the tracks that make the biggest impression. The autobiographical title track finds Parton singing of a coat that her mother made for her out of rags, and how, no matter how it may have looked to others, she wore it proudly it because of how special it was to her; Mama comes into play on the next track as well, given how much she would’ve disapproved of the “Traveling Man” Parton was “stepping out with.” There are plenty of other instantly catchy numbers, like “My Blue Tears” and “Early Morning Breeze,” but other album standouts include the soulful “Here I Am,” which sounds like it could’ve been written for Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and the lovely piano-led “The Way I See You.” Wagoner would continue to make songwriting contributions to Parton’s albums for a bit longer (his “Love Coming Down” turns up on Jolene), but Coat of Many Colors was the official shot across his bow: Parton could do just fine on her own, thank you kindly.
My Tennessee Mountain Home Label: RCA / Nashville Legacy
When listening to 1973’s My Tennessee Mountain Home, the following thought will almost certainly pass through one’s mind: “Almost no one could get away with writing and recording an album this personal and have people believe that they’re serious.” Mind you, not everyone will say that Parton did get away with it – she’s just so darned sweet and Southern that it’s tough for skeptics to believe that she’s for real – but if it’s an act, she’s doing a damned good impression of wearing her heart on her sleeve on each and every track. Besides, look at that picture of her on the inside cover, with that sweet smile, pink dress, and her hair all done up in bows; you’ve got to be a real cynical bastard to not believe she’s 100% for real. The album is an autobiographical concept piece which details Parton’s arrival in Nashville, starting with a recitation of her first letter home. Much of the record is spent reminiscing about her Mama and Daddy, as in “Old Black Kettle” and “I Remember,” but Parton avoids getting too rose-colored with her recollecting, pointedly offering up a song entitled “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad).” The gospel-tinged title cut is particularly heart-swelling, as is Parton’s homage to all the hard work her father did to keep the family fed (“Daddy’s Working Boots”). By the end of the album, when Parton’s firmly back in the present and singing of being “Down on Music Row,” the listener’s been on a poignant trip they won’t soon forget.
Jolene Label: RCA / Nashville Legacy
There was a temptation to dole out the four and a half stars to Jolene, Parton’s 1974 album, based on its title cut alone; after all, any song that can be successfully covered by the White Stripes, Strawberry Switchblade, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes has got to be a classic, right? Indeed. The title character is an evil young man-eater who goes around stealing men just because she can, and the desperation in Parton’s voice would have you convinced that if Jolene steals her man, she ain’t never gonna get another. There’s more to the record than this one track, however; Jolene also includes another of Parton’s signature songs, and one that, no matter how many copies of the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard” were sold, Whitney Houston still couldn’t take away from her: “I Will Always Love You.” Where Houston tried to showboat her way through the song via an overblown arrangement, Parton’s simple performance proves far more effective for the straightforward sentimentality of the lyrics. Jolene was the beginning of Parton’s commercial domination, and it’s easy to hear why; every song has a memorable melody, inspiring spin after spin. By the way, there are four previously-unreleased bonus tracks added on, and damned if they aren’t all as good as the songs on the album itself. (Be forewarned, though, that “Crackerjack” is about Parton’s dog, and it has about as happy an ending as “My Dog Skip,” so have your handkerchief at the ready.)