I’ve always had this idea that Dolly Parton was more of a pantomime character than an actual, real living, breathing musician. As much as anything that has come up thus far in this project, it’s a record I’m fairly sure I would never otherwise have listened to. Dolly Parton is filed away under at least two different mental categories that would tend to put me off: country-and-western and what, for want of a better term, I can only call ‘showbiz tunes’.
I struggle to explain my prejudice against country-and-western as I like a lot of music that comes from the same roots as American country – anything from Low to Ryan Adams, through the War on Drugs, the Byrds and the more folk-tinged aspects of REM.. Of course, we prefer to call it Americana, or perhaps ‘roots music’ rather than ‘country and western’, but maybe there’s not so much more to it than that I can’t get past the Stetsons and the horses.
Over at Mookbarks, Fiona speculated about the difference between American Country and British folk music. My take on it, for what it’s worth (warning: oncoming sweeping generalisation approaching) is that the country tradition that Parton comes from, which is by no means the whole of country music – discovered on the Grand Old Opry in her late teens – is much closer to the light entertainment music-hall tradition in this country than our folk music traditions.
Take the title track, Coat of Many Colors: is it really that hard to imagine hearing something very similar, perhaps dressed up in more modern production values, being belted out a talent-show starlet on ITV on a Saturday night. Yes, being country music, it is inevitably also marinated in the specific time and place from which it came (I’ve never been there, but somehow I imagine the deep South being the sort of place where the sentiments of She Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like) don’t sound quite so strange as they do to my ears) but this is fairly unashamedly big pop music.
But what of the music itself? Catching up with the Big Mouth podcast, earlier this week, the team were reviewing Glen Campbell’s final album, and one of the guests was moved to remark that the ‘farewell album’ can be made to work in country music because “it is the most mawkish musical genre”. And listening to, in particular, My Blue Tears and If I Lose My Mind, with their lachrymose pedal-steel guitar, the remark seemed fitting.
It may be no coincidence that to my mind the weakest tracks are those written by some-time collaborator Porter Wagoner. The Mystery of The Mystery is the low point. Now it may simply be that, as someone who thinks that while Richard Dawkins misses an awful lot of fine opportunities to keep his mouth shut, he’s basically right about the god malarkey, but this really does feature toe-curlingly awful (and slightly creepy) lyrics, set to an entirely forgettable tune.
“The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown
Only God can know and man must not see
Great minds have tried but they will not find
The answer to the mystery of the mystery.”
Maybe, maybe I’m being unfair about what is really just a song about the limits of human knowledge, as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up in the Church Of God. But Edie Brickell put it much better. Religion is a smile on a dog…
But while spending a week with this record did for the most part confirm that my musical prejudices serve me reasonably well: it is, for the most part, not really my thing, there’s more than enough here to show that Parton has genuine ability as a song-writer. In particular, the further she gets away from the tropes of country and western music, the more interesting this record is. Early Morning Breeze is a slice of jazz-influenced folk that, whisper it, sounds like it could have been recorded on this side of the pond and helps me to understand why Laura Marling is an admirer. Here I Am goes easy on the pedal-steel and throws in more than a hint of gospel and soul music, the sound of Tennessee meeting Detroit. And either of these: Parton the fey folk-singer or the full-throated soul diva, sound more interesting than this record.
Highlights: Early Morning Breeze, Here I Am