Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dolly Parton

  • The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970] A
  • Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971] A-
  • My Tennessee Mountain Home [RCA Victor, 1973] B+
  • Bubbling Over [RCA Victor, 1973] B
  • Jolene [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Love Is Like a Butterfly [RCA Victor, 1974] B
  • Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975] A+
  • Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981] B+
  • Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982] B-
  • White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither
  • Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud
  • Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud
  • The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999] **
  • Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • Run Rose Run [Butterfly, 2022] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970]
The clear little voice is camouflage, just like the big tits. When she's wronged, as she is in five of this record's six sexual encounters (four permanently premarital, one in which hubby throws her into a "mental institution"), her soprano breaks into a cracked vibrato that for me symbolizes her prefeminist pride in her human failings ("Just Because I'm a Woman") and eccentricities ("Just the Way I Am"). Not all of these mini-soaps are perfectly realized and "In the Ghetto" is a mistake. But as far as I'm concerned she rescues "How Great Thou Art" from both Elvis and George Beverly Shea, maybe because a non-believer like me is free to note that the one who ruined her only happy love affair (with her fella Joe and her dog Gypsy, both of whom die) was the Guy in the Sky. A

Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971]
Beginning with two absolutely classic songs, one about a mother's love and the next about a mother's sexuality, and including country music's answers to "Triad" ("If I Lose My Mind") and "The Celebration of the Lizard" ("The Mystery of the Mystery"), side one is genius of a purity you never encounter in rock anymore. Overdisc is mere talent, except "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)," which is more. A-

My Tennessee Mountain Home [RCA Victor, 1973]
This concept album begins with the letter Dolly wrote her mom and dad when she was first pursuing her dreams on Music Row. Fortunately, its subject isn't Music Row, except by contrast. Unfortunately, its pastoral nostalgia, while always charming, is sometimes a little too pat. Sentimental masterpieces like the title track are no easier to come by than any other kind, and the slowed-down remake of "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)"--the early hit in which she declined to go back--doesn't add as much bite as this city boy needs. B+

Bubbling Over [RCA Victor, 1973]
A better-than-average Parton album in many ways, but beyond the usual dull spots two cuts really bother me. Often her genteel aspirations are delightful--who else would pronounce it "o'er our heads," just like in poetry books, instead of slurring "over"? But when her sentimentality becomes ideological--"Babies save marriages," or "Stop protesting and get right with God"--you remember why most great popular artists have rebelled against gentility. B

Jolene [RCA Victor, 1974]
"Jolene" proves that sometimes she's a great singer-songwriter. "I Will Always Love You" proves that sometimes she's a good one. Porter Wagoner's "Lonely Comin' Down" proves that sometimes she should just sing. Her own "Highlight of My Life" proves that sometimes she should just shut up. And the rest proves nothing. B-

Love Is Like a Butterfly [RCA Victor, 1974]
Except for the title tune, the only really interesting songs here are two by Porter Wagoner--Dolly's already done a whole album of "Take Me Back," and "Bubbling Over" is a lot more effervescent than "Gettin' Happy." Still, she repeats herself (and apes others) nicely enough. And blues strings followed by gospel medley rescues side two at the close. B

Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975]
In her productivity and devotion to writing Parton is like a nineteenth-century woman novelist--a hillbilly Louisa May Alcott. What's best about her is her spunkiness and prettiness (Jo crossed with Amy); what's worst is her sentimentality and failures of imagination (Beth crossed with Meg). And this is the best of her best. At least half of these songs have an imaginative power surprising even in so fecund a talent--images like the bargain store and the coat of many colors are so archetypal you wonder why no one has ever thought of them before. The psychological complexities of "Jolene" and "Traveling Man" go way beyond the winsome light melodramas that are Parton's specialty. And even when the writing gets mawkish--"I Will Always Love You" or "Love Is Like a Butterfly"--her voice is there to clear things up. A+

Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975]
Another concept album, this one about--uh-oh--love. All that salvages what would otherwise be atrocious greeting-card doggerel is her singing, and it's not enough. C+

All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976]
Emphasizing Dolly's perky, upbeat side, this doesn't offer a single must-hear track, but it's remarkably consistent. Songs like "When the Sun Goes Down Tomorrow" (country girl goes home) and "Preacher Tom" (saving in the name of the Lord) reprise old themes with specificity and verve, and the covers from Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard broaden her perspective without compromising it. Intensely pleasant. B+

New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977]
Aficionados complain that her sellout has become audible, but while I admit that the cute squeals on "Applejack" are pure merchandising, she's always been willing to sell what she couldn't give away. I think Dolly has made the pop move a lot more naturally than, say, Tanya Tucker. The problem here afflicts every genre: material. B-

Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978]
Her singular country treble is unsuited to rock, where little-girlishness works only as an occasional novelty. As a result, the rock part of her crossover move fails, relegating her to the mawkish pop banality that tempts almost every genius country singer. This she brings off, if you like mawkish pop banality; I prefer mawkish country banality, which is sparer. C

9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981]
How you respond to this quasi-concept album about (of all things) work, which offers exquisitely sung standards from Mel Tillis, Merle Travis, and (I swear it) Woody Guthrie as well as Parton originals almost as militant as the title hit, depends on your tolerance for fame-game schlock. I'd never claim Johnny Carson's damaged her pipes or her brains, but that doesn't mean I have to like Music City banjos and Las Vegas r&b. B+

Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982]
If Willie and Merle, her equals as country artists, can turn into premier pop singers, why can't Dolly? Maybe because she's justifiably smitten with her physical gifts. Just as she can't resist pushup bras, she can't resist oversinging, showing off every curve of a gorgeous voice that's still developing new ones. On the other hand, maybe it has to do with why she wears wigs, which if I'm not mistaken is because she doesn't really like her hair. B-

White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989]
The crossover that marked her new label affiliation never got to the other side, so she lets Ricky Skaggs call the shots--these days he's commercial. Except on the Easter song, he cans the production numbers, and since she can still sing like a genius anytime opportunity knocks, her most country album in years is also her best. Of course, even genius country singers are dragged by ordinary country songs. And though the borrowings are better-than-average, she no longer writes like a pro without help--here provided by, such is life, Mac Davis. B

Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither

Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud

Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud

The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999]
Bluegrass isn't magic--she could put her back into these songs because she didn't get a hernia writing them ("Cash on the Barrelhead," "I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open"). **

Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008]
"Backwoods Barbie" Choice Cuts

Run Rose Run [Butterfly, 2022]
Miraculously undiminished vocally at 76, and she still writes her own too, but by now more inspirational as a public figure than an artist ("Driven," "Woman Up [And Take It Like a Man]") ***

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