Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Loretta/Dolly/Tammy [extended]

  • Tammy's Greatest Hits [Epic, 1969]
  • Loretta Lynn Writes 'Em and Sings 'Em [Decca, 1970] A-
  • The Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1970] A
  • Coat of Many Colors [RCA Victor, 1971] A-
  • I Wanna Be Free [Decca, 1971] B
  • The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1971] B
  • Tammy's Greatest Hits Volume II [Epic, 1971] B
  • One's on the Way [Decca, 1972] B+
  • 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
  • Loretta Lynn's Greatest Hits Vol. II [MCA, 1974] A-
  • Best of Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1975] A+
  • Dolly [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • Tammy Wynette's Greatest Hits Volume Three [Epic, 1975] C+
  • All I Can Do [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • When the Tingle Becomes a Chill [MCA, 1976] B
  • New Harvest . . . First Gathering [RCA Victor, 1977] B-
  • Greatest Hits [Epic, 1977] A-
  • I Remember Patsy [MCA, 1977] B+
  • Heartbreaker [RCA Victor, 1978] C
  • Womanhood [Epic, 1978] B
  • Greatest Hits Volume 4 [Epic, 1978] B+
  • Just Tammy [Epic, 1978] B-
  • The Very Best of Loretta and Conway [MCA, 1979] B+
  • 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs [RCA Victor, 1981] B+
  • The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982] B-
  • Heartbreak Express [RCA Victor, 1982] B-
  • Trio [Warner Bros., 1987] B+
  • Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits [Epic, 1987] B-
  • White Limozeen [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither
  • Best Loved Hits [Epic, 1991] Choice Cuts
  • Country Music Hall of Fame Series [MCA, 1992] A
  • Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Epic, 1992] A-
  • Honky Tonk Angels [Columbia, 1993] Neither
  • Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud
  • One [MCA, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud
  • The Grass Is Blue [Sugar Hill, 1999] **
  • Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither
  • Van Lear Rose [Interscope, 2004] ***
  • The Definitive Collection [MCA Nashville, 2005]
  • Backwoods Barbie [Dolly, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • Coal Miner's Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn [Columbia Nashville, 2010] A-
  • Full Circle [Legacy, 2016] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tammy Wynette: Tammy's Greatest Hits [Epic, 1969]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Loretta Lynn: Loretta Lynn Writes 'Em and Sings 'Em [Decca, 1970]
Owen Bradley steals a trick from Andrew Loog Oldham here even if he never heard of the fella--like Flowers, this is a "concept album" conceived largely to recycle old material, and like Flowers it works anyway. No cover filler or publishing tie-ins, just the continuing saga of a strong-willed woman committed to a male-defined world. In most of these pungently colloquial songs (punch line of "You Wanna Give Me a Lift": "But this ole gal ain't goin' that far"), Lynn is either boasting or telling somebody off, and even when she's addressing herself to a woman, what's got her excited is a man--her man, for better or (usually) worse. A-

Dolly Parton: 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

Dolly Parton: 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-

Loretta Lynn: I Wanna Be Free [Decca, 1971]
Like any country workhorse, Lynn customarily pads her three or four albums a year with the popular songs of the day. Here the unadorned sexuality of "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and the white gospel roots of "Put Your Hand in the Hand" prove that for a great natural singer remakes needn't be a waste. But then there's "Rose Garden." And "Me and Bobby McGee." B

Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton: The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton [RCA Victor, 1971]
There are real pleasures here, but they're chiefly vocal. The surprises are few, the jokes weak and infrequent, the sentimentality overripe ("Jeanie's Afraid of the Dark," yeucch), and the best song's by Paxton, nor Parton. In short, a lousy ad for couple-bonding, though whether Porter is repressing Dolly or Dolly holding out on Porter I wouldn't know. B

Tammy Wynette: Tammy's Greatest Hits Volume II [Epic, 1971]
While no one was looking, that stand-by-your-man gal was writing a female identity song: "The Only Time I'm Really Me" (is when I'm asleep--and presumably dreaming). Which is almost cancelled out by one of the most appalling divine justice songs in that godforsaken subgenre: "The Wonders You Perform" (at least it's not about her husband). Beyond those two it's the best of the usual--her sultry resignation has archetypal power when the ideology isn't too repellent. It's more archetypal on her first best-of, though. B

Loretta Lynn: One's on the Way [Decca, 1972]
Lynn projects total empathy for the protagonist of the title song, a Topeka housewife who knows about women's oppression firsthand but regards "women's lib" as a glamorous media event, as distant as Liz's "million-dollar pact." An epochal two-and-a-half minutes, class-conscious in the great country tradition, and I don't care if it was written by a man (Shel Silverstein) who also works for Johnny Cash, Dr. Hook, and Playboy. What follows is an ordinary country album done right, avoiding banal covers and providing auxiliary songs of consistent interest. Lynn's "L-O-V-E, Love," about talking dirty, is among the best, and there's not a bummer in the bunch. How many works of rock can you say that about these days? B+

Dolly Parton: 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+

Dolly Parton: 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

Dolly Parton: 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-

Dolly Parton: 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

Loretta Lynn: Loretta Lynn's Greatest Hits Vol. II [MCA, 1974]
Each (short) side closes off with the obligatory domestic bromide. But the other nine songs--including six by the singer and two by Shel Silverstein--embody Lynn's notion of female liberation. This notion isn't very sisterly--the only other woman who appears here is headed for Fist City--but does break through the male-identified dead ends of a Tammy Wynette. If Loretta doesn't get her love rights, then she's gonna declare her independence, and even scarier for her man, she sounds like she's itching for an excuse. You know about funky? Well, then, call this spunky. A-

Dolly Parton: 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 Parton: 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+

Tammy Wynette: Tammy Wynette's Greatest Hits Volume Three [Epic, 1975]
Songs like "(You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother" are why so many women more honest than Tammy don't want to be mothers--makes having a child seem like losing a self, and defines having a self as manipulating others. Though it was written by two men, I credit Tammy with enough autonomy to blame her for it. And would add (somewhat paradoxically) that the only time this compilation comes to life is during the song about her children and the song to them. C+

Dolly Parton: 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+

Loretta Lynn: When the Tingle Becomes a Chill [MCA, 1976]
Lola Jean Dillon's title hit is the best song about frigidity, as we once called it, since the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now," and gets Lynn's most listenable side in years off with a bang. Too bad "Daydreams About Night Things," the best song about having the hots for your spouse since "Behind Closed Doors," wasn't chosen to soften the impact of "You Love You" and "All I Want From You (Is Away)"--"Leaning on Your Love," which got the nod instead, belongs on side two, which you needn't bother with, since nobody else did. B

Dolly Parton: 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-

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Greatest Hits [Epic, 1977]
If rock and roll plunges forward like young love, then country music partakes of the passionate stability of a good marriage, and here's one couple who know for damn sure that the wedding doesn't end the story. Their hits are alternately tender and recriminatory, funny and fucked up, but they're always felt and they're always interesting. And even though George and Tammy eventually succumbed to d-i-v-o-r-c-e, they don't give you the feeling that that's the way it has to come out. A-

Loretta Lynn: I Remember Patsy [MCA, 1977]
I had hopes this might take its place beside one of my favorite country albums, Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, but Patsy Cline's legacy is a lot narrower than Jimmie's, and Loretta's not quite the singer Frizzell was, either. At forty-one, her voice is thicker than Patsy's was when she died at thirty, and she's a lot more country, especially in her pronunciation--that slight lisp, and the way she distorts the vowels around "r" sounds. On the other hand, she has decent material to work with for once, and her "Why Can't He Be You" is a breathtaking object lesson in the connections between suffering and exaltation. Annoyance: the seven-minute spoken reminiscence that closes the album. B+

Dolly Parton: 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

Tammy Wynette: Womanhood [Epic, 1978]
In which Billy Sherrill performs (or permits) a miracle: five good songs on one side. (Nobody ever accused Bily of thinking big.) On side one, we learn about virtue sorely tempted, the limits of sisterhood, music as emotional communion, virtue abandoned, and the limits of professionalism. On side two, Tammy confuses Wolfman Jack with John the Baptist and then retreats into the commonplace. With country albums, you take what you can get. B

Tammy Wynette: Greatest Hits Volume 4 [Epic, 1978]
Nothing like d-i-v-o-r-c-e to bring out the independent woman in you--the only marital-commitment song here is about having an alcoholic husband. And where in her domestic-paragon phase she was beginning to sound prim, here she ranges from forthright to positively hot, torching up her tales of star-crossed sex as if she's just learned how to masturbate. Point of interest: Billy Sherrill's latest collaborator on Tammy's material is George Richey, Tammy's latest husband. B+

Tammy Wynette: Just Tammy [Epic, 1978]
This is schlock with conviction, the essential country music parade. But what makes a great country album for urban speedsters like me is lyrics that are worth listening to, maybe even thinking about, and these begin and end with the opening cut, "They Call It Making Love." B-

Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty: The Very Best of Loretta and Conway [MCA, 1979]
While the midrange emotions here are projected likably enough, they're nowhere near as powerful as on George and Tammy's best-of, perhaps because L&C have never been a real-life couple. But this does offer fourteen virtually dudless tracks and includes four great ones--two blatantly comedic ("Spiders and Snakes" and the classic "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly") and two shamelessly bathetic ("The Letter" and "As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone," both graced by long passages of recitative). Note billing order. B+

Dolly Parton: 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+

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee: The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982]
This twenty-song mix-and-match isn't even monumental in theory, because two of these "kings and queens of country music" haven't earned their crowns--BL is a rock and roll princess who never really graduated, KK a frog ditto. But BL is also a pleasing bedroom-voiced journeywoman who turns in half of a surprisingly definitive "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning." The other half comes from WN, who's on nine cuts and sounds like he's thinking even when he also sounds like he's asleep. DP teams with WN on a surprisingly definitive "Everything's Beautiful in Its Own Way," but sounds more at home on the album's two utter unlistenables--"Ping Pong," in which DP at her cutesiest is outdone by KK at his klutziest, and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," in which DP kisses KK's warty little head and he croaks back. B-

Dolly Parton: 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-

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio [Warner Bros., 1987]
By devoting herself to Nelson Riddle and operetta, Sun City scab Linda Ronstadt has made boycotting painless, but her long-promised hookup with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris will be hard to resist if the vocal luxuries of the mainstream biz make you swoon. Acoustic country delving from "Farther Along" and Jimmie Rodgers to Kate McGarrigle and Linda Thompson, it's a slightly scholarly yet sometimes thrilling apotheosis of harmony--three voices that have triumphed in the winner-take-all of the marketplace making a go of cooperation. Free of tits, glitz, and syndrums for the first time in a decade, Parton's penetrating purity dominates the one-off as it once did country music history. The only one of the three who's had the courage of her roots recently, Harris sounds as thoughtful up front as she does in the backup roles that are her forte. And while Linda's plump soprano will always hint of creamed corn, she's a luscious side dish in this company. B+

Tammy Wynette: Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits [Epic, 1987]
Her corn pone all husk, her bouffant as sultry as Aretha's do, she sings like the heartbreaker who's about to best the long-suffering wife her lyrics put on a pedestal, but no matter how hypocritical her trademark equation between marriage, submission, and fulfillment, she remains the most soulful female country singer ever. And since she left George Jones (which no one in the world blames her for) and found fulfillment with George Richey a decade ago, her music has gone phfft. Twenty years my foot--the newest song here is a (professional) reunion with George (Jones) that's seven years old. In a world where Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits Volume 4, and George & Tammy's Greatest Hits still exist, this unexceptionable CD-length commemorative issue is about as useful as a kudzu seed. Consult your catalogue. B-

Dolly Parton: 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

Dolly Parton: Eagle When She Flies [Columbia, 1991] Neither

Tammy Wynette: Best Loved Hits [Epic, 1991]
"Unwed Fathers" Choice Cuts

Loretta Lynn: Country Music Hall of Fame Series [MCA, 1992]
She's not quite the singer Patsy was and Tammy theoretically remains, but her sense of self is more archetypal--deep country without Patsy's jazzy detours, male-identified without Tammy's sultry masochism. When she was flying she wrote her own songs, the feistiest (and best) the politically incorrect "Fist City" (biff-bam-boom, sister) and "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath" (his metaphor, she revels in it). But the borrowed marital laments of her decline--"After the Fire Is Gone," "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill," and Shel Silverstein's eternal "One's on the Way"--sound lived in. That can happen when you get hitched at 13, have four kids before you're 20, take off at 26 with a song that goes "Success has made a failure of our home," and stand by your man. A

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 [Epic, 1992]
In art if not life, this was a rich, amazing marriage, goofy and tragic at the same time. Anybody who thinks Tammy got nothing but trouble from the same old him should compare this "My Elusive Dreams" to the David Houston classic. Anybody who thinks serial monogamy equals mental health should try and giggle at the Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming." Anybody who thinks novelty songs say nothing new should check the postconjugal intimacy of Bobby Braddock's "Did You Ever." A fitting companion to volume one--just press stop before the inspirational finale. A-

Honky Tonk Angels [Columbia, 1993] Neither

Dolly Parton: Slow Dancing With the Moon [Columbia, 1993] Dud

George Jones & Tammy Wynette: One [MCA, 1995]
"If God Met You" Choice Cuts

Dolly Parton: Hungry Again [Decca, 1998] Dud

Dolly Parton: 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"). **

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither

Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose [Interscope, 2004]
Are we allowed to wonder whether she's spunky enough for a Nashville legend with a new lease on life? ("Red Shoes," "Story of My Life") ***

Loretta Lynn: The Definitive Collection [MCA Nashville, 2005]
The shrewd minority who suspect 69-year-old Loretta Lynn's Jack White-produced 2004 comeback Van Lear Rose didn't do her justice are ill-served by her confusing catalogue. This 25-tracker is her definitivest CD so far, adding three stone classics, including "The Pill," to 2002's All Time Greatest Hits, but withholding three others, including the unreconstructed "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath." Although the 16-track 1991 Country Music Hall of Fame Series is more surefire, the extras here fill out the picture. Her voice too pert, spunky, and honest for melodrama, Lynn is best playing her real-life role of long-suffering wife with druthers, with duet partner Conway Twitty occasionally broadening her romantic range. But beyond that, she's the most forthrightly downhome artist, male or female, ever to conquer Nashville. [Blender: 4]

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

Loretta Lynn and Friends: Coal Miner's Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn [Columbia Nashville, 2010]
Two historic performances, Carrie Underwood's cornpone-deluxe "You're Lookin' at Country" and a Lambert-Crow-Lynn trifecta taking the title song home, counterbalance cocky ones by the matched pair Jack White and Kid Rock. Both are guys, as you may have noticed, so let me note that Alan Jackson and Steve Earle distinguish themselves as the duet partners they're proud to be. This isn't just a women's record, it's a sisterhood record--not even the ever more stylized Lucinda Williams tries to upstage the artist who did more than Kitty Wells herself to make all these gals' artistic lives possible. Lynn still owns the songs, but she's pleased as pie to lend them out, and they come back to her lovingly countrified even when the borrower is Hayley Williams, of Paramore and Franklin, Tennessee, who acts naturally over an acoustic guitar and should give Jack White lessons. A-

Loretta Lynn: Full Circle [Legacy, 2016]
Remakes that never seem redundant from an 83-year-old who's lived clean but never been a prig about it. ("Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," "Wine Into Water") ***