My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Eagle When She Flies’

Throughout the 1980s, Dolly Parton continued with her pop-hubris sound, with her albums getting steadily worse as the decade progressed, finally culminating in 1987 with the alarmingly bad Rainbow.  When that album – her first for Columbia Records – failed to produce a country top 40 hit, the singer switched directions with her next release. The Ricky Skaggs-produced White Limozeen was a return to form for Parton, back to a more contemporary country sound with no attempt at scoring crossover hits.   The result was her first chart-toppers in 4 years and her best album in over a decade.  In 1991, Dolly issued the follow-up to Limozeen with Eagle When She Flies.  It would earn her another country #1 single and would be her first #1 album since 1980’s 9 to 5 and Other Odd Jobs, and become only her second platinum set.  The material and production – this time provided by Steve Buckingham and Gary Smith – followed the sounds of White Limozeen and propelled Parton into the forefront of the booming country scene of the early ’90s, if only for a little while.

Leading off the album at radio was the duet with Ricky Van Shelton. It was written by Dolly’s brother Floyd, and is one of three tracks here she didn’t have a hand in writing. “Rockin’ Years” is a stone country love song that finds the pair trading promises of forever to one another. The memorable waltzing chorus and sweet sentiment sent it sailing to the top of the country singles chart.  Parton delivers one of her best full-voiced performances alongside Shelton’s smooth baritone.  Given Parton’s renewed favor at radio, it’s a bit perplexing that “Silver and Gold”, an uncompromising gospel song, was shipped to radio next.  Parton convincingly sings of meeting a ragged old man, presumably an earthly incarnation of Jesus, who reminds her the greatest things in life don’t cost a thing, and more importantly, to prepare yourself for the eternal kingdom of God.  From Parton’s trademark whispering vocals in the last verse to the simple and attractive melody, it sounds like a Parton original, but actually comes from the songwriting team of Gregg, Stan, and Carl Perkins.  Getting a song like it to a respectable #15 in 1991 was a testament in itself.

Next at radio, and likely the final nail in Parton’s radio airplay coffin, was the title track.  Good a song as it is, I have to wonder why nobody doubted the song’s commercial appeal.  Behind the song’s remarkable lyric is an anthemic production, beginning softly at first and building into Parton singing with no less than a full choir and an orchestra by the end.  It’s no surprise to me that it only went to #33.  Had the final single impacted radio first, and cemented Parton’s hit-making status, it may have fared better.  But we’ll never know.  The last single was “Country Road”, a jaunty contemporary number, where the singer implores the town’s highfalutin ladies man to check out the country girl. It’s a favorite for me with the breezy melody laced with steel guitar flourishes, and a memorable lead guitar track. Plus it’s one of Parton’s best performances here.

I’ve always felt this album was overlooked because of its place near the end of the hit-making stage of Parton’s storied catalog, but mostly because the wrong singles were sent to radio.  Certainly others could have hit with larger audiences.  The opening track “If You Need Me”, is a fun grassroots barn burner that serves as a goodbye letter to an unreliable man. Lorrie Morgan joins in for the bluesy female confrontational that is “Best Woman Wins”.  Likewise enjoyable are the somewhat power ballad “What A Heartache”, which features sparse piano-led verses and another winning full-voiced vocal from Parton, and the similarly arranged take on what we all do, and put up with, and get from our “Family”.

When it was released, Eagles When She Flies found Dolly Parton once again standing front and center with modern mainstream country music.  She takes the listener from contemporary country to bluesy numbers and whispery gospel to full-voiced power ballads, all with satisfying results.  Its commercial success notwithstanding, this is Parton’s finest collection yet, save for compilations.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

13 responses to “Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Eagle When She Flies’

  1. Razor X July 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

    This is a very good album and would be on my short list of Dolly’s best. I don’t necessarily agree that the wrong singles were sent to radio. “Silver & Gold” may have been too spiritual to have a big commercial impact, but I was always surprised that the title track wasn’t a big hit. It’s not the type of song that would work with radio today, but at the time it was right in the mainstream. The Lorrie Morgan duet might have been a big hit, but there were probably constraints due to both artists being on different labels that prevented it from being released as a single. I liked it at the time, but when I listen to the album now, it’s the one track that hasn’t aged too well.

    I’ve always found it interesting how quickly and abruptly radio lost interest in Dolly’s music. She had a big comeback with “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ LIke That” and “Yellow Roses” that both went to #1, but the remaining singles from White Limozeen all tanked. I can understand why “He’s Alive” wasn’t a big radio hit but it’s odd that they dropped her like a hot potato in the middle of a successful album that had just produced two #1 hits. By the time we get to Eagle When She Flies, she was having difficulty getting airplay. “Rockin’ Chairs” may have succeeded in large part because Ricky Van Shelton was still scoring hits at the time.

    • Ken Johnson July 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      “…I’ve always found it interesting how quickly and abruptly radio lost interest in Dolly’s music….”

      When a popular veteran artist releases mediocre material country radio will generally give them a bit of latitude to get back on track. However at the time of this album’s first single release 7 out of Dolly’s last 9 solo singles had failed to even crack the top 25. (Three of those 9 singles never charted at all!)

      Dolly made herself the poster girl for the early/mid 1980’s pop/country sound that was rapidly falling from favor as the late 1980’s new traditionalist movement in country music was skyrocketing in popularity. Dolly’s pop-flavored ditties heavily laden with synthesizers and orchestration were in direct contrast to the “back to basics” trend where country music was heading. As a radio program director during that era I can tell you first hand that Dolly’s often questionable new songs were not getting requested as they had just a few years earlier. With the exceptional amount of vibrant new music available by exciting new acts it made no sense to spend a lot of airtime playing mediocre pop songs by a veteran act that didn’t seem to realize where the tastes of country audiences were heading. Country radio gave Dolly plenty of opportunities to redeem herself but she squandered them on extremely poor choices for singles.

      Columbia Records shares much of the blame as they gave Dolly an overpriced contract intending to make her a pop superstar and benefit from exponentially increased record sales. It was not to be. She did earn three number one country hits with Columbia but pop airplay was virtually non-existant.

      Fellow superstars Merle Haggard, George Jones & Tammy Wynette were also releasing less than stellar new material by the early 1990’s that adversely affected their careers too…… Dolly was not alone.

      • Razor X July 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm

        Dolly wasn’t releasing pop-flavored ditties by this stage of the game. Her last album for RCA, which was heavy on the synthesizers, was released in 1985. In 1987 she released the Trio album and radio was quite receptive. Then came the disastrous Rainbow, which was never intended to appeal the country market.

        White Limozeen was next and that was her big back-to-basics album and radio was on board, but only for the first two singles. I can understand why “He’s Alive” wasn’t a big radio hit but I don’t understand why the subsequent singles performed so poorly: “Time For Me To Fly” (#39) probably wasn’t the best choice for a single, but “White Limozeen” should have climbed higher than #29. “Take Me Back To The Country” was one of the best cuts on the album but it didn’t chart at all. So right on the heels of two #1s, radio was done with her, with the sole exception of “Rockin’ Years.”

      • J.R. Journey July 28, 2011 at 8:34 pm

        I wouldn’t say “Rockin Years” was the sole exception. Getting a straight-up gospel song like “Silver and Gold” to #15 was radio still being receptive to Parton in my opinion. If she, or the label, had played their cards right, I think Dolly could have charted hits through the mid 90s anyway. Of course, that’s just speculation, but I do believe radio was still more receptive to Dolly than you do. Her recording of “Time For Me To Fly” is one of the worst cover songs ever IMO, and had no business being played on any radio format. (Dolly is known for epic fails with covers, see “Stairway to Heaven”.) I agree about “Take Me Back To The Country” being a good song, and fitting with what country radio was doing at the time. I still think if different singles had been released from this album, her hit-making stage would have continued a few more years.

        • Razor X July 29, 2011 at 10:23 am

          “Silver and Gold” is not a straight-up gospel song. The lyrics are spiritual but the melody and arrangement are all mainstream-country and wasn’t out of place wtih other things that were being played on the radio at the time. It’s not a “hallelujah-praise-Jesus” kind of song. It should have made the Top 10 and it might have if a younger artist had released it.

        • J.R. Journey July 29, 2011 at 11:43 am

          We’ll have to agree to disagree about this one. Almost every southern gospel song has a mainstream country arrangement these days, most more traditional country than what’s on country radio. And given the song’s subject matter – encountering Jesus, preparing your soul for heaven – I could never think of “Silver and Gold” as anything but gospel. I like it. I just don’t think it had much commercial appeal.

  2. travis on va July 27, 2011 at 9:05 am

    This is also my favorite Dolly album and one that constantly gets pulled out for a listen. I too thought that the tital track should have been a big hit, however if What’s a Heartache imo should have been released its easily my favorite Dolly song of all time. Family gives me chill bumps to this day!

  3. Michael A. July 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

    I’ve always really liked “What a Heartache” too. I believe it’s also one of Dolly’s favorites. It was originally recorded for the Rhinestone soundtrack in the 80s and then again for one of her Sugar Hill bluegrass collections in the early 2000s.

  4. Michael A. July 27, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Also interesting, from a 20-year-old album, “Family” mentions our love of kin who may be addicts, gay (gasp!), etc. I’m guessing today’s “outlaws” wouldn’t even touch that one.

    • J.R. Journey July 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

      Relistening for this review, I was a little surprised by the straightforward honesty of the “Family” lyrics. And I agree many would deem it too risque for even their anti-establishment outlaw releases. Dolly was one of the original outlaws. 🙂 She just doesn’t get credit for it.

  5. Ben Foster July 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I’m a big fan of “Rockin’ Years,” and I’ve loved “Best Woman Wins” about as long as I can remember. The song was also included on Lorrie Morgan’s album Something In Red, which was an album I grew up listening to.

    • J.R. Journey July 27, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      You’re right, “Best Woman Wins” was on the Something In Red album. Likewise, “Rockin’ Years” can also be found on Ricky Van Shelton’s Backroads. I highly recommend both.

  6. Occasional Hope July 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve always really liked Country Road.

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