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.
Buy it at amazon.