Dolly Parton’s career has run the gamut from moments of artistic near-perfection and long periods of crass commercialism. One of the undisputed high points of her career began in 1999 when she released the first of her acclaimed trilogy of bluegrass albums. Since then she has had moments in which she lapsed back into crossover territory, though never to the extent of her late 1970s and early 1980s output. The title of her latest effort Pure & Simple suggests a collection more in the vein of those bluegrass/acoustic albums, but she is actually attempting a delicate balancing act between tradition and more modern fare — while always remaining fully aware that she is targeting a more mature audience. And for the most part, it works.
Pure & Simple finds Dolly back on her old label RCA in partnership with her own Dolly Records. The album’s ten songs, some old and some new, were all written and produced by Dolly with Tom Rutledge and her brother-in-law Richard Dennison acting as co-producers. Though not an entirely acoustic album, the production is kept tasteful and simple — in keeping with the album’s title. Her voice still sounds lovely, but it should be noted that the none of the songs are particularly vocally challenging. She seems aware of the toll that age imposes on everyone’s vocal ability and has wisely chosen songs and arrangements that don’t push her voice past its limits.
The title track is as good as anything Dolly has ever written. She and her husband Carl Dean recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and “Pure and Simple” seems to be her away of acknowledging the milestone. It’s the album’s best song. The other new compositions are mostly more middle-of-the-road. “Forever young” is a recurring theme. It works particularly well on “I’m Sixteen”, in which the chronologically much older Dolly feels like a teenager again in the presence of her partner. The theme doesn’t work quite as well on “Head Over High Heels” which is along with “Never Not Love You” is one of the album’s weaker moments.
Although I found something to enjoy on every song — even a couple of the weaker ones — it must be noted that Dolly isn’t exactly breaking any new ground here. Two of the songs — “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” and “Tomorrow Is Forever” are remakes of songs she originally recorded with Porter Wagoner, while “Can’t Be That Wrong” is a slightly retooled version of 1984’s “God Won’t Get You”, which borrowed its melody from “A Cowboy’s Ways”, an album cut from 1983’s Burlap and Satin. All of them are beautifully done, forever, so it’s easy to forgive Dolly’s propensity to recycle older material. “God Won’t Get You” was from Dolly’s 1984 film Rhinestone, and and told the tale of a cheater’s lament and regret. The newer version finds her taking a more unrepentant stance — replacing the lyrics “if you think that God won’t get you, well, you’re wrong” with “Can’t find it in my heart to ask forgiveness; anything that feels this right can’t be that wrong.” Though it fundamentally alters the meaning of the song, it works as well as its original incarnation. The former Porter duets are also both particularly well done.
In addition to the remakes, the album’s newer songs sometimes sound like some of the oldies but goodies in Dolly’s vast catalog. “I’m Sixteen” has the same vibe as “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”, “Forever Love” with its’ cello-led string quartet sounds like “What Is It My Love from 1989’s White Limozeen, and some of other new tracks are reminiscent of some of the tracks from 2008’s Backwoods Barbie. Dolly may be retreading a well-worn path with many of these songs, but it is one filled with fond memories and one that I’m always happy to revisit.
I have just heard this album and I have really enjoyed it and I think Dolly sounds great. A+ for me.
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