1977 saw Dolly making a decisive move in her career and taking full artistic control. The portentously titled New Harvest … First Gathering was controversial, as critics and country fans saw Dolly “going pop”. To be honest, her previous effort, the Porter Wagoner co-produced All I Can Do, started the popwards move, but this album (produced by Dolly with the assistance of Gregg Perry) was a big step further down that road, with only one track I would categorise as unquestionably “country”. The sound throughout is definitely experimental. The music was mainly recorded in Nashville but mixed in LA, with the steel guitar present on most tracks but relegated into the background so much as to be inaudible. Future country star Janie Fricke is among the backing vocalists.
The title track’s optimistic lyrics look forward to a new start following the end of the legal proceedings which had delayed her final break with Porter. As a single, it peaked outside the top 10 on the country charts, and failed to make the impact Dolly must have hoped on the pop charts. It expresses her feelings about being set free like an imprisoned eagle, and an impassioned and obviously heartfelt vocal is supported by Gregg Perry’s plangent piano and gospel backing vocals marking the new start musically.
The rather shouty ‘Holdin’ On To You’ has an intrusive almost disco beat and blaring horns, and might have been a better bet for pop success. ‘How Does It Feel’ is up-tempo, beaty and not too bad (although not country by any means), but gets far too repetitive. The peppy but equally repetitive ‘Getting In My Way’ is very pop and very annoying. I also dislike the closing ‘There’ with its mixture of gospel choir and child backing vocals and build from hushed start to full blown climax.
Dolly wrote most of the songs, but included two covers of R&B classics. A very whispery version of ‘My Girl’ (given a gender–neutral makeover as ‘My Love’) is a dud, but the upbeat ‘Your Love Has Lifted Me (Higher And Higher)’ is quite enjoyable.
The love song ‘You Are’ is a pop ballad with a delicately cooed vocal and string arrangement, which works well on its own terms, although not to my personal taste. The most interesting track, ‘Where Beauty Lives In Memory’, is an acute psychological portrait of a crazy old woman trapped in her memories of youth, beauty and a lost love. Almost alone on the album, the aural experimentation works for me on this rather poignant story.
The banjo-led part-recited ‘Applejack’ was the sole reminder of Dolly’s Appalachian roots, with its playful vocals, and backing vocals from a number of veteran stars, including Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and her husband Johnny Wright, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and his wife, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Chet Atkins, plus Dolly’s parents. In another nod to the past, Dolly’s former producer Bob Ferguson contributes the voice of Applejack, the old man from Dolly’s childhood who is the song’s subject. Dolly herself plays banjo on the track. It is charming, but at times feels a little too deliberate an affirmation that despite the pop material elsewhere, Dolly was still a country girl at heart. It was not a single, but has become a fan favorite.
This is a very varied sounding album, and one has to applaud Dolly’s willingness to try out new things with her music, even if the result is not often to my personal tastes. It was released on CD in 2007 in Europe only as a 2for1 with its immediate predecessor, but is easy to find. It is also available digitally.