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Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Dolly, Dolly, Dolly’

Derided by critics and Dolly Parton aficionados alike, the singer’s 22nd studio album would find her mining the catalogs of contemporary rock stars and their producers for material, with only a handful of these tracks coming from Music Row songwriters, and none from Dolly herself. Akin to Parton turning away from her own songwriting muse, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly was another attempt at marketing the Tennessee girl as a full-on pop star and was her least country-sounding album to date with the songs ranging from smooth acoustic pop ballads to outlandish string-laden affairs and even to (shudder) disco.   It didn’t match the sales threshold of her previous crossover albums as a gold or platinum-seller. Still, two single releases found their way to #1 and and the set found its way to the Country Albums chart top 10.

“Starting Over Again”, the lead single, was written by Donna Summer, one of the biggest star’s in music at the time of this album’s release, and her husband Bruce Sudano. It’s said to be based on the divorce of Sudano’s parents.  A tinkling piano frames Parton’s whispering vocal for the first half of the song.  Layers of percussion are added before a lush orchestra joins her and she turns up her soprano to keep up.  The story of two 50 year-olds “breaking up a happy home” was a #1 country hit and hit the U.S. top 40 for Dolly in early 1980 and Reba took a cover to #19 in 1996.  Summer never recorded the song, despite her personal connection to the song and being a co-writer, but did perform it several times over the years on television specials.

The sweetly demure “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle To You” followed at country radio, and was another chart-topper.  Here, a much more traditional country arrangement with traces of pedal steel and a much less jazzy piano follows Parton as she sings of telling her man the love she has for him is greater than any before it.  But this is the only indication of the early Dolly records, as the rest of the songs fall into a variety of styles, none of them country.  Even Parton’s trademark Appalachian twang has been smoothed out to suit the slicker arrangements.

She kicks up her heels in the synth-pop infused “Same Old Fool”, which is clever enough and Dolly sells it convincingly with her charming vocal.  It’s still terribly dated and a bit jarring to modern-trained ears.  Worse is the disco-parody sound of “Sweet Agony”, which begins with a Grateful Dead-inspired guitar intro, but is propelled by a foreign-to-me rhythm section.  Even Dolly’s crystal clear soprano is no match for these contrived dance-club lyrics though.  My least favorite track is the hard-rocking “Packin’ It Up”. With a shredding electric guitar leading the way and country-girl-comes-to-town storyline, it does sound about 25 years ahead of its time.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear The Jane Dear Girls singing it. “You’re The Only One I’ll Ever Need” is likewise executed in the dance-pop fashion, but is a much better song and a much more flattering horn section framing the singer’s rocking soprano vocal performance.

Still trying on different vocal styles, Parton’s much more convincing as a torch-song singer than dance-floor queen with “Even a Fool Would Let Go”, a lush, swaying heartbreak number.  Its romantic mood and the singer’s buttery vocal belies its melancholy story, but is a highlight of the album for me.  Selling romantic lyrics is certainly Dolly’s strong point in this west coast pop environment. With “Say Goodnight”, which flirts with doo-wop towards the climax of the song, she plays the lovelorn heroine so convincingly I couldn’t leave her alone, not that night.

Parton is to be lauded for taking musical risks, and her gutsy performances of each track here. The songs themselves serve to showcase Parton’s knack for selecting, and not just writing, great songs. Cheesy early ’80s production aside – again supplied by Gary Klein – most of the tracks are good songs and Dolly’s unparalleled effervescence shines through the best of them.

Grade: B-

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly is available digitally at amazon. Used CD copies are very inexpensive.