My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Burlap & Satin’

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to reveal that this was the first Dolly Parton album I ever purchased. Though I’m not as enamored of it as I was back in 1983, I still have a soft spot for it which makes it a little hard for me to evaluate it with a critical ear. Nevertheless, I shall it give it my best shot.

As the title implies, this album was an attempt provide a balance between pop and country and to appeal to Dolly’s fans in both camps. After a series of mostly bland pop albums, Burlap & Satin was a partial return to a more country sound. There are six Parton original compositions in the collection, some of which had been written for the soundtrack of her recent film, 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. When none of the songs ended up being used for the film, Dolly decided to record them anyway and include them on her next album. The album’s sole single was the very pop-sounding “Potential New Boyfriend”, which was written by Steve Kipner and John Lewis Parker. There is nothing even remotely country about this track, with its typical heavy-handed 80s production. It seemed pretty cool back in 1983 but it hasn’t aged very well. Country radio wasn’t terribly impressed; the single barely cracked the Top 20 there, although it did do well on Billboard’s Dance chart, peaking at #13. After that, RCA seemed to lose interest in promoting the album and didn’t release any subsequent singles, which is a shame because there were several worthy candidates among the album cuts.

The upbeat “Jealous Heart”, one of the six tunes written by Dolly, is one of my favorites in this set and probably would have performed well as a single. Ditto for “One Of Those Days”, which, with its prominent steel guitar track is the most country-sounding offering here. “A Gamble Either Way” is an attempt to provide a back story for Miss Mona, the character Dolly played in The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, while “A Cowboy’s Ways” was apparently meant for Burt Reynolds to sing in the film. The best track on the album, however, is the beautiful and underrated “Appalachian Memories”, which tells the story of a poor Appalachian farm family that moves north in search of a better life, only to find that the prospects there weren’t as bright as they had hoped. A slightly re-tooled version, retitled “Smoky Mountain Memories” appears on Dolly’s 1994 live album Heartsongs.

Not surprisingly, the satin portion of the album works less well than the burlap. Among the pop tunes included are the lyrically light opening cut “Ooo-Eee”, which is about as close to a song about nothing that I have ever heard, and a cover of the classic “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On.” The latter had been first released by Hank Locklin in 1949. That version failed to chart, but a 1958 re-recording made it to #5. Dolly’s version is very synthesizer-heavy, and her performance and that of the background singers provides a very dreamy, almost spacy kind of sound. It was apparently an attempt to make the country classic into a contemporary pop song, but it simply does not work. A cover of another country classic, a remake of “I Really Don’t Want To Know”, fares much better. Originally a pop hit in 1953 for Les Paul and Mary Ford, Eddy Arnold’s version topped the country charts later that same year. The main instrument on Dolly’s version is the synthesizer, but it is much less intrusive than on “Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On”, and does not sound particularly un-country by 1983 standards. Willie Nelson makes an appearance as Dolly’s duet partner. The two had scored a Top 10 hit the previous year when Willie’s vocal was added to “Everything’s Beautiful”, which Dolly had recorded for Monument Records some fifteen years earlier. The success of that single inspired them to join forces again for “I Really Don’t Want To Know.” They sound terrific together and it’s unfortunate that they didn’t do more duets together.

The album closes with the upbeat gospel tune “Calm On The Water”, which Dolly borrowed from a decade later when she wrote another gospel number “High and Mighty”, which was included on her 1993 album Slow Dancing With The Moon.

Burlap & Satin may have its flaws, but it is one of Dolly’s better efforts from an era which admittedly, is not representative of her best work. It was released on a 2-for-1 CD in Europe along with 1985’s Real Love. That version is now out-of-print but is available at obscene prices from third-party sellers on Amazon. Digital versions are available more economically from Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Grade: B