(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
She’s still the original big rock candy mountain. After a recording hiatus since 2008’s Backwoods Barbie, she returns with a sun-dappled romp through fields of dazzling musical flowers. The ever-irrepressible Dolly Parton is back with Better Day, a portfolio of feel-better, lift-yourself-up, rejoicing sermons.
In a sturdy career that has spanned decades, she first appeared on the Billboard record charts in 1967 with “Dumb Blonde,” and she has charted over 100 country singles, including 25 No. 1 Billboard hits. That career involves movies, Broadway, business ventures and many awards. But for me, her shining achievement has been the founding of the Imagination Library. That worthy endeavor sends a free book every month to every enrolled child, from birth through kindergarten. Since its beginnings in 1996 in her home county in Tennessee, it has spread across the United States and now includes Canada and the United Kingdom.
The most memorable thing Dolly ever said to me in an interview was, “I’m a brave little soldier,” and that still holds true today. If any show business figure ever totally invented and reinvented herself, it has been Dolly Rebecca Parton. Madonna and Lady Gaga? Forget it. They’re mere pikers compared to the original Brave Little Soldier, all tarted up like Mae West.
On Better Day, in the song “Shine Like the Sun” (written for 9 to 5: The Musical), she emphatically declares:
“I’m gonna shine like the sun when these clouds roll away from my door
When it’s all said and done, I won’t be at your mercy no more
I am taking what’s mine, I’ll be fine, I am second to none
And when the losing’s all done, I’m gonna shine like the sun.”
The album also shows Dolly updating her style to current music practices and viewpoints.
In a typically Dolly-esque twist on the current faux outlaws’ boasts about how country they are, Dolly sings in “Country Is as Country Does”:
“I can live in a mansion or a double-wide
Eat sushi raw or my catfish fried
Wherever I am, then that’s where I belong
’Cause I’m quite content with who I am
And if you ain’t, well, kiss my ham
Country is as country does, and I’m country to the bone.”
Five of the 12 tracks are recent compositions written for this project. The others come from throughout her long career and display different aspects of her musical roots. “Holding Everything,” to cite one example, sounds very much like a working precursor to “I Will Always Love You.” The song was recorded by Alabama’s Randy Owen on his solo album One on One. A whispered lead-in intones:
“My heart beats — wild and deep
Every thought in my mind has your name on it
Hard to breathe, I can’t speak
Think of your love and just how much I want it.”
And then Dolly explodes in full voice in the chorus:
“When I’m touching you, I feel a sudden change
When I’m kissing you, I taste the sun and rain
When I look at you, I hear the angels sing
And when I’m holding you … I’m holding everything”
Interestingly, she wrote the song “Together You and I” while still serving as Porter Wagoner’s female sidekick and foil on his Nashville TV show in the early 1970s. The stint forged her mettle, especially when she found the courage to walk away from the volatile Wagoner to launch her fledging solo career.
When personal unpleasantness or career setbacks mar her life, she kicks out the offender in the song “Get Out and Stay Out.” She has said the power of positive thinking has saved her many times.
She has transcended musical genres since then and successfully re-invented herself over and over again. She built a solid country solo identity in the 1970s, then lost much of her core country audience when she moved her career to Hollywood and began making movies and recording pop songs. But she became a genuine Hollywood star, especially in 1980’s 9 to 5. We don’t remember bumps in the road, such as the movie Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone attempting to portray a country star.
She began crafting a return to country music and won a Grammy for her collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt on Trio. A later series of brilliant bluegrass-tinged albums harked back to her Appalachian heritage and childhood. With works such as the Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue, she brought back many old fans and created many new ones.
Country music’s Sister Sunshine marches on indefatigably, preaching an uplifting message of love and happiness and cheer and faith, along with an honest work ethic. As she sings in “The Sacrifice,” “You don’t drink the water if you don’t dig the well.”