One of my 2018 blog resolutions was to review an artist’s entire discography, inspired by the incredible blog The Diana Ross Project. I contemplated a few possible artists but in the end the chosen one could only be Dolly Parton. These posts will consist of track by track reviews of the solo albums in order of release.
In February 1967 Dolly Parton announced herself to the world with her debut album Hello, I’m Dolly. She was only 21 but had been singing since she was a child and trying to make a name for herself after moving to Nashville when she graduated high school. Initially her record label Monument hoped she could be a pop singer but her early singles failed to chart. She was paid $50 a week to write for the label and when songs she penned with her uncle Bill Owens became hits for other artists, Dolly was finally given a chance to record a country album. And boy, did she grab the opportunity with both hands, and she’s never let go since. Dolly wrote or co-wrote ten of the twelve songs, covering themes of sexism, adultery and heartbreak. This album generated her first hits and eventually brought her to the attention of Porter Wagoner.
Dolly might be traditionally known for her songwriting but Dumb Blonde, the opening track on this album, was actually written by Curly Putman, famous for Green Green Grass of Home. This was Dolly Parton’s first hit, reaching number 24 on the country charts in 1967. Label boss and album producer Fred Foster wanted to launch her career with something upbeat and simple that didn’t need a lot of singing, as he had reservations about the marketability of her feminine voice to a country audience. This song appealed to Dolly because it was ‘different and gimmicky’ – from the start she knew that establishing a memorable character would be vital to her success. Even if she didn’t write it there’s few other songs in her catalogue that sum up her personality and who she is an artist better than this one. She subverts the stereotypes and establishes her defining trait – this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool. This is myth making, star building from the beginning and became the basis for one of her most famous jokes ‘I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. And I’m not blonde either.’ Listening now to this song you realise that despite her humorous retort she was offended by the dumb blonde jokes, even if she was able to turn them to her advantage.
The next song on the album, Your Ole Handy Man was solely written by Dolly (most of the other songs on the album were co-written with her uncle). The song is full of the frustrations of a woman forced to be a man’s domestic slave. It’s a feisty call to arms against contemporary gender roles. She’s sick of being his ‘handy man’ and she’s going to stand up for herself. In 1967 when Dolly was questioned about the burgeoning ‘women’s movement’ she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and point out the hypocrisy and double standards women faced in society. She concerned herself with presenting women’s lives as she saw them, which has cemented her legacy as being a progressive voice for women in country music.
Disappointing then that the next song takes a backward step for the sisterhood. I Don’t Want To Throw Rice is Jolene’s nasty little cousin, a song about getting revenge on the girl who stole your man by throwing rocks at her on their wedding day. Listening to this now you just don’t understand why she doesn’t throw rocks at HIM, instead she wants to win the cheating bastard back. I guess this is one song that suffers from listening with twenty first century ears. However there is a central core of self doubt in this song – she is so upset because she doesn’t think she’s good enough to find another man. That insecurity makes her vulnerable, and she would eventually crystallise these feelings in a more sympathetic way on Jolene. These three upbeat country numbers that start the album work together to create a forceful sense of her no-nonsense personality.
We have the next song Put It Off Til Tomorrow to thank for Dolly’s whole country music career. Bill Phillips heard the demo tape and not only wanted to record it, he also wanted Dolly to sing back up vocals. The song became a chart hit and DJs were desperate to find out who the mystery girl singer was, since Dolly’s vocal was uncredited. This attention finally convinced Fred Foster that Dolly had a career in country and they scrambled to record an album and capitalise on the buzz. Dolly’s version sounds like a Patsy Cline song, all heartbreak, swooning slide guitar and honky tonk piano. Her voice is distinctive and different – that’s why she stood out even when singing back up. Her label had tried to put her into the pop market because they thought her voice was too childlike and sweet for country music. And while it’s true she doesn’t have that dramatic Tammy Wynette style, her ballad singing here has a depth of feeling and understanding of tragedy in every note.
The next track was actually one of her early pop singles for Monument, it failed to chart but is included here anyway. I Wasted My Tears has harmonising backing singers and jaunty jazz, reminiscent of the sixties girl group sound. It still works as a Dolly song because of the lyrics – she’s had enough of pining after a useless guy and she wants everyone else to learn from her example. This song shows her versatility as well, an ability to write pop songs that she would return to later in her career.
Then we reach my favourite song on the album, a solo write and Dolly’s second hit single from the record. Something Fishy is a characteristically Dolly song about asserting her power over a man. In this case she’s been made a fool of by her man who says he’s going on fishing trips but never comes home with anything but lipstick on his collar. These punny songs are Dolly in a nutshell – humour is a defining feature in her performances even now. This song also has the first hints of her bluegrass influences with the banjo accompaniment. The end is delicious, as she turns the tables on her cheating man, ‘when you come home and find out I’m gone / you can bet there’s something fishy going on.’ Billboard declared this song to be ‘clever’ and ‘performed to perfection’ which is true, even if it is more than a little bit kitsch.
Then the next ballad on the album is Fuel to the Flame, first recorded by Skeeter Davis. It’s a simple song about how it feels to be sexually attracted to someone. Perhaps the only interesting element of the song is the repeated refrain ‘do you feel the same?’. This guy is kissing her but he doesn’t talk about his feelings or their future. Her uncertainty is central to the song – until she’s married to him she will always have doubts. The Giving and the Taking continues the country ballad style, although this one is a straight heartbreaker. She’s been taken advantage of, she treated him better than she should have and she’s ended up alone anyway. These songs create this appealing persona of a woman with so much love to give, a woman who is a victim of bad relationships through no fault of her own.
I’m in No Condition takes the tempo up a little and begins with a rejection of affection – ‘don’t look at me with love in your eyes’. She’s not ready to start a new relationship because she’s sick at how she’s been treated in the past. Her voice is perfect here, effortlessly showing her distinctive flair and style. This one was recorded by Hank Williams Jr, proving the classic country credentials of the song.
The Company You Keep is a waltz with nice pedal steel and harmonising background vocals. The song is an appeal from a big sister to her younger sibling. Her ‘angel’ sis is hanging around with the wrong crowd and getting herself a ‘cheap’ reputation. This is a warning rather than a condemnation. We never get to hear how the sister reacts to this advice but the concept is pretty fresh, even now there doesn’t seem to have been enough songs about siblings. Dolly herself has five sisters so you think this one probably comes from direct personal experience.
I’ve Lived My Life is the other song which Dolly didn’t write, it’s a story song about a doomed teenage romance. She sings of coming to the city from the country, meeting a boy, falling in love, and being heartbroken all before she’s 18. Such experiences weren’t far from Dolly’s own life, even if by this point she was already happily married to Carl Dean. The writer of this track was Lola Jean Dillon, who also penned the comic genius that was You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly with L.E. White, eventually recorded by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
The final track The Little Things is a lament for everything her partner doesn’t do for her – never giving her chocolates or roses or even kind words. Overlooking the little things eventually wears you down until the relationship crumbles. This simple take on domestic life works perfectly with the piano arrangement.
All the songs on this album are under three minutes long – proving you should never underestimate the appeal of all things short and sweet. Sure there are some songs which haven’t aged particularly well but even those are enjoyable to listen to. Hello, I’m Dolly introduced the world to a talented singer songwriter, but more than that it established her public persona – a complex mix of strength and vulnerability which has made her irresistible to audiences ever since.