Dolly’s career changed in 1967 when she got a phone call from Porter Wagoner. At first she thought he wanted to record one of her songs with his onscreen partner, Norma Jean, but little did Dolly know that she was actually being interviewed as a potential replacement for her. Soon Dolly was hired and began appearing on television performing to audiences of millions every week.
Starting on the show meant that Dolly left Monument Records and signed with Wagoner’s label RCA. Porter was central to Dolly’s move, as she explained:
“He made RCA a guarantee to get them to sign me. Porter told them he would pay them every cent they ever lost on me out of his own pocket. He never had to pay a dime.”
Porter’s belief in Dolly’s talent helped her career to flourish, although you could argue she was well on her way to success without him. Just Because I’m a Woman was released on May 4th 1968 and Bob Ferguson, RCA’s in-house man, is given the production credit, even though it was Porter himself who was in charge of the sound. The album contains songs which are populated by wronged women and suffering souls, yet somehow Dolly finds strength and even comedy in these dark moments.
You’re Going to be Sorry is a country pop number full of the sassy no-nonsense attitude we saw on her debut album, so it’s no surprise that this is a solo write by Dolly. It’s a feisty take down of a cheating man, a recurring theme in her music. Since this is Dolly, she does sing it with a little pinch of sweetness but listen close and you can hear the snarl in her voice. Mess with her and you’ll regret it.
I Wish I Felt This Way At Home is a classic country ballad, full of steel and strings. Dolly’s voice is as good on this song as anywhere in her back catalogue. This was written by Harlan Howard, the man who originally described country music as ‘three chords and the truth.’ Interesting that Dolly would follow a song full of anger at a cheater with an admission that adultery can actually feel pretty good sometimes. Her desires are not being met by her husband so who can blame her for looking elsewhere? The fact it’s sung in the style of a tragic waltz just adds even more poignancy to the lyrics. Listening to this you wonder if it was originally written to be a sung by a man. By reclaiming this story Dolly acknowledges female desire outwith marriage, controversial topics for a young woman to be singing about at the time.
False Eyelashes is a story of failed pop stardom, written by husband and wife songwriters Bob Tubbert and Demetrius Tapp. When her career stalls this woman is left with nothing but ‘false eyelashes and a tube of cheap lipstick’, all alone singing in ‘dingy bars’. Nashville might have worked out for Dolly but by singing this song she understands that fate is not always so kind to others. Even years later she spoke of her good fortune, saying “I have seen so many people with twice the talent that I’ll ever have work just as hard, been in this town just as long and still have never made it. One never knows why one gets singled out and another doesn’t.” Dolly’s empathy for the downtrodden shines through in the way she delivers a song like this.
The title I’ll Oilwells Love You might sound suspiciously similar to her most famous song but this one is not to be taken so seriously. This hilarious gold digging anthem shows how country music, and Dolly herself, brilliantly use humour to entertain. Here a girl raised in poverty decides her only way out is to use her charms to find the richest guy she can. Luckily she marries a nice oil tycoon and she loves him well enough (see what I did there) so marrying for money is no tragedy. These tongue in cheek comic songs are what makes listening to Dolly’s music such riotously good fun.
The Only Way Out (Is To Walk Over Me) is a Tammy Wynette style ballad, Dolly’s favourite kind of song to sing (although for me these are never her best). She’ll crawl at this guy’s feet, she loves him too much and is willing to be a literal doormat. It’s a sad song, not exactly a feminist anthem, although the country guitars sound lovely. Little Bit Slow to Catch On takes the tempo up and is about a woman who doesn’t realise the truth about her doomed relationship until it’s too late. This one was penned by Curly Putman who also wrote Dumb Blonde for her debut album. Ironically it’s the catchiest melody on the album.
The Bridge is a shocking story of desire gone wrong and the second song on the album to be written by Dolly alone. In the tragic ballad tradition, the protagonist of the tale has been meeting her love on a bridge where they talk and kiss but soon desire overcomes then, they have sex in a field and she ends up pregnant. Typically the guy wants nothing to do with her so she decides to commit suicide rather than dealing with the shame. Here’s where it started, here’s where I’ll end it. The end of the song cuts off abruptly, as though she has just thrown herself off the bridge. To hear a song like this is pretty startling, and it’s hard to imagine any mainstream country star singing something like this now. You have to think that this one was surely influenced by Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, which had been released the year before.
Then comes two songs that were written by her uncle Bill Owens. Unlike the previous album where they collaborated, on Just Because I’m a Woman they appear to be working on songs separately. Love and Learn is a nicely forgettable ballad about learning from love’s mistakes. I’m Running Out of Love has a little more sass and works in tandem with Little Bit Slow To Catch On – a bad guy is cheating and she’s finally had enough. These songs are well sung and played but they don’t have that distinctive quality that we associate with songs Dolly has written entirely herself.
And this is proved by the power of the title track Just Because I’m A Woman, a song that exposes the hypocritical double standards of morality between men and woman. In this song, rumoured to be autobiographical, a husband is shocked to find out his wife wasn’t as ‘pure’ as he believed. Dolly then goes on to condemn men who have sex before marriage only to abandon their partners and instead marry someone more virginal and therefore ‘angelic’. The fallen women are left with ruined reputations, while the men are never judged in the same way. Dolly is not afraid to acknowledge her own mistakes but she calls out men for their behaviour and the unfair way they treat women. The sexual politics of the sixties may seem a world away from modern life but the discrimination women face is all too familiar.
Baby Sister echoes the sibling theme of the song The Company You Keep from her debut, and on this one her sister is in a dive bar, drowning her sorrows. Dolly curses the man who hurt her and caused her to end up so low and broken. I love you baby sister, let’s go home, she sings offering her help and sisterly support. I love these sister songs and this one written by Shirl Milete, who also had songs recorded by Elvis. Milete released one solo album featuring an anti Vietnam War song ‘I Wonder if Canada’s Cold’ which is a lost pacifist classic. Milete himself had been in jail for refusing to serve in the Korean War so unsurprisingly he never found his solo career flourishing in conservative Nashville and is a largely forgotten enigma. Songs like this little gem for Dolly show his compassionate country music is more than worth seeking out (some tracks from his only album have been uploaded to YouTube).
The final song Try Being Lonely is a heartbreaker, about seeing your ex with a new love and yearning for them, written by Charles Trent and George McCormick, who were players in her and Porter’s band. You can understand why Dolly wanted to sing a song like this, full of ache and pain but it isn’t one of her better ballads.
Despite that weak final track overall it’s hard to underestimate how powerful some of these songs are, even fifty years later. Just Because I’m a Woman confronts the problems of women’s lives with clarity, compassion and even comedy, proving that even this early in her career Dolly wasn’t afraid to be controversial and contentious in her choice of subject matter.