Picasso’s ‘Blue’ period was characterised by dark and somber paintings, expressing the emotional turmoil of the traumas of his youth. For a woman known to bring sunshine and rainbows it’s perhaps a surprise to find an album in Dolly Parton’s career which creates a similar morose tone, lyrically if not musically. There were no hits generated from My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy and the music confronts topics that she would shy away from as her career progressed: death, suicide, prostitution, pain, failure, anger, regret and suffering.
On the cover of the album Dolly is reclining on a chair, staring sadly into the distance as a tear runs down her cheek. Her glamorous hair and outfit are in contrast with the image in the background: a man in a lumberjack shirt beside a log cabin. The man in question was in fact her husband Carl Dean, a mysterious figure who has been married to Dolly since 1966 but who has rarely appeared in public. The image is one of distance, separation, suggesting conflict between two ways of living, perhaps reflecting Dolly’s life in 1969.
The album begins with two covers of hit contemporary songs, a strategy which was used on her previous album In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad). In the Ghetto had been a hit for Elvis, indeed it was his big comeback song. Elvis and Dolly were similar in terms of their upbringings in the rural South so the fact that both artists were drawn to a song about poverty is no surprise. Written by Mac Davis the song was originally called ‘The Vicious Circle’ and tells the story of a young man trapped by circumstance who becomes the victim of inner city gun violence. Unfortunately some contemporary listeners may find the song condescending and even problematic racially, but Dolly sings every note with a sympathetic understanding that is hard to argue with. Elvis has since been criticised for this song and accused of ‘appropriating’ black music but, like Dolly, he understood what it meant to come from nothing and you can only think his intentions in telling this story were honourable.
The second song Games People Play won Joe South a Grammy and was based on a popular book about human psychology of the same name. Really this is a protest song about the unfair ways people treat each other. Despite the cynical theme the music is upbeat and has a light country pop style. A line that Dolly sings with forceful emphasis is ‘God grant me the serenity, To remember who I am’ suggesting that she is trying not to behave in the same hypocritical way as everyone else. Despite these two choices being ‘pop’ songs rather than country, both have a depth of meaning to them which obviously appealed to Dolly.
We then find Dolly singing one of the best ballads of her career, Til Death Do Us Part. On her previous albums heartbreak songs like this never truly felt authentic and it seemed like her strengths lay in the more witty upbeat numbers. Perhaps this one is different because Dolly wrote the song herself and successfully creates a tragic character to inhabit. The lyrics are a suicide note, written from a woman to the husband who has abandoned her. She tortures herself with thoughts of her ex husband bringing his new love to look at her dead body lying in the chapel. The song feels almost like a curse too, reminding him of his wedding vows and suggesting she will haunt him for his betrayal. Dolly may be acting but this is a truly spine-chilling performance, equal even to the queen of desolation herself, Tammy Wynette.
Musically Big Wind is an uptempo, catchy little hoedown but the lyrics are a tragic story of a hurricane ripping a family apart. Written by Wayne P. Walker, Alex Zanetis, George McCormick this had been a top five hit for Porter earlier in 1969 and continues the trend of Dolly covering one of his songs. Thematically this one fits perfectly on a album dealing with tales of rural tragedy and the cruel nature of fate.
Evening Shade is by far the most interesting and controversial song on the album – telling the story of children who burn down their prison and kill the evil matron who has tortured them. This story of suffering and revenge came straight from Dolly’s imagination, although she did remember seeing a home for juvenile delinquents near where she grew up. To imagine the horrors of what the kids had faced: beatings, chores, misery was one thing, but the ending was truly shocking. These kids were put in Evening Shade because no one cared for them but they ended up working together to escape their hell. The musical style and melody on this song is reminiscent of Coat of Many Colors and similarly shows Dolly’s compassion for the suffering of children.
I’m Fed Up With You was written by her uncle Bill Owens – a return to those sassy take down songs about cheating husbands. It’s a throwaway really, even if it sounds fantastic (especially the fiddle). Compared to a complex song like Til Death Do Us Part this feels like filler, as though she feels obliged to include one of her uncle’s songs on the album despite the fact she’s clearly surpassed him in terms of songwriting skill.
The title track My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy is about a young country girl who moves to the city, leaves behind her love and ends up falling into prostitution. Steeped in regret and nostalgia for the life and love she left behind, this song could easily be a metaphor for the world of showbiz and how it took Dolly away from her husband. Of course they stayed together but listening to this album you can’t help but conclude this early part of her career may have been a strained time in her personal life.
Daddy is another very personal song, which again appears to be based on Dolly’s own family history. Here she pleads with her philandering father to show respect and decency for her mother. It is known that Dolly’s father had children with other women and the lyrics appear to address this. Again this is a song which gets to the heart of gender roles and the unfair way men treat women, replacing hard working loyal wives with younger women just because they can. It’s one of the most heartfelt and personal songs Dolly ever recorded.
We Had All The Good Things Going echoes the melody of Gentle on my Mind, and is another nostalgic tale of love gone wrong. This was originally a hit for Jan Howard. The Monkey’s Tale was written by Leona Ross, of whom I can find no information about, but by recording her song Dolly was again showing support for female songwriters. This one is another of her trademark witty songs full of puns at the expense of a lying, cheating man.
Gypsy, Joe and Me is a country music tragedy, and the type of song Dolly delivers so well. The characters in the story are happy vagabonds moving from place to place, barely scraping by on nothing but love for each other. While hitchhiking her dog Gypsy is run over and killed, then because they have nowhere to live on a cold night her lover catches hypothermia, dying in her arms. The misery she feels leads her to the edge of a bridge where she commits suicide. Two songs about suicide on a mainstream country album must have been quite shocking at the time, even though this one puts a more positive spin on it. Death is a release and allows her to be reunited with those she loves.
The last song Home, For Pete’s Sake links back to the title track but this time the girl goes to the city but ends up running wild and getting pregnant. She returns home to be reunited with her country boy Pete who offers to help raise the baby. To finish such a dark album on a note of happiness is a little surprising but then this song wasn’t one of Dolly’s own, being written by Rudy Preston.
Overall this is my favourite of the first four solo albums, even if there’s still a few covers padding out the track listing there is a cohesion of theme and style, showing a real maturity and development to Dolly’s songwriting. She is unafraid to tell stories which confront real issues and underline what’s important to her: family, loyalty, love, compassion and kindness.