Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Well it can only be Dolly Parton, of course, even if this album cover has her wearing one of the most ridiculous outfits of her career. Despite the impression the garish cover gives this does not mean Dolly has embraced bubblegum pop or turned into a glitzy rhinestone cowgirl (those aspects of her career are yet to come). Instead this album, released in 1970, contains southern gothic short stories of traumatic and tragic lives, continuing the trend of her previous album My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy. Dolly writes all but one of these songs, and the album really benefits from being free of the cover versions and throwaway music row songs that weakened her earlier albums.
Opening with the line ‘in this mental institution looking out through these iron bars’ feels like the kind of daring lyric that only Dolly could imagine, let alone even get away with singing. In Daddy Come And Get Me a woman has been locked up by her husband for being ‘crazy with jealousy’ although we are not sure of her exact crimes except crying for days. She pleads with her father to come and set her free. There is a tone to the ‘daddy’ plea which does make you kind of doubt her sanity a little. Maybe she really is insane and has made the whole thing up. The quiver in Dolly’s voice evokes that feeling of being on edge of madness, proving how good a character actress she is. This song was co-written with her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope, whose songs also appear on the duet albums during this period.
The second song is the first of the ‘twist in the tale’ narratives on the album. Here the main character is in love with ‘Chas’ the husband of the invalid woman whom she is looking after. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t heard it but safe to say the identity of the wife is dramatically unfortunate indeed. Unrequited love and the painful consequences run deep on these opening two numbers.
Feminist anthems don’t get much better than When Possession Gets Too Strong and it is nice to see the return of these takedown songs which Dolly does so well. The lyrics make it clear that Dolly is not going to be caged or chained by any man trying to tell her what to do. Here is the blueprint for a perfect marriage – love me for who I am, don’t try to change me or control me. Just like on ‘Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind’ being alone doesn’t scare her. She is full of power and confidence in her own mind. If the man doesn’t like it then she’ll happily be ‘moving on’. Every woman should listen and learn from Dolly’s example.
The jolly upbeat leaving song ‘Before You Make Up Your Mind’ is written by her uncle Bill Owens. Sure he can pen a catchy tune but at this point they feel so much slighter than Dolly’s own work, therefore it’s clear immediately that this is the song she doesn’t have a hand in writing. However this is one of his better songs musically, and it doesn’t harm the album in the same way as some of the covers that padded out previous early releases.
On I’m Doing This For Your Sake Dolly continues to explore the tragic nature of real women’s experiences. The character decides to give up her baby for adoption because she made ‘one mistake’ and doesn’t want her child to bear the shame. This is a direct letter to her child, sung in the ballad style with a haunting fiddle. She believed in the man she loved, thought he would marry her but she was abandoned, like the girl in her previous song The Bridge. The pain of her vocal makes it clear that Dolly believed no woman should ever have to give up their child. These stories may be dramatic but they show Dolly’s subtle condemnation of how society treats women.
But You Loved Me Then is a simple and sad heartbreaker of how a relationship has collapsed. Love was like a fairyland – an idyllic pastoral scene filled with butterflies, rainbows and flowers. Now love is dead and they are all gone. The song kind of fades away at the end, just like her happiness has.
Just The Way I Am is one of the most honest and personal songs on the album, exploring the complex aspects of her character. Sometimes she cries in the night, sometimes she skips through meadows in the rain – she’s sure of herself, and knows that her mind and spirit need freedom. Take her or leave her but know that she will never change for anyone. Dolly is asserting her own identity in this song – she is someone wholly unafraid to be herself, even if that is seen as different. You feel the power of her personality in every note. This track also featured as the final track on her first ‘Best Of’ collection released in November 1970, showing how highly she regarded the song.
The inequality of relationships is further explored in More than Your Share, a weepy waltz about the problems of an unhappy couple. The man never admits he’s wrong, the wife always has to say sorry and take the blame, even if she knows it’s unfair. Her love is so strong so she gives in to him every time. There’s a tragedy to this song, an acceptance of the flaws in a relationship which directly contradict the earlier confident assertions. Love and marriage are complex and not easily navigated without pain and compromise. You wonder if this is autobiographical. Maybe the only way to make a husband hear your complaint is to write it in a song for the world to hear. Or maybe this is just a song about the frustrations that every wife has to deal with. Dolly wants women to know that she understands.
Mammie is the story of an orphan girl who, despite her angelic Mammie’s efforts, can’t tame the ‘wild blood’ in her veins. The archetype of the ‘mammie’ as the saintly black woman sacrificing herself for a white family has been exposed as a nostalgic and damaging stereotype, so listening to this song now feels slightly uncomfortable. This is certainly the weakest solo write on the album and has dated quite badly. Neither the characters or the melody are particularly memorable so it is no real loss to skip this over this one as quickly as you can.
Down From Dover is the real masterpiece on this album. The song perfectly illustrates Dolly’s unique singing style, her skills bring drama to every moment. This was the only single from the album, reaching number 40 but it went on to be one of the most covered songs of her career with versions by Skeeter Davis, Nancy Sinatra, Marianne Faithfull among others. A pregnant woman waits for the return of her lover, but as the song unfolds the realisation that she has been abandoned begins to dawn. When her child is stillborn she is almost relieved that the child will not have to endure the pain of knowing the truth. The arrangement of this song is so haunting, with the backing vocals echoing her pain and the wailing pedal steel towards the end. The theme of this song is familiar to listeners of Dolly’s work but everything combines to make her elegy powerfully memorable. Porter told Dolly that she wouldn’t get played on the radio if she continued to write songs like this and he was probably right. Soon after this album she released her infectiously upbeat song Joshua which became her first number one, and you do wonder how much of Porter’s advice influenced her direction as a songwriter.
The album finishes with another twist in the tale song about the unfortunate consequences of a father’s cheating ways. The ‘Robert’ of the song is a rich boy who is always trying to meet the eye of the poor young girl telling the story. What Robert doesn’t realise is that he is actually the girl’s half brother. Yes this is a song about the awkwardness of avoiding incest and was based on Dolly’s own life experience. Her father had many other children and in a small town it was hard to know who was related to you. No wonder she left for Nashville as soon as she could. The song also explores the recurring theme of an abandoned mother, as well as the problems of the class divide.
The liner notes for the album were written by her childhood friend and personal assistant Judy Ogle who says of Dolly: ‘she believes strongly in life and nature, looks deep inside others for only the good, but she accepts the bad as well.’ On this album her compassionate nature and willingness to understand the lives of others elevates her songwriting to a new level. The title and cover suggest this is the beginning of an ongoing struggle to balance Dolly’s larger than life public image with the darker more introspective inclinations of her songwriting. But as usual you shouldn’t judge Dolly or her albums by appearances. The Fairest of Them All is one of the best of her career.