In 1971 Dolly released three solo albums – The Golden Streets of Glory, Joshua and Coat of Many Colors – as well as one album with Porter, making it one of the most prolific and ultimately successful years of her career.
The year before, Porter had convinced Dolly to record a cover of Mule Skinner Blues, a yodelling number originally written by Jimmie Rodgers. It showcased her distinctive voice and cheerful personality to great effect and became her highest charting single to date, reaching number 3, but Dolly was a songwriter and she wanted to be known for her own original hits. Her previous few solo albums had been dark, dealing with the pain and suffering of women in a stark and often brutal way. Porter admired her songwriting but he knew she wouldn’t get on the radio with songs like The Bridge or Down From Dover.
So Dolly got to work and wrote a new song, inspired most likely by the structure and sound of ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Joshua was certainly a more upbeat, commercial number than anything on her previous few albums and it landed her at the top of the country charts for the first time, as well as gaining her a Grammy nomination.
And unlike her tragic tales of the past Joshua had a happy ending. The story begins with an orphan girl walking along a railroad track, who decides to go and visit the town recluse – a kind of Boo Radley figure (maybe another inspiration for this song). The girl is surprised to find a smiling and friendly man living in the rundown shack. They talk on the porch, sharing an understanding of what it’s like to be lonely and ostracised by the world. Eventually he asks her to move in (how much time passes is unclear), they fall in love and live happily ever after. It’s an Appalachian fairy tale – a kind of hillbilly Beauty and the Beast if you will.
The cover of her 1971 album of the same name is a visual representation of the song – Joshua is an imposing but shadowy figure in the doorway and Dolly is a pretty girl asking to be let over the threshold. There’s an unease in the uneven size of the figures in the picture and many other tracks on the album deal with the power men have over women – for better or worse.
The album opens with the title track and leads nicely into the loving waltz of The Last One To Touch Me. Dolly makes this ode to monogamy sound sweetly seductive. The next song Walls of My Mind is a folky number, with some nice fiddle, telling the tale of doomed love. She’s heartbroken by her lover’s desertion and finds his memory haunts her mind. Maybe she’s not pushed to madness or suicide like on some of Dolly’s other songs but the pain is all too real.
From this point on the album Dolly doesn’t shy away from bleak topics, as though the opening two happy numbers were enough of an attempt at something more palatable to mainstream radio audiences. It Ain’t Fair That It Ain’t Right was written by songwriters Bob and Janice Eggers, a forgettable song perhaps but you can see why it appealed to Dolly. Where you kissed me I still burn, she sings of the lover who abandoned her. This song echoes her song Just Because I’m A Woman – as soon as she sleeps with this man he no longer sees her as a good girl and is done with her. The double standards women face in society are always front and centre in Dolly’s work.
J.J. Sneed has long been a fan favourite – an outlaw country tale of crime and murder. The speaker is a bank robber in love with her partner in crime J.J. Sneed, but when he leaves her for a more glamorous woman the speaker decides to get revenge. JJ I’m going to shoot you now, I hope you feel no pain, Dolly sings and you believe every single word of her retribution. It’s one of the most violent and dramatic songs in Dolly’s discography, a nod to the Wild West and Bonnie and Clyde.
You Can’t Reach Me Anymore was, like the previous song, written with her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope. It’s the story of a complicated relationship and is a defiant song about trying to move on. The power struggle in the relationship ends with the woman trying to assert her freedom from the man’s control.
Daddy’s Moonshine Still is a song about the evils of drinking and impact of criminal activity on a family. In the story the father makes his kids help out with selling moonshine, leading to misery and the deaths of the speaker’s brothers. Eventually the speaker moves away and sends money back to her mother, earning it in a way she’d ‘rather not say’. Another recurring theme of Dolly’s lyrics is the country girl crushed by the city and forced into prostitution. The condemnation of her father’s selfish and criminal ways is clear from the start. Dolly’s song conveys her belief that those in poverty suffer through no fault of their own and breaking free of the cycle is almost impossible.
Chicken Every Sunday is another song about poverty and working class women but here there is a more positive spin on things. In the story a poor girl is dating a rich boy who is not allowed to walk up her path as his family disapprove. Her mother reminds her she’s a good person and money shouldn’t matter. The song then goes on to celebrate the small things in life that don’t cost a lot of money: chicken every Sunday, going to town, having picnics, going to the movies. In the end Dolly is ‘glad’ to embrace her working class pride and rejects the snobbish attitudes of the rich. This one was written by husband and wife songwriters Charlie and Betty Craig.
The third song on the album cowritten with her aunt Dorothy Jo Hope is Fire’s Still Burning, a typically dramatic Tammy-style country ballad, full of heartache and hope. A sweet pedal steel echoes her pain. She’s alone every night, suffering in her loneliness and unable to let go of her love. Her tears can’t put out the flame of her love, no matter how hard she tries.
The final song Letter to Heaven really is one of Dolly’s darkest and most tragic narratives, a twin of Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark. A grandfather writes a letter on behalf of his granddaughter who has recently lost her mother. Tell mommy I love her, I pray that God up in heaven will answer my prayer and take me to live with my mommy up there. The letter is stamped and handed to the little girl to send in the mail. On the way to the post box she gets hit by a car and dies. The album finishes with the postman imagining the girl is happy in heaven, reunited with her mother. If you’re not crying at the end then I’d suggest you check your pulse. Sure it’s melodramatic but the pain of the motherless child is poignantly conveyed in Dolly’s touching performance.
Despite the commercial sound of the lead single this album doesn’t compromise on Dolly’s established style of country music for and about working class women. The album would be another top twenty success and while it may be overshadowed by the more famous album released later that year Joshua contains some real hidden treasures.
In 2018 I started my project to listen and review every Dolly Parton album in order of release. Please click the links below to read the posts so far: