With hindsight it feels incredible to think that Dolly Parton had to be convinced to record what would become one of her signature songs, ‘Coat of Many Colors’. The song was written on a tour bus in 1969, on the back of a dry cleaning receipt ironically for one of Porter’s Nudie suits (the receipt was eventually framed by Porter and can now be seen at Dollywood) but was not recorded until 1971 on this, her eighth album. Two years might not seem like a long time but Dolly had written and recorded many other songs in the interim. Porter himself actually recorded the first version, with Dolly on backing vocals, but he knew that there was only one singer who could do this song justice – the girl in the song. So why did Dolly hesitate to put this one on tape? To understand the answer we have to go back through the years, once again returning to her childhood in Tennessee.
The story told in the song is heartbreaking enough – the innocence of childhood crushed by cruelty – but in reality the truth of this experience was actually worse. Dolly was so poor that this little coat her mother had stitched together was the only top she was wearing when she went to the school that day. In the song the cruel bullies mocked her but what Dolly left out was that they also pulled at the coat so the buttons fell off and then locked her inside a cupboard where she was left screaming in the darkness.
Dolly said of her experience, ‘That was a very sad and cutting memory that I long kept deep within myself…I was ashamed to even mention it and for years held it in my mind.’ After enduring such humiliation and shame no wonder the song hurt to sing. She had recorded sad songs already sure, but they were often character studies or shot through with a sense of humour like In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad). Coat of Many Colors was the brutal truth. To open yourself up and really tell the story of your darkest moments like this, well that takes guts.
Dolly’s pain meant she took her time to find the courage to record the song and even now decades later, it still hurts. In a recent interview she spoke of how the years had not dimmed her feelings, ‘This is a very emotional song for me, period. Sometimes when I sing it on stage, when I’m in concert, like during the time my mom was sick and especially after she passed, it was really, really hard for me to sing this song without just kind of breaking down.’
In the end what makes this song more than just a bleak story about the dark side of human nature is the love for her mother that is woven into every stitch. To me this is the greatest song about mothers and daughters ever written. And it is also one of the best songs ever written, period. In fact, as Dolly says, ‘it’s more than a song. It’s an attitude. It’s a philosophy.’
When she did record the song it became the title track to her eighth album and the cover recreated a photo of her wearing the coat. Look again at the picture – despite her tears she’s trying to smile. No matter what she went through, how hard that memory was for her she overcame it and the experience gave her the gift of this song, which defined her as an artist of compassion and empathy.
Strangely enough the next song on the album, Travelin’ Man, couldn’t be further from the title track in tone, style and content. Almost as comic relief Dolly takes on the character of a wild young woman who falls in love with a traveling salesman, much to her mother’s disgust. It’s a classic Dolly twist in the tale song because by the end the mother actually steals the man from her daughter and rides out of town, abandoning her just like her father did too. Such a mother is the polar opposite of the one we met in the opening song, and that is obviously deliberate. Comic songs like this one have been largely absent from Dolly’s last few albums but it perfectly brightens the mood of the album.
But not for long as we then shed My Blue Tears for a lost love. Angelic harmonies and imagery of the natural world combine to make this song feel like heaven. Dolly re-recorded this one with Emmylou and Linda, although it remained unreleased at the time, so another version also appeared on her later bluegrass album Little Sparrow.
If I Lose My Mind was written by Porter and it might be the only song Dolly ever recorded about an orgy. Well it was the seventies, after all. A young girl confesses to her mother the wicked things her boyfriend did, including making her ‘watch him love another woman’ and trying to force her to ‘love another man.’ The ‘Mama can I be a little girl again?’ ties back to the opening song with the wish to be sheltered from the world. This one feels a little dated now and comes across as a far-fetched cautionary tale used to try to warn women from running too free.
Mystery of the Mystery could have been a left over from Golden Streets of Glory, since it is a spiritual song which explores the meaning of life. Great minds have tried but they will never find the answer to the mystery. It accepts the unknowable universe and really I have to credit Porter’s work on this one. He is a far superior songwriter to Bill Owens whose work filled up Dolly’s early albums, and this is a real lost treasure worth seeking out.
She’s Never Met A Man (She Didn’t Like) – is a Jolene precursor, it’s almost exactly the same in theme and tone. In fact much like the song ‘I Don’t Want To Throw Rice’ from her debut, this song builds the foundation for Dolly’s future classic. As a songwriter she is not afraid to go back to the same themes over and over again, and that’s not laziness, she is drafting her work until she finds perfection.
Early Morning Breeze is a sunny pastoral scene with Dolly out in the meadow searching for beauty and truth. She would re-record this lovely one for both the Jolene and Blue Smoke albums. The Way I See You is a love song written by Porter, an intimate moment between two lovers. Dolly may have wanted to build the myth and mystery about their relationship or maybe she just admired his songwriting.
Here I Am is a soulful slice of country, quite different in style than many of her songs on this album. It’s an upbeat and life affirming, and a decided shift away from the darker themes of her previous work. Well no one kills themselves or dies during this album, at least.
A Better Place to Life musically sounds like Games People Play but lyrically it is all about the utopian dream of peace, love and understanding. It’s hard to dislike a song like this, even if its simple message feels impossible to believe sometimes. It ties back to the title track – a philosophy for living a kinder life.
On its release Coat of Many Colors reached number 7 on the country chart and became Dolly’s first nomination for CMA Album of the Year. Since then it has been named in the Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of All Time, who described it as her ‘starkest, most affecting album’ (a sentence clearly written by someone who hasn’t listened to her whole discography). Overall title track is the most moving song of her career and elevates the quality, and significance, of this album.
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: