Early in her career Dolly Parton used her childhood growing up in the mountains as inspiration for songs that dealt honestly with the hardships and struggle faced by poverty stricken families, most famously her song Coat of Many Colors cut to the heart of her sometimes brutal experiences. Dolly also used dark humour to expose the realities of where she came from on songs like ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad), concluding that nothing could convince her to ‘go back and live through it again’.
And yet on her 1973 album ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ that is exactly what she did. A concept album about her upbringing, with every song written solely by Dolly for the first time, you might expect another harsh slice of reality bites. Instead her glasses are rose-drenched to the point where you barely recognise the place she sang about previously.
Opening with a reading of an original letter Dolly sent to her parents when she first arrived in Nashville, ‘The Letter’ is an intriguing glimpse into the mindset of the future superstar. She was modest about her achievements and tells her parents not to worry about sending her money. You can hear the steel in her words and the tone of determination. I believe that if I try long enough, hard enough, some day I’ll make it. You know she loves her family but she’s not going back home any time soon. Perhaps she starts the album with this letter as a way to remind herself why she left home in the first place.
Reading that letter aloud seems to transport her backwards in time before she left for Nashville. ‘I Remember’ takes us along the meadows and golden fields, to her memories of the sweet mountain life. A simple list song, which honours her childhood experiences from nature to music, with her parents being the main focus of her appreciation. In return each parent writes a short dedication to their daughter on the album sleeve, filled with love and both expressing their belief that success will never change the kind and caring Dolly they raised. Writing these songs suggests Dolly was searching for something to ground herself in the wake of increasing stardom.
Old Black Kettle might recycle the poppy musical style of Joshua and Daddy’s Moonshine Still, but the specific imagery used brings her childhood vividly to life. As an adult the dream of a more simple life appeals to her heart more than writing about the reality of poverty.
Across the album Dolly works as a revisionist, casting her history in a more sentimental and favourable light. On ‘Daddy’s Working Boots’ she pays tribute to her father who worked many jobs and on the farm, providing for his family. There is no mention of the troubles caused by his philandering ways, which were previously explored in the songs Daddy and Robert. She dreams of her father getting into heaven and getting new boots as a reward for all his labour. Working class men are rarely celebrated in Dolly’s music and yet this one comes from the heart. Despite everything, she knows her father worked himself to the bone and she loves him still.
Dr Robert F. Thomas is the first hint on the album of some of the struggles that the poor mountain folk dealt with. This song is dedicated to the country doctor who delivered Dolly herself, and spent years helping the community. By putting him into a song she is making ‘his name forever stand’ as a tribute to someone who went out of their way to make life better. She even named a chapel after him at Dollywood, such was her admiration for his good work.
As the hardships of country life are celebrated and rather glossed over throughout the album, it is therefore an interesting choice to include the old song In The Good Old Days (When Things Were Bad). The reality of sickness and poverty meant that no matter how good the days were, she wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
It’s only a momentary reality check as the title track immediately follows and My Tennessee Mountain Home is pure pastoral bliss. Maybe the longer you live in the city the more appealing your country upbringing becomes. Here life in the past was as peaceful as a baby’s sigh (she’s forgotten the noisy brothers and sisters mentioned earlier) – the tranquility of nature is a welcome alternative to the grey and busy city. This track became one of the signature songs of Dolly’s career and reached number 15 on the country charts. It’s melody and warmth, with the banjo and the chorus singalong, makes it an infectious ode to a world that probably never existed, except in the mind of a child.
The Wrong Direction Home admits the truth that ‘memories grow sweeter with the years’. Nature is significant in her work and here she sings of the streams, hummingbirds and roses of Tennessee. Following her dream out on the road means she’s always heading away from home. Home now is somewhere else, somewhere that can never make her feel the same as the place where she came from originally.
Then Back Home details the joy of her actually returning to visit her family. The music continues with the bluegrass inspired mountain sound so well created throughout the album. Going back to her childhood home becomes an escape from adult reality. You know Dolly isn’t going to quit her life and go live in a mountain cabin but you still understand her melancholia at having to leave her family and make her own way in the world.
The Better Part of Home is filled with memories of the simple life she once had. It’s sentimental for sure and at this point the album becomes a little repetitive in tone but you can’t help want to go back to the cabin with her all the same. Dolly was only in her late twenties when she wrote this album but she sounds like a world weary wise old woman already.
The final song takes a refreshing turn by describing her first experiences of Nashville. On Down on Music Row we walk around town with her, reading the names on the Hall of Fame, eating a stale snack on the steps, searching for a big break. As she strums her guitar she sings I can feel a change coming, and she tells us she was signed by Bob Ferguson at RCA. Soon Dolly would be a star and find herself among the greats.
In her life and career Dolly has never forgotten where she came from, using her upbringing as a defining feature of who she is as an artist and human being. My Tennessee Mountain Home is a perfect rush of memory and nostalgia, honouring her history and celebrating the simple beauty of the countryside, family and music.