Love is like a Butterfly is one of the sweetest songs Dolly Parton ever recorded and was the title track to her second solo album of 1974, the follow up to Jolene. With its fluttering piano, Butterfly may not be a traditional country song but it celebrates love and nature in a simple way that fits with Dolly’s musical vision. It was her third number one in a row and became her signature song at the time, eventually chosen the theme tune to her first TV solo show in 1976.
Butterflies have since become Dolly’s trademark symbol, something that began in childhood. She explains: Butterflies are my symbol. As a child, I used to get lost chasing them and got my butt whipped for wandering too far off. Some may associate them with the cliched expression of nervous emotion or a similarly stereotypical symbol of femininity but for Dolly the butterfly in their gentle, delicate state represent her ideal vision of freedom and beauty. She explains, ‘Butterflies are colourful and bright and gentle. They go about their business and bring others pleasure while doing it, because seeing one flying about makes people happy.’ Dolly aims to create a similar joy with her music and personality. Much of the allure of the butterfly comes from the fact that it was once something else, something plain. Dolly’s music similarly reminds us that no matter who you are or where you’re from you can emerge from the chrysalis entirely transformed.
At this point in the seventies Dolly was also emerging from the cocoon created by her relationship with Porter. She had already written him the song I Will Always Love You but escaping from his control was not as simple as singing a goodbye. He would produce her albums for a few more years and she would be tied up in contracts for more duet albums too. Dolly always reflected her own life, or a version of her autobiography in her songs, but what about Porter? What did he think about her leaving? Maybe the second song on this album explains some of his own feelings. If I Cross Your Mind was written by Porter and is a plea to be remembered fondly, despite everything. By singing this back to him Dolly is celebrating the ‘lovely, tender moments’ spent together, but the undercurrent is that there has been some unpleasantness. She sings in a tone of despair, think of only good things if I cross your mind. You have to hope both parties took their own advice.
My Eyes Can Only See You takes us back to the honky tonk for a real weepie about forbidden love. Inevitability they will be drawn together, even if it is wrong – suggesting this is a cheating song. Dolly’s songs always explore complex issues of love and marriage with a compassionate eye. Sometimes you do bad things just because they feel good and that’s okay.
Romanticising her Tennessee Mountain Home is also an important element of this period of Dolly’s work. Being the country girl who longs for her family and the simple life may have been somewhat true but songs like these were surely written to appeal to country music fans, an example of strategic marketing by a woman who had long since become a star in the big city. Take Me Back is a wistful moment, one to be sung on the porch when you’re thinking about Mama and dreaming of the past. Again there is another rewriting of history to keep this story of Mama rosy, since we doubt that she was ‘the only woman Daddy ever loved’. Dolly makes the country life sound idyllic and something to be celebrated. Many of her fans would find such stories appealing, even if the harsher truths of country living are obscured.
In fact this album goes even further by painting rich city living as something that will drive you to the edge of despair. Blackie, Kentucky is another short story from Dolly’s book about a traveling older man who passes through a small town and seduces a naive young girl with the promises of riches. The narrator longed to escape her life of ‘sad poverty’ so happily ran off with the man. However this is is no happily ever after fairytale. She lives in a mansion in the city but is isolated from her family, her hometown and her sense of self. In the end she chooses suicide in the hope she will be buried back in Blackie, Kentucky. It’s a tragic cautionary tale – don’t stray too far from who you really are or you will forever regret it.
The opening track on side two of the album offers us a fresh start from this misery. Dolly decides she is Gettin’ Happy with a new love who makes her feel like life is a song. Sure it kind of feels like she’s dancing on the grave of the country girl from Kentucky but I guess it’s a reminder never to dwell on sadness and keep an optimistic heart. Love might just be out there for everyone.
The positivity of that song is somewhat undercut by the next track, You’re The One Who Taught Me How To Swing. Yes you read that right, put your keys in the bowl because this is Dolly gone wild. In the song a plain and innocent good girl is ‘taught’ to swing and enjoys it so much that her man is shocked and wishes she would return to innocence. The girl refuses, enjoying her new found bad girl ways too much. Much like Just Because I’m A Woman, the double standards of gender roles are exposed and the unequal balance of power in relationships too. Dolly offers men a lesson about trying to control women: don’t even try.
In Highway Headin South the narrator has been out on the road, living in a variety of places across America, none of which ever felt like home. This is a song for the south, about returning home to sunshine and comfort. A southern girl can’t live on snow and ice / I’m tired of living like an Eskimo (tell me about it – I’m Scottish). Porter wrote this song and you can see why Dolly chose it, since it gives the album a boost of warmth and energy.
Once Upon A Memory is an intriguing mix of country and soul, which shows off Dolly’s vibrato to perfect effect. She thinks about the love she once had and realises she will cry forever after. Memory is important in the final song too, where she reflects on her relationship with god. In Sacred Memories she reflects on her childhood experiences in church and imagines being united with those she’s lost in heaven, clinging to their memories until that time comes. This is a charming and uplifting slice of country gospel.
Love is Like A Butterfly has an airy lightness of touch in the musical arrangements but in the words a distinctive darkness still looms. Like Dolly’s best albums from this era it relies on her own individual songwriting voice to create its mutlicoloured musical magic.