In 1975 Dolly Parton found herself at the high point of her country music career, being in the middle of a run of four number one singles and finally winning the CMA for Female Artist of the Year. Her first album of that year was the controversial classic ‘The Bargain Store’, one of the strongest collections of songs Dolly was to release in this impressively productive period.
The title track of the album ‘The Bargain Store’ was released in early 1975 and immediately banned by some radio stations for its sexual content. In fact this wasn’t the first time country radio had taken offence to a Dolly Parton single. Touch Your Woman, a song which encouraged men in monogamous relationships to make more of an effort in bed, had also been reportedly banned by some stations in 1972. Banning songs from the radio usually served only to increase their popularity, and true enough, The Bargain Store easily continued Dolly’s run of four straight number one singles.
So what exactly was the problem with Dolly’s ‘Bargain Store’ in the first place? Was this just another case of sexist country music radio excluding women who were brave enough to speak the truth? (This topic is also explored in depth in the Cocaine & Rhinestones episode on Loretta Lynn’s ‘The Pill’).
The Bargain Store uses a metaphor to explore the life of an ‘experienced’ woman looking for love. Much like the items in a Bargain Store, the woman has been ‘used’ but she is still worth something. She guarantees the customer will be ‘completely satisfied’ with their purchase. The repeated refrain of ‘come inside’ is more than a little suggestive of the sexual power of the narrator. This alone may have been enough for radio stations to ban the song, although some also misinterpreted the lyrics as being about prostitution (probably due to the references to ‘price’ and ‘purchase’). If you actually listen closely you will hear it is a plea for love without judgement and the hope that a new relationship can heal the wounds of the past – with a little mending it could be as good as new. The narrator uses the imagery of the Bargain Store to be honest with a man about her prior sexual experience, a theme which she previously explored in Just Because I’m A Woman.
As the sole songwriter Dolly composed The Bargain Store with a knowing wink. She was a savvy 29 year old woman who knew exactly how to use her sexuality to her advantage. Musically this song echoes Jolene’s dark and brooding style, again showing the ambition of the artist to reach beyond simple songs of country life.
The second track on the album, Kentucky Gambler, is another stone cold country music classic. Dolly sings as a detached narrator, telling us the cautionary tale of a gambling addict who leaves his family alone, while he goes out and loses all his money. When he returns home penniless his wife has already found a new man, as the only other option was destitution. The blame for the tragedy is laid squarely at the feet of the man. Seems to me a gambler loses much more than he wins, Dolly sagely concludes.
So when Merle Haggard set out to cover this song, later in 1975 you can see why he decided to twist the lyrics so he could step into the character of the gambler himself. By singing from the first person perspective your sympathy is immediately switched to the tragic hero himself, a man just looking to escape from the poverty of his existence. Merle’s version hit the top of the charts, giving Dolly’s songwriting further credibility. Dolly herself was a fan of Merle and indeed later on this album she covers ‘You’ll Always Be Special To Me’ – an excellent song about unrequited love in the classic country tradition. The respect both these artists had for each other would continue through their whole careers.
When I’m Gone is another story about an unhappy marriage, this time Dolly takes on the first person perspective. In an upbeat retort to a distant and uncaring husband she tells him to think twice about leaving her. She thinks he will regret destroying their happy home and will miss her when she’s gone. In Dolly’s catalogue she sings about marriage and monogamy with a rare eye for detail and she’s never afraid to criticise men for weak and spineless behaviour. She may not declare herself to be a ‘feminist’ but her music often belies this statement.
The Only Hand You’ll Need To Hold is another plea to her husband, this time she offers only support and comfort. Mine will be the only hand you ever need to hold. These opening songs are distinctly more upbeat in tempo than her previous album Love is Like A Butterfly, and similar to that album they use choir-like harmonies to add textures to the song.
Porter’s influence on Dolly appears to be waning at this point but he is still working as her producer and she also records his song On My Mind Again. Much like many of Porter’s best songs this one is about memory and the pull of old love. You wonder if this one is about Dolly herself or maybe it is just a fitting song for the split they were in the middle of negotiating.
I Want To Be What You Need continues to explore the theme of sexuality – in this case Dolly wonders how to sustain love in a long term marriage. Here her partner is depressed and she offers her hand, her attention, her wish to ‘give you whatever you need’. The slow and sultry way she sings this suggests that her offer is sexual. Much like on ‘Touch Your Woman’ Dolly is unafraid to own her own sexuality and wants the man to do the same.
Love To Remember is another ballad about sex, where Dolly sings of nights of ‘no ending’ filled with ‘love’, memories of which invade her dreams and keep her warm inside. Sense memory is powerful and vivid, even when the lovers are apart.
He Would Know is another quietly devastating song about the temptation of cheating on your partner. Dolly knows that making love to another man would be ‘sweet’ but in the end such a betrayal wouldn’t be worth it since her husband would ‘know’. She enjoys flirting with someone – she goes to the edge but she won’t take that leap to cheat. How many of these songs are autobiographical is hard to tell, since Dolly often used stories of other people’s lives in her songs (or indeed just her own imagination) but you do wonder what her husband might have said after listening to songs on this raw and revelatory album.
The album finishes with I’ll Never Forget, a soft and gentle breeze of a folk song which musically feels more like a leftover from Love is Like A Butterfly. Dolly sings of her love for the one who got away – she keeps his memory in her heart and will do for the rest of her life. Love is never straightforward or simple on any of these songs.
The Bargain Store was one of Dolly’s strongest albums of the 70s at this point, with some real classic songs as well as intriguing album tracks. Perhaps it lacks her usual sassy humour, therefore its atmosphere is darker and more serious. This is an album of mature and sensitive songs about sexuality and love which are certainly more than worth the price.