The late seventies was a transition time in Dolly Parton’s career. She had distanced herself from Porter Wagoner and this 1976 album ‘All I Can Do’ is the last album he was involved in, co-producing with Dolly. Following quickly on from the disappointing ‘Dolly’ album, All I Can Do is both a return to the classic country which made her name and a subtle continuation of her evolution towards the mainstream.
The first impression you get listening to this album is how much happier she sounds than on Dolly, which was a somewhat laboured attempt at seventies schmaltz. Here from the outset things are brighter and you can hear Dolly’s personality back in the vocals. The title track All I Can Do was the only single from the album, peaking at number 3. It’s an infectious little pop song about having a crush on someone and trying to find the courage to tell them how you feel. It has handclaps and a gospel feel to its euphoric ending which just makes it a real fun song to sing along with.
The Fire That Keeps You Warm is another poppy love song, with some nice guitar and freshness to the vocal delivery. On the surface it’s just a simple song offering love and asking for it in return, but the tone and style is new. All the songs on this album were self-penned except for two covers and you really hear a renewed vigour in the writing. Perhaps these opening two songs are more pop/rock than country but they feel authentically Dolly and not an attempt to chase trends.
When I was making some playlists for Dolly birthday I selected a number of songs that could loosely be grouped under the theme of ‘Home’ and she returns to this central concern on ‘When The Sun Goes Down Tomorrow’. It’s also the start of the switch back to more natural country sound. As usual Dolly is able to go back to themes and ideas again and again, honing them and developing her songwriting over time. This song in particular feels like a more joyful exploration of the feeling that home gives her – a road song that may have been written on tour.
Perhaps in contrast somewhat is I’m A Drifter, a song about not having a home and enjoying being out on the road. This might be one of her ‘character’ songs perhaps or she is just showing us her happily contradictory nature. Musically it is really catchy and there is some nice bluegrass banjo and country instrumentation (so missed on her previous album).
Falling Out of Love With Me is back to a real vintage classic country sound and Dolly sounds so natural on songs like this. The song is about love dying and how she ‘can’t stand to watch you falling out of love with me’. Separation is better than the misery of love dying – she left while ‘love was still alive’. Maybe it’s a song for Porter, or maybe she is just such a mature songwriter she is able to take her own personal hardships and make them sound universal.
The personal and poignant Shattered Image is one of Dolly’s best songs, and one she would eventually re-record for later album Halos and Horns. For many people Dolly’s image can overshadow her music to the point where she has become a cartoonish figure of ridicule and fun. The problem is that many people forget there is a real person under the make up and the outfits and the wigs – a woman who perhaps has used these outward disguises to mask her own troubles. As a child her lack of self-esteem about her looks causes her to throw stones at her reflection and ‘shatter’ her image. As a successful star she then finds stones being thrown at her by other people and she admits ‘it hurts me more than it makes me mad’. When you make fun of yourself it’s different than becoming the butt of other people’s jokes – if you read any interviews in this period you can witness the horrific misogyny Dolly faced because of her looks. Of course she used her image to her advantage in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms didn’t hurt. The song ends in defiance and a reminder to check yourself before you criticise others.
Dolly then honours her future collaborator Emmylou Harris by covering her signature song Boulder to Birmingham, about the death of Gram Parsons. Dolly’s version is hauntingly beautiful, conveying all the sadness of the original with some added drama to the delivery. Interestingly Dolly’s song ‘To Daddy’, which was made famous by Emmylou in 1977, was intended to be included on this album but never made the final cut. The famous Trio of Dolly, Emmylou and Linda had also met in 1975 and sung together in the studio, although it would take a long time for the project to come to fruition. The mutual admiration and connections between these artists would continue for many years to come.
Much of this album takes inspiration from gospel music so it is fitting to see a song dedicated to Preacher Tom. In her spoken word introduction to the song Dolly tells us of the impression that the preacher made on her, reminding her of those country preachers she had grown up with. The bluegrass beginning leads into a gospel chorus of celebration.
A cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘Life’s Like Poetry’ is a welcome addition to the album – another joyful love song on which Dolly sounds as free as she ever has. Merle is better known for his drinking songs and he in fact write this love song for his friend Lefty Frizzell, who was trying to make a comeback. Haggard released his version of the song on his 1975 album ‘Keep Movin On’, which also included Kentucky Gambler.
The final song on the album is Hey Lucky Lady, is a strangely joyful song about losing your man – kind of an imagined response if Jolene really did steal her man. Do you know the prize you’ve won? She asks, hoping the new woman will give up her man. The mood of the song remains blissfully upbeat despite her heartbreak.
Many of Dolly’s albums are dominated by one or two classic songs with some variable album tracks but this album is consistent in quality throughout. All in all it makes for one of her strongest albums of the decade.
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: