In the middle of the eternal debate about what defines the country music genre it’s interesting to consider some of these late seventies Dolly Parton albums. She aimed for the pop market but hoped to keep her country fanbase happy too. By 1977 Dolly was on her twentieth solo album in ten years. She’d written every style of country song you could think of. Pop music was limitless in a way that country music could never be – sonically and commercially. Dolly wanted the same success as Elvis or Elton John – not just an occasional cross over from the country charts. Jolene proved she could take country with her over to the mainstream and on Here You Come Again she again attempted to find a place in both worlds.
The first indication that this album will be another step away from her past is the fact she recorded this in LA with a commercial producer and pop musicians. The title track was also the work of classic pop songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Dolly’s biggest hits had always been self written, with a couple of notable exceptions (Dumb Blonde, Mule Skinner Blues). Recording pop songs was a gamble. The song was originally written for Brenda Lee’s comeback – she passed and instead BJ Thomas recorded it. Dolly’s producer, Gary Klein, heard that version and believed it could work for her. He was right. Dolly of course said any monkey could make this song a hit, but she was just being her usual modest self.
Dolly’s personality and pizazz work wonders on this song, elevating it to one of the biggest hits in her catalogue. The song reached number 1 on the country charts (the added pedal steel an attempt to keep it country) and number 3 on the billboard charts. It also won her a Grammy for the first time for Country Vocal Performance and also gained her a nomination in the pop category. The title song launched the album to platinum status, the first album of Dolly’s to do so. As the centrepiece for the recent Dumplin’ film the song shows no sign of fading away either.
Second track Baby Come Out Tonight was written by Kathy McCord, a relatively unknown cult songwriter in the Laura Nyro vein. Dolly takes the song’s original slightly ragged sound and turns it into a smooth and sweet loungey seventies ballad. It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right is a risqué cheating song and was another number one on the country charts for Dolly. This is the first of only four songs on the album Dolly wrote herself.
She also wrote the next track, Me and Little Andy, a curio that is both cringeworthy and strangely affecting at the same time. Dolly sings some of it in character, affecting a childish voice that is part adorable, part atrocious (you can even hear Dolly laughing a little when she first tries it). Little Andy is a dog belonging to a kid who appears at the narrator’s door in a storm – her mum has run away, her dad’s drunk and she needs somewhere to stay. At the end of the song both Sandy and Andy end up dead (of what it’s not clear). It’s a throwback to Dolly’s tragic story songs like Gypsy, Joe & Me and Jeannie but perhaps the delivery is a little questionable, especially in contrast to the other shiny pop songs on the album.
Lovin You is an enjoyable cover of a song by the Lovin’ Spoonful. Dolly’s version has a nice summery, sixties inspired vibe to it. By moving away from recording songs by country music songwriters you can tell she is almost trying to teach herself new tricks.
You can see how a song like Cowgirl and the Dandy would appeal to Dolly at this point in her career. It’s a story song with the mix of glamour and dirt that she was aiming for in her music. In the song a rhinestone cowgirl meets a rich dandy at an airport bar and falls in love. Lush strings add a nice flourish to the song. Originally written as Cowboy and the Lady, Dolly asked the writer Bobby Goldsboro to rework it for her – it didn’t take much to switch the genders and make it perfect Dolly. There’s an insanely great live version on youTube so make sure you check that out. Brenda Lee also recorded the song in 1980 and it went on to become a top ten country hit for her too.
Dolly may be relying on a few more songwriters than normal but there is still ample evidence on this album that she has a knack for writing a pop song as well as anyone. On Two Doors Down she combines her trademark vulnerability with a catchy hook and danceable melody. It’s an infectious FOMO anthem about gaining the strength to party your troubles away. The song hit number 19 on the pop charts (not as big as the title track but still a solid return) and remains a live favourite to this day.
God’s Coloring Book is probably the most traditional sounding song on the album, predicting the classic country folk style of the Trio recordings. Dolly sounds naturally at home on a song like this, using the metaphor of a coloring book to celebrate the beauty of nature. Even the most ardent atheist might sigh along in appreciation to this one.
As Soon As I Touched Him is a little seventies MOR in comparison, and was written by pop songwriter Ken Hirsch and Norma Helms (who had also written for Thelma Houston). Still the uplifting chorus is beautiful, and there are definite soulful gospel influences on this one too.
The album ends with Sweet Music Man, a song that had been a hit earlier that year for Kenny Rogers. The song’s production is slick and polished to an almost 80s sounding degree but Dolly still sells it well. The song is about how life on the road eventually breaks even the best of men. It was inspired by a conversation Rogers had with Jessi Colter about Waylon (who ironically enough went on to record a version too).
There are some real classics on this album and the quality never drops, even if the production is a little slick at times that was her deliberate intention. Dolly had to defend herself against critics, using her now famous line ‘I’m not leaving country. I’m taking it with me’. Reading that same interview I found another statement which felt equally as important. Dolly said ‘I don’t think there is a definition for country anymore. You wouldn’t call my music country, you wouldn’t call it pop. Why should it carry any label apart from the name of the artist?’ As always, Dolly speaks a lot of sense.
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: