Released in 1979 Great Balls of Fire is right in the middle of Dolly’s mainstream pop phase. She aims for the charts but ironically it is one of the few albums from this era without any real classic career-defining songs. It’s a continuation of her previous run of big budget albums but with ever diminishing returns you feel she’s stretching this seventies pop style to its limits.
That’s not to say there aren’t some enjoyable moments on this album for the real die hard Dolly fans. Opener Star of the Show is Dolly at her most confident, most Hollywood even. Maybe some might think this song was hubris or arrogant but Dolly knows her true worth – she is the star of the show, never forget it. This one is a little bit of a guilty pleasure, a kind of self love anthem that is hard to resist, even if it’s not one of her classics it has enough of Dolly’s personality to make irresistible fun.
The next song Down is also a solo write by Dolly and it does sound a little like she’s doing an impression of a pop star at times. Lyrically this one is about looking on the bright side of life – something that becomes more of a Dolly trademark the further away she gets from the darkness and despair of her earlier albums. At this time in her life she was going through some difficulties, but the music doesn’t reflect those issues.
You’re the Only One is pretty passable country pop ballad, written by Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts. It became her fifth consecutive country number 1 and made a small dent on the pop countdown. Her success in her own genre was consistent and considerable but she had trouble generating huge pop radio hits from this album.
The bluegrass version of ‘Help’ has Dolly building the rhythm of the song into something much more country, and interesting, than anything else on this album.
Do You Think That Time Stands Still? suffers from the weight of the glossy production. With a little more rootsy sound this one could have been more memorable. Sweet Summer Lovin is almost country too in the hint of banjo in the dreamy mix of instruments that propel this song. You can’t help yourself fall for its obvious but charming pop quality.
Her cover of the classic Great Balls of Fire goes to show that rock and roll is not one of Dolly’s strengths. She enjoys herself and the band plays it well but what holds her back is that she never sounds comfortable rocking out and letting loose. She could never bring the unhinged madness to the song like Jerry Lee. This cover is an odd choice – in comparison to her versions of country classics it pales into forgettable karaoke.
Almost In Love is more in Dolly’s wheelhouse with the hint of pedal steel making this one sound authentic and from the heart. It’s Not My Affair Anymore is an enjoyable slice of seventies pop where Dolly casts off an old flame and moves on. It’s pretty repetitive but catchy in that way that good pop songs have to be. It was written by Jeanne French who went on to release a solo album in 1980 on Columbia Records, featuring this song. It is pleasing looking at her catalogue how often Dolly records songs by other female writers.
Sandy’s Song is a tribute to her manager, who died recently. It’s pretty sentimental and you wonder if she felt the pressure to honour men in her life in the way that she did for Porter with the tribute album and I Will Always Love You. Unfortunately it does not have anywhere near the emotional resonance or power of that song. It is melodramatic and she sings it without her trademark vibrato so it sounds more Carpenters than country. Maybe that makes it an appropriate song then as a tribute to the man who was helping to take her out of country and trying to bring her to the dazzling lights of Hollywood and the pop charts.
Great Balls of Fire is of those albums that probably get rightly lost in the fog of Dolly’s extensive back catalogue. Listening to it now you can hear how she had to give up so much of her authentic self and sacrifice her songwriting strengths that the end result was self-defeating. What she still had to find was the right formula combining pop and country to really make the sustained impact on the mainstream charts in the way she so desperately craved.