Despite never working a 9 To 5 job in her entire life, Dolly Parton understood the plight of working women and channeled that despair, hope and frustration into an anthem that still resonates today, long after the film of the same name has faded in the cultural consciousness. Her previous album, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly had been entirely written by others, so it was ironic (although not a surprise to anyone who understands her songwriting talent) that she would find the crossover hit she was looking for in her own pen after all.
The inspiration for the song comes partly from the script of the movie 9 to 5 itself, about women fighting against a sexist boss and a company that doesn’t appreciate their talents. When Dolly decided she wanted to be an actress she headed for LA with dreams of movie stardom and that inner drive is also reflected in the famous lyrics, Pour myself a cup of ambition. And a line like ‘It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it, you spend your life putting money in their pocket’ feels as relevant to the entertainment industry now as then. Dolly was not long free of Porter Wagoner’s control – she understood what it was like to work for someone else, someone with more power.
The song itself is build on a brilliant melody and a rhythm she tapped out with her fake nails, which still sounds as timeless as ever. Just like Jolene this song does not age. As long as there are days in the week people will need this song, dance to this song and understand every damn word.
The rest of 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs is loosely themed around the idea of work and jobs, with some folk and country covers chosen to fit in with the title track, although some may still find the production overtly pop and polished at times. The album also has four songs written by Dolly, a welcome return for her songwriting after the variable quality of the writers she had been working with.
Second song Hush A Bye Hard Times was a solo write, which has an infectiously a catchy melody and hook. Here Dolly takes us back to the countryside of her youth. Her narrator has no money and has to soothe her hungry child with little more than hope for the future. She knows the wolf is at the door, such is life when you’re living dirt poor in the mountains, as Dolly’s family once were.
The cover songs then begin with a version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ where Dolly uses the original folk song lyrics, which were from the perspective of a woman. Dolly did rearrange the song to make it more clearly the story of a prostitute. The narrator tells a cautionary tale of ‘sin and shame’, while power chords echo in the background. Looking at a performance of the song on Youtube you can see she is having fun playing the role, exaggerating her persona in quite a camp and almost caricature fashion. Her empathy for such a character is perhaps a little lost in the over the top delivery.
In contrast there is empathy in abundance on the next song, Dolly’s version of Woody Guthrie’s protest song ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’. In the current context the words are overwhelming powerful and you wonder why more people haven’t covered this song lately, since it is so relevant to the situation with Mexican immigration. Dolly’s version of song is delivered with a dramatic and emotive vocal, suggesting her sympathy for those forced to return home (and those who died as a result). Musically the saccharine ballad sound has dated badly and the song definitely suits a more raw, folk delivery. The song has been covered by a range of artists such as The Highwaymen, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Nanci Griffith, Joan Baez and Judy Collins if you want to hear the differences.
Sing for The Common Man also combines some slick seventies style pop with country instrumentation. You can see how this song, written by her sister Frieda Parton and Mark Anderson, would appeal to Dolly’s working class roots. It pairs well with her song Daddy’s Working Boots, celebrating the men who always survive despite having to work themselves to the bone. I prefer Dolly’s own specific and personal songwriting but this song still feels like a powerful tribute to those whose struggle is not always heard on the radio.
One of the few real duds on this album, and in Dolly’s songwriting career is the song ‘Working Girl’, which lyrically is a cliché ridden song about career women. The delivery lacks Dolly’s usual vocal melody, sounding almost staccato, and the music is muddy and messy. You think with a little rearrangement, or a softer delivery there is almost a great song in there – one that could have been a thoughtful understanding of women’s shifting roles at work and home.
Next is a version of the classic country song Detroit City, written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis, which was a hit for Bobby Bare in 1963. It’s a natural choice for Dolly, and a return to her old theme of ‘country girl struggles in the city’. There’s a nice spoken word interlude in the middle of the song, where she concludes that she’s going to get on a train south and admit her city adventures were a mistake. The refrain ‘I wanna go home’ was an alternative title for the song, used by Billy Grammer on his version. I love this kind of song (maybe since I am a country girl in the city who often gets homesick) and this is one of Dolly’s best vocal performances on the album, showing her strength lies firmly in the genre where she made her name.
But You Know I Love You is another cover, this song being originally released by Kenny Rogers. Dolly’s version is strong and would go on to be another number one for her on the country chart, also peaking at 41 on the Billboard 100. The song fits in with the theme of the record, telling the story of a touring singer who has had to make sacrifices at the expense of her love life.
Dark as A Dungeon is a mining song written by Merle Travis. Dolly’s sweet voice, adds an emotional heart to this song. Her delivery is full of sympathy for the drudgery of the men and the dangerous conditions they work in.
The album finishes with another great Dolly solo write, Poor Folks’ Town. She offers the listener an invitation to the town, to come and witness how the people are rich in love not material wealth. The only mansion they dream of is the one in the sky. It’s a celebration of the everyday heroes of America, just like all of the best songs in Dolly’s rich catalogue.
While some of the production of this album sounds dated and of its era, the title track transcends time and genre. The rest of the album fails to match the star quality of that song, but overall it is a welcome return to her roots and the themes that made her.
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: