1981 was a significant year for Dolly – it was the first gap in her album release schedule since her debut in 1967. During some of those years she had released up to three albums a year, and such insane productivity had led her to country music superstardom, moderate pop success, opportunities in Hollywood but ultimately brought her to her knees. It is during this time in the early eighties she endured a crisis, with serious personal and health concerns that led her to contemplate suicide. Furthermore the difficulties of filming her movie ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ would prove that becoming a Hollywood star was not the stuff her dreams had been made of.
After the roaring success of 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs in 1980 Dolly should have been at her peak. The pop crossover transition had not been as easy as she had envisioned but she must have felt renewed confidence in her talents as a songwriter after securing her biggest hit to date. 1982‘s Heartbreak Express would be a chance to take a step back towards country music, a familiar home she perhaps needed after the personal demons that were plaguing her at this point.
Indeed the title track is all about return, and leaving behind the problems of your past. Despite the title it’s a jaunty, catchy, infectious pop song with some sweet and unexpected saxophone as well as nice country guitars. It feels like the exact kind of song that Dolly should have been singing when she was stuck in her pop ballad dirge phase – fresh, fun and freeing. Dolly wrote eight of ten songs solo on this album and her songwriting remains strong. She also co-produced the album with Gregg Perry, her bandleader and the man who has been long rumoured to be the cause of Dolly’s heartbreak at this time.
Single Women is one of the two tracks not written by Dolly, this song actually began its life as a spoof Saturday Night Live sketch written by Michael O’Donoghue who was known for his dark comic humour. However you would never know since Dolly sings it totally straight and country, with added smooth 80s brass and piano accompaniment. Somehow it works, although the ‘what’s the matter, are you gay?’ line has aged badly. The other more risqué lines about drugs were edited out of Dolly’s version at the request of RCA. This song does make you realise what has been missing from some of these recent Dolly albums and that is her own caustic humour – she obviously saw something in this song which appealed to that part of her personality. The song became a top ten country hit (as did the title track).
Dolly’s return to her country roots on this album is further cemented by a re-recorded version of Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, one of her best early songs. I can’t say that the 80s version adds anything to the original but as a way of making her old songs modern and keeping them alive you can’t criticise her for this choice. Thematically it works as all these songs are about regret, and this one is about the self-inflicted heartbreak of leaving love behind to pursue your dreams.
As Much As Always continues in the same vein, with Dolly singing in a heartfelt pain about the one who got away. The pedal steel is beautiful on this song, and her voice is as lovely as always.
Another re-recorded song is Do I Ever Cross Your Mind? which originally appeared on Chet Atkins’ 1976 album The Best of Chet Atkins and Friends. Their fun and folky take is the definitive version for me. The slick eighties style on the Heartbreak Express version doesn’t really add anything to the song and the male background vocals are more distracting than complementary. Still these choices suggest Dolly understands her strengths as a songwriter and wants to appeal to the country music fans, while still attempting to appease the pop fans she had also attracted.
Side two begins with the second cover version, of Release Me. Dolly’s vocal performance is confident and uplifting. Musically though it is hampered by too much dated 80s brass, even if there is enough pedal steel to keep it sounding somewhat country. Similar to the title track it’s hard to dislike the style entirely, as it’s an improvement on her pop albums of this era.
Maybe the weakest track on here is Barbara on Your Mind, which does hark back to those MOR piano ballads that the rest of this album had moved away from. Lyrically it is basically Jolene, with the narrator hearing her lover say another woman’s name in his sleep before finding out he is cheating.
Act Like A Fool tells the sad tale of a destructive and controlling relationship, and Dolly sings this one like it comes from personal experience. It’s an impassioned and soulful performance, channeling her rage into something cathartic.
Prime of Our Love takes us back to a more traditional folk sounding song, and her voice is quiet and thoughtful. The song continues the theme of pain and abandonment, with Dolly asking for answers to why her relationship has ended.
The album finishes with a song that isn’t connected to the personal heartbreaks of the rest of the album, yet contains a similar echo of suffering. Hollywood Potters was inspired by Dolly’s time working on the 9 To 5 movie set and seeing the extras striving for fame. With lyrics like Hollywood, Hollywood, dungeon of drama / Center of sorrow, city of schemes / Hollywood, Hollywood, terrace of trauma’ you can’t help but conclude that she was also singing from her own personal experience of the movie industry. The acapella opening of the song followed by the overblown chorus is also as dramatic as any movie. What this song tells us is that Dolly understood she would have to sacrifice her soul to really make it in the movies and that wasn’t something she was prepared to do.
Despite the glum expression on the album cover and the lyrical themes Heartbreak Express is a surprisingly uplifting and enjoyable listen, especially in comparison with other albums in this era. Returning home to country music, Dolly sounds renewed.
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: