The appeal of Dolly Parton’s image has always been in how the ‘false’ make-up, wigs, gaudy outfits and cosmetic enhancements contrast with her country roots and the vulnerable truths in her music. ‘The Great Pretender’ is what she set out to be as a poor kid playing dress up, writing songs and hoping to become a star. By 1984 she’d successfully created her legendary persona and was a household name. Her musical output in the eighties was wildly inconsistent at best, with dwindling returns from the heady heights of 9 to 5. This album would prove to be a low of her recording career, filled with forgettable cover versions of songs from the fifties and sixties that offered little of what had got her here in the first place.
And while I like these posts to focus on the music I can’t discuss this album without mentioning the cover photograph. Dolly is almost unrecognisable, compared to the person pictured on the album cover ‘Heartbreak Express’ only two years before. After health setbacks she had lost a considerable amount of weight and I think it’s fair to say you can see the beginnings of her journey down the cosmetic surgery route. It’s hard not to conclude that as her fame increases so does her insecurities around her looks. Shattered Image from the seventies told us of those feelings and later when talking of her cosmetic surgery she admitted, ‘I do it because I’m a show person. You are on camera all the time and people expect you to look a certain way.’
To drop the pretence, the persona and age like a normal human being is not an option. You see this now in almost every famous person, trickling right down even to the average person in the street. Dolly simply set the trend that everyone would follow – she had to suffer the indignity of being mocked for choices that would eventually become normalised. As she concluded, ‘I can’t see what’s wrong in doing something to make yourself look better so you can feel better about yourself.’ Part of me totally agrees, but there will also always be a tiny voice of doubt planted by my feminist education. After all if we didn’t judge each other so harshly, and body image standards were not so dominated by the male gaze then maybe we wouldn’t all feel as bad about ourselves in the first place. But since we all have to live in this world, you can’t blame Dolly (or anyone) for doing what she can to thrive.
Well I can’t avoid discussing the music on this album any longer. A glance down the track list might give you hope that it could be filled with gems. From Johnny Cash to The Byrds to Motown there’s no shortage of great songs on this project. The weakness is in the arrangements and production. Dolly has never been a great covers artist in my opinion. Her strengths are in her own material, her own songwriting style.
The album begins with ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, featuring the Jordanaires on backing vocals. Dolly sounds a little tired vocally and the music is dominated by the eighties production and those terrible keyboards again. Still that song doesn’t seem so bad after you hear her dreadful attempt at singing I Walk The Line. Frankly she can’t pull off this song’s macho style at all. Her awful vocal performance is not helped by the bad guitars and comical bass notes either.
In contrast Turn, Turn, Turn should be a perfect song for Dolly – it has that mix of folk, Country and gospel that she has a natural gift for. I can almost forgive the keyboards on this one since they are softer and let her vocal breathe a little. Why then the second half of the song has to become some hideous overblown mess then I have no idea. The eighties has so much to answer for. Downtown suits her better and, while sung a little fast for my liking, it’s at least a passable performance. The jazzy pop musical arrangement works quite well, but it’s never going to match the drama of the original.
We Had it All is a straight piano ballad, heavy on the schmaltz. Here we have the first nod to country music on the album, with a song that was made famous by Waylon on Honky Tonk Heroes. Oddly a different version would appear on Dolly’s 1986 compilation album Think About Love, and be released as a single, charting at number 31 on the country chart. That far superior version was a completely different vocal take and thankfully replaced the piano with an acoustic guitar.
She Don’t Love You (Like I Love You) has a lightness to it which comes as a relief at this point in the album, even if it’s a forgettable choice overall. Better is the folky We’ll Sing in the Sunshine, which was originally a hit for Gale Garnett in the sixties. Dolly gives a decent vocal performance and there’s more of her personality in the song choice. Motown classic I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) is one of those songs that never fails to make me smile. There’s nothing that you can do except enjoy it, even if the weak arrangement makes Dolly sound like a wedding singer.
If you’ve managed to last through the album then you are rewarded with a couple of songs that actually sound like Dolly wants to sing them. First is Elusive Butterfly, originally released by folk singer Bob Lind. As butterflies are so significant to Dolly it’s no surprise that she suits this one well. Production wise it harks back to the Heartbreak Express light country pop style, with solid results.
Dolly finishes the album with ‘The Great Pretender’, a song later revived by Freddie Mercury originally sung by The Platters. Dolly’s version is quite striking, using a gospel choir to nice effect. There’s a sadness in this song and a drama to the performance which works well. It’s just a shame she couldn’t have put this song on an album without the other filler cover versions.
What Dolly’s songwriting offers us is a glimpse behind the mask (or under the wig might be a more apt metaphor). That’s not to say an artist can’t express themselves through cover versions (folk singers have made an art of doing just that) but in this album’s case there’s too much of the Pretender and not enough of the real, truly great Dolly.
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: