“I’m commericalminded. If I can’t get my own hit, I’m not too proud to hang on somebody else’s coattails,’ said Dolly in a revealing interview she conducted in the mid-90s. Therefore working with platinum king Kenny Rogers, who she called ‘a magical man’ was a no-brainer. Together they would have a pop smash with Islands in the Stream, a successful Christmas album released in 1984, and a country chart topper with the title track of this 1985 album.
Unlike Dolly who had come up through Porter Wagoner’s traditional sound of the sixties, Kenny’s country music was a brand of smooth, slick adult contemporary that easily crossed over to the pop charts. Dolly’s success on that chart was sporadic and patchy – only her biggest songs like Jolene and 9 to 5 ever really made a significant impact.
Despite the fact that in 1984 she’d scored a country number one with her most traditional sounding song of the decade – Tennessee Homesick Blues from the ‘Rhinestone’ soundtrack – Dolly wasn’t ready to give up her dreams of pop stardom. Her decision to switch producer at this point was a wise move considering the underwhelming performance of her last album The Great Pretender. David Malloy had already produced for Kenny and also Tanya Tucker – suggesting he understood how to take country artists and get the best out of them for mainstream audiences. On first listen to Real Love I was relieved to hear how much better the production is overall, with Dolly sounding like she’s actually enjoying herself, rather than trying too hard to find a hit.
Think About Love opens the album and it is a really entertaining eighties pop song. Vocally it’s relaxed and feels like she’s found her sweet spot with this decade’s modern sound. Both that one and Tie Our Love (In a Double Knot) used different pop songwriters than she’d worked with before. It might be a long way from the country music of her early career but at least the production and guitars sound fresh.
We Got Too Much is a Dolly solo write and has a yacht rock, laid-back style. It’s not a classic lyric but at least she sounds like she’s getting into a nice groove with the delivery.
It’s Such A Heartache is an eighties soft rock power ballad, and Dolly gives it her all even if her voice maybe doesn’t quite suit the song. Don’t Call It Love was the first single from the album and was originally sung by Kim Carnes of Bette Davis Eyes fame (Dusty also recorded a version). It’s a classic MOR love song, and even has an extended saxophone solo because, well it wouldn’t be the eighties without one would it?
The title track duet with Kenny has aged better than most of Dolly’s songs from this pop era. In duets with Porter, she was the smart, sassy foil but with Kenny she’s an adoring flirt. They’ve got real chemistry, which makes their duets sparkle still.
The second half of this album has a couple of hidden gems including I Can’t Be True, which might be the most fun Dolly has had on record for a long while. It’s a classic rock and roll boogie song, written by Dolly. Finally she brings back some personality into the writing, admitting that despite being in love she just can’t help her ‘roving eye’.
The ballad Once in A Very Blue Moon was originally recorded by Nancy Griffith, and Dolly always does well with such classic country songwriting, even if it’s a long way sonically from her Tennessee Mountain Home.
Dolly writes the last two songs herself and Come Back To Me is a dramatic ballad that sounds like something Patsy might have sung in the fifties. There are some nice doo wop backing vocals which help add to the stylish sound. I Hope You’re Never Happy is a welcome return of her witty, kiss off songs. At the start of her career her songwriting was defined by these feisty funny songs, and I can hear this one in my head sung as a classic country duet with Porter. It’s a fun end to an album that makes for light and easy listening overall.
‘I have had a half-assed so-called crossover pop career,’ Dolly concluded when looking back at this era. Real Love might have been a slight return to form but it still wasn’t the smash she wanted. In the end it would be her last album for RCA Records but would not be her final attempt at pop music. Her ambition kept her striving for new opportunities from movies to variety shows to Dollywood. She explained her reasoning in that same 90s interview, ‘If I had not done all these other things I’d be broke now.’
Dolly was bigger than country music, bigger than music itself. You can’t divide these so-so pop albums from the context of her as a celebrity hustling for every opportunity. Country music might be her true self-expression but these pop songs helped to build her brand. In the end that hard work made Dolly an icon.