Something Special is a short album of ten songs, including three re-recorded versions of Dolly’s biggest hits. There’s no attempt to court the modern country charts or push her sound into any new directions. Instead we have some nice, middle of the road piano ballads and gentle vocal performances which tell us that at this stage in her career Dolly was content to embrace her middle age.
Beginning with the beautiful Crippled Bird sets this softer, gentle tone for the album. Dolly has always used nature imagery and specifically bird metaphors to describe herself – she’s been both the sparrow and the eagle. Here she uses the bird to symbolise heartbreak itself. Inspired by the old folk melody of Wayfaring Stranger, musically the song creates an eerie feeling with the soft piano aided by atmospheric harmonies.
Title track Something Special is a simple little love song and one that Dolly writes so well. The tune is aided by some nice finger snapping, harmonies and electric guitar. Vocally Dolly is holding back, offering some subtle quiet reflection on Change. A song for anyone who’s been in a long term relationship and found themselves at the natural end. Musically she continues with the lush strings and piano.
Vince Gill joins her for a rendition of I Will Always Love You, turning this into a duet offers quite an interesting take on the lyrics and works well in terms of the emotional impact of the song. Note this version is more Whitney in the arrangement (which Whitney herself actually took from Linda Rondstadt’s version). Recording her own signature hit for the third time might seem unnecessary but the fact that this song became another top twenty hit on the country charts shows the continued appetite for such a timeless, familiar classic in any form.
Green Eyed Boy is more traditionally country, taking us to the mountains again. A safe and familiar place for her, where she hasn’t been for a long time. Nostalgic and evocative of a simpler way of living. Speaking of the Devil has a Western swing feel, not a style that Dolly has explored much in the past but this vintage, sassy shimmy is perfect for her.
Jolene, her most covered song, is also re-recorded here, with the seventies groove downplayed in favour of more pedal steel. Weirdly this version now sounds more dated than the original which goes to prove that some songs just bottle the magic in ways that are impossible to recreate.
No Good Way of Saying Goodbye is a break up ballad, sung with more than a touch of melodrama. This leads us nicely into another re-recorded old song, The Seeker from the early seventies. Again it’s hard to really know the benefit of these new versions. She’s not introducing them to younger audiences since the tone of this album suggests she’d given up courting the new country crowd. So the only conclusion here is that she is offering her listeners some familiar and safe songs from the past, maybe ones they only had on vinyl rather than CD. The Seeker remains one of Dolly’s best songs, as close to a gospel hymn as she has ever written and one which remains the pinnacle of her songwriting about faith.
We end with ‘Teach Me To Trust’ the only songwriting collaboration on the album, written with Gene Golden. The song is about trying to find the nerve to follow your heart over your instincts. Dolly sounds emotionally vulnerable, uncertain, her voice quivers and the music whispers softly.
Overall Something Special is safe, comforting, inoffensive. You can see how another artist might have been happy to stay here in the middle of the road, letting nostalgia be the core of her appeal for the rest of their careers. Thankfully Dolly doesn’t do this and so this album works as a kind of stop gap, a breather, a momentary rest before she’s out again seeking new opportunities, heading towards the bluegrass and Backwoods Barbie era which have helped cement her celebrated place in music history.
In 2018 I started my project to review all of Dolly Parton’s solo albums in order. Here is a link to a list of the albums I have reviewed so far: https://highwayqueens.com/2021/03/03/dolly-partons-discography-album-reviews-list/