Why can’t we love one another? Why can’t we ride on the peace train?
Dolly Parton is often described as being an apolitical figure, one who refuses to speak out on controversial issues or align herself to a political party. However like many other cultural and spiritual icons before her, throughout her career Dolly has been a subtle but significant force for progressive change.
You could argue that it is exactly because Dolly has risen above the party political divide that she has been able to so successfully use her voice to support causes like literacy, women’s rights, LGBT rights, rural poverty and more recently healthcare and vaccine research.
Dolly’s message in her music and her life is one of peace and harmony, seen clearly on this diverse and inclusive 1996 covers album Treasures.
Treasures begins with a message of pacifism, covering Cat Stevens’s Peace Train with Ladysmith Black Mambazo who also add in an original freedom train song of their own. Dolly’s choice of collaborators on this album reflect the melting pot of the nineties charts, a diversity of sound which has all been lost in the homogenous streaming age. Here the African acapella choir blend beautifully with Dolly’s voice. Cat Stevens called Peace Train ‘an ideological ray of hope’ and that statement perfectly sums up Dolly herself.
We then have a safe choice of the Merle Haggard classic ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, as though she’s reassuring her country fans that she hasn’t entirely turned into some kind of beatnik hippy. It’s a sweet rendition of one of the best songs ever, with some supporting vocals from John Popper of Blues Traveler.
Even better is Dolly’s version of Just When I Needed You Most, aided by Alison Krauss and John Sebastian playing the autoharp (as he did on the original version by Randy VanWarmer). Dolly admitted she couldn’t get through recording the whole song without crying and you hear that emotional quiver in her voice. It’s a really gorgeous cover and arrangement.
Something’s Burning was written by Mac Davis for Elvis, and Dolly really brings the fire to this one. There’s a vivacious, seductive energy to her delivery.
Dolly first heard the song Before the Next Teardrop Falls by Freddy Fender when she was driving in her car and was so moved by the song she had to pull over. Her version features David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, creating another link to the Spanish inspired country sound of Tejano, which obviously had a resurgence in this era. Before his death Fender hoped to be the first Mexican American inducted into the country music hall of fame, and such a choice might help somewhat towards remedying the lack of Latin country artists in the genre.
The song choices on this album are really strong and the ghostly arrangement of After the Goldrush with Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox and Viktor Krauss is quite beautiful. At the time of this release her Trio version with Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris was still in the vaults. Dolly’s solo version is more glossy in terms of production but both versions show a deep connection to the mysterious beauty of the song.
Walking on Sunshine is cute country pop karaoke and if it doesn’t at least raise a smile then you’re clearly dead inside. Behind Closed Doors, originally recorded by Charlie Rich, is another solid vocal performance and arrangement with some classic piano from Hall of Famer Pig Robbins.
Don’t Let me Cross Over became a number one country record back in 1962 for Carl and Pearl Butler, who Dolly worked with when she was a child star. By recording this song she nods back to her roots while featuring Raul Malo of the Mavericks updates the song for nineties’ audiences.
Dolly is never afraid to cover songs by other women and she delivers a traditional rendition of Satin Sheets, made famous by Jeanne Pruett. The song is perfect for Dolly with its exploration of two of her most consistent themes: sexuality and marriage. The album finishes with the best break up (sex) song ever written, For The Good Times by Kris Kristofferson and Dolly’s version is divine.
The CBS television special which accompanied the album can be seen in full on YouTube and is quite the nineties time capsule. In the special she discusses her song choices, includes interviews some of the original artists, all of which is intercut with footage of significant moments in American history. Dolly still has some time for a Q and A with the audience, a dance routine with a kids troupe as well as indulging in some outrageous flirting with her duet partners for good measure. The special ends up being maybe even more of an enjoyable experience than just listening to the accompanying album.
Dolly is a consistently savvy musical opportunist, using her star power to work with a dizzying array of artists in an attempt to remain current, while also offering songs to appease her old fans. Treasures might seem like just another covers album but there’s some beautiful songs on here and it’s a useful study in how collaborations have helped Dolly to remain such powerfully unifying cultural phenomenon.
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/
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