In his recent book about David Hockney, critic Martin Gayford described the artist as someone who ‘keeps doing the same thing, continually fired by the urge to do it differently and better…he is teaching us a lesson not only in how to see, but how to live.’ Dolly Parton has lived her life in the exact same way. Great art is found in the consistent creativity of hard work.
On first listen Hungry Again might sound like a retread of some of Dolly’s earlier ideas but connecting to her past is part of what has made her an icon. As she writes ‘Sometimes to know just how far you’ve traveled, you’ve got to go back to where you began’. The songs were written over a three month period spent between her lake house and childhood home, resulting in Dolly’s first album of entirely solo penned material in decades.
The title is a nod to Dolly’s renewed hunger for songwriting after a few projects that were mainly made up of covers, old material or MOR songs written by others. In the sleeve notes to this album Dolly admits she is ‘still hungry for hit records, still hungry to sing and still hungry to write songs for myself as well as for others.’ Her insatiable appetite and ambition drive her to this day.
Dolly also mentions how writing this album became a kind of spiritual quest, one where she prayed and fasted in order to find her writing inspiration. Looking back now I think some of her comments about juice fasts and diets are problematic, especially in the light of her extreme weight loss in the late eighties. Dolly’s need to mould her own body through dieting and cosmetic procedures is more than a personal quest for perfection – she has admitted in Shattered Image to struggling under the harsh gaze of fame and public expectations.
Dolly’s image on this album cover appears more ‘natural’ at first glance than her usual look – she’s wearing dungarees not rhinestones, her hair is braided, she’s sitting on a porch swing staring wistfully off in the distance. And yet it’s still a wig and a mask of make up – there’s another Dolly underneath who we never see, one we glimpse only in her songs.
The songs on this album are rich in classic textures of country, bluegrass and gospel. Title track Hungry Again is a reset, a deep breath and a look both backwards to what has got her here and a statement of intent for the future. Lyrically the song is about her long term relationship but it’s easily transferred to her career.
Interesting then that The Salt in my Tears sounds more classic rock than country, almost echoing Status Quo at times. What sells it is the catchy hook that lets Dolly use the higher reaches of her voice quite brilliantly.
The single from the album Why Don’t More Women Sing Honky Tonk Songs? might be the eternal question in country music. Thinking about the role of women in the genre she ponders the absence of more outlaw female stories and voices. What if the truth is that women do do sing these songs but not enough people want to hear them? Funnily enough Dolly herself has never really sung drinking, honky tonk songs much in the past either but she carries this one off perfectly.
Blue Valley Songbird is a beautiful bluegrass ballad, telling the unfortunate tale of an abused singer who never makes it big but who writes like a poet and keeps on singing regardless. The song reads almost like Dolly in a parallel universe – even if she didn’t make it big she would never have given up trying, ‘expressing the feeling she holds inside.’
Nostalgia for a better time in her relationship is the theme of ‘I Wanna Go Back’, with a nice throwback sound to match. Her gospel writing continues to be timeless on ‘When Jesus Comes Calling For Me’, the story of Zeke whose faith allowed him to embrace death without fear.
Time and Tears is a perfect country song, and another hint at the pure bluegrass direction she would take on the next three albums. I’ll Never Say Goodbye features some lovely mandolin played by her cousin Richie Owens who also produced the record with Dolly.
The Camel’s Heart has a little more bite lyrically, she won’t forgive and forget the indiscretions of her lover. I Still Lost You is an achingly sad song about the end of love and how hard it is to start over after ‘too much hurt’.
She takes us back to her childhood on Paradise Road, explaining how her inner imagination and faith helped her to ‘prepare for the world out there’. When life was cold and tough she went into her own mind to find a private place of peace. Now that’s something we can all try to cultivate.
Album closer Shine On is just astounding, an a capella hymn to raise goosebumps even in the most heathen of unbelievers. When the choir of singers joins in with Dolly to remind us to ‘shine on’ you can’t help but finish the album feeling as restored and inspired as if you’d been on that spiritual retreat with Dolly herself.
Hungry Again is one of Dolly’s best albums because there is a sense of a unified sound and purpose, a women in her fifties who still felt like she had more to say, more to do, more to become, more to live. Sure it lacks the one big hit song, but Dolly isn’t interested in chasing those glories at this particular moment. Instead we have an album which takes a moment to rest and be thankful.
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/