What I’ve Learned From Listening to Every Dolly Parton Album

I started my project to listen to all of Dolly’s albums in 2018 and I admit it took me much longer to finish this than I had anticipated (see the full list of reviews here). When you grow up with an artist and listen along to them, it’s much easier to connect and put their work in context than trying to listen to everything all at once. Many of Dolly’s albums are tied to particular eras in time and music history, which were pretty alien and musically discombobulating to return to.

What I did learn about her music and her life might already be obvious to others, but I thought I would share some of my conclusions here about what Dolly’s music can teach us about how to live a good life.

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Every Dolly Parton Solo Album Ranked!

Listening to every Dolly solo album in order was a mammoth task and one which offers me some insight into the quality of her work over the last few decades.

Ranking albums is a fun task for music nerds like myself, and I began by splitting the albums into four categories: excellent, good, average, terrible. After that I went back to read my reviews (linked below) and listened again to determine which order I think best reflects the quality of Dolly’s work and my own personal favourites.

I chose the number one album because I think it best encapsulates everything Dolly has to offer: country, pop, bluegrass, classic songwriting, and above all else personality.

I have excluded soundtrack albums, her Christmas albums, the Dollywood only album and her children’s album, making a total of 44 albums to rank.

Read on and let me know your favourite Dolly album in the comments! Click each link for the full album review!

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Dolly’s Discography – Pure & Simple (2016)

‘Pure & Simple’ is an album dedicated to Dolly’s mysterious husband Carl Dean, a man who has kept himself out of the spotlight for her entire career. The songs Dolly has written about him in the past include ‘Jolene’ and ‘Just Because I’m A Woman’, neither of which paint him in an entirely flattering light. To do an album of love songs in the year they renewed their vows is a tribute to the longevity of their marriage, while also offering Dolly something different in terms of theme at this point in her career.

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Dolly Parton’s Discography: Blue Smoke (2014)

A couple of years back I made a running playlist of Dolly Parton songs, my favourite of which is the title track from this album ‘Blue Smoke’. My running route included quite a large hill and so this song would usually come on just at the point I was ‘climbin’ up the mountain’ and I found it always gave me the motivation I needed to keep going. The tune is one of Dolly’s most underrated songs, about leaving behind your old life and never looking back. A simple bluegrass arrangement that suits Dolly so well and one of her catchiest melodies – so catchy that the Glastonbury crowd picked it up almost instantly despite it being unfamiliar to most of them when she played it there.

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Dolly Parton’s Discography – Better Day (2011)

‘Better Day’ was Dolly’s 43rd solo album and came three years after the fantastic return to form that was ‘Backwoods Barbie’. Some of the songs on ‘Better Day’ were written for the musical version of ‘9 to 5’ which Dolly had been working on around this time. The intention of the album was to be an uplifting collection of songs, all written by Dolly, that would help people escape from their troubles.

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Dolly Parton’s Discography – Backwoods Barbie (2007)

The opening song on this 2007 album ‘Backwoods Barbie’ is a perfect distillation of the appeal of Dolly Parton as a cultural icon. ‘Better Get to Livin’ offers up some insight into how she keeps her positive attitude and offers some advice for others, all within one of the catchiest and most infectious melodies in her catalogue.

Dolly’s mantra is that we all better start ‘livin, givin, forgivin and ‘lovin’ on the way’. But there’s also a steely core to her lyrics – she doesn’t want to hear your ‘whining’ or ‘pining’, instead she believes that healing comes from a positive mental attitude. We must all ‘shine, design, refine’ to bring our dreams to life. Self-improvement becomes more than some platitude, it is exactly how Dolly has risen to the top and stayed there.

‘Don’t waste one minute of your life,’ she reminds us as the song draws to a close where she has recast herself as the best minister, motivational speaker, life coach, therapist you’ll ever have in your life.

The concept of this album was an attempt to reclaim the Barbie image which was often used to mock or deride her, but Backwoods Barbie works because these songs sum up everything which has been part of her appeal across her whole career.

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Dolly Parton’s Discography – Those Were the Days (2005)

Released a couple of years after the abomination that is ‘For God and Country’ this was Dolly back on safer territory, with a cover album of country and pop songs from the 60s and 70s. The musical style was back to the bluegrass sound which had been so successful and features many guest artists including Norah Jones, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, and even the return of her old friend Mr Porter Wagoner.

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