When reviewing an album by Dolly Parton, it is almost impossible to remove the context – that is, it’s almost impossible to review it without being constantly conscious that it’s Dolly. Dolly, who plays three-hour shows with a scant break in the middle, singing and talking and entertaining and generally owning the stage, if not the world. Dolly, who is one of the best songwriters in country music history and one of the canniest businesswomen in any history. Dolly, whose relentless work ethic has seen her produce 43 solo studio albums – and then there’s everything else she’s done (including the magnificent Trio with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris).
But let’s try. Let’s take that forty-third album, Pure & Simple, and take it as we would any album. Let’s pretend that the voice singing the songs isn’t instantly recognisable.
Pure & Simple has two discs: the first is new songs written entirely by Dolly, including new versions of ‘Tomorrow is Forever’, which she first recorded with Porter Wagoner in 1970, and ‘Say Forever You’ll Be Mine’, another number first done with Wagoner, in 1975. The second disc contains ten of Dolly’s favourite and most famous songs, including ‘9 to 5’ and a certain song called ‘Jolene’. The second disc won’t be reviewed for the purposes of this website (a review would be moot, given the songs).
So, to disc one: the songs are country pop of the least-sappy, best-produced kind. The beats are mostly up and Dolly’s voice is still a thing of wonder. Most of the songs are love songs, and very fine ones. ‘Mama’ is, quite obviously, a tribute to Dolly’s mother; in anyone else’s hands it could be saccharine, but there is something in Dolly’s voice – something that’s always there – that stops it being so. What’s in that voice, in amongst her command of the notes, is authenticity, grit and self-awareness. Dolly has always known exactly who she is and that makes it so much easier for her audience to connect with her. Dolly knows that to descend into too much sentimentality would be to condescend to her audience.
People want to be moved but it’s not worth much if it isn’t genuinely motivated by the person doing the moving. Dolly may be great at business but she’s also great at art, and in all of her songs can be heard that edge, that catch, that tells us she’s there with us, not lost inside herself. It’s the secret of her great connection with so many people over so many years: it’s not the hair or the clothes or even Dollywood that has kept people with her. It’s because she wants to be with her people, and they can tell. And in case all of this sounds saccharine, I’ll say this: Pure & Simple is the first Dolly album I’ve reviewed, and I don’t own many of her other albums. I admire Dolly, but I would never have said I was a devoted fan. Listening closely to this album has made me one, not because it’s so much better than her other albums – the woman couldn’t release a dud if she tried – but because it’s the first time I’ve realised the true genius of what she does. She connects. With voice and word and song, she connects.
The world is a better place for Dolly Parton, and you will be a better person for her too. That’s a down-home darn-tootin’ promise.
Pure & Simple is out now through RCA Nashville.