Someone once said ‘variety is the spice of life’, which - living in a small city in Devon - isn’t always the easiest mantra to uphold. Here at PearShaped I think we do a pretty good job at it, providing reviews on everything from pop to jazz to metal. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the last two, but I have a real soft spot in my heart for Country Music. I think in many ways it’s the cheesiest genre, and sometimes the lyrics aren’t completely relatable to twenty-something uni students who have never been to the South of America. However, there is one particular artist who has always struck a chord for me - and millions of others - whose music I can always relate to. As if you hadn’t already guessed it, this week’s column is focussed on the 13th album of the big hair, big lips, and big voice of Dolly Parton. Now, picking an album of Dolly’s to cover was a difficult step this week; according to Wikipedia she currently has 43 studio albums, four live albums, two holiday albums, three Dollywood Exclusive albums, and approximately 184 compilation albums worldwide. That is a lot of material to choose from. I therefore decided to focus on the one that is most special to me, including her most famous songs. I’m basic, what can I say? Parton’s 13th studio album Jolene came as she embarked on a solo career, after having been a part of Porter Wagoner’s weekly TV series and road show up until then.
The lyrics on this record aren’t complex, but they really don’t need to be. For example, When Someone Wants To Leave (“as bad as you want them to stay”) isn’t cloaked in metaphor, and thanks to that it’s incredibly easy to relate to. The same can be said of pretty much every song on the album, with Jolene being a prime example. Thankfully I’ve never been in the position where a red haired, green eyed siren is stealing my man away, but I’m sure if I had, Jolene would be exactly how I’d feel. The simple instances that Parton describes - such as her partner mentioning Jolene’s name in his sleep - encapsulate the hopelessness of the person singing, but it’s subtle. There are no shouted choruses or weepy verses to be found here; it’s just a person calmly asking another person to let them keep their man. Personally, I think there’s something very beautiful about someone saying something as heartbreaking as “You could have your choice of men but I could never love again” while never even raising their voice.
Parton’s voice throughout the record is the just as crisp, clear and levelled as it is in Jolene. While some may think this is a negative, I can’t agree. Her voice is very pure, is sometimes piercing and very occasionally borders on shrill. It matches the country music perfectly, having that wonderful country twang. However, it’s also tinged with a hint of sadness that works with the slower, sadder songs like Lonely Comin’ Down. In this track she manages to encapsulate loneliness without overdoing it as so many do. I found myself listening to Lukas Graham’s 7 Years the other day (against my will), and I was wondering why it was so popular. I concluded that by growling on every other word and shouting at us more often that not, Graham had managed to persuade us that this was a passionate song. Personally, I think this is an artificial passion that is easy to achieve by gruffing up your voice or clenching your teeth. With Parton, there’s none of that; the emotion in her songs is conveyed through the voice itself, not any clunky affectations.
A perfect example of this comes from possibly one of the most famous songs of all time. Most people - understandably - think of Whitney Houston when they hear I Will Always Love You. While Houston’s rendition is a beautiful pop ballad, there is something so simple and devastating about Parton’s original version. There are no massive vocal runs, or other tricks. It’s just a girl with a guitar singing: “we both know I’m not what you need, but I will always love you”. Apparently this was written as a goodbye to Porter Wagoner, but it applies to many different contexts, which is part of its genius. If you’ve never heard the original version of this song, I really urge you to. It’s different to Houston’s cover, and both are great in their own way, but this is special.
By recommending this record, I’m not suggesting that every track will change your life. I do, however, think that it’s an album you should listen to. The album tracks are very much album tracks in that they’re short bursts of country goodness, but sometimes I think that’s what we need. Tracks like Early Morning Breeze are catchy and pleasant. It won’t make you question your beliefs, but it might just improve your mood. Overall, this is a relatively short record filled with beautiful country vocals, pleasant instrumentation and simple but effective lyrics. If all that was enough to convince you to listen to Jolene or Parton as an artist, remember that she is an amazing person who has done an incredible amount of charity work, and who brought out a mini saxophone in her Glastonbury slot. Give in to her power, and enjoy.