Cornpone-cum-brassy crossover, built on savvy, from-the-sticks-to-the-heartstrings romanticizing, Dolly Parton's country-and-western duets catalog was already as big as her, ahem, lungs by the early '70s. The fourth of 12 children, Parton must've taken a lesson in prolificacy from her Pentecostal parents, as she would continue this streak through more than 50 albums, into much of the '80s. But it was within a spate of trad releases between 1971 and 1974 that Parton injected her feminist anxiety and Appalachian folk. Three of those classics—which have sold way into the millions at this point—have been recently reissued: Coat of Many Colors, My Tennessee Mountain Home, and Jolene.
A performer since the age of 9 and recording artist/published songwriter by 13, rural Tennessee-bred Parton found her first public brush with success as sassy siren to Porter Wagoner on his weekly syndicated TV show. Parton was signed as Wagoner's duet partner to RCA Victor, and would be placed in front of a stellar lineup of Nashville session players with Wagoner as coproducer. The duo got to know the Top Ten intimately over seven or so years, as Parton played her role of nostalgic narrator to the hilt.
And therein lies the rub in Parton's push to be a solo artist. At times her desire to make you feel and need is delivered through songs of overriding sappiness threatening to mire in vibrato and turmoil. And yet they sit side by side along genuine laments and longing, which have marked the strongest points of Parton's solo career, patterns forged by these three albums.
Coat of Many Colors introduces the struggles the solo Parton faces, reliving memories of an upbringing that was both bucolic and bleak. Coat's classic title track elevates the struggles of a rags-to-riches, child-to-woman tale into a nigh-Biblical parable. As an "indentured servant" within a contract to Wagoner, Parton had reason to idealize simpler times, and the bluegrass-informed fingerpicked guitar and deliberately, delicately fluttered syllables on several of that album's highlight classics ("My Blue Tears," also included in a bonus acoustic demo, and "Early Morning Breeze") aim right for the gut, and hit their mark. There is also the rave-up "Traveling Man." Interestingly, filler begins to crop up through ballads, several of which were Wagoner written. So the consistency of Coat of Many Colors is a bit rollercoaster, half hallmarks and half decent.
As the struggles continued, Parton stepped completely toward the spotlight but away from her Wagoner-charted mainstream trajectory with My Tennessee Mountain Home—a completely Parton-composed album that doesn't go for just a few shots to the gut; it's a constant needling of rootsy recollection. Songs such as "Old Black Kettle," "Daddy's Working Boots," and "The Wrong Direction Home" mark this as Parton's most "consistent" album of the era in terms of arrangement and tone. But while to some its mundane detailing represents praiseworthy purity, to others those memories are too cloying. "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" is the one that really transcends the harmonica-laced, memory-burdened cycle (which even includes the sole bonus track, "Sacred Memories").
It's with the touchstone Jolene that Parton truly announced her then-contemporary concerns of emancipation, spelled out in songs including the titular hit, both ramblin' and slow-burnin' bonus tracks, and the song, "I Will Always Love You" (about her professional estrangement from Wagoner, later covered by Whitney Houston). But with that liberation comes confliction, as seen in the characters Parton embodies on Jolene.
On previous albums, her narrators possessed such strength to drag themselves up from the bottom, but on Jolene they often float rather helplessly in the wake of a man. In comparison, the actual recording is the most pristine, uniform yet nuanced. Pedal steel adds gripping opalescence to the gently brushed, six-string saunter. The glistening arrangements convey that even if one's choices are compromised, they can be handled with poise—a sense of savoir faire Parton grew into and projected well. Jolene is consistent in its inconsistency, mirroring the times of a woman trying to be a true outlaw in a male-dominated era evolving into outlaw country, and bookends a transition period that is fascinating artistically as well as academically.