Dolly Pardoned

I can't stand to think I'm missing out on anything. Occasionally I'll deliberately eat foods I don't like, just to make sure they disagree with me. Every few years, I'll smother some beef liver in bacon and onions (two tastes that have never fallen out of my favor), choke down a few bites, and sleep easier knowing that I still can't stand the stuff.

My listening diet is subjected to periodic shake-ups, too. With the wisdom of age, I've realized how my initial rejection of an artist often had next to nothing to do with music. In the '80s, when I started my album collection, my purchases typically owed more to a band's gravity-defying hairdos or relative obscurity than any aesthetic merit. Consequently, my appreciation for Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, and Black Flag came late, but I'm grateful I got over my lame-ass self and took the time to investigate them. But Dolly Parton? I never gave her a fair shot.

Never mind that even her tamest wigs shame the B-52's at their best, her cheerful chirp registered lower on my hit parade than buzzing mosquitoes. She was nothing but a busty puppet of the patriarchal entertainment business. My reading of Dolly was so far off the mark, I preferred the Phoebe Snow version of "9 to 5" to the original. The closest I ever came to appreciating her was a wry smile when Laurie Anderson aped her Tennessee mountain warble on the "O Superman" B-side "Walk the Dog."

Well pierce my ears and call me drafty, because I'm a goddamn idiot. It only took me 32 years to revise my opinion of Parton and see the light. At this rate, I may master making ice by my 40th birthday.

One of my oldest friends has long sung Dolly's praises. But this same pal's fanaticism for Charlie's Angels once prompted him to script, shoot, and star in a homemade full-length "lost" episode of the crime-fighting classic; his enthusiasm often inoculates me against appreciating even the most vestigial appeal of his obsessions. Yet Dolly was the furthest thing from my mind last week when I excavated a mix tape he'd made me because—for reasons that still escape me—I wanted to hear Farrah Fawcett's breathy 1977 single "You (Toi)."

Halfway into side two of the cassette, I crashed right into "Dumb Blonde," Parton's first top-10 solo single, from 1967. "Just because I'm blonde, don't think I'm dumb/Cuz this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool," she announced with a confident swagger. My curiosity was piqued. Next up came "I Don't Want to Throw Rice" ("I want to throw rocks at her. . . ."), the finest stop-the-wedding song outside the entrenched drag queen repertoire. It wasn't too tough for Dolly to shine amidst the other canaries compiled on my buddy's masterpiece (Cheryl Ladd, Lynda Carter, Barbi Benton), but I begrudgingly conceded she was long overdue for the liver-and-onions test.

Dudley Saunders, a Southern singer-songwriter of a different stripe, had heaped kudos on Parton's new The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye Records) in Interview magazine, citing it as her finest in eons, so I bought a copy. The fact it was touted as all-bluegrass actually worked in her favor; between the Bad Livers and a posthumous reappraisal of Bill Monroe, I'd grown to appreciate that there was more to the genre than "Dueling Banjos" and the Petticoat Junction theme.

The simple setting suits Parton perfectly. She's backed by Sam Bush on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Jerry Douglas on dobro, among others. She sings in a throaty warble but keeps her hummingbird vibrato in check. Tunes by the Louvin Brothers ("Cash on the Barrelhead") and Johnny Cash ("I Still Miss Someone") take on a new shine via her plucky readings, and she even finds a kernel of meaning in Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer." The diverse program (she plucked "Train, Train" off the 1979 platinum-seller Strikes, by Southern rock outfit Blackrock) also serves to underscore how country music allowed female artists a broad range of points long before pop or rock.

Dolly Parton, please accept my apologies. I'll probably prefer Patti LaBelle's version of "Here You Come Again" until I'm laid to rest, but I look forward to taking "Jolene" out for a spin on the karaoke machine and digging into your 30-plus years of recorded riches. Oh, and if back in 1992 you ever had to shut Dollywood for a few days due to a rain of blood or a plague of locusts, I'm sorry for that, too. I was pretty steamed when "I Will Always Love You" revived Whitney Houston's flagging career. You may have sold me on a Billy Joel song, but there are some performers I'll never stomach.

 
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