As a singer, a songwriter, a performer, a hitmaker, a businesswoman, a mass-market entertainer, Dolly Parton has long since proven herself to be virtually (and virtuously) unassailable. Her American icon status having been secure for decades, she’s enjoyed a remarkable artistic resurgence in recent years, tapping into her bluegrass background — beginning with 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, before O Brother made such a move fashionable — to create some of the best records of her career. As a songwriter, she’s reached new heights; the title track to 2001’s Little Sparrow has transcended genre, as evidenced by Betty LaVette’s soulful reading on her new disc.
And then there is the matter of her two most recent releases (not counting 2004’s concert CD/DVD Live And Well). In 2003, Parton unleashed For God And Country, a collection of uber-patriotic and stridently religious material including such old warhorses as Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.”, and even “The Star Spangled Banner”. The cover art featured Parton decked out in red, white and blue, a giant American flag fluttering behind her.
Now we have Those Were The Days, which on the surface seems a simple 1960s-70s nostalgia trip studded with cameos from stars past (Kris Kristofferson, Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins) and present (Norah Jones, Nickel Creek, Keith Urban). But look a little bit closer at the track list: Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”. If one were to compile a disc of prominent anti-war songs from the hippie generation, all three of those would be shoe-ins.
All of which begs a very obvious question: Does Dolly Parton stand for something? Anything?
The two albums seem in stark contrast not just politically, but religiously. Somehow Parton must reconcile singing the first verse of Lennon’s anthem — “Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky” — with her own For God And Country composition “Go To Hell”, in which she declares, “I’m here to tell you that Satan is real,” and tells the devil to “Go to hell in a handbasket, because heaven waits for me.”
Intriguingly, Parton offered the following comment in a press release via her publicist in early September, shortly after she began touring to support Those Were The Days and received especially strong audience response for “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Imagine”: “Those songs now, it’s like they were written the day before yesterday. Whatever war it may be, someone is going off to die somewhere,” she said, before adding, elusively: “I am not protesting anything. I am not political. But I am a patriot and peace-loving.”
Certainly it sounds, on the surface, as if Parton is trying to have it both ways — or worse, playing bandwagoneer, latching onto the majority support for the Iraq war shortly after it began, then turning against it in the wake of shifting public sentiment.
Yet one would think — indeed, expect — Parton is not only wiser than that, but more genuine as well. Perhaps when she affirms her devotion to both patriotism and peace, she’s seeking to underscore that those notions are not mutually exclusive, despite the tendency to differentiate them in the current political climate. And maybe, when she sings John Lennon’s words, she’s acknowledging, in the face of her own devout faith, that it’s vital to accept the differing beliefs of others.
All of which probably puts much too heavy a spin on Those Were The Days. Parton’s primary motive here was clearly not to proselytize but rather to reminisce, despite the eyebrow-raising nature of some of her song selections. How else to explain such socially conscious choices sidling up against the likes of Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crimson And Clover”, Johnny Mathis’ “Twelfth Of Never”, and Mary Hopkin’s quintessentially reflective title track?
Musically, as usual, Parton delivers the goods. The litany of guest stars may have been part of the marketing plan, but nearly all the contributors are transparent compared to Dolly, whose trademark radiance dominates (and occasionally overwhelms) the proceedings. The style isn’t so much bluegrass as it is simply acoustic, at times leaning more toward the folkie realm from which much of this material was drawn.
Parton rarely plays it straight, infusing almost all the tracks with her own vocal crescendos or lyrical embellishments at some point. The results are sometimes inspiring, sometimes histrionic, both patterns of course being perfectly true-to-form for Parton’s personality. Love her or loathe her, she’s anything but subtle.
Among the most successful moments are Cat Stevens’ “Where Do The Children Play”, which glides along on the graceful rolls of Andy Hall’s dobro; Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, folk-boom staples that fit the natural country twang in Dolly’s voice surprisingly well; and the title track, which benefits most significantly from outside help — nevermind all the marquee harmony singers on other numbers, it’s the background chatter from members of the Moscow Circus that sets the mood perfectly here.
“Crimson And Clover” is the most outlandish remake of the bunch — not quite as far out as her stab at “Stairway To Heaven” on 2002’s Halos And Horns, granted, but plenty garish nevertheless. Call me crazy, but I bought it, perhaps because the original possessed precisely the same appeal: sonically and lyrically preposterous to the point of camp, yet so melodically rich and resplendent that nothing else mattered but the shimmering beauty.
By contrast, Parton reins it all back in for the subsequent track, a public domain tune called “The Cruel War” recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary on their 1962 debut. It’s comparatively lesser-known among this disc’s mostly major-hit repertoire, but Parton sings it (with help from Dan Tyminski, Alison Krauss and Mindy Smith) with such understated elegance that it’s clear she made a specific point to include it. Fittingly, given Parton’s insistence that she’s not political, the song isn’t what it might seem from its title; in fact, it’s a love song, set on the eve of a soldier being called to war, but not really about the war at all.
Finally, then, there is “Imagine”, which closes the album. Despite its reputation as a three-minute manifesto for socialism, pacifism, atheism and generally radical leftist dogma, Parton plainly holds the song in an entirely different light. She saves her most emotional vocal performance for this track; if at times she overreaches, it only serves to confirm her connection to the message. Which seems to be: Though she may not live in a world with no possessions, no religion, no countries, she understands the walls these things can create. And she, too, dreams of bringing them down.