Various Artists – Just Because I’m A Woman: Songs Of Dolly Parton
During “No Show Jones”, a staple of his 1980s concerts, George Jones would gleefully throw himself into the line, “And Dolly’s got two big reasons that she’s well-known.” Though not the reasons Jones meant, the chief causes of Dolly Parton’s renown are her gifts as a songwriter and a singer.
Or at least they should be. The truth is that Parton is universally famous, even to folks who don’t much know or care for her music, as a result of her larger-than-life stage persona. In that context, even the big reasons Jones was referring to are just part of an image that also features skin-tight gowns, towering wigs, and showbizzy production numbers, as well as an outsized celebrity personality that’s both aw-shucks innocence and giggling innuendo, sexless and hypersexual at once.
Dolly is Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Minnie Pearl, Madonna, and Dorothy “The Park-Avenue Hillbilly” Shay all poured into one broadly appealing package. She is one-name iconic, and she invites us to feel as if we’re on a first-name basis with her, in that delusional but common way that fame can feel like family. She is pure Americana, yet she appeals to that part in each of us that likes bright and shiny surfaces, the part that’s always on the lookout, as writer Tex Sample says, for the most bang for your buck.
It’s precisely because Parton has been so successful at crafting this version of herself that her other successes — those songs and that singing — don’t always receive the attention they deserve. Dolly Parton is Katharine Hepburn, Aretha Franklin, June Carter Cash, Madonna, Eudora Welty, and Bessie “Empress of the Blues” Smith all rolled in to one. She’s a vocalist capable of arresting subtlety, and in her songwriting, she showcases a realist’s eye for the common and gritty detail and a romantic’s attachment to the idealistic, the fantastic, and the intensely emotional; she satisfies the need for myths we can believe. Her career, in other words, insists that this seemingly split personality — Dolly the Entertainer, say Hello to Parton the Artist — isn’t split at all, but rather something precious because it’s so rare: the necessarily contradictory yet intertwined characteristics of someone actually arriving within shouting distance of her potential.
Still, this perceived tension in her work also explains why, many years deep into the era of Oh-God-Not-Another-Tribute-Album, Dolly Parton is only just now being paid tribute. Just Because I’m A Woman: Songs Of Dolly Parton is precisely the tribute she deserves, especially coming as it does from a strong and varied group of fellow “girl singers” — some of them stars, some of them up-and-comers, but nearly all of them doing wonderful things to thirteen compositions culled from throughout Parton’s four-decade career.
First comes Alison Krauss and “9 To 5”, a pop and country chart-topper for Parton in 1980. It’s a perfect opener, highlighting as it does the working-class themes that have long been her interest, and perhaps rescuing the number for those who couldn’t appreciate the countrypolitan charm of the original. Backed by Union Station, and supplemented by juke-joint piano that’s weary and celebratory at once, Krauss sounds as if she’s singing the song between rounds at her favorite happy-hour spot.
Next, Melissa Etheridge attempts to tackle, but is ultimately run over by, “I Will Always Love You”. On the one hand, this is a gutsy move for any singer, considering that Parton herself has scored with the song three times — her 1974 original, her rerecording for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack, and a 1995 duet version with Vince Gill — not to mention that other version you may have heard, in which Whitney Houston rendered Parton’s quiet, intimate pledge with all the quiet intimacy of an air horn. Etheridge is prone to that sort of singing herself, but she tones it down here. Unfortunately, the result is an oddly turgid rendition, vocally strained and emotionally flat.
Etheridge’s stumble is the album’s only significant misstep. Norah Jones presents “The Grass Is Blue” in her patented jazz-pop piano setting, and one that has a bad case of the blues. This composition is also a smart choice because it’s proof that Parton is still writing swell songs into her 50s. “The Grass Is Blue” is the sort of obvious conceit — my baby’s left, now everything’s backwards — that’s simple in theory but in practice is pulled off only by masters such as the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Doc Pomus or Merle Haggard.
And, make no mistake, that is the songwriting company in which Parton belongs. Many of her finest songs are no-shows here: “Down From Dover”, “Love Is Like A Butterfly”, “The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” and “The Bargain Store” all come to mind, even as they offer further evidence of her remarkable range with both lyric and melody.
But even with such omissions, Just Because I’m A Woman makes the case for Parton’s songwriting straight down the line. Joan Osborne, who’s lately become a regular and impressive tribute-album participant, offers an affectingly hungry version of Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”, capturing perfectly the feeling of a woman sitting on a front porch swing while watching the road for a sign of her long-gone lover. Shelby Lynne takes “The Seeker” to a particularly soulful country church; Mindy Smith offers a “Jolene” that is, in its own brooding way, even more desperate than Dolly’s; and Shania Twain delivers what may be the most gripping vocal of her career on Parton’s masterpiece among masterpieces, “Coat Of Many Colors”.
Sinead O’Connor, Allison Moorer, Kasey Chambers, and Me’shell N’Degeocello (on a trippy, drum-looped “Two Doors Down”) all shine brightly here as well, and Emmylou Harris, on “To Daddy”, offers the 7,819th recording of her career that sounds pretty yet oddly detached in that long-since predictable Emmylou way.
The disc ends with Parton herself, showing the others how it’s done on the title track, a fresh version of a 1968 single that finds her voice newly husky but familiarly sweet and wise. “I’m sorry if I’m not the woman you thought I’d be,” she moans. But, of course, she’s not sorry in the least. After all, to be able achieve her sense of herself as a woman and as an artist is nothing to be sorry for. Indeed, it’s the biggest reason she is well-known.