Happy 64th birthday, Dolly. After listening to my uncles crack their drunk asses up with 100,000 stupid jokes about your breasts as a kid I had to go back and learn to appreciate you later on. I'm glad I did.
I don't think I'm going to articulate it any better than Michael McCall did back in October 2009 when the box set Dolly came out, and he wrote, "That Parton's career hasn't previously received the honor of an in-depth collection illustrates how the full scope of her creative strengths sometimes gets downplayed in the klieg-light glare of her status as an iconic superstar."
But her darker material rarely receives the same celebration, although it should. Parton's ambition always has shot off in several directions at once, quickly assimilating her influences before distinctly stamping them with her own vision--often a distillation of both inspiration and calculation. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the street-level poetry of Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury drew reams of praise, Parton began reeling off story songs as fiercely realistic and gritty as anything by her contemporaries.
All of it stood out because Parton drew on the most desperate stories culled from her impoverished mountain roots. The betrayed innocent pregnant girl in "Down From Dover," the hippie mountain girl of "Just the Way I Am," the hobo misfortune of "Gypsy, Joe and Me," the prostitute who loses grip on her dreams in "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," the complete lack of romance in the bitter family tragedy of "Daddy's Mountain Still," the woman institutionalized by her lover in "Daddy Come and Get Me," the open sexuality of "The Last One to Touch Me," and the randy young girl who loses her older lover to her mother in "Traveling Man"--all of them bear the unmistakable touch of a gutsy young artist whose creative outpouring rivals the most distinctive writers of her generation.
OK, back to the hits. Remember when country was real country? When hit songs were written by the Bee Gees? Anyway, the wife and I were listening to Dolly's Live From London CD in the car, and this song came on, and she was like, "Islands in the stream? Really? Islands are apart from each other. I don't get it." And I was like, "Yeah, me neither."
There's still something kinda magical about it, though, as cheesy as it is. And if there's anything Dolly Parton is a master of pulling off, it's that.