Dolly Parton Now: 21st Century Singles

January 19, 2020 by

The good Lord brought unto us an angel on the 19th day of the month of January. Yes, Dolly Parton is experiencing a rite we refer to in our culture as “a birthday.” I grew up in the 70s & 80s and I’m proud to call Dolly one of my earliest celebrity crushes. But we went our separate ways in the 90s, and by the turn of the century it didn’t even register with me that she was releasing new material.

In honor of her birthday, I wanted to reacquaint myself with Dolly and find out what she’s been up to the past twenty years. She’s definitely stayed busy in the recording studio, that’s for sure. Counting only her releases as a lead solo vocal artist, Dolly has released 10 studio albums featuring some 25 singles since 2000. That’s not counting her non-album singles and her many appearances as a featured artist. She’s had a very busy millennium so far.

I narrowed my focus to just the 25 singles from those 10 solo studio albums. What I discovered is an artist who’s songcraft and interpretive sensibilities are as compelling during this chapter of her career as they have been at any time during her six decades on stage and in the studio. She’d be the first to tell you she’s never been nothin’ but Dolly.

In the 21st century, Dolly’s audience has grown and become broader and more diverse. This is remarkable given the dramatic changes in the music business during her career. We as a culture have fallen for Dolly’s slight of hand — while we were mesmerized by her glitter, she was stealing our hearts. She’s now a cultural icon and she has assumed that mantle with characteristic strength, humor and grace. She belongs to the world now.

Following are my highlights from Dolly’s 21st century singles:

“A Tender Lie” 

written by Randy Sharp
from the album Little Sparrow
release date: 2 April 2001

Dolly began the new century by going back to the music of her east Tennessee childhood, recording a series of albums for indie roots label Sugar Hill. Dolly lays a bit of plaintive Appalachian soul on this tune, which was a #1 country hit for Restless Heart in the late 80s. Little Sparrow received a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.

“Shine”

written by Ed Roland
from the album Little Sparrow
release date: 9 July 2001

This tepid 90s hit for bro-jammers Collective Soul seems an unlikely cover for Dolly, but when you hear her bluegrass/gospel version it makes perfect sense. Shine is all Dolly’s ever done. She finds nothing but hope in the vague desperation of the lyric. The groove on this track is deep and it earned Dolly a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

“I’m Gone”

written by Dolly Parton
from the album Halos and Horns
release date: 4 February 2003

Oh God, Dolly’s up and out again. Gettin’ out and movin’ on have been common themes for her throughout her songwriting career. She’s lived her life in pursuit of liberation, although she does not consider herself a feminist. This track is a good example of Dolly’s long con — don’t be distracted by the campy video cause you’ll miss the smoking musicianship. This song earned her another Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance.

“Imagine”

written by John Lennon
from the album Those Were the Days
release date: 7 November 2005

I know I said these were my highlights, but this is really only interesting in theory. Dolly does John Lennon? Hmmm… Unfortunately, she doesn’t really do much with this tune, other than make it sound saccharine. A rare example of Dolly missing the heart of a song. There are other more compelling folk and 60s covers on this record. Still worth a spin.

“Shinola”

written by Dolly Parton
from the album Backwoods Barbie
release date: 21 July 2008

Another up-and-out declaration of independence, this tune completely kicks ass. This is today’s country — sassy, rockin’ and rebellious. The official video clip gives a great taste of Dolly’s style and how damn good she still looks. And as always the pickin’ & grinnin’ are top notch. This is what I imagine one of her shows is like. Lots of Dolly, and then a little more.

“Drives Me Crazy”

written by Roland Gift & David Steele
from the album Backwoods Barbie
release date: 12 January 2009

All right, this is fun! I never expected to find Dolly covering Fine Young Cannibals, and yet, here it is. Dolly and her band make this tune even more adorable, bringing the triple-guitar headset pop and then ladling on the chicken-fried gravy at the end. I just love how she accessorizes with her guitar in this up-front live clip.

“Together You and I”

written by Dolly Parton
from the album Better Days
release date: 27 May 2011

“Are y’all ready for me to sing a song?” Doesn’t get more Dolly than this — the rhinestone earth mother trotting straight down the middle of the road. The fact that this track rose to #67 on the UK singles chart is proof of her wide-ranging appeal. Dolly is a confident performer on the world stage, equal in stature to Cher or Madonna.

“Try”

written by Dolly Parton
from the album Blue Smoke
release date: July 2014

This is Dolly the hillbilly spirit guide. If you’re from a particular demographic and you’re a country music fan, she is your Oprah. Dolly has an inspirational way with homespun wisdom, and sometimes trite platitudes, that gives us strength when we hear her whisper them to us. Best greeter ever at the spiritual Walmart down by the interstate.

“Pure and Simple”

written by Dolly Parton
from the album Pure & Simple
release date: 8 July 2016

Dolly got back to basics on this record following successful 2015 shows at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, in which she traded arena bombast for an intimate, unplugged ensemble. She got back to basics with her songwriting, as well. “Pure and Simple,” as Dolly says in this Hallmark Channel clip from Dollywood, is a pure and simple love song with melodic echoes of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Her public seemed hungry for comfort food and Dolly delivered.

“Girl in the Movies”

written by Dolly Parton & Linda Perry
from the soundtrack to the film Dumplin’
release date: 2 November 2018

Just when you thought Dolly might be petering out and drifting into the distant mist of mountain-folk sentiment, along comes this soundtrack. With help from Linda Perry, this song is as good as any Dolly’s written at any point in her career. Perry’s production gently cradles Dolly’s fragile, ageless soprano. This hopeful, aching ballad received a nomination for Best Original Song at the 2019 Golden Globes and was recently nominated for a Grammy. Dumplin’ was a Netflix release.

Mark Twain reportedly advised, “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” The honesty in Dolly’s songwriting betrays her belief that we’re all worthy. Despite the slight-of-hand she’s played for years with her looks, Dolly continues to keep it real where it matters most.

Happy birthday, ol’ girl.

Related posts: Top 10 Covers of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

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