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“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap!” Dolly Parton is famous for chirping in her sassy-gal Tennessee twang. “I look just like the girl next door…if you happen to live next door to an amusement park.” Indeed, the country legend has gotten mountains of mileage out of her trailer-trash fashion sense and her collective hairball of bleached-out wigs. And that amusement-park bit isn’t such a stretch, either: Her cinched-up, teased-out image is the running theme at the coasters-and-sequins Valhalla of Dollywood, that little slice of Branson cheese she built in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
But as hard as she’s pushed the Mary Kay credo and those jokes about her knockers, Parton can credit the bulk of her sustained success to the incandescent purity of her pipes. She’s one of the great phone-book singers: Tear a sheet from the Yellow Pages and the 56-year-old could make a grown man bawl simply by letting her soprano pipes soar about septic service. Remarkably, Parton’s vocal range is still just as skybound as it was in 1970, when she recorded the definitive cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ yodel-frenzy “Mule Skinner Blues.” 1999’s The Grass Is Blue and 2001’s Little Sparrow were near-flawless tributes to the songs she heard growing up dirt-poor in her Smoky Mountain home. All these years after she first stomped the boards of the Grand Ole Opry, she has never sounded better—or more relevant.
On the new 14-track Halos & Horns, penned mostly by Parton herself, there are several moments to remind you that it’s still too early to anoint Alison Krauss the hands-down best female singer south of the Mason-Dixon line. But there’s also a distressing amount of evidence—geez, hon, a cover of “Stairway to Heaven”?—that Parton is spending far too much time on the stages at Dollywood. Looking to appease the groundlings, she resorts too often to gushy whispering, hammy speak-singing, and, in one of the creepiest songs of her career, imitating a mentally disturbed mountain woman. A clear-headed producer would have wisely told her to “Sing, dammit, sing!” Unfortunately, Parton, her new wig perhaps a bit too tight, is the only producer here, and she buries whatever bright spots there are in Southern-fried crapola.
There’s no surprise that the disc’s best cuts are the ones on which the artist strips down to nothing but a porch-pickin’ ensemble and her own full-throttle vocals. “What a Heartache” cuts increasingly deeper the higher a pained Parton gets on the hooky chorus. “I’m Gone” is banjo-fueled road music, an updated version of the 1977 chicks-rule burner “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”: “You think that you’re above me, like I’m not good enough/You make me feel unwanted, unwelcome and unloved/You’re selfish, vain and greedy; you’re hateful, rude and rough/And you’re so wrong.” And a fiddly cover of Bread’s “If” is evidence that Parton could, and really should, record a tribute to ’70s-era soft hits before Krauss gets around to it.
“Hello God, are you out there?/ Can you hear me, are you listenin’ anymore?” Parton hushes from her diary on “Hello God,” the first sign of a crisis of the spirit on Halos & Horns. It’s also one of several times that she cues up a gospel choir so stiff and soulless that its hokey hosannas would make even Tammy Faye blanch. On “Shattered Image,” Parton gets into little-girl mode (“I used to sit for hours as a kid/And dangle my feet from an old flat bridge”), and you can just about see the overall-wearing, wide-grinning Dollywood Players busking out shenanigans behind her. “Stairway to Heaven” is just a really bad idea, and a song not even Robert Plant should be allowed to take seriously. And then, alas, there’s the eerie abomination of “These Old Bones,” featuring Parton’s clairvoyant “Old Mountain Woman” cackling, “I know’d when somebody is a cheatin’/Or when somebody’s baby was gonna be born dead.” Of all people, Dolly should know by now that it’s a lot easier getting away with looking cheap than sounding cheap.
There’s absolutely nothing phony about Bramble Rose, the Lost Highway debut of Tarheel chanteuse Tift Merritt. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is the much-ballyhooed y’alternative It Girl for a reason: Merritt has a slow-burn Emmylou Harris voice that can soothe and explode in a matter of syllables, and her tune-crafting skills range from sweet-and-low Bonnie Raitt to dusty-poppy Ryan Adams, her labelmate, most high-profile supporter, and, for categorization purposes, musical male counterpart. Given to moments of sheer guitar-wailing bliss, the undercover rocker is also smart enough to surround herself with the most capable of sidemen, including Heartbreaker piano man Benmont Tench, most of her country-minded Carbines touring band, and guitarist Ethan Johns, who provides plenty of jangly solos as well as handling the production duties. And with so many established talents behind her and so many influences spinning in her head, Merritt, who wrote all 11 of the disc’s tracks, never lets you believe that Bramble Rose is anything but an original coming-out party.
Looking like a softer, blonder, fleshier Gillian Anderson, Merritt unveils her sublimely refreshing album like both a resume—showing off her distinct writing abilities one by one—and a screw-you list of every man who ever did her or, for that matter, any woman wrong. Opener “Trouble Over Me” is a woozy roots rocker that finds the Raleigh native trying to teach a less-than-perfect lover how to do his job better—or at least pretend to: “Button my coat up, stumble with your words some/Let me think that you might go to a little/Trouble over me.” First single “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” is greased up with enough slide guitar to get her a honky-tonk gig and a catchy-enough chorus to score her a hit. The jilted-lover grind of “Neighborhood,” destined for heavy VH1 rotation, has a radio-ready Stonesian rumble and a vocal turn that’s puckishly Dylanesque, in homage to the artist most mentioned in Merritt’s myriad glossy-mag interviews. And Frey- and Henley-approved “Diamond Shoes” is all throwback SoCal sunset, a breezy, windows-down “Take It Easy” turn with a feminist bent.
If Bramble Rose proves that Merritt as a writer can hook the hell out of just about any genre, it’s also auspicious augury that Merritt as singer can croon for just about any audience. The gutbucket blues of “Sunday” is a proper soundtrack for us head cases who get the capital-D Darkness on that damndest of days; showing off her high-lonesome, downtrodden range, she laments, “Sunday is nobody’s business/Tell all of the neighbors/Take back all the favors/And look away, Lord, take down your eyes.” It’s a killer, all right, and it just might make your weekend even worse. “Are You Still in Love With Me?”—the answer to which is not promising—is near a cappella, with Merritt drowning out the faintest of acoustic accompaniment and getting all Patsy Cline on some guy’s no-good ass. And the ’60s-hippie vibe of “Bird of Freedom” is Merritt summoning up the Janis Joplin who certainly inhabits her, too.
Merritt unquestionably deserves Best New Thing hype, but though Bramble Rose is a very good album, there’s always the bubbling fear that she’ll somehow turn into the next Sheryl Crow or, more troublesome, the next Shelby Lynne, crashing and burning seconds after the buzz wears off. That said, she’s already a better songwriter than the both of them, and she has a crowd-pleasing streak that should keep her considerably more popular than the hipsters-only Lucinda Williams. And when it comes to that singing voice, well, all I can say is somebody get Merritt a phone book. I’m thinking she’s up to the challenge. CP