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Unless you live just beyond the fence of her sprawling theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., you could probably benefit from a lot more Dolly Parton in your life. Sure, her voluminous blond coiffure is synthetic and kitschy, and her penchant for high heels on any occasion and any terrain is certainly worrisome, but beneath that tongue-in-cheek glitz stirs enough Natural Woman talent and charm to rival Bonnie Raitt or Aretha Franklin. Whether she’s brightening up the big screen, chatting up Barbara Walters, or heading up one of her multi-million-dollar business ventures, Parton manages to cut through life’s crap with a patented little-girl giggle, a quick flick of a Lee Press-On nail, and a well-weathered Smoky Mountain saying that usually involves a raccoon and a shotgun.
Most women can’t get enough of this sweet-natured feminist. (Dolly on her physique: “I do have big tits. Always had ’empushed ’em up, whacked ’em around. Why not make fun of ’em? I’ve made a fortune with ’em.” Dolly on God and nookie: “All my life, I have been driven by three things; God, music, and sex. Music, I suppose, will be the thing that sustains me in the time of my life when I’m too old for sex and not quite ready to meet God.”) My 57-year-old mother puts Dolly merchandise on every Christmas list; my heroin-chic English major college girlfriend once quietly begged me to take her to see Straight Talk (Dolly as a mountain-wise bumpkin who falls into the job of a Chicago morning-radio DJ). And the men love Dolly (and vice versa), too, although she knows just where to kick ’em when they stray.
And then there’s the voice: flirtatious, innately joyous yet tinged with sadness, and able to sweetly curl around a word, a syllable, a note in such a way that it requires listening to over and over and over. The hits may be scarce these days, and her latest solo releases have gone the way of the Billy Ray Cyrus formula, but her voice alone has matured angelically since her first recording gig back in 1957.
With that saidor should I say gushed?Trio II, the sequel to Parton’s Grammy-winning 1987 collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, could also benefit from a lot more Dolly. The album is often gorgeous, with Ronstadt and Harris’ robust vocalsand Jim Keltner’s drums and David Grisman’s show-off mandolinleading country and bluegrass standards through lush, airy pop arrangements. But with the exception of a few moments, there’s a curious lack of the expected three-way harmonizingthe women first started singing together in 1975 at Harris’ L.A. digsand it is this lack of sisterly teamwork, along with Parton’s underutilized skills, that ultimately keeps Trio II from matching the sheer fun of the 1987 original.
The album kicks off in promised style, with the ladies simultaneously soaring on “Lover’s Return,” the Carter Family’s 1935 heartbreaker. When Harris, Ronstadt, and Parton sing in unison, “Oh no, I cannot take your hand/God never gives us back our youth/The loving heart you slighted then/Was yours, my friend, in perfect truth,” it’s enough to make you either confess all your sins to a current paramour or curl up in a fetal position and weep (or both). On Parton’s 1973 lament “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” (she’s the only one of the trio who has her own song given a treatment), Harris grabs the strong, sweeping lead vocal for herself, but it’s the songwriter, faint and filling in the gaps, who gives the tune its necessary umph.
Strangely enough, it was the pure-country Parton, rather than her California roots-rock pals, who suggested Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” for inclusion on Trio II. Over and under Ronstadt’s airy gospel arrangement, Dolly gives a solemn, heartfelt reading and solidifies the songwhich Young told the women was about “the Second Coming or the invasion of the aliens, or both”as the album’s unmistakable centerpiece (although, in the name of family entertainment, Parton, “lying in a burned out basement,” now feels like she “could cry” instead of “getting high”). Parton carries bluegrass legend Del McCoury’s “I Feel the Blues Movin’ In” by batting her false eyelashes and shaking her fanny in lowdown Appalachian pickin’-party fashion, and gives a sugary soft reading of John Starling’s ode to cowboys on the run, “He Rode All the Way to Texas.”
Trio II unveils enough warm, honest emotion to warrant the price of admission, but as a whole, it’s simply too much of a cruel tease. Not only is Parton kept to a supporting role, but the second best voice (and many would argue the first, by a long shot) working on the albumAlison Kraussis allowed only to play fiddle and gawk at her idols. And as Dolly might say, you can’t shoot a grizzly with just one bullet. Or, you know, something like that. CP