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Dolly Parton is nothing short of an icon. While many of her contemporaries have been forgotten, have retired or simply witnessed their talent fade with time, she remains untouched by both time and fatigue. 'Backwoods Barbie' is astonishingly, her 42nd studio release of her career. However, it is significant given that it is her first mainstream country-pop album in almost a decade. The striking album cover is irresistibly eye-catching. Dressed in a leopard print dress and a garish pink overcoat, nestled amongst a bale of hay, we find Dolly looking as overflowing with energy as ever - something which is reflected in the music, which is a wonderful listening experience from pretty much start to finish.
The album kicks off with 'Better Get to Livin', an effervescent and cheerful country-pop track which deals with the idea of keeping a positive attitude in the face of life's struggles. Dripping with personality, the lyrics are sung in a way that makes Dolly sound like a life coach. The first verse is an utter delight: "People always comin' up to me and askin' "Dolly, what's your secret?/With all you do, your attitude just seems to be so good/ How do you keep it?"/Well I'm not the Dalai Lama, but I'll try/To offer up a few words of advice". The song is immensely catchy, and what struck me when I first heard it was that her voice still sounds as pristine and clear as it ever has done. It is a clear stand-out on the CD, but more generally, it is one of my favourite songs to put on if I'm ever feeling low. It never fails to put a smile on my face.
The optimism of the opening track is short-lived though, with the second song on the album being the melancholic, defeated 'Made of Stone'. Dolly's ability to emote really shines on this track, with her numbness communicated through the verses then the soaring chorus of: "Do you think I'm made of stone?/Do you think it doesn't hurt?/When you leave me here alone/When you're out there in her arms". Production-wise, it's fairly simple, however, as with all of Dolly's songs. Whether she's commanding a full band or singing a capella, the spotlight firmly stays on her. It's a great song, with memorable lyrics and a heartbreaking message.
'Drives Me Crazy' is the first cover of the album, and is a take on the Fine Young Cannibals classic. The song initially, seems an odd choice, but by the time the first verse hits, most doubts have been quashed. The stomping guitars and pounding drums, give a slightly rockier edge to what I'm used to hearing with Dolly - which surprisingly, works well. Lyrically, the song is a little generic, which harms its impact a little, but overall, it's just a fun song which explores the thrill of new love. With a great hand-clap breakdown at the end, it's an interesting country interpretation, that is definitely worthy of a spot on the album.
Although it's the title-track, 'Backwoods Barbie', for me, which sums up everything I love about Dolly's personality. If you could sift through her entire back catalogue with the challenge of finding one single song to describe her, this would be it. The song combines her typical tongue-in-cheek humour with heartfelt honesty. A bouncy banjo drives the melody, but other instruments are largely restrained, allowing the lyrics and vocals to take centre stage. The chorus is such an earworm - it perhaps has the strongest hook of the entire CD. She acknowledges on the track that people will often judge her based on her gaudy appearance with the lyrics: "I'm just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair/Don't be fooled by thinkin' that the goods are not all there/Don't let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that/I'm as shallow as I look 'cause I run true and deep." It's an absolute gem, and if you only look up one song after reading this review - let it be this one! A perfect blend of humour and heart.
Now, I'm not at all religious, but the gospel-tinged sound of 'Jesus & Gravity' is still able to give me shivers. A slow building acoustic melody and powerful chorus, with soaring vocals from Dolly, really make this a magnificent song. As the momentum builds with each verse, as does the power of the inspirational lyrics. "I've got somethin' lifting me up, somethin' holding me down/Somethin' to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground" she sings candidly, reflecting on how her faith completes her. As a UK listener, I am always sceptical when listening to Christian-tinged pop, but this song never really feels too preachy and is merely, a great sing-a-long track.
'Only Dreamin' steers Dolly away from country-pop and to a more traditional bluegrass sound. The quiet strings, slow building steel guitars and skin-drum tapping give it a really authentic and organic feel. The purity and strength in Dolly's voice is really emphasised by this flawless production. Admittedly, the song is probably the least commercial and least radio-friendly of the album, but when you're a legend - you don't need to make sure every song is begging out for radio acceptance.
I must say, I have a real soft spot for 'Tracks of My Tears' - a cover of the Smokey Robinson classic. The song stays true to the original but has been changed enough to add Dolly's unique stamp on it. Although Dolly obviously didn't write it, I've always adored the lyrics to this song: "People say I'm the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two", with a soaring and powerful middle-eight of: "But my smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you." It's a gorgeous track, whether it's sung by Dolly or Smokey, and is a great addition to the CD.
'The Lonesomes' is a traditional country song that is lead by piano and has a definite Patsy Cline feel to it. Maybe it's just my age, and the fact that I'm in my late teens, but I found it difficult to connect with because of the throwback production. It is a grower though, and with each listen, you may not love it but you'll be able to at least appreciate the lyrics and vocals.
'Cologne' is probably my second favourite on the collection, as it is nothing like Dolly's ever done before. The crisp production means it could really have been sung by Carrie Underwood or any other premiere country star. The strength of both the vocals, the hook and the resounding sense of originality just reinforce what an immense talent Ms. Parton is. At 64 years of age, she is able to put out a pop gem. She delivers the lyrics with great vulnerability and emotion, whispering in the verses "You ask me not to wear cologne... she'll know you've been with me alone", as she sings about the heartbreaking conflict of being the other woman and falling in love. It's rare to hear a song that is done from this perspective and without a doubt, along with the title-track, this is the best song on the album.
The song 'Shinola' wasn't one that clicked with me at first. I get the impression that I'm in the minority, but I'm just not too keen on it. Although I do love the attitude in this banjo heavy, loud-drum and steel guitar laden affair. It's a great kiss-off song, as Dolly leaves a man and tells him everything she hates about him. "I don't need this crap, I'm getting out of Dodge!" she sings, with her trademark humour. I like the sentiment of the song, not too keen on it in general, but can imagine it would be great live.
'I Will Forever Hate Roses' is probably the truest country song on the record. It sounds not so much dated, but very much in the style of Dolly's earlier work. The slow tempo and production remind you of a singer in a smoky southern bar, as opposed to an international star. Lyrically, it's an interesting song, which speaks of receiving roses which instead of baring a message of love - reveal that you are being dumped. It's not overly catchy, but it is memorable, and is more like classic Dolly - so will definitely please her older fans.
The closer to the album, is the absolutely beautiful 'Somebody's Everything'. Singing about an unfailing belief in true love, she says on the second verse: "I refuse to settle for something less than great/and if it takes a lifetime... that's how long I'll wait." With swelling banjos and powerful background vocals in the chorus, the song just gets better and better with every passing moment. I hate to repeat myself, but this song just really sums up everything that makes Dolly Parton such an amazing singer - flawless vocals, thought-provoking lyrics and sound production.
Although there are a few weaker moments on the album, which I put down more to the alien feel of country (as opposed to country-pop), this is a fantastic album that's shows that beneath the platinum blonde wig, bee-stung lips and surgically-enhanced chest, there lies a heart that can still write the most poignant of lyrics and power the most incredible vocals. For the younger generation, there are enough radio-friendly songs to help them be eased into the genre, while there are enough folk and bluegrass influenced tracks to please her older fans. At just £4.99 on Amazon, this is an absolute steal and a worthy addition to your collection if you're a fan of either Dolly or country-pop.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Better Get to Livin'
2 Made of Stone
3 Drives Me Crazy
4 Backwoods Barbie
5 Jesus & Gravity
6 Only Dreamin'
7 Tracks of My Tears
11 I Will Forever Hate Roses
12 Somebody's Everything