Jolene


Band: Dolly Parton
Album: Jolene
Best song: The title track is definitely a classic.
Worst song: “Lonely Comin’ Down”

It’s less of a thing now, but when I was growing up and hip hop was a younger art form, a lot of white people would answer questions about music taste with some variation of “I like everything, but rap and country.” Of course, this is almost always an absolutely ridiculous lie; most of these idiots were not listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Mozart, Bellini or Glenn Branca. Indeed, “everything” is a bad thing to describe one’s taste in anything.

This has changed some as hip hop has become the preeminent popular music format for my generation. But, the circles in which I run continue to devalue country music. It’s definitely been written — probably on Twitter, though who knows? — that the intelligentsia of American music thinking completely devalues country music with the notable exceptions of a few classic artists (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, etc.) and the old notion of No Depression country music (for my generation, definitely).

I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I try to be as open-minded as anyone, but I have trouble shaking my bias against rural American culture and Southern American culture. I make fun of my friends in the area who live in Virginia, saying they live in the Confederacy and I probably have an automatic bias when someone comes to me with a Southern accent. Jumping off that is the notion that country music doesn’t speak to me or that it doesn’t work for me.

This eventually — because of my ridiculous narcissism — turns into “Country music sucks.” That, of course, is idiotic. There are scores of good country music artists and, certainly, the big-time artists are no better or worse than the big-time artists in other genres. To shit on the Faith Hills and Carrie Underwoods and the Tim McGraws of the world more than giants of other genres is irresponsible and classist of me.

(Though: Fuck Brad Paisley and his dopey “Accidental Racist” thing. And fuck LL Cool J for participating in it.)

I’m not going to act like I have country music bona fides. I do not. My country music CV is not impressive. I like Taylor Swift some, I hate Garth Brooks, I love Johnny Cash’s whole career (Jesus songs notwithstanding), I enjoy Waylon Jennings, I’m a big Uncle Tupelo fan (but not much else in the No Depression-y genre), etc. I’m pretty much what you’d expect a 33-year-old from the Chicago suburbs to be, even with my nutjob-ish interest in music from HS until now.

Like most, I tended to write off Dolly Parton as something of a sideshow. As a kid, I knew her fame for simply have very large breasts and joking with Johnny Carson about it on The Tonight Show. I was vaguely aware of 9 to 5, but my parents and community did not foment any knowledge of Parton’s ouvre. As I wrote on my Rolling Stone project thing:

To people my age, she is exactly [a punchline]: One of the world’s most ridiculous human beings on Earth, with outlandish makeup, giant breasts and platform shoes.

I familiarized myself with Coat of Many Colors when I did my RS project and did not find it to be of my liking. I… would like to have that one back. In my defense, it was near the midway point of the project, which was the proverbial dog days of it. I was mostly speeding through records and couldn’t really get into them.

Either way, I picked up Jolene about a month ago and fell in love. Call it the wisdom of age or whatever, but I have a better appreciation for Parton’s voice (primarily) and her songwriting. This is going to sound weird, but I imagine my love for the show Nashville plays into it, as I am more comfortable with country music as popular music as opposed to simply jug-band nonsense for Southerners and people who drink Mountain Dew.

Which is to say: “When Someone Wants to Leave” is not Dylan, but Dylan is overrated. Parton’s lyrics are simple and almost comically over-explanatory, but trample ground that’s absolutely necessary and a popular music staple. “Early Morning Breeze” is sweet and wonderful, while the 2007 reissue has the great song about a dog, “Cracker Jack.”

Of course, the record is most famous for two songs, though. The first is the title track. Again, “Jolene” is not a song that goes over with metaphor or overly poetic notions. Rather, it’s the perfect song about jealousy, with a picked guitar line that echoes the song’s skittish lyrics. Parton enumerates the beauty of a woman so well in describing her hair, smile, skin and the like, while also pleading for her own life. It’s a short song — all of 2:42 — but it conveys exactly what it needs to in its time. It’s no wonder that artists from The White Stripes to Miley Cyrus have covered it.

“I Will Always Love You” is no longer Parton’s song, as Whitney Houston’s version for The Bodyguard is the late singer’s signature track. But, it’s nevertheless a brilliantly beautiful song about letting someone go after a relationship is over. Houston’s version is more epic, largely because Houston herself was an indelibly epic performer, but Parton’s is comparatively understated and soft. The spoken bridge is intact — Houston sang it and an earlier cover by Linda Rondstadt omitted the bridge altogether — and sounds a little odd to anyone raised on the Houston version. Nevertheless, the song’s understatement speaks to a vulnerability that does not exist in later covers.

Indeed, Parton’s vulnerability is what makes Jolene such a powerful record. Parton’s soft guitar arrangements make for less bombastic records than things like “9 to 5,” but they fit the traditional country sound that pretentious suburban/urban fucks like me like. Parton is and was no shrinking violet, but her ability to sound hopeful while singing of heartbreak is a testament to the layers of her songwriting and her talent.

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