October 21, 2005
Dolly Parton’s Those Were the Days probably is the closest thing to an anti-war protest album you’re going to see coming from a bonafide country music icon, at least this year.
Basically this is a collection of tunes from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s -- mainly easily recognizable folk or folk-rock hits -- in which Dolly is joined by some of the the songwriters or the singers who made the songs famous as well as other guest stars. (The happy news: Most of it’s not as bad as such a project sounds like it would be.)
Many tunes here -- and I’m assuming it’s no coincidence -- are anti-war anthems. Apparently back in the ‘60s Dolly was listening Peter, Paul & Mary as well as Porter, Possum & Merle.
This wouldn’t seem so radical except for the fact that the only musical commentary on war and peace that you hear on commercial country radio is from the Toby Keith/Hank Williams Jr. blind-patriotism/America-kicks-butt variety.
There’s no way the County Music Industrial Complex is going to embrace Dolly’s peace-and-love tunes any more than they did Merle Haggard’s biting Iraq commentary “That’s the News” or Willie Nelson’s “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth” a couple of years ago. Or any more than they embraced Earl Scruggs in the late ‘60s when he began playing anti-war rallies.
Of course, Dolly, and for that matter, Haggard and Nelson aren’t exactly tied down by the surly bonds of the C&W establishment these days. Country radio ignores them, while these entertainers continue to make fine music below Nashville radar.
Most of the anti-war tunes Dolly performs here still have power and relevance in light of the war in Iraq.
There’s Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” done here in a bluegrass/pop style with the band Nickel Creek. There’s a beautiful take on “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” featuring Dolly’s sweet harmonizing with Norah Jones and Lee Ann Womack.
She does a heartfelt, banjo-driven version of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” (Roger McGuinn’s somewhere in the mix.)
The only one that seems rather strange is “The Cruel War.” With vocal harmonies from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski and guitar by Tony Rice, the song sounds heavenly. But the whole concept of the song is questionable. And I’m not even talking about the corny happy ending Dolly tacks on.
This song, which some say dates back to the American Civil War, seemed antiquated even back in the mid ‘60s when Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with it.
“The Cruel War” is the story of a young woman who so hates the idea of her Johnny going off to war, she offers to disguise herself as a man to go with him.
“I’ll tie back my hair, men’s clothing I’ll put on/I’ll pass as your comrade as we march along … ”
Such a scheme seemed unlikely in the ‘60s. And now in the Iraq war, where some of the most famous soldiers -- from Jessica Lynch to Lynndie England -- are female, it’s irrelevant.
And, considering Dolly’s celebrated figure, it seems rather ridiculous. As one Dolly fan blogger, commenting on Dolly disguising herself as a man, put it, “Honey, you're gonna need a truck load of duct tape!!”
Not all the songs here deal with issues of war and peace.
Parton’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” done here with the songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, sounds so natural it‘s a wonder she’s never recorded it before. Same with the surprisingly vibrant take on the old chestnut “If I Were a Carpenter.” (Both writer Tim Hardin and singer Bobby Darrin are dead, so Dolly duets with Joe Nichols.)
While I never envisioned Tommy James & The Shondells’ psychedelic relic “Crimson and Clover” as a country song, Dolly makes it work with a fiddle/banjo/dobro/mandolin arrangement. Tommy James himself is along for this ride, making sure the song’s trademark tremolo guitar stays intact.
But my favorite track here is the title song. Dolly sings with Mary Hopkin
It’s as much fun as it sounds.
On most guest-star heavy albums, the main star often is overwhelmed by the famous friends. Not so here. Overshadowing Dolly Parton is no easy task.
True, there are a couple of clunkers here. I’ve never liked John Lennon’s sappy “Imagine” and Dolly does nothing with it to change my mind. (As Elvis Costello once observed, “Wasn’t it a millionaire who said `Imagine no possessions’ …”) And as far as Yusef Islam/Cat Stevens’ “Where Do the Children Play?” goes, isn’t it time we declared a fatwa on ‘70s singer/songwriter wimps?
For the most part though, Those Were the Days, proves that these days are pretty good days for Dolly Parton.
*The Essential Dolly Parton: This two-disc set is a good retrospect for one of the most influential singers, songwriters and personalities of country music. It’s got Dolly’s greatest songs -- “Coat of Many Colors“ “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” -- some amazing lesser-known early 80s hits -- “Single Women” and “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” -- and some guilty-pleasure pop sclock -- “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” (When you talk of country kitsch, Kenny Rogers’ still the king.)
But my favorite tunes here are a pair of 1967 tracks, “Dumb Blonde” and “Just Because I’m A Woman” plus a 1969 obscurity, “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy.” How could anyone have heard these and not realized that Dolly was soon to be a giant?