Lesbian icons join in the tribute
She’s such a larger than life personality that it’s easy to forget she grew up a simple country girl. Yet under the big blonde wigs, heavy makeup and flashy clothes, Dolly has always kept her finger – albeit under a long, brightly-painted fingernail – on the pulse of the common man and the mountain folk of her childhood. The evidence of this is best seen is the stories she’s continued to weave into song throughout the span of a four-decade long career.
So it’s fitting that “Just Because I’m A Woman,” a new collection from Sugar Hill Records, Dolly’s label for the past handful of years, pays tribute to Dolly the songwriter. Indeed, Dolly, who wrote her first song about a corncob doll her mama made for her, Tiny Tasseltop, had a songwriting contract long before her first record deal. She has, of course, sung other people’s tunes throughout the year, but the majority of her most enduring hits have been hers.
The collection starts off with bluegrass vocalist Alison Krauss – who probably does the best of job of providing Dolly with harmony vocals of anyone in the history of her career – on “9 to 5.” The Oscar nominated title track from the film of the same name, “9 to 5” was a number one hit on both the country and pop charts.
Melissa Etheridge is up next on the song that is undoubtedly Dolly’s greatest songwriting success. Dolly took “I Will Always Love Up” all the way to the top spot on the country charts twice – in 1974 and again in 1982 – but it was Whitney Houston’s cover of the song that took it to number one on the pop charts in 1993, where it stayed for a record-breaking 14 weeks. The Etheridge version will be slightly unsettling for Parton purists, but it’s guaranteed to grow on you with repeated listens.
Other contributions of note include Norah Jones on “The Grass Is Blue” and Sinead O’Connor on “Dagger Through The Heart,” both taken from Dolly’s recent releases on Sugar Hill. It’s interesting to note that while Dolly’s songwriting career spans nearly 40 years, a quarter of the tracks featured on this set come from Dolly’s releases on Sugar Hill, where she’s been for only the past four years. This leaves a great many Dolly classics in limbo, waiting for a volume two, and this tribute could have easily been stretched to a two CD set.
Another disappointment is the fact that most of the artists here, undoubtedly encouraged by the set’s executive producer and Dolly’s longtime cohort, Steve Buckingham, kept the original country flavoring in these compositions. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but if Whitney’s stunning turn on a Dolly tune has showed us anything, it’s that Dolly’s songs transcend genres. One wonders what songs like “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” or “The Seeker” would have sounded like if served up by an R&B diva, or given even a jazz or blues treatment.
The closest we come to transcending genres here is with Me’shell N’degeocello’s version of one of Dolly’s disco-flavored tunes, “Two Doors Down.” It gives you a glimpse of what this set could have offered had it gone in a different direction. As it is, it’s still a pleasant – if incomplete – tribute to Dolly’s incomparable songwriting skills.