For some reason, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris albums always get paired up by reviewers who are aware of the former's great, abiding influence on the latter's development. That's not really fair to either artist; friends they may be, but over the years their differences have become more pronounced than their similarities. This is readily apparent on their new albums.
Parton's "9 to 5" (RCA AHL1 3852) includes the title song from her film debut (there's also a soundtrack album available), but that office-worker's lament is only one portrait of the working life in an album full of them. Though the songs come from a variety of authors, they have an underlying blue-collar thematic unity. One of the most moving cuts is Mel Tillis' country classic, "Detroit City," a mid-'50s anthem for millions of dissafected workers from the South who could identify with its plaintive chorus of "I want to go home . . ." The version here is exquisite, understated and direct.
Parton, whose work has been heavily influenced by the traditions of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, reaches back to Merle Travis' poignant miners' ballad, "Dark as a Dungeon" and to Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos )." In both, Parton conveys the common concerns of the working class with an intelligence and compassion lacking in the film version of "9 to 5." People have suggested that some of Parton's classic songs ("Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors") lend themselves to dramatization. So do her career -- even more so than Loretta Lynn's, which became the basis for "Coal Miner's Daughter." There's a good story in Parton's search for an independent voice in the chauvinist and ultra-conservative world of country music.
Like Lynn, Parton grew up poor in Tennessee, a process that has colored her work even as she became increasingly successful. She may have adopted the trappings of fame and fortune, but an album like this seems an insistent renewal of her initial idealism. "Poor Folks Town" is a 9-year-old Parton original with vivid echoes of "Coat of Many Colors," while "Hush-a-by Hard Times" is a response to the ideas in Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Comes Again No More." There are also interesting failures, such as a slightly overblown reworking of that old chestnut, "House of the Rising Sun" or the pedantic "Song for the Common Man." In general, though, "9 to 5" represents a move back to earlier strengths; there are no horns, few strings and Parton once again sings like a mountain bird. Good golly, Miss Dolly, it's good to have you back from those rock and pop infatuations.
"Evangeline" (Warner Brothers BSK 3508) is also a return to earlier form for Harris, whose last two efforts have been deeply rooted in the old-time country and bluegrass. Harris has returned from the hills, back to the smoke-filled honky-tonks where she pauses between songs with an empty glass in her hand, wondering what she's doing back in Sin City.
It's familiar territory, brilliantly lit by Rodney Crowell's songs. Harris continues to be this fine writer's champion by opening and closing her album with his songs. "I Don't Hav to Crawl," recorded three years ago with the James Burton-led Hot Band, is tough and reactionary ("If I wanted to/I could be long gone/I don't have to crawl"), but it's the closing "Ashes to Ashes" that contains the ultimate indictment: "As much as you burn me baby, I should be ashes by now."
The title cut, an old Robbie Robertson tune, and "Mister Sandman" feature Parton and Linda Rondstadt and are frequently leftovers from the 1978 super-session that never led to a super-record. It's understandable, since the harmonies are little more than sprightly, the tunes little more than interesting. Because of label difficulties, Harris has reportedly recut a single of "Mr. Sandman," replacing Parton and Ronstadt with herself, which should be a delight.
She does better on a fervent reworking of Les Paul and May Ford's big hit, "How High the Moon," including the White Sisters for exquisite harmonies and Tony Rice for some Django Rinehart-quality guitar. One suspects this is a leftover track from "Roses in the Snow." On Paul Siebel's "Spanish Lady," Harris duets with Waylon Jennings, but she's a little too nice and he's a little too gruff.
Other highlights include "Millworker" (one of the best songs James Taylor ever wrote) and the raucous "Hot Burrito No. 2." "Evangeline" overreaches only on John Fogerty's "Bad Moon Rising." Harris doesn't add anything to it, and it's a song that needs that commitment to even stand next to the original. Other than that, this album should do nothing to hurt Harris' reputation, while "9 to 5" will help to revive Parton's.