"Heartbreak Express" (RCA-AHLI4289) is the name of Dolly Parton's new album, but it could just as easily have been the title of half the songs Tammy Wynette, Barbara Mandrell and Dottie West have included on their latest recordings.
Talk about troubles; broken hearts are the least of it. In the song "Single Women," Parton tells of a "life that can get a lot better but it better not get worse." On her album, Wynette reconciles herself to a broken marriage with the smallest of comforts: "I can take this ring off my finger, but she can't take my love off the bed." Elsewhere, Mandrell is haunted in her dreams by an ex-lover, and West has one lover taunting another by arranging "some travel plans that don't include you."
Whoever said country music is nothing but the white man's blues hasn't heard these women lately. Nobody knows the troubles these country queens have seen.
By far the most enjoyable and interesting of these albums are by Parton and Wynette. Success hasn't spoiled Parton or stunted her talent as a songwriter. Eight of the 10 songs on "Heartbreak" are hers, and though none of them ranks with her best work, say, "Jolene" or "A Coat of Many Colors," the sweet melancholy that she brings to "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy" and "Barbara on Your Mind" can't be discounted.
Other times, Parton is less crafty: The routine "As Much as Always" is similar in its mawkishness to so many country recordings, and the title track is a conventional, though admittedly clever, follow-up to the pop appeal of "9 to 5." In fact, despite occasional passages of lambent despair, "Heartbreak Express" is a surprisingly consistent and engaging pop record. Superstardom brings with it a larger audience, and Parton seems to have made the transition as well as can be expected. The synthesis of pop and country elements is especially evident on "Act Like a Fool," which combines a melody quite similar to Carol King's "Natural Woman" with Parton's girlish treble.
The album's only real disappointments are "Release Me," the fatigued country warhorse whipped here into a faster, inappropriate pace, and "Hollywood Potter," Parton's broad-stroked portrait of Hollywood Babylon: Hollywood, Hollywood, dungeon of drama Center of sorrow, city of schemes Hollywood, Hollywood, terrace of trauma Palace of promises, dealer of dreams.
Dolly should leave this sort of soapy melodrama to Tammy Wynette, who at least has the emotional bearing for it. Wynette's "Soft Touch" (Epic-FE37980) finds the singer skillfully juggling two of her favorite themes: blind devotion to a man (bordering on martyrdom) and a newfound independence.
"Old Reliable" reasserts the familiar Wynette philosophy, but "I'll Still Be Loving You This Much" goes much further, promising fidelity "until the great Pacific turns to a field of clover . . . the Grand Canyon fills with dust." By comparison, "Stand By Your Man," sounds like an idle promise.
Compare this song, though, with the brassy "Another Chance" and the complexity and contradictions that make so many of Wynette's albums interesting becomes evident: I'm wearing my jeans a little tighter now Changed my hairstyle and I'm learning how to dance So baby you'd best wait a little longer Before you come back to give me another chance.
"Soft Touch" is filled with such paradoxes. Like most of Wynette's albums, this one includes a few lightweight songs, but the good ones are written with Wynette in mind, no one else, and she makes you believe it.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Barbara Mandrell's "Black and White" (MCA-5295). Only those who find Mandrell's television program an insufficient dosage of homogenized country music will welcome this recording. As in the past, producer Tom Collins doesn't depart from the path Billy Sherill mapped out for Mandrell years ago. Songs with a rhythm-and-blues tinge are given the standard Mandrell treatment: big voice, little emotion. The one exception is "The Thrill Is Gone," distinguished not by anything Mandrell does so much as by the tersely eloquent guitar lines provided by B.B. King.
Dottie West is also in good company on "High Times" (Liberty-LT5114). Cameo appearances by both the Gatlin Brothers, providing lush harmonies on "There's Nobody Like You," and Chet Atkins, a cozy companion in a jazz duet, makes this a very pleasant if hardly remarkable album. Any record that attempts to alternate country, pop, jazz and Cajun tunes, as this one does, can be excused a few uneven moments. And if West doesn't always bring something distinctive to a song, her voice is never less than comfortable in its setting, even when it's an overworked contemporary standard like "Without You."