Dolly Parton, who has become an easy target for every second-rate comedian in America, has never been properly recognized for the deceptive ease of her quicksilver soprano or the acute insight of the catchy songs that have established her as one of country music's most gifted singer-songwriters.
And while Parton's attention-getting devices--outlandish wigs, wardrobe and figure--seem to work against her these days, her voice has never been in finer form than on her new album, "Burlap & Satin" (RCA AHL 1-4691).
The album kicks off with Parton's best rock 'n' roll effort yet: "Ooo-Eee," written by former Washingtonian Annie McLoone. Over a blustery horn section, Parton's high, breathy voice squirts ahead of the charging beat with squeals of pleasure. She has a rare gift for exclaiming physical pleasure with an innocence untainted by sordidness.
On "Potential New Boyfriend," Parton sounds like the leader of an Appalachian edition of Martha & the Vandellas; with hard-hitting repetitions, she warns her girlfriends: "Better keep your hands off my potential new boyfriend."
Parton joins Willie Nelson for a marvelous ballad, where the two singers ask each other how many lovers they've had. But before the other can answer, each one insists, "I Really Don't Want to Know." This conflict between irrepressible curiosity and a fear of jealousy is kept taut by Parton's fluttery, indecisive soprano and Nelson's rumbling, reluctant baritone.
It's on the six originals, though, that Parton really shines. "A Cowboy's Ways" is a sophisticated tale of a man who protects his macho image by refusing to apologize or show any tenderness even though he plainly wants to. The singer, who nevertheless cares for him, feels a helpless frustration at this impasse. The lovely melody builds in tempo and force, but the impasse remains unresolved. Parton is one of the few country songwriters willing to ascribe personal problems to larger social forces and to describe difficult problems without offering easy solutions. "A Gamble Either Way" describes the path of a poor orphan to prostitution not in terms of sin and salvation but in terms of doing the best one can under hostile social conditions.
"Appalachian Memories" describes the all-too-common tale of a mountain family that travels to the northern factories and finds no riches, only homesickness. The chorus melody has a Stephen Foster sturdiness, and Parton belts it out with authority. She leads a frantic, ecstatic call-and-response tag on her own gospel hymn, "Calm on the Water."
Another country singer-songwriter, Lacy J. Dalton, may finally get the recognition she deserves: "Dream Baby" (Columbia FC 38604) is her best album yet.
Dalton's grainy alto is so full of credibility that her understated passages are her most powerful. On her four original songs and the six perfectly picked cover tunes, Dalton plays the role of a woman who's been around the block enough times to know what she wants and how to get it.
The album's best song is Dalton's "Too Many Miles," where she gently dismisses a young man's come-on with, "I've got too many miles on me, baby, and somebody else on my mind." Over the lazy country waltz, Dalton wistfully recalls her youth and sends the youngster on his way with a wry chuckle.
On two uptempo Troy Seals songs--"You Satisfy Me" and "You've Got it Comin' Tonight"--she proclaims that her flames are still burning for a longtime lover. Her combination of a blues purr and a country drawl make the saucy suggestions sound downright domestic.
She sings "My Old Yellow Car," a clever song about the simpler days of her youth, with the simple, stripped-down approach of her folkie past. Dalton underscores her similarity to Rosanne Cash by remaking Cash's "Baby, You Better Start Turnin' Em Down," but with a raspier edge.
She remakes Roy Orbison's 1962 hit, "Dream Baby," with an uncluttered country arrangement and a smoldering impatience that asks, "How long must I dream?" Dalton's best vocal comes on her own break-up ballad, "Windin' Down," where she laments a lost lover with a clear, piercing ache.
One can only hope that country music has grown enough to give Dalton the respect that eluded Parton at a similar point in her career.