I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard of Dolly Parton. As I grew up during the 80s, Parton always seemed to be part of the cultural background noise, and as the years have progressed she has seemingly remained a constant fixture. As my taste in music developed through the years, Parton was never part of my music collection, yet I could name at least five of her songs without having to tax my brain, and every time I saw her interviewed, she always seemed like one of the genuinely nicest people in the music business. I may not have been a fan of her music, but you couldn’t not respect Dolly Parton. From her early duets with Porter Wagoner, to her solo country hits of the 70s, adopting a pop-country sound as she tightened her vice-like grip on mainstream culture, to the enormous success with the trio she formed with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, before circling back towards more traditional country and bluegrass sounds in the late 90s, her career path remains unparalleled.
With her mischievously camp public persona coupled with a wicked sense of humour, Parton has a unique ability to connect with an audience, regardless of whether they are lifelong fans, or, like myself, someone who knows her name, reputation and biggest hits, but little else. This ability to connect with an audience here in the UK seemingly reached its apex in summer 2015, when she played the Sunday afternoon ‘Legends’ slot at Glastonbury, where seemingly the entire population of the festival turned out to see her set.
Pure and Simple is Parton’s first studio album since that world-beating performance, and it’s stripped-back sound fits in well with the less bombastic style that she has repeatedly embraced over the last twenty years. The simple sound highlights the fact that Parton remains in fine voice, and it’s evident that she continues to pen classy material. When you just listen to the music and finally manage to temporarily expunge the unforgettable image of Parton as the icon of high camp that she is, Pure and Simple boils down to being a solid country-pop album by an absolute master of the genre. At ten tracks clocking in at just over half an hour, Pure and Simple doesn’t outstay its welcome, which if you are someone not familiar with country music, makes it just that bit more accessible.
In many ways it’s a bit of a shame that the wider public’s image of Parton is so overpowering that it has obscured the fact that she’s an artist of genuine depth and skill. If Pure and Simple had been released by any other country music artist, it may have been assessed on its own merits, rather than have to labour under the shadow of her public image and a sizeable back catalogue of crowd-pleasing hits. That said, if it was an album by anyone other than Dolly Parton, it would have received neither the media coverage, nor possess quite as much potential for cross-over appeal.
For all her good-time, dizzy-blonde persona, Parton is a sharp operator and has used her image to market her music, resulting in a cross over appeal which has remained even after she turned away from producing more pop-orientated material in favour of a deeper exploration of bluegrass and country. Perhaps it’s a measure of how canny a marketer Parton is, that there’s an edition of Pure and Simple available here in the UK that to only includes two bonus tracks on the new album, but also features her Glastonbury 2015 performance in full on a bonus disk, thereby providing the purchaser with effectively a live greatest hits collection in addition to her new album, or, perhaps more to the point, providing a way of getting their hands on a recording of that rapturously received live set, with her latest album effectively being included as a bonus.
Even though there are those that are still tempted to dismiss Dolly Parton as a camp and disposable ‘novelty’ act, the undeniable truth is that she has been able to forge a lengthy and immensely successful career on no one’s terms but her own, and if nothing else, you have to admire her chutzpah and ingenuity. The curious should give her new album a try. Go on, it may give you a whole new appreciation of a cherished musical icon.