Album of the Week, November 2: The Fairest of Them All by Dolly Parton

DollyFairestPossessionDolly Parton was born in 1946 in Sevier County, TN. Music was a large part of her childhood, both in church and at home. After graduating from high school, she moved to Nashville and found work as a songwriter, often working with her uncle, Bill Owens. She had been singing on stage since age eight and pursued a career on that side of the business as well, but was stymied by labels that felt her voice was best suited to bubblegum pop. After Bill Phillips hit #6 on the Country chart with her Put It Off Until Tomorrow — on which she sang harmony — she finally got her shot at performing and recording the music she loved. Boosted by the support of Country star Porter Wagoner, she signed to RCA in 1967. Over the next three years she recorded four albums and released a dozen singles that hit the Country charts, many as duets with Wagoner. In early 1970 she released one of her finest albums, a disc that shows off her growing vocal confidence and strong songwriting chops.

Title The Fairest of Them All
Act Dolly Parton
Label RCA Release Date February 1, 1970
Producer Bob Ferguson
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Daddy Come and Get Me
  2. Chas
  3. When Possession Gets Too Strong
  4. Before You Make Up Your Mind
  5. I’m Doing This For Your Sake
  6. But You Loved Me Then
  7. Just the Way I Am
  8. More Than Their Share
  9. Mammie
  10. Down From Dover
  11. Robert
  12. Everything Is Beautiful (In Its Own Way) [bonus track]

The title is quite apt. The Fairest of Them All is in many ways a set of modern fairy tales, often with dark endings and unexpected twists. Parton had become a master storyteller and her ability to weave a wide array of lyrical tapestries is a key part of the disc’s charm. (She wrote all but one track — Before You Make Up Your Mind, composed by Bill Owens — two co-written with other family members.) All the songs fit the musical mold of late 60s Country, but Parton’s diverse lyrical themes and charming vocals elevate the whole package to a special level.

In general, the songs fit into two categories: the story songs and the determination songs. The story songs fit the fairy tale mode more closely, starting with the album’s one single Daddy Come and Get Me. The tragic plea of a woman institutionalized by her philandering husband, it’s a powerful song that works despite some tropes of the times (like the spoken word bridge). Chas and Robert are both sad stories of unrequited love told from very different perspectives and each with a different sting in its tail. I’m Doing This For Your Sake is the lament of a young woman giving up her newborn child for adoption. All of these themes could be trite in less capable hands, but Parton’s smart writing and deft delivery make them work. The one near miss is Mammie, a pastiche of repentant bad girl and saintly caretaker stories that lacks the grace of the others.

But You Loved Me Then is as much Country breakup as fairy tale, with a standard why-did-things-go-wrong motif. Parton sings it high and wistful and gives it just the right energy to fit in the flow of things. Owens’ Before You Make Up Your Mind is a nice blend of this tradition with the determination that runs through many of the songs. A think-twice-before-you-leave-me song, it features an unusually gritty vocal that makes it one of the disc’s finest moments.

Three determination songs build on the lyrical tradition Parton started with 1968’s Just Because I’m A Woman. In Just the Way I Am, Parton reminds her partner that she is her own complicated person and that their relationship depends on her being accepted for strengths and flaws. It presents as a fluffy piece but has a strong core that fits the album. More Than Their Share is another broken relationship song, this time before the singer has quite decided how to deal with the situation she’s in. The contrast with the stronger narrators adds to the album’s complexity. When Possession Gets Too Strong is the most determined track, a strong statement of independence that won’t be stifled. It’s one of Parton’s best songs and a shining moment of hope and strength in a set of darker tales.

The album’s masterpiece blends determination with a tragic story. Down From Dover tells of an unwed woman waiting for her lover to return to support the child she carries. The sad end to the story says more about the society that limits her than the flaws in her choices, a result that arises from Parton’s flawless composition and delivery. Although Wagoner told her she’d never get airplay with songs like this, she believed in the song too much to leave it behind. It has become a staple of her live shows, a fan favorite, and one of her most covered tracks. This original rendition is one of the finest moments in 70s Country and a dark, beautiful gem of a song.

After many years out of print, The Fairest of Them All was released on CD in a two-for-one package with another lesser-known Parton disc. This included an outtake, the lovely, uplifting Everything Is Beautiful. While it doesn’t quite  fit thematically, it’s a strong song that provides a nice coda to the album and outshines a number of the original tracks.

The Fairest of Them All isn’t one of Dolly Parton’s most famous albums. Nor is it one of her most successful, with relatively low sales and only one single (Daddy Come and Get Me [Country #40]). It is, however, a huge leap in her songwriting and singing, and one of the most consistent collections in her long, impressive career. Much of her work can be appreciated through one of the many solid retrospective compilations available. This disc is a discrete, wonderful package that deserves to be appreciated for its own lovely offerings.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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