olly Parton has reconfigured herself so many times that her current incarnation appears jarringly incomplete—cosmetically unformed, crippled by surgical vanity and a sort of dangerous skirting of Madonna & Whore archetypes, putting newcomers off or leaving old-timers wondering what might have been. For those too young to remember the feminist flick 9 to 5, there’s the airbrushed Appalachia of “Dollywood,” a decent 2005 duet with George Jones, and the tentative promise of a 2007 summer tour. A timely reissue of three records—Coat of Many Colors, My Tennessee Mountain Home, and Jolene—marking Parton’s self-assured progression from Porter Wagoner partner to bona fide country chanteuse lays bare the old Parton: a sentimental and saucy talent quick to offer family tree anecdote, even quicker to shirk her woodsy roots for the naïve promise of love.
Of the three, Coat of Many Colors is the hands-down victor, willfully eschewing the sentimental schlock of My Tennessee Mountain Home and the unrequited love pit that is Jolene. Parton’s touching detailing of a piss-poor upbringing is lightened considerably by the same sort of rock-lubed twang Kristofferson rode to the bottom of the bottle.
Guitars work piecemeal; like early summer jays, they build their homes out of what’s readily available: honky-tonk hiccoughs are as prevalent as lap steel marginalia—long, plastic notes that linger to fade. Percussion is as measured as an airport bar’s call brands, cymbal clicks eyed and sized with equal tenacity. The chorus is there, too, but Parton rarely needs the echoing fortification. She wears several vocal personae: there’s the bowed-up ultimatum in “Traveling Man,” the self-assured gambler of “Here I Am,” the lover torn asunder in the sublime “Just as Good as Gone.”
Presentation and tone is as much a part of Coat of Many Colors as is prowess. Of the original recording’s ten tracks, there’s no evident filler, each piece building a story starkly different than the next, flirting with cliché and coming home free of its worn stench in some part to instrumental organization, in greater part to Parton’s dribbled whiskey tears and god-fearing grace alike. My Tennessee Mountain Home tries on the same tropes, but they fall flat as vaudevillian hocus-pocus. Each song pounds together a ham-fisted still life of blue-collar absolutes: fields of golden wheat, meadows, and songs mama used to sing; workin’ your life away and workin’ ’til sun’s gone down, gone to bed hungry and broken, laying up treasures in heaven and turning out pockets of dust upon the earth.
Every single sentiment is taken up in fine form in on Coat’s title track, drained of its artificial drama, sung in a voice at once sad and thankful, a dance of sparkles on an early summer river. The narrative serves Parton on several levels, showing a young woman coming to terms with her talent, sewing a record out of country rags and wearing it as goddamned well as any of her contemporaries; setting a firm standard that takes no truck with so much femmy Nashville glamourpuss. “You mean no more to her than all the others she’s held tight / But I know she’s convinced you it was love at first sight / But she’s never met a man she didn’t like.”