Category: Dolly Parton

Covered in Folk: Dolly Parton
(Sarah Harmer, Kasey Chambers, Paula Cole, Mindy Smith and more!)

January 18th, 2009 — 12:47 am

As a child of the eighties, I grew up with a popcultural impression of Dolly Parton as a rhinestone MILF, the ditzy blond of 9 to 5 and Islands in the Stream, famous for being famous. When my father passed me her 2001 folk/bluegrass album Little Sparrow, which mixes her own originals with several great and surprising covers, I was startled to find myself a fan of the album, more than merely appreciative of the sweet longing in her clear, delicate performance, but I figured it was a fluke, given that the disk was designed to be an off-genre departure.

It wasn’t until the release of 2003 tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton that I realized just how powerful Parton’s own songbook is. Because, while I bought the album for the performances, once reframed in the hands of Alison Krauss, Mindy Smith, Joan Osborne, and other countryfolk women, the songs made sense, and spoke to my feminist heart. And since then, though I’ve tried not to admit it, I’ve harbored a secret affection for Dolly.

Most folks outside the Country world think of Dolly Parton as a caricature, and on some level, they’re not wrong; if anything, I would suggest that the power of her performance lies partially in the dissonance between the perfect, plastic exterior and the inner doubt and strength which she reveals in song. But because the everywoman’s dream glamour-self which she has chosen to take on as her own public persona is so up front and out there, it can preempt serious consideration of her music. And that’s a shame, because the empowering, truly feminist songs which she has crafted over a long career represent a stellar body of work.

There’s a reason why Dolly Parton is celebrated and covered by her peers: under all that glam and glitter is a genuine and perceptive soul, capable of capturing the universal poignancy in the small lives and big dreams of generations of girls and women struggling to break free of societal models. Here’s some favorite folkcovers which strip away the rhinestones, the bleached blond hair, and the everpresent bustline, to reveal the true power of the songs, followed by a short bonus set of surprising covers from Parton herself. You’ll never listen to Dolly the same way again.

After a decade on bluegrass label Sugar Hill, Dolly Parton returned to mainstream country this past year with the release of Backwoods Barbie, her 42nd album and the first to be released on her own label. The ever-versatile Dolly, who owns her own amusement park, and has recently begun blogging, will also be welcomed into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in February. Today’s Bonus Coverfolk collects some stellar covers from her slightly folkier side:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features Wednesdays and Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: we feature a local folkie singer-songwriter with an ear towards the American Primitivism of Gillian Welch, including two new and exclusive covers you won’t want to miss.

2,154 comments » | Covered in Folk, Dolly Parton

Spring Has Sprung: Soft Coversongs of Hope and Renewal

March 19th, 2008 — 07:31 am

Tomorrow is the first day of Spring, and someone forgot to tell the sky.

In the morning, says the weatherman, the world will turn to slush. And if we are truly blessed, all our sins will be washed away.

Outside the snow sulks in great mounds where the plows have pushed it aside. Hard ice falls on three-inch shoots and tufts of new grass. We stay up late, and sit by the window together, and wait for the rains that do not come.

Send rain, O Lord. For it has been a hard Winter, and we are ready for Spring.

Happy Spring, everyone. May the darkness turn, and the world turn green and alive for each of us.

698 comments » | Ann Percival, Cassandra Wilson, Damien Rice, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Erin McKeown, Gillian Welch, Greg Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter

Sinéad O’Connor Covers: from Disney to Dolly, from Nirvana to Nilsson

March 16th, 2008 — 02:59 am

I toyed with using today’s post to address some of the unsung heroes of traditional Irish Folk Music, but I’m no expert on the subject. Berkeley Place got to Van Morrison first, I’ve only got a few good U2 covers left, and Wednesday’s post on Celtic Punk was pretty thorough. And even with the SXSW posts starting to get a bit thick on the ground, there’s still plenty of bloggers out there dropping diverse sets of Irish and Celtic music on you this weekend.

But never fear, faithful reader: I’m not about to leave you empty handed on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. I may not remember how to code that little accented e in her name, but I do know that the more I hear of her, the more impressed I’ve been with the deliberate interpetive power of one particular Irish folkrocker. And since she’s terribly underrated in the American soundscape, what better way to celebrate the fire of the Irish than to provide an introduction to Sinead O’Connor?

In fact, in many ways, Sinead O’Connor is the perfect counterpart and compliment to our earlier post on Celtic Punk. Behaviorally, Sinead is sociopolitical punk: the shaved head, the infamous pope-shredding on Saturday Night Live. But sonically, Sinead is anything but. Her voice is little-girl innocent, even when angered to a shaky open-throated vibrato; though she can rock with the best of them, her preferred arrangements and phrasing, especially in coversong, tend towards that full sound which best supports her slow phrasing and lush, languid tone.

Though they’re not usually clustered, this puts Sinead in a select group of like-voiced and like-minded women, such as Dar Williams, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco: contemporaries who set the standard for serious world-changing worldbeat-slash-folk music clothed in breathy high-vibrato vocal sweetness and pop production value.

Of these women, though I love Dar, and respect Ani, when we’re talking about coversong I’d have to put Sinead at the top of the panetheon. Primarily, this is because Sinead has an especially gifted ability to play the tension between punk sensibility and sweet, sultry performance effectively in other people’s songs. Few performers of any type can do this as well, and with as much versatility. If all you’ve heard of Sinead’s cover songs is her poppy take on Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, even if you love her angsty take to pieces, you’ve probably been guilty of severely underestimating this pop punk pixie.

As a cover artist, Sinead brings an unparalleled range to her performances. Her softer song choices clearly are designed to maximize the potential for interpretation to bring new and often ironic meaning to familiar song. Her breathy take on Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t wistful; it’s resigned, conflicted, and startlingly feminist. The echoing ghost-like etherial beauty she brings to Nirvana’s once-grungy All Apologies isn’t restrained so much as angelic: loving and deliberate, it sounds like it comes from Cobain’s coffin.

But Sinead isn’t a one-trick pony, choosing songs to suit a particular strength of interpretation. When a song inherently speaks to the sort of tension she can create through lyrical interpretation, she forgoes use of dissonance between song and voice, letting herself go.

The results are diverse, and equally impressive. Her cover of older political Irish songs like The Foggy Dew tend to be pure and loudly true to the original mournful fife and drum cadence. The build she brings to House of the Rising Sun uses her full spectrum: In five minutes of blues, you can hear an emotional cycle that some artists take a lifetime to scan. And her cover of Dolly Parton’s Dagger Through the Heart manages to be both true-blue bluegrass and emphathetically the most incredible take on Parton’s original wail and frustration in an otherwise excellent collection.

Heck, let’s skip the Prince cover; it’s weak by comparison. Here’s the Sinead O’Connor you should have been listening to all along: the songs mentioned above, and a few more that I could go on about for hours. It may not all be pub music, and celebrating a countercultural bisexual critic of the Catholic Church may not make the conservatives happy. But this is music with the true fire of the Irish in every note. And whether you agree with her politics or not, you just can’t dismiss her craft, her breadth, or the power of her voice.

Sinead O’Connor‘s prolific career has resulted in a vast collection of albums which run the gamut from edgy poprock to atmospheric soundtrack pop to acoustic singer-songwriter folk; though I’m usually reluctant to link to Amazon, Sinead’s website uses it, so head on over to buy her work.

Not sure where to start? Sinead’s newest release Theology is a two-disk set which should make everyone happy: one CD offers stripped down versions of her songs; the other recasts the same songs with a full band. Her reworked version of traditional gospel ballad River of Babylon sounds excellent on both, as do her covers of Curtis Mayfield and Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber. Taken as sets, the covers AND the doubled albums speak perfectly to both the diversity and excellence I was getting at above.

Finally, lest we forget that Sinead is not just a coverartist, today’s bonus coversongs show that Sinead’s songwriting displays the same power and creative energy she brings to her performance. I saw Bettye LaVette do her a capella version of I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got in a cramped jazz club a while back, just before she hit the blogs; though Bettye’s is a totally different sound, it still fits, emotionally.

664 comments » | Bettye LaVette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Harry Nilsson, Hilary Scott, Holiday Coverfolk, Nirvana, Sinead O'Connor

Bluegrass Coverfolk: The Joe Val Festival (Covers of Elvis, Waylon Jennings, The Grateful Dead, Steve Goodman, Gospel and more!)

February 18th, 2008 — 12:49 am

By most popular definitions, bluegrass isn’t folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, today’s bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it’s true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the “folk” forms of American music.

Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers — all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn’t help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music’s poor country cousin. The covers you’ll find featured in today’s post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you’re not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.

To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association‘s 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960′s New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it’s a good way to whet one’s appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it’s a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past two years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter (Claire Lynch, Miller’s Crossing) to gospel (The Bluegrass Gospel Project, David Parmley), from old-school (Seldom Scene) to new school (The Grascals, Steep Canyon Rangers). It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it’s a genuine pleasure to share their work with you. (PS: I’ve saved the best of the bunch for the bonus song, so don’t forget to read all the way through.)

As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. If you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

Today’s bonus bluegrass artists stand alone, because they deserve it:

  • The SteelDrivers, Higher Than The Wall (orig. Patty Loveless)
      Though this song was first recorded by Patty Loveless on Your Way Home, Higher Than The Wall was written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton of roots/blues bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, so it’s not technically a cover. But discovering this band at this year’s festival was by far the most incredible musical experience I have had in months, and I just couldn’t resist sharing this live track. I cannot recommend any music higher than the new self-titled album from The SteelDrivers. Heck, I’m so impressed, I’m going to totally break the cover mold: here’s a second original song of theirs from that same live session.

  • The SteelDrivers, If It Hadn’t Been For Love (original; live 11/2006)

    Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: fuzzfolkie Mary Lou Lord, covers of Donovan songs, and a review of SXSW 2002 Best New Artist Caroline Herring‘s new album Lantana. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

  • 989 comments » | Bluegrass Gospel Project, Claire Lynch, David Parmley, Dolly Parton, Miller's Crossing, originals, Seldom Scene, Steep Canyon Rangers, Subgenre Coverfolk, The Grascals, The SteelDrivers

    Shelby Lynne Covers: Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton plus covers from Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, and Cash, too!

    January 27th, 2008 — 06:19 am

    Just a few days left to win an autographed copy of Just A Little Lovin’, Shelby Lynne’s new acoustic country tribute to the songs of Dusty Springfield! To tempt you a little more, today we’re featuring a pair of older covers by this perpetually on-the-verge singer-songwriter, plus a matching set by her equally talented sister Allison Moorer.

    If Shelby Lynne was pure contemporary country, you’d not find her here on a coverblog devoted to folk music. But though she’s made her share of slick pop country albums, since the confessional turn of 1999 recording I Am Shelby Lynne, which garnered her a much-belated Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001, Shelby Lynne no longer considers herself a country music artist in the same vein as Carrie Underwood or Shanaia Twain, and it’s not hard to see – or hear – why.

    The relationship between country music and folk music is complex, especially since the advent of alt-country. In one way, it’s true, for example, that bluegrass is to country as folk and blues are to rock…but it is equally true that bluegrass, folk, and the more traditional forms of country music share more with the modern alt-country movement, and more with each other, than they do with the kind of pop country that makes the crossover to what’s left of the mainstream radio spectrum.

    It is not necessary to reconcile these parallel truths in order to enjoy Shelby Lynne’s wonderful new release Just A Little Lovin’. That’s not to say it defies categorization, necessarily; if anything, with a few powerful exceptions, this is both a sweet in-genre tribute to a seminal 60s-era pop-folk artist and a sultry pop record, in the same vein as KD Lang’s later work, or the best of Diana Krall, if a little farther South, geographically speaking. But where Lang and Krall slip too easily into softpop torch songs, Lynne’s choices on this powerful collection of Dusty Springfield covers span a wider, warmer spectrum, from the piano bar ballad to the smooth bass-and-snare jazz trio to the pulsing, driving alt-country of Lucinda Williams or Michelle Shocked.

    It’s all good. At its best, in cuts like the dark, bluesy Willie and Laura Mae Jones, or the deep, slow jazz of the title cut, Lynne’s delivery bleeds raw at the edges, creating a nuanced, powerful, mature balance between vocal control and roots-ragged empathy. Her ability to truly reinterpret Dusty is both honorably unique and, on an emotional level, uncannily accurate. And the stripped down acoustic instrumentation, heavy on the languid piano and acoustic guitar, supports this sound exceptionally well.

    I’ve been asked not to post tracks from Just A Little Lovin’ until Tuesday, the album’s official release date; as we come to the end of our contest, I’ll able to share a few tracks to tempt you one more time. Happily, however, Shelby Lynne’s previous coverwork is diverse enough to speak to both the complicated relationship between folk and country, and the overwhelming power of this Grammy-winning vocalist at her interpretive best. Here’s two of my favorites: A truly country Johnny Cash cover, and an absolutely stunning folked-down version of Dolly Parton’s The Seeker which hints at her work-to-come.

    Interested in hearing for yourself? Hedge your bets: pre-order Just A Little Lovin’ directly from the fine folks at Filter, and enter our contest to win an autographed copy!

    Today’s bonus coversongs continue in a countrified vein, with a unique twist: I was able to find both a companion Cash cover and a companion Dolly Parton cover from Shelby Lynne’s sister, the equally wonderful, slightly more alt-country chanteuse Allison Moorer, who is also slated to release a coveralbum in the coming months:

    And, just for fun, Allison’s husband, country folk rocker Steve Earle, with his own take on a Cash tune…and Johnny Cash himself, with a cover of Earle, for the extra point:

    262 comments » | Allison Moorer, Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash, Shelby Lynne, Steve Earle