Review #257: Coat of Many Colors, Dolly Parton

Karla Clifton
4 min readMar 30, 2022

#257: Coat of Many Colors, Dolly Parton

I know I’m a broken record but it never ceases to amaze me how old some of these albums are. 1971? That was fifty years ago? Jesus.

Dolly is delightful and I’ve loved her ever since I became a real adult feminist. She’s quietly one of the realest mofos in the business, having donated money to a bunch of cool causes, never apologized for her feminine presentation, and appeared on Hannah Montana. God bless her.

If you’re not familiar with Dolly Parton’s music, yes, you are. Come on. She wrote “Jolene” and and “9 to 5,” then she starred in the movie! This album precedes some of those hits, so Dolly wasn’t nearly as famous as she’d be in 1992, when Whitney Houston took her song “I Will Always Love You” and hit it out of the stratosphere with a baseball bat.

So don’t pretend like you don’t know any Dolly Parton songs, and don’t pretend you don’t secretly love them, don’t secretly sing that the nine-to-five is nothing but a way to make a living that’s threatening to drive you crazy. She’s a songwriter juggernaut.

She also has this way of singing about women like they, you know, are human beings. For instance, she presents multiple depictions of motherhood and types of mothers here, unlike the men in country, who seem to only sing about their mothers in beatific terms. “Coat of Many Colors” is based on the true story of how her mother sewed her a jacket from a multicolored box of rags and then the kids at school made fun of her for it. (Yes, it’s the pretty little coat on the cover.) Then, just a song later, Dolly turns into a railway queen on “Traveling Man,” wailing about how she dated a traveling salesman who ended up running off with her mother. Later on, she sings about returning to her mother’s arms and tearfully confesses that her boyfriend coaxed her into uncomfortable sexual situations in “If I Lose My Mind.”

Are these all the same women, with the same mothers? Doesn’t seem like it.

When I read RS’s blurb for Patsy Cline’s Ultimate Collection (#229 — feels like eons ago, even though it was just 2 months), it quoted Lucinda Williams (check out Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, #98) as saying that even though Cline’s style “is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer.” It was only when I heard Dolly Parton’s rich, beautiful take on her own lyrics that I understood what that meant. Country singing has more twang, yes, but also more vibrato, more willingness to take each syllable and twist it at the end.

So I wasn’t surprised that Dolly could sing, exactly, it just struck me how different two strong women singers can sound. “My Blue Tears” is a striking female duet with two voices that sound like birds or babbling brooks, friends with the little bluebird they beg to fly away. “The Mystery Of The Mystery” is sort of churchy, but I love how she belts, and also how she tackles more abstract subjects than just men and mothers.

In fact, there are several songs that shows that Dolly intends to make a difference with her music, songs like “Early Morning Breeze” which celebrates the beauty of being alive with a bass intro that opens into something light and airy. “Here I Am” extends her hand of friendship to the whole world. The album closer, “A Better Place To Live,” is almost campfire singalongy in its catchiness and unifying La lala lala!s.

The List (funny how I always capitalize it in my head) tends to work in waves: waves of electronica (Daft Punk, #236 and Kraftwerk, #238), bumps of metal (Black Sabbath, #234 and Metallica, #235) then several stretches of folk (see #255, #256, and #258). A year ago I had little to say about country music. But with my knowledge expanding, ever expanding, I suddenly understand that the lore and lineage of country music is fascinating and deep and traceable. Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks are connected, and I can’t wait until I find another link on the chain inbetween them.

Not Winners: “She’s Never Met A Man (She Didn’t Like)” shows that Dolly’s feminism apparently doesn’t extend to women in competition with her, at least on this record. “The Way You Are” was very syrupy — I love the slide guitar, so I kept hoping it would grow on me, but it never did.

Review #256: Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

Review #258: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell