It’s somehow not at all strange that the red states’ most visible anti-war album comes from Dolly Parton, an artist so guileless and girlish, so above reproach, she seems incapable of wounding. Those Were the Days is a bluegrass covers record populated (mostly) by Vietnam-era protest songs hailing from the Peter, Paul and Mary School of Non-Alarming ’60s Folk. But Days is occasionally more subversive than it seems.
Parton could enlist Serj Tankian for a cover of “American Idiot” and it would still sound as if it were being sung by a basketful of kittens, which is why she’s able to recruit Yusuf Islam for a background appearance on his “Where Do the Children Play” and not have to worry about being relieved of her Opry card, or whatever it is they do to country singers who wander off the reservation.
Wherever possible, she hires people long associated with the songs for backup, assuming they’re not balky (Bob Dylan, who wants no part of Dolly’s not-bad cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”), inexplicably busy (Julian Lennon, a no-show on the full-bore version of his father’s “Imagine”), or dead. A contingent representing the young and foxy (Keith Urban, Norah Jones) make an appearance as well, though their reasons for showing up are plainly more demographic than artistic. On a disc so obviously heartfelt, so cheerily bizarre, it’s the only thing that feels wrong.