Dolly Parton’s people are billing this as the singer/actress’s return to “mainstream country” following a three-album wander in the noncommercial wilds of bluegrass. It’s easy to grasp what “mainstream country” means in this context: big choruses, rock guitars, cover art that depicts the legally blonde 62-year-old sprawled on a bed of hay in a microscopic leopard-print miniskirt. Yet calling this proudly idiosyncratic album a product of the mainstream doesn’t seem quite right—compared to recent stuff by relatively conservative New Nashville superstars like Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood, Backwoods Barbie seems more like a willful exercise of artistic license inspired by Parton’s recent founding of her own label. Put another way, were red-state America as delightfully free-spirited as Dolly is here, I’d be a lot less worried about Mike Huckabee’s future in politics.
It all starts with the voice—that breathy, high-pitched infant-whinny that only time has taught us to not mistake for My Little Pony. Parton doesn’t always crank up that affectation here—her singing in the title track, for example, is plainly gorgeous—but when she does, she really lays it on thick, delivering the first verse of “Better Get to Livin’ ” in an exaggerated stage whisper, as though divulging the secret recipe for the hush puppies at Dollywood. You also get left-field covers (“She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals), goofy puns (“I’m not the Dalai Lama, but I’ll try to offer up a few words of advice”), and weirdly intricate descriptions of adultery that make cheating sound like far more work than it’s worth (“Cologne”). Consider it proof that the middle of Dolly’s road is hardly straight and narrow.
Dolly Parton plays Radio City Music Hall (radiocity.com) May 1.