Dumplin' (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Dolly Parton

RCA Legacy, 2018


REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


Dolly Parton’s relationship with Hollywood is both her betterment and her undoing. When she decided to court crossover success, which included film work, it meant that she quickly became an oversized cartoon figure – a popular presence on TV talk shows and the brunt of jokes. She parlayed her natural charm and charisma into a steady career as a genuine movie star, too. Then came the variety show. And the theme park. In all of the flurry, her music seemed to gradually become an afterthought to her celebrity.

But by the late 1990s, Parton made a concerted effort to bring back the intense creativity that marked her legendary work of the 1970s, and as a result, she entered a new stage in her late career, musically rejuvenated. And though she was making some of the best music in her work, she didn’t abandon her Daisy Mae Goes To Hollywood schtick nor did she turn her back to film (makes sense, some of her best songs were written for the movies)

So still enamoured by Hollywood, in 2018, Parton embarked on a very personal and stirring project, the soundtrack to the Netflix film Dumplin’, a comedy about a young girl who finds inspiration in Dolly’s music. For the soundtrack, Parton re-records a few of her classic songs, along with penning some new tunes. Though not billed as such, Dumplin’ is a sorta-duets album, too. Over half the tracks on the album are collaborations with some big name stars: Sia, Linda Perry, Miranda Lambert, Macy Gray, and fellow music icon Mavis Staples join Parton, along with other sterling names. Though the guest list can be a bit overwhelming to read, Parton is in no danger of being overshadowed: her genius is unabated.

Despite being over seventy, her voice remains strong and vibrant. It’s a gorgeous, lilting soprano that can still soar, a mighty thunder clap when she’s filled with the spirit; but she can also trill with a devastating sorrow. And as a songwriter, her skills are untouched. Collaborating with young, contemporary hitmakers seems to invigorate her. With Perry (the former 4 Non Blondes singer had graduated to a much in-demand pop songwriter), Parton penned the album’s single “Girl In The Movies,” a ruminative, thoughtful ballad that returns to the country diva’s recurring theme of childhood dreaming. She finds that sweet spot of nostalgia, melancholia, and yearning. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Teaming up with Sia, Parton’s voice is a heavenly belt that works well with her singing partner’s soulful wail. The song was originally written in 1971 for her Coat Of Many Colors album. Recasting the genial country-pop song into an urgent gospel number is a stroke of genius. Parton’s voice, slightly thickened and burnished with age, adds a rousing gravitas.

Like “Here I Am,” there are other tunes from Parton’s storied catalogue that are given brisk updates for the soundtrack and transfer brilliantly. And as an added bonus, Parton – always a generous and gregarious duet partner – seems to enjoy sharing the mic with some heavy hitters. “Two Doors Down” a big pop hit for Miss Dolly is a fun, funky jam with Macy Gray and California band, Dorothy.

And country superstar Miranda Lambert croons the ironic and canny “Dumb Blonde.” The song, one of the few Parton classics she didn’t write, is a catchy little ditty that was originally recorded in 1966, decades before Parton’s transformation into an exaggerated drag queen iteration of Mae West, yet it seems to predict some of the country legend’s detractors.

And Parton does something truly interesting with “Jolene,” arguably Parton’s most popular classic. The song is a thorny story song about the town floosy who catches her husband’s eye. In the grand tradition of 1970s C&W women’s songs, Parton writes the tale of a confrontation with the legendary titular character, a beauty who reportedly inspired the diva to craft her outlandish persona. On Dumplin’ the song is ominous and darker, with dramatic strings. The original song had a yearning tone with Parton pleading to the exquisite Jolene; this new version makes Parton sound pissed. Though she’s singing that she’s “begging” Jolene to leave her man alone, she sounds far more resolute, perhaps influenced by the Braveheart-esque strings.

But the highlight of the record is the heart wrenching remake of Parton’s pop classic “Here You Come Again.” The song’s former sound was bouncy and fun, deliberately poppy and an aggressive stab at crossover and mainstream success. In the new version, Parton slows down the song, recasting it as a slow, heart breaking number. The song was deceptively joyful in its original version, but with this take, Parton allows for the anxious lyrics and sentiment to shine through. And sharing the stage with Willa Amai, the country legend finds some untapped poignance and emotion in the tune. The production is relatively simple; there are some lush strings throughout the song but, there are also moments in which all we hear is Parton and Amai, their voice naked against a tuneful piano, working out the song’s hook. This performance is another brilliant turn.

Dumplin’ is an additional high point in Parton’s later career. In an impressive and consistent streak of great-to-brilliant albums, Dumplin’ is a novel and unique entry in that it gives Parton a chance to play with some famous friends and sing a variety of songs, experimenting with different styles. The film’s message of believing in one’s self and having self-confidence is the ethos of Parton’s career as a whole. And with all of her experience, Parton not only has the bubbly ebullience, but also an elegance gravity, and she shows that though she’s great when she’s having fun, the best Dolly Parton song is one that will make you cry.

Rating: A-

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