various artists,
Just Because I'm a Woman:
Songs of Dolly Parton

(Sugar Hill, 2003)

I'll admit it, I was floored. I had heard that Dolly Parton was a fine songwriter -- I'd been told, in fact, that her songwriting ability might be her greatest talent -- but I had no idea she wrote "I Will Always Love You," the well-known Whitney Houston hit that is the second track on Just Because I'm a Woman.

Now that I've discovered Dolly's songwriting career, it's as if a beautiful painting has suddenly become three-dimensional. Dolly's songs communicate the same beauty and strength she radiates as a performer, and they're so well-crafted they need not be pigeonholed in the "country" category.

The album's producer, Steve Buckingham, chose an intriguing lineup of performers for this collection: everyone from Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Shania Twain (whom you might expect) to Norah Jones, Sinead O'Connor and Me'Shell N'Degeocello (whom you probably wouldn't). They're joined by Shelby Lynne, Kasey Chambers, Joan Osborne, Allison Moorer, Melissa Etheridge, newcomer Mindy Smith and Dolly herself.

Etheridge sings a brooding, rock 'n' roll version of "I Will Always Love You," breathing new life into a song that became all too familiar a decade ago. N'Degeocello does a funked-up, soulful version of "Two Doors Down" and Lynne takes "The Seeker" into upbeat gospel territory.

There's not a weak track here. However, there are a few highlights. Smith's version of "Jolene" made the hair stand up on the back of my neck; it's a razor-sharp remake of a strikingly effective song. "You could have your choice of men, but I could never love again, he's the only one for me, Jolene. I had to have this talk with you, my happiness depends on you and whatever you decide to do, Jolene."

Chambers' "Little Sparrow" is excellent as well. Another fine song, it marries a simple, memorable melody line to riveting lyrics ("All ye maidens hear my warning/never trust the hearts of men/they will crush you like a sparrow/leaving you to never mend.") Like Smith and Krauss, Chambers possesses a very feminine high soprano voice that is also insistent and strong. Of course, that's very much like Dolly's own voice, which still rings true on the title track, and it's a commentary on her songwriting as well.

The songs on Just Because I'm a Woman are often breathtakingly pretty -- but they're never soft. They're about encountering hardship and responding with strength and grace. As a woman and a songwriter, I find Dolly Parton an inspiration.

- Rambles
written by Joy McKay
published 14 February 2004

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