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Forever a dichotomy in the real heartland of American country music, Dolly Rebecca Parton has balanced commercial savvy with self-deprecating grace, all underlined with a very real ability to make music. At the same time of course she looks like some cartoon creation never appearing in anything less than towering heels and an equally gravity defying hairdo. In the UK we love her unreservedly. Her career has been rejuvenated by the support of national institutions like Sir Terry Wogan, who became a one-man marketing tool on the release of her pure bluegrass albums several years ago. Meanwhile in the States (where bluegrass is bizarrely regarded as country's poor hick cousin) she's still more lauded for her mainstream career. Backwoods Barbie is very much aimed at that market.
Co-produced by her bandleader, Kent Wells, and featuring no less that nine self-penned tracks, this is the sound of an artist both returning to the middle of the road while looking back over her own status as a blonde with more to her than a body that owes more to science than nature. First single, Better Get To Livin' is a strident ode to the lessons that Parton's learned in a lifetime spent in an arena where men most definitely are men and women are expected to be grateful. It sets the tone for most of the album. Dolly wants us to know that she's back and she means business. As such the subject matter concerns the great country staples of heartbreak (I Will Forever Hate Roses, Made Of Stone) and defiance in the face of heartbreak (the bolshy Shinola). While the production remains relatively conservative it still contains a slight modernisation of that Nashville rock sound. But she doesn't wholly forsake her roots. The best track by a (country) mile here is the haunting Only Dreamin'. This wonderful Appalachian lament wouldn't sound out of place on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' last album.
More surprising are others' songs attempted here. While Dolly's take on Smokey Robinson's Tracks Of My Tears is sweet and straightforward, the banjo led take on the Fine Young Cannibals' Drives Me Crazy is a little odd, even though it extends the tradition of leftfield cover versions begun with Stairway To Heaven on Halos And Horns.
Already doing the business in the charts in the US, this seems to have been a wise career move at this stage for Parton. Her British fans will lap it up as well. The only regret is that you know she's talented enough to rise above such ordinary fare.