In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Dolly Parton is one of the true legends of country & western music. Half a century after the release of her first true C&W album, 1966’s Hello, I’m Dolly, she’s announced a 60-city North American tour that will promote her upcoming 2-CD set Pure & Simple, containing both new material and greatest hits from throughout her career. For all her years in the musical industry, Dolly has never forgotten her roots, and she continues to perform at a high level at an age when most artists are tired of the road.
When looking back over her career, it’s clear that she’s an original, and her critical and commercial success as a songwriter reflects that. But like any true great, she knows the value of a good cover song. Millions and millions of dollars, in the case of Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You,” but the cover songs that Dolly herself records have worth that goes beyond the bank. She’s had huge success with covers in each of the last several decades. Here are some of her best.
Dolly Parton – Mule Skinner Blues (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
By 1970, Dolly had seen some moderate solo success, and her work with Porter Wagoner had put her squarely in the public eye. But she had yet to achieve the level of stardom she was really destined for. Wagoner, who had a share in Dolly’s production company, encouraged her to record a cover of “Mule Skinner Blues” to give her solo career a boost. The song showed her range and often conversational style, speaking some of the lyrics before breaking into a yodel that would have done Jimmie Rodgers proud. The instrumentation in Dolly’s version belies the blues of the title, with a bluegrass backing that could best be described as rollicking. Sometimes all it takes is a good cover to make a career. This one helped make Parton’s.
Dolly Parton – Save the Last Dance for Me (The Drifters cover)
Early in 1984, Dolly released The Great Pretender, an album comprised of covers of hits from the ’50s and ’60s. The album’s first single, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” was a country top-ten hit for her. Unlike the original, a Ben E. King-era Drifters classic, Dolly ignored the traditional sound and instead went heavy on the synthesizers and drum loops. The electronic instrumentation definitely places this track squarely in the middle of its era, but the vocals are top-notch. Her way of almost talking while singing is on display again on this one, giving the song an earnestness that allows it to hold up thirty-plus years later.
Dolly Parton with Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Peace Train (Cat Stevens cover)
Dolly often takes the chance to record songs from artists she greatly admires. In 1996, she made Cat Stevens’s anthemic “Peace Train” the first track on Treasures. Stevens’s singing was often understated and conversational, making the song a perfect fit for Dolly’s story-telling delivery. She enlisted the aid of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who start the song with their signature harmonies. As their voices fade, the acoustic guitar so familiar to fans of the original begins, and Dolly begins telling us about this dream of peace. Parton has always supported the ideas of faith, love, freedom, and peace, so it’s no surprise that her cover is as heartfelt as any. The outro with Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a soothing end to an earnest call to make a change.
Dolly Parton with Nickel Creek – Shine (Collective Soul cover)
Nickel Creek was already known for taking rock songs and putting a bluegrass spin on them, making their instrumental talents perfect to back Dolly on her take on “Shine.” Collective Soul’s original is heavy on the guitars and drums, utilizing a droning sound that really makes the chorus pop when the music stops with each yeah. Dolly’s version keeps the basic structure, but allows for a lot of embellishment from Nickel Creek’s mandolin, acoustic guitar, and fiddle, along with a banjo, acoustic bass, and slide guitar. The flourishes and runs loosen up the song, turning the laser focus of the original into a song with space enough to breathe. Where Collective Soul sounds like they’re begging for mercy, Dolly gives the listener enough room to wander around in all of Heaven’s light, making her take sound more like a celebration.
Dolly Parton – Lay Your Hands on Me (Bon Jovi cover)
This is another of a stream of covers Dolly has been pumping out for the last decade or so, only this time she’s changed the lyrics to turn an arena rock classic into a worship song. Bon Jovi‘s original is all about secular love (or, more accurately, lust). In her 2014 album Blue Smoke, Dolly takes the famous chorus and redoes some of the lyrics to make them about the power of God’s love. Whether you agree with Parton’s religious beliefs or not, the change is an interesting one; to hear a song that’s so clearly about sex turned into a song about the Lord is a thought-provoking twist on a classic. She strips away the slow build of the organ from the original and replaces it with fiddles and banjos on top of guitars and drums. Instead of a seduction, she’s honestly pleading for help. Either way, the power of the titular demand “Lay Your Hands on Me” is undeniable.