In times of trouble it is often to the sounds of comfort we retreat. We need those tunes of a bygone day that reflect happier times, especially if the songs are those of grief and heartbreak. Here we revisit the safe haven of country weepies, the duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, as performed by second generation music royalty, Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) and Jenni Muldaur (daughter of Geoff and Maria).
Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & Dolly is not markedly different in style than the recent trio of EPs by My Darling Clementine, beyond the age of the originals. The first of three announced tribute EPs by the duo, this one differs in that these are echoes rather than interpretations, and none the worse for that, if with a modern polish buffing up the 1960’s (and 70’s) productions.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner made an astonishing thirteen collaborative duet records together, between 1967 and 1976. It is hard to imagine now, but at the start of their partnership Porter was the big star, Dolly the innocent ingenue. With a string of country hits to his name, the then styled Mr. Grand Ole Opry had a longstanding peak viewing TV show, where he first introduced Dolly to his viewers, her reception the trigger to a golden run of work together. One suspects that Porter, undoubtedly the boss, grew increasingly niggled by Dolly increasing parallel solo success, their split turning from eventual to inevitable. Wagoner became weary of hearing, in songs, nothing but descriptions of Dolly’s family & forbears and their struggles, feeling her love songs were more her forte. She left, he sued, the real stuff of a Nashville classic in itself. (But, lest anyone forget, his criticisms led her to go home and write both “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene,” over the course of a single evening.)
The impetus for T&JDP&D came from fabled musician David Mansfield’s lockdown streaming series The Fallout Shelter (available on YouTube amongst other platforms), with episode 15 bringing together the pairing of Teddy and Jenni. (Teddy’s dad had appeared, by the way, in episode 4.)
Teddy Thompson has had a long career under the radar, both as a singer/songwriter and a producer, tending more to the country side of styles, as opposed to the folkier directions of his parents. He’s released six solo records and one duet (with Kelly Jones); one of these, 2007’s Up Front and Down Low, was a a covers project, devoted to Nashville classics. Furthermore, in 2020, he made a five-song covers EP, Emergency Coverage, encompassing songs from the Zombies to Tina Turner. With an achingly mournful high tenor voice, and a tendency toward the downbeat in his own writing, he’s carved out his own place in the singer-songwriter firmament. Arguably and understandably, it has been difficult to escape the shadow of his father, and I suspect he would be better known if critics like me could avoid harking back to to his heredity. I would dearly love to see a Richard Thompson piece start off, “Richard Thompson, father of Teddy…”
Jenni Muldaur has had, perhaps, a lesser known career, at least in her own right. A backing singer first, starting off with Todd Rundgren’s band, ahead or working with artists as diverse as Donald Fagen and Dave Gahan, she has also a couple of solo recordings under her belt. She had also worked with Teddy and the wider Thompson family and thus, unsurprisingly, with the extended diaspora of the Wainwright/McGarrigle dynasty. With a pure timbre to her voice, it is an adaptable instrument that underlines her demands across numerous genres.
Thompson and Muldaur open their EP with “Just Someone I Used To Know,” a Cowboy Jack Clement song that George Jones took into the top five in 1962. The Porter/Dolly 1967 version is enshrouded in trumpets of a sort long and rightfully banished from popular music. Thankfully, David Mansfield’s production simply allows the vocals to bloom over a fairly minimal backing of clipped bass and drums, his own pedal steel filling in and around the largely harmony vocals, with only one line apiece going to each singer.
From there, Teddy and Jenni stride straight into “Once More.” There is a real Gram & Emmylou vibe here, the sort of rendition that first awakened this writer to the joys of country music, at a time (at least in the U.K.) when it was deemed a deeply suspicious and subversive style of music amongst my prog loving contemporaries. Again, whilst sounding vintage, this strips most of the cheese from the original, but leaving enough for the love to show through. Good dobro, too.
Side two, which joyously maintains the conceit that is carried also over into the retro sleeve, kicks off with “Put It Off Until Tomorrow.” Dolly co-wrote this one in her days as a jobbing songsmith, ahead of its appearance on her debut solo recording and the eventual version with Wagoner, and which has been since reprised with Kris Kristofferson amongst others. Unsurprisingly, that makes this more a showcase for Muldaur, who handles this with a capable grace, and should have folk pricking up their ears as to the worth of exploring her back catalog. Plus, at the risk of sacrilege, she removes nearly all of the wobble from Dolly’s rendition, the aspect of Dolly that divides her from a more universal acclaim (and that can, indeed, on occasion, be heavy going.)
Appropriately enough, set closer “Just Between You and Me” offers Thompson a greater opportunity to stretch his own voice, away from the harmonizing, the song trading lines between them. Like all the songs, it is short, well under the three minute mark, but this is the first of these covers that begs for an extended work-out.
Maybe that’s how part one of anything should leave you. I look forward to the next, hoping the simple marriage of weeping vocals and wailing steel is left as unadorned as here. Judging by a run of forthcoming live shows, it looks as if the further volumes will pay tribute to two other classic country duet pairings. So keep an ear our for Teddy and Jenni doing George and Tammy, or maybe Loretta & Conway.