Dolly Parton recently reminded her social media followers that the critically acclaimed Joshua album turned fifty this week (April 12th, 1971 was it’s release date). A review in the magazine Cash Box called the title track one of the all-time best country records ever recorded. The song became Dolly Parton’s first #1 Hit on the Billboard Hot Country Charts and Parton earned Parton her first Grammy Nomination for best female country vocal performance. The album went to #16 on the Country Album Charts.
Enough about 1971 though, I’m reviewing the album today. I love Dolly Parton. She has been and will likely continue to be my favorite singer (and philanthropist). This is likely because she is my mother’s favorite singer and she played her albums and cassettes for me a baby. I am, literally, and cradle country fan. Still, I had never sat with this album until just a few days ago. Joshua, regularly included on her greatest hits albums, was the only song I knew from Parton’s seventh studio album.
I decided to listen to the album after driving my mom (Mama) off at home after nearly two months in hospitals and rehab centers for some health issues. I decided that I wanted to listen to music instead of the podcasts or NPR I would normally listen too. Remembering the brief glimpse at the social media post, I found the album on Spotify, clicked play, and drove through the country, taking the long way home.
“Joshua” was what I remember. A song about two lonely people finding each other despite what world said about them. The next song, “Last One To Touch Me” is a call for companionship in this life and the next, and while touching was not a highlight of the album for me. “Walls of Mind,” the third song, is what Dolly herself will call a sad ass song. I would also include the final song on this album, “Letter to Heaven,” in the sad ass categories (as well as the dead kids and dogs trigger warning collection).
Before I get into the two most important songs for me, I want to acknowledge what I would call the working class women’s songs on the album (Dolly and Loretta usually don’t call themselves feminists – and for good reason that others have already addressed). “It Ain’t Fair that it Ain’t Right” is a song that looks at a woman being left by a man after he used her for sex and “J.J. Sneed” is the revenge story of a woman left by her outlaw lover. Finally, “You Can’t Reach Me Anymore” is a triumph song of a woman overcoming a mix of abuse and inferiority. These are all excellent songs that point to the pain of women beyond the literal context of the songs.
Now, for the two songs I find most moving. “Daddy’s Moonshine Still” and “Chicken Every Sunday” are sort of quintessential “overcoming rural struggle” songs. I’ve never experienced an abusive moonshining father or being denied love and friendship because of my class, but these songs speak to me in the choices I and many others had to make about rural life and how to respond the complex realities of rural life. Tex Sample (channeling Bourdieu) speaks of the dominated culture and how it responds through music. The rural working class is often the dominated culture, and the songs provide a response to the domination through art that overcomes the real.
Of the two, “Daddy’s Moonshine Still” is more angry and tenacious about the realities of life. The chorus, sang in one long angry and desperate breath reads: “Daddy’s moonshine still was good for nothin’/ But to break mama’s heart/ And to tear our home apart/Make our lives a livin’ hell.” The lyrics speak of aging early, abuse, loss, and anger. The singer leaves home after her brothers die. She explains that she sent her mother money every day, earning it in ways she chooses not disclose. In a Bobbie Gentry/Reba Fancy sort of way, she dares you to judge her choices that got her out of the dangerous situation. For many in rural communities, this is their narrative, they are told that if they want, it’s up to them and they have to take the chance.
Unlike the anger of the last song’s anger, “Chicken Every Sunday” ends it’s chorus with a sense of resilience: “If that’s the lower class, then I’m glad that’s what I am.” This song feels like a predecessor to Parton’s famous “Coat of Many Colors,” that was released later the same year (as I am typing this, I feel like want to review that album later this year). The singer is made fun of for her plain hand me down clothes and not belonging to the country club.
In some ways, I resonate with the realities of this song more than the previous one. Still, growing up rural working class, I learned to pass for middle class, get good grades, and lose the accent (which is only just now really returning after 20+ of learning to mask it). I don’t know that I was ashamed, but I learned to deal with the realities of what was, and escape it, in a way.
I am thankful for my rural heritage and today feel a pride about my home community and the rural communities I have served and will continue to serve. Dolly Parton’s craft is one of singing songs that evoke memories and emotions that we can hold together to create a rich experience of country life.
Even though there are less moonshine stills and cotton hand me downs today, this album still rings true. Rural working women still face complex issues, love and loss still happen, and we can overcome loneliness no matter what the world says. The only song haven’t mentioned, “The Fire’s Still Burning” is, at face value, a song of someone left and holding onto hope of that lover’s return. But as Sample, who I mention earlier, reminds, our connections to these songs are not always literal. The idea of a fire still burning is one of endurance, hope beyond hope, and for me, runs toward Parton’s more popular song, “Baby I’m Burning,” released in 1978 on her Heartbreaker Album. This song of overwhelming joy offers an alternative to longsuffering (or perhaps a sublimation?).
Regardless, I leave you with my favorite lyrics from “Baby I’m Burning” in hopes that those in rural communities whose fires still burn, can burn brightly in joy.
This red hot emotion
Puts fireworks in motion
It looks like the 4th of July
There’s no use in fighting
This fire you’ve ignited
Just stand back and watch the sparks fly