I don’t think any introduction is necessary for Dolly Parton (though I have written one, if you want one), but her latest album is an interesting case in which she balances being an artist and a novelist. Part of why this review is late is because I wanted to read a copy of Run, Rose, Run (written with James Patterson) to see if I was missing any context for its companion album, and the long and short of it is … not really? And that may work both for and against this album, because while the album can certainly be enjoyed on its own and is designed to do so, you’re only ever going to get the most basic premise and plot lines for the actual story, which doesn’t really suit an artist known for crafting deeply engaging stories.
Granted, that’s not quite fair. You can’t really walk into this expecting a traditional Parton album. Sure, she’s always had a knack for theatricality that’s suited her dramatic moments superbly well, but she’s not writing for herself this time around; she’s writing for the titular fictional character, where the basic premise is: character has demons, character tries to make it in Nashville as a woman and has the usual problems women have in the industry, and said demons eventually catch up to her anyway.
And for what it is, Run, Rose, Run is an enjoyable listen, albeit a lacking one somewhat let down by its more on-the-nose songwriting structure and production that doesn’t always flatter the dramatic moments on display. And that’s a shame, because I otherwise love her duet with Ben Haggard(!) on “Demons,” but it’s emblematic of the album’s tone as a whole, in that it’s accessible and never too dark, but often lacking that extra edge to push further. The backing vocalists often sound overly gratuitous and tacky, and finding what truly does stand out about this project is sometimes difficult.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t those subtle moments to enjoy, like the swampy harmonica and slight roil driving “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans,” the faster-paced fiddle of “Firecracker” or the excellent bluegrass cut in “Dark Night, Bright Future” that brings on members of the Issacs and Dailey and Vincent, to boot. If anything, it’s the duets that probably make for the album’s best moments, if only to better flesh out the character narratives this album is aiming for and provide a needed counterbalance, especially when you get great, warm country vocalists like the aforementioned Haggard or Joe Nichols onboard.
But as for the writing … well, this is a tricky area to discuss, mostly because Parton is, of course, one of the all-time best songwriters the genre has ever known – and even outside of it, too. And as I once again stress that this project is aiming for something entirely different and unique as a whole, I will admit that this album doesn’t offer much insight into its titular character’s story or much of an original plot point – I mean, “Blue Bonnet Breeze” is a literal retelling of Romeo and Juliet in every way, and “Woman Up (And Take It Like A Man)” is the sort of track Parton could have written in her sleep. Again, I understand sketching the details at just the surface-level to some extent to possibly generate interest for the larger story at hand, but it’s almost as if it’s all too straightforward and has the opposite intended effect, instead.
Granted, for as harsh as this review has likely sounded thus far, it’s still, at the end of the day, an enjoyable listen, mostly due to Parton herself. Even if these stories aren’t about her, she’s still a charismatic performer who puts her all into her work and can work with the material to mine the most out of it, especially when she gets to cut loose on tracks like “Firecracker” or “Dark Night, Bright Future.” I’m not going to say there aren’t moments that aren’t a bit too campy – I’d be fine with never hearing the stretched-out “I’s” in “Driven” ever again – but at the album’s best you’re going to get a performer who still puts her heart into her material, and that counts for something.
- Favorite tracks: “Demons” (feat. Ben Haggard), “Dark Night, Bright Future,” “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans,” “Lost and Found” (feat. Joe Nichols), “Firecracker”
- Least favorite track: “Driven”
- Favorite individual moment: The trade-off between Dolly Parton and Ben Haggard on the chorus of “Demons.”