World Records, No. 3: Dolly Parton – ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

Editor’s note: I apologize for the lack of content as of late. I was ill for most of last week and into this one and am just now trying to get back into the swing of things with this blog. I’m currently working on the next edition of ‘Favorite Hit Songs’ and another album review roundup, so bear with me!

Anyway, last time on World Records, we discussed Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, an album that reflected the general formula of its time, comprised of the big hit single, a few covers, and filler material. Weirdly enough, that formula still managed to make for a cohesive listening experience with that particular album. Admittedly, then, this next entry in this series isn’t the next step for country music album history, so much as an examination of a different side of the same coin – another album released in 1971 led by an iconic rag-to-riches single and followed by a mix of different material. How well does it turn out? Let’s find out.

Dolly Parton Coat of Many Colors

I’ve always considered Dolly Parton to have a paradoxical balance to her career, where for every descriptor one can use to summarize her image and legacy, there’s far more beneath the surface that adds an essential missing piece to the conversation. If you want to keep it simple, you call her arguably one of the most well-known and universally adored artists in all of music – yes, country or otherwise. She’s an international celebrity with a slew of iconic songs to her name, as well as even some notable movie credits and her very own tourist park. She’s got it all.

But I think, if anything, it’s also too easy to note just the accomplishments and discount the talent beneath. Parton is a performer with a smooth tone, playful attitude, and public image all her own, but she’s also at her very heart an incredibly accomplished songwriter, able to keep perspectives generally upbeat but never one to shy away from a darker reality, either.

She’s also a product of grinding poverty, one of 12 children born to a musically inclined but dirt-poor Appalachian family in the Smoky Mountains near the town of Sevierville, Tennessee. Through her uncle on her mother’s side, Bill Owens, she was able to get settled in Nashville at a young age and further work on her budding musical talent. Connections came and went, but nothing truly solidified until Parton graduated from high school and moved to Nashville for good. She broke through in 1967, when her own “Dumb Blonde” – a take-no-prisoners song about smashing sexist stereotypes – revealed a young performer unafraid to put forward her own perspective in country music.

That, of course, feeds into the underlying paradox from before. We discussed Loretta Lynn’s ascent to stardom last time, and because of both her and Patsy Cline’s contributions to putting strong female perspectives at the forefront of country music, Parton had always figured she arrived in Nashville at just the right time. But despite a bigger breakthrough that came from her joining Porter Wagoner’s touring entourage and popular television show (also in 1967), you’d be mistaken to think that Parton was just another cog in Nashville’s male-dominated machine, or that she merely stood in Wagoner’s shadow. She wasn’t afraid to break through with her own perspective, and the results show in a solo career that predates her eventual split from Wagoner as his musical partner.

Take, for instance, 1971’s Coat of Many Colors, Parton’s seventh studio album for RCA Records. Unlike similar albums of the era, this was a mostly self-written effort comprised of Parton originals, as well as three Wagoner cuts. Like similar albums of the era, though, the main discussion point always stems from its signature title track, Parton’s own rag-to-riches story told from the heart, in which she calls back to her childhood and the time she was ridiculed for the cherished coat her mother made her out of fabric scraps. A gentle touch in the firmer acoustics keeps the perspective grounded, but it’s a track that belies just simple nostalgia. With the titular item’s magic compared to the Biblical story of Joseph, to me it’s more about showcasing a faith – a strength – that can’t be broken, not even by one of the most universally relatable examples of childhood trauma: bullying.  

Again, another paradox where the beauty is self-evident but the true magic cuts deeper. It’s the art of subtlety at its most potent and heartbreaking level. It’s one of those songs that would justify any collection it’s on, not only as a great standalone song, but also as one of the singular best country songs of all time. Discussing the remainder of this particular album, however, is a tougher exercise, where even if it defies particular expectations and conventions of country music albums of its time, it does seem to have that same very loose thread running throughout. It’s more like a collection of good-to-great songs rather than a cohesive experience that ties together seamlessly.

And again, that’s more of a feature of its era than an inherent flaw, but this is still a notable album for establishing the bedrock for what we typically expect a piece of Dolly Parton music to stand for and exemplify. Weird as it may sound given the opening title track and her legacy today, Parton had intended to take her music in a more upbeat, spirited direction from her previous material through this album. And it shows in a lot of the instrumentation and production. Like with Lynn’s own Coal Miner’s Daughter from before, this is just one of those albums that doesn’t fit squarely within any conventional sonic trope of its era. With the often folk-like rollick embedded in a lot of the softer acoustic flourishes and the lighter touches of bass and strings added to smooth out the grooves and add an air of levity to both the material and to Parton’s naturally softer tone as a performer, this is an album that keeps her Appalachian roots at the forefront while also finding a happy pop-country medium of her own.

And because of that, there’s so much natural warmth to appreciate here, from the funk-driven, Jerry Reed-esque drive of “Traveling Man,” the rounded bass adding a lot of natural warmth to the aptly titled “Early Morning Breeze,” and the stellar harmonies anchoring “My Blue Tears.” It’s an album that can make even the most sordid tales here feel accessible, not only through Parton’s more naturally playful delivery that feels as inviting and timeless here as it does anywhere, but also in the way it can nail its sweeter blends throughout.

Even still, when approaching it today, Coat of Many Colors – again, outside of that title track – does feel like it’s setting up prototypes for more refined compositions down the road, not only through a more on-the-nose example like “Early Morning Breeze” being re-recorded for both Jolene and Blue Smoke, but also in some of the songs themselves. It’s hard not to hear “She’s Never Met a Man (She Didn’t Like)” as a more broadly written “Jolene,” for example, even if Parton effectively plays the role of a third person onlooker here in warning others of a woman’s particular siren song. And I’d be remiss not to mention how the Wagoner contributions can be hit-or-miss. I enjoy the natural intimacy between two lovers captured in “The Way I See You” well enough, but “The Mystery of the Mystery” is one of many tracks here that can feel hamfisted in its philosophical approach to faith and the meaning of life itself. Parton’s own similar take with “Early Morning Breeze” at least feels more grounded in reality by focusing on a never-ending search for deeper fulfillment and beauty, and feels like it’s got more dramatic stakes to it because of that.

But the true head-scratcher comes courtesy of “If I Lose My Mind,” a song where a troubled woman finds solace through a confession to her mother about a troubling incident concerning her husband and his fetish for wife-swapping. No, I’m not kidding, and yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds on paper. Not that Parton herself isn’t guilty of some over-the-top moments here, albeit nowhere near to that extent. “Here I Am” is a pretty upbeat, conventional character portrait that almost feels a bit too on-the-nose in capturing her general artistic spirit and vigor today, but “A Better Place to Live” is the sort of cloying, fantasy-driven narrative built on platitudes and not much else. If anything, my favorite moments here tend to strike a more even-keeled balance. “Traveling Man” is probably just as ridiculous as other setups here – a case where a daughter falls for a “bad boy” in the form of a traveling salesman, only for her own mother to steal him away from her by the end – but it’s played with that sense of self-awareness in mind and feels like a needed mood brightener because of it. And despite switching gears for the sad but achingly beautiful “My Blue Tears,” it’s a moment of vulnerability Parton naturally nails, a performer who, again, is as adept at having a healthy dose of fun on the former track as she is painting a much starker picture of truth on the latter.

Even still, in calling back to that paradox, it’s harder to talk about Coat of Many Colors as an album and easier just to name the highlights, given that there’s really only a loose sonic connection present throughout and can run all over the place otherwise. Even then, Parton’s capabilities as a performer go a long way to elevating even the weakest cuts, so even if I wouldn’t call this among her best studio albums – especially compared to what she’d deliver further down the line – it’s worth it all for that title track.

Join me next time, where we’ll discuss another paradox – a journey of both hard self-reflections and stunning character portraits that comprise Tom T. Hall’s In Search of a Song.

3 thoughts on “World Records, No. 3: Dolly Parton – ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

  1. Glad you’re feeling better! This is a great review on a piece of music history. Lot’s of insight into songs that I had no idea about. It never occurred to me the relationship between She’s Never Met a Man and Jolene. I’d always thought of it as a bit of an outlier in her work but clearly I was wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Of the first three albums in this feature, this is the one that I’m most familiar with and I’ve loved it for many years. I consider all the songs to be good to great (with Coat of Many Colors a true classic).

    I agree that the sentiments behind Better Place to Live often don’t work very well, but I feel that they do for Dolly Parton and this is one of my favourite songs on this album. I also really love Here I Am (it might actually make my 15 Favourites list for Dolly Parton).

    Liked by 1 person

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