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Episode 34

Jolene

Dolly Parton

We should talk about Dolly the way we talk about Prince. Her extraordinary kindness and unique kitsch both make her universally loved, but what gets left out of the conversation is the very thing that made her famous: the music. Join in as we focus attention on the sonics and songwriting of the low-key masterpiece Jolene.

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are mostly AI-generated for now. 

Cliff: Today we’re talking about Dolly Parton’s Jolene.

So to start at the beginning of Dolly Parton’s solo career is to start 13 records in. Prolific is an understatement when it comes to Dolly when the, the famed threshold of she’s written 5,000 songs in her career. And yeah, everything is NBD to Dolly …

Kyle: Right.

Cliff: … which is part of the fantastic nature of the human being that we get to talk about during this. 

Kyle: My hope for this episode is that we, we elevate the conversation in whatever little way we can around Dolly, because, is she celebrated? Sure. Does she transcend boundaries? Absolutely. Does Dolly Parton’s America do a great job of touching on that in terms of cultural impact and relevance? Yes. And you absolutely should check out every episode of that podcast. It is super well done. My boss at my day job is an enormous, enormous Dolly Parton fan. So the stakes are very high for us to not mess this up. But I was vehemently recommended to start by listening to Dolly Parton’s America. So if you want to focus on the cultural aspects of Dolly’s universality, which we will touch on. I would recommend you start there. I want to make a case for Dolly Parton. One of the most musically impactful, important underrated figures in the history of not only country music, but of popular music in American history.

Cliff: And it’s a good opportunity to give a little bit of nuance from rarely do we get to really just like stick the claim to where Southern boys and therefore we’ve got an in on this one,

Kyle: That’s right. We’ve got a head start.

Cliff: But here’s one being able to give sort of the nuance of growing up around the glorification of Dolly Parton is one part of it.

But 

Kyle: geographic

proximity. Yeah.

Cliff: Like, I mean, I know where Sevierville is already. Separate from Dolly Parton,

Kyle: it didn’t occur to me that not everybody talks about going to Pigeon Forge over Thanksgiving break. That’s just a normal, regular thing that people do.

 Cliff: It’s the Las Vegas, that’s closer and more convenient, and if you’re, um, if you’re a person listening and you’re from the South, so you’re a little bit more familiar with Dolly to you. I just want to reinforce if you haven’t listened to Dolly Parton’s America, not only is it great overall, but like there, there should be an entire genre exclusively comprised of podcasts of like, “NPR-esque people”, either from California or New York, like discovering portions of the deep South,

it’s some of my —

Kyle: Oh, what’s up libs. We’ve been waiting.

Cliff: — some of my favorite parts of it is just, in that podcast series, they like … discover that Dollywood is a thing.

Kyle: They do the Owen Wilson: “wowwww”.

Cliff: And we’re like, we’re like, man, we took school field trips to Dollywood, you know? True, true actual fact: I won a hula-hooping contest at Dollywood. My prize was a Beanie Baby.

If you’d like to place this in time.

Kyle: after all these years of knowing you. There’s not much that can add dimension to my portrait of you. You hula hooping and Dollywood — like “chubby kid” Cliff — is right on up there.

Cliff: I faced off against a small infant child and I won and I think they expected me to graciously render the prize that I was given. And I didn’t,

Kyle: they didn’t know you at all. That

Cliff: That’s the last time I hula hooped.

Kyle: That feels a lot like the equivalent of, I lost in the regional spelling bee on the word “tabernacle” because I threw a “K” in there, and that irony is not lost on me. That the venue that I go to, perhaps the most often of all of them in the city of Atlanta is called The Tabernacle. Every time I look up at the door, I immediately hang my head back down in shame. But we’re not here to talk about our childhoods. Let’s save that for our therapists. We are here to talk about Dolly.

Cliff: And not just Dolly, but specifically this whole fantastic record of tremendous like country-ish songs. Uh, we’ve got some blues in here. We’ve got some folk. But this album itself is worth…

… let me say it differently, because I really want to lay this on really heavy for folks who haven’t maybe given this particular album a hefty try. This isn’t just an “in defense of Dolly” type. We’ve picked an album. And so you should listen to it because Dolly is worth listening to as a person. Nah, this record is phenomenal all the way around.

Kyle: Should be in the Rolling Stone top 50. And we can get into the reasons why. maybe people perceive it as not being, but I was thinking a lot about the Purple Rain episode when I was reading. And I was thinking about how initially it was so difficult to choose a record because again, Dolly’s written 5,000 songs and she’s put out music consistently in the way that a Prince did or a Frank Sinatra did, where the body of work’s

so enormous, what’s an entry point? And I think that’s a challenge that is the more time goes on and we have these sort of canonical artists in American music history, 

their catalog becomes a little bit impenetrable because you don’t know where to start.

So you just go to a greatest hits or something. Jolene is perfect, not only because of the narrative, but because it’s like a pure distillation of all the things that musically make Dolly really great.

Cliff: And I think almost by nature of Dolly’s kind of cult of personality, it’s almost like it’s easy to look at this record and think of it as a Dolly platform type record.

Like yeah. She wrote great songs. Her voice is good. It’s you know, it’s a great Dolly record. Like no put headphones on and listen to the musicianship in each one of these songs. Even the simplest songs have some pretty incredible guitar work. The production is really actually really good.

Kyle: if you’re going to be a vinyl purist, this is actually the best example that I can point to. Before, for me, for a long time,

through gritted teeth, I would say Eagles’ Hotel California. If you want to hear end-to-end analog sounding its absolute possible best,  start with that. But the crispness and the clarity of the mix, everything is pitch-perfect, start to finish. Recorded at RCA Studio B in Nashville, and some great hired guns on this record.

all. with two exceptions written and arranged by Dolly, obviously had an incredible sonic ear as well produced by Bob Ferguson, who was kind of like the RCA house guy for 30 years. But it’s super, super dialed in. And if you ever want to make a case for vinyl analog recording technique purism you can hear close mics,

simple, clean recordings, mixed pitch perfectly. It’s done to perfect effect here, and it almost takes your breath away when you listen to it with headphones, because it’s, it’s a little bit like the first time you watched Planet Earth and it’s like more real than real, you know? the little bit of acoustic and the pastoral lap steel kind of bubbling up from the sides.

And the drums are never too much ever. And then this vocal just floats on top of it always and finds the just right place in the mix, right? It’s not always like big bubbly over the top Dolly. It always sits right where it needs to, depending on the material. Sonically, that was the first thing that caught me by surprise about this record is like, it is a pitch perfectly produced album, period.

Cliff: And there are some nuances, I think, in not only the song, but the recording and production that we’ll touch on, on the individual songs.

It’s good to set up a little bit of this album, just because the first song on this record is obviously Jolene, which is possibly one of the, one of the… best songs ever? So it kind of takes off running and it does a lot of stuff immediately that’s worth focusing in on. So for the sake of just kind of positioning a little bit of this moment an extremely encapsulated and condensed version of what had led up to here.

Kyle: Like again, if you want the full back story done an excellent way, that’s where Dolly Parton’s America comes in.

Everything that you’re about to talk about is in much greater detail. Well-articulated there. A lot of interviews with Dolly herself on this next one.

Cliff: Yeah, just go there. Cause they’re trying to set up like a story and a narrative and things that interest normal people.

And I’m just trying to give you the backstory so I can tell you about this fuckin’ RIFF.  you know so I mean, Dolly spent the early part of her career prior to now just continuously being discovered and underappreciated for the most part. And, y’know, she also just naturally came up during a time where we still, um, infantilized women for the most part who were in show business.

So, you know, she had spent, I think seven, 

Kyle: “You can vote; ain’t that enough?!” 

Cliff: “Hey, there pretty lady, hear you’re thinking about things.” Yeah. So, I mean, listening to some of her, like the time that she spent on Porter Wagoner’s weekly TV show leading up to then. So she spent about seven years before this album doing that with him.

And, as you’ll be able to see throughout Dolly’s life, found a courteous way to subvert people all along the way,

Kyle: Super punk. Dolly could not be more punk.

Cliff: There is some exact measure of Southern punk in Dolly that impossible to imitate to where she’s, she’s able to correct people and put them in their place and advocate for herself, and yet not have to put anybody down to do it, which is a wild talent and just honestly exhausting, so it’s amazing to watch her do it. But she had spent, you know, she had spent a fair amount of time and you can hear some of the, some of what we’re mentioning or inferring by just like, pulling up an example of her on the Porter Wagoner show.

And you get a lot of that, like, and now Dolly, the pretty lady is going to come out and sing you a song. And like, “everybody pay attention.” And there was even an 

Kyle: He introduced her that way!

Cliff: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Over and over.  

Kyle: But especially the first time, right? ‘Cause she took over for Norma Jean, who had had this huge, built up this huge following. Sonically, her vocal register was a lot different. Stylistically they’re way different, just as people, right? So on Dolly Parton’s America, there’s an, a really illuminating clip of him introducing her and basically being like, she’s the next female prop for this show. And I think you’re going to love her. Look at me, I discovered her, I plucked her out of this thing. And she got booed that first time ’cause she was so different than Norma Jean and he had to come out and like chastise the audience for being like guys again, let me remind you. This is the Porter Wagoner show. She’s just an object. Be nice, but don’t, don’t tap on the glass. 

Cliff: I’ll say just in case it’s worth coming to his very mild defense at the very least,

Kyle: Narrator: it’s probably not.

Cliff: It’s probably not, and that’s fine. But at the very least he didn’t discard her. Like, “oh, you didn’t like that woman? I’ll go you another one.” Okay. So at the very least, and there is 

Kyle: And that’s not a Porter thing. You shouldn’t defend Porter about that. 

Cliff: Okay, 

Kyle: Her talent is so undeniable that he was like, “well, I’m not going to find something that cooks harder than this.”

Cliff: “Don’t work any harder.” Okay. We’ll leave it there. 

Kyle: I’ll just grin and bear it.

Cliff: I couch all of my defenses because the way that he behaved after she stopped being on his show, earned him all of the negativity that we could easily pile on to that entire part of the story, because he was terrible and she was great to him. But

Kyle: …and continues to be, will not disparage him to this day.

And, and in spite of the contentiousness of their relationship, which expands out to a macro of the way that Dolly views and moves through the world and we’ll get into that. But like those are core, that situation is core, to the ideology of Dolly Parton and her quote unquote “politics”. 

Cliff: Right? It’s more like, I want to set up the slingshot-ness of this whole story. 

Kyle: “Shake ‘n’  bake.” 

Cliff: Where like she, I mean, she’s like

Kyle: if Cal Naughton were the unequivocal best racer of all time and Ricky Bobby were a hack, this would be that.

Cliff: Fair. You know, so she’s in these contexts where she’s taking the steps that she needs to take, like Porter Wagoner’s show, to get out in front of people. She just, she wants to be a singer. She wants to be a songwriter, and would continue to describe herself primarily as a songwriter throughout her life. And this was a really important thing to her. So this was, you know, an important step in the direction that she wanted to go in. And again, well-covered in another podcast series, but I think to just put a little cap on this part of her story so that we can never talk about Porter Wagoner again. She separates from him to be able to start on this solo career, which, you know, kicks off in an incredible way with Jolene, but she would go on to tell you know, in, in Dolly’s America,

Kyle: …which she debuted on the Porter show. Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Cliff: You know, and he participated in some of the songwriting of this stuff too.

That’s on this record and he was supposed to be involved, but I think the thing that’s worth saying is what would end up happening is he was still really bitter about her leaving and going off and generally like being successful. And he was kind of a terrible person about it. Yeah. But to the point of Dolly and to help you understand kind of how she navigated things in her life: he tried to sue her, like he tried to trap her in with contracts. He did a number of not awesome things and then hit really hard times later on and owed people a lot of money and Dolly bought out his failing business to help him and then gave him his rights back.

Kyle: She bought his publishing and gave it to him for free yeah.

Cliff: Someone who at that point who was not kind to so that his kids could have it.

So

Kyle: Patron Saint of Appalachia.

Cliff: Yeah. So that’s Dolly. And that’s the context that she’s kind of like skyrocketing out of. So enough about that, I think. Like, this record in and of itself is enough.

Kyle: In a way, Jolene is making lemonade, but that, that sells it terribly short.

Cliff: so that’s why it’s worth spending just a little bit of time setting up for the very first moment of this record, because you immediately hit this guitar line that’s fascinating. 

First of all, Jolene is a masterclass itself in songwriting, just absolutely period. Not only because of the feel of it, which we’ll talk about, but also just because it illuminates the ability of a great songwriter to use a really standard formula to write something that’s anything but standard. And so you see her doing the very basic “songwriting 101” thing of: don’t make it such a mystery, tell people what the song is about right upfront. And you can like the, the plot

Kyle: she herself said, I do not believe in extreme– “I don’t like extreme things, I believe in making a point and making it well.”

Cliff: You know, in the first two lines of the song, you understand what’s happening this. Right. And so there’s all kinds of great trivia behind this song in general, right? It also illuminates a pretty classic Dolly posture towards songwriting, which is basically, “Jolene” doesn’t even represent a reality of any, any sort she’s like merging things together.

like taking this playful thing where she saw a cute bank teller and she joked with her husband about flirting with this bank teller. There was no actual situation with a bank teller that was like this.

Kyle: I’ve read four or five different shades of that story where like she played it up as really serious, and then she said, “yeah, that wasn’t actually a thing; we just joked about it at home.” Like what if, what if? But then the name Jolene came from

Cliff: A child

Kyle: A cute little girl in the audience 

Cliff: who wanted Dolly’s signature. And she, yeah, and it, I mean, it’s kind of fun. It’s so classic Dolly, like she talks about, you know, she, she asked what the little girl’s name was. She says “Jolene.” Dolly decides in that exact moment that she wants to write a song about Jolene as a character.

So she starts repeating the name Jolene to herself so she doesn’t forget it before she goes back and gets paper and that’s how we get “Jolene Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,” and like just so many little tiny pleasurable onions to open up like that with Dolly. so you, you get the kind of combination of her taking this the childlike, literally childish features of Jolene that she’s thinking of and describing in the song is based on the child that she met, while layering it on top of a story that didn’t fully exist about, you know, her husband being essentially unfaithful, but there’s so much like wrapped up in here, including just the perspective of the storyteller herself inside of the song.

Like this is one of our first, ” Hey, listen We, we both know, Jolene, real fast aside. Uh, we both know men are canceled. Um, and so if you could just like do me a solid, uh, like I know you got the goods he’s a terrible human being. It would be really hard to find another one, uh, for me personally. So if you would just mind like playing this cool, that would be great. Cause I really can’t trust this dude to do anything reasonable in the face of your, just, like… general beauty. So thanks.”

Kyle: I spent some time on the highway. This is a great highway record because it’s, it’s so contemplative in a lot of ways, it struck me that this was Dolly Parton’s “stages of grief” record where she takes the core idea of breaking up this quote unquote “relationship,” professional or otherwise, with Porter Wagoner and exploring that feeling like a Rubik’s cube kinda from all sides. There are songs about being in love. There are songs about heartbreak, but just that feeling of love and loss and moving on and defining who you are and all of that, right? Like that’s rich, fertile ground. It reminded me a lot of – totally kind of tangent- uh, Every Time I Die’s last record, uh, Low Teens, where the lyrical inspiration for that whole record was: the singer gets a call, they’re in Toronto and he’s based in Buffalo. His pregnant wife has gone into distress labor, and she might die and the baby might die. And he was like, I wrote all the lyrics to that record basically in my head on the way to the hospital on the longest four-hour drive of my life. Right. Thinking about all the different ways you can think about death and losing the people that you love and your own insignificance and how it’s just like 30 sides of a shape around that thing. I thought of that same thing when I was listening to Jolene, about how one thing can inspire so many dimensions of emotion, and none of them are exactly literally the thing from a narrative storytelling perspective, right? But that is the genius of Dolly Parton that she can take the way it makes her feel and extrapolate it into all these stories that have universality and have appeal and tie to actual literal things that have happened to other people and maybe not necessarily to her. That has her genius to me.  

Cliff: And again, on full display here, like yes to that a million times over, the next example that we can go to inside of the song is just the guitar lick itself at the very beginning. It’s deceptively complex. There’s a, it’s a different style of playing, and you can hear it only if

Kyle: So hypnotic. Yeah.

Cliff: And so not only. First of all, not only did Dolly have to interrupt Porter Wagoner, who was incapable of showing the musician

Kyle: who insisted that he play the guitar lick and then couldn’t do it. I mean, if there is more of a perfect microcosmic story of men in America and human society… shit, man, that is it. ” No, no, no, I deserve to do it.” “But you can’t do it.” “But I had to, but, I should be the one doing it. Aaaand it- this belongs to me, 

Cliff: “If I can’t do it, maybe it should be different. You of it that way?”

Kyle: “Are you trying to mansplain my own fucking song to me right now, man?”

Cliff: Yes, literally. So Dolly comes in

 has to show them how to actually play it because she wrote it, and it’s such a critical thing to bring in, not just to dunk on Porter Wagner and his entire archetype forever, which is fine, but also because it’s such an important stylistic element of the song, the way that it’s written and the way that it’s played feels like, I mean, it’s like you’re pacing around a room.

It never quite kind of resolves. It gives the–

Kyle: It’s got like a recursive loop.

Cliff: Yeah. And it’s in, it’s in a minor key, which is, you know, a fairly obvious choice, I guess,  for the subject matter. But the way that she moves through key gives the, it never quite feels settled at any point.

Kyle: I thought the really interesting thing that they pointed out about the song structure on Dolly Parton’s America was that it’s in Dorian mode, which is used primarily … its natural habitat is Gregorian chants.

So, the rhythmic structure is anxious and pulling, and it feels like pacing around a room. But the notes, even though they’re minor key, it’s like Druidian, right? Like trying to find peace. Right? So you, you feel the tension between the anxiety and like trying to calm yourself or level with the other person.

And I don’t know how much of that was like, ” I’m going to make it exactly this on paper,” but at the very least, it speaks to Dolly’s instincts to pull all of those forces together naturally, right? Like  the same way that Kobe, rest in peace, had these natural gifts, but still would find ways to hone and refine them, doing the reps in the gym, structurally, everything about Jolene is like a Kobe moment in that way for, for Dolly.

Cliff: Coming out of the gate, just exemplary songwriting, incredible guitar playing to start with, again, both from Dolly, pretty immediately. Right? And then on top of it, this is where, like, I really want to encourage people to draw out the production and really listen to this record if you haven’t, because not only does that guitar need to be recorded and produced well for that to sound good period, but then you really start to hear on that-

Kyle: …and by the way, to record and mix acoustic really well is so hard. Cause you don’t have the electrical current thing kind of hiding some of the imperfections. It’s like, you got to play the hell out of it to make it good.

Cliff: And then by the third line, we now have a harmonizing guitar line from another Right Which, first of all, most of the time you hear that, it’s either incredibly boring or useless on most songs. It really does something different here. Listen closely to the way that that line comes in. It moves it in like a more affirmative, almost like major key, feeling

Kyle: It

Cliff: yeah it starts to draw contrast just between the two guitars which again one of those moments: Is Dolly thinking through all these details, or is this happening as a result of being in the moment? But even the guitars themselves, if you listen to them and isolate them, start to kind of feel like the “Dolly versus Jolene” moment where it’s like we’re in opposition on the other side of this one man together, but we’re unified in being women, in understanding how men work, we’re unified in the sense that I feel like I can sing this song to you directly. There’s this underscore that goes behind it. And then even further into production, listen closely to the background even immediately in the first verse there’s a sound in the background: someone is rubbing a cymbal, someone is rubbing guitar strings …there’s this abrasive quiet tone in the background. Again if you think about it tremendously out of place something that’s, you know, that’s coming out in the early seventies, that’s effectively a country folk solo record and it’s, I mean,

dark, 

Kyle: to have perfectly sanded edges and all that. 

Cliff: Right. And whatever that is literally feels like sandpaper going on in the background. And all of this within the first 20 seconds of this record!

So It’s worth kind of having that realization that like, when we talk about Dolly kind of coming out of the gate with the solo thing, there’s so much in here. And as she would go on to say later, like she wrote a lot of “sad ass songs” and was- 

Kyle: Yo, the, the lyrics on her first two records, the song writing and storytelling is incredible, but it is brutally, brutally, brutally dark. So if you need some real dark shit for today’s times, Hello, I’m Dolly. I can’t remember the exact name of the record. but the like ’67 to ’69 stuff is …whew boy.

Cliff: it’s somber at the very least it’s it’s wild.

Kyle: her, it’s just telling stories that were inspired by her upbringing, right? I mean like the fact that she is transcended and become the person she is, is incredible. When you hear her acknowledge the stories of the circumstances from which she came, 

Cliff: And to me that’s again, just to tie back to a little bit of what we talked about a bit ago, like it’s moments like that of a couple of people growing up in the South, we sorta take for granted the like familiarity with like the Smoky Mountains and w wind

Kyle: rampant poverty of that, like the austerity and

Cliff: Like we know what a moonshine shack looks y’know? Like we we don’t have to think about that too hard it

Kyle: Maybe had muscadine wine and white lightning from, uh, our grandfather in law at Thanksgiving and Christmas and shot a 44 pistol in the backyard. Hashtag “not all Southerners.”

Cliff: We’ve both opened up a Mason jar, turned to the person who handed us the Mason jar, and went, is this the type of moonshine that’s going to kill me?

yeah.

again, to, to tie back, like that’s why some of the, coverage and storytelling about Dolly is fascinating because you get to hear it from the eyes of people who like visit her old childhood home in the Smoky Mountains. And like, they’re like, Oh my God. Oh my God, look how small and tiny crazy it Like, yeah. Like that’s, that’s how she grew up. There is no alternative for that geographic area in the country. It’s kind of worth doubling down on that. Like if you’re a Southerner, try to see it through new eyes and understand that some people are coming at Dolly from a really different angle than a lot of us had.

And if you’re not from the South, like, remember that a lot of us just kind of grew up around the assumptions that Dolly herself was, was built on. Like she’s coming from a place and a lot of us are familiar with that place. 

One thing I think that’s probably worth mentioning, first of all, you know, “Jolene” was released as a single. It was, pretty huge, uh, in the U S and Canada, which Canadian hits of American country music will never, uh, not make me laugh, um, but it was like, you know, it was a huge hit. It’s a great song in general; first of all, because it’s a huge hit, second of all, because it definitely taps into some emotion that’s uncommon. You know, I think it’s spawned millions of covers. Uh, almost all of them are not worth having existed. Um, just to be quite frank. Um, most of them are just like, here’s me reciting Jolene without any of the

Kyle: You tried.

Cliff: But to speak to the feeling and the tension in the sensation that comes along with the song, even though I don’t like to listen to it: the White Stripes’ cover of “Jolene”.

Kyle: I hate 

Cliff: The fact that I hate it is the thing that makes me think maybe this is the most appropriate way to riff on this song.

Kyle: I hate it, but I also did not care for Meg White’s drumming when they first came out. And then when Dave Grohl was like, “she’s the greatest drummer of all time” and then offered no explanation or ha ha JK.” And then you, are forced when you get that new bit of information to consider things earnestly through that context.

I was fully prepared to dunk on this cover, just cause you know, like it, it objectively is not as good as the original. But Dolly herself was asked about it in 2016 and she said, “well, I love Jack White to death,” you know, insert Dolly Parton voice. “They did one of the greatest versions ever of ‘Jolene’. I had a chance to have dinner with Jack in LA not long ago and we talked about the possibility of someday down the road that we may get together to do something,” that little non-committal aside, aside… “They did one of the greatest versions ever of ‘Jolene’.” 

It’s not the only time she’s ever said that. She has always acknowledged where the bar was for the cover. There was a singer-songwriter who was totally obscure and did a cover and Dolly heard it. And at that time, anointed that the greatest version of Jolene that she’d heard and that like thrust that person into the spotlight, but for a time it was this version.

And I think the reason is summed up in the top YouTube comment actually, which, that is a phrase I can’t believe I’m saying on this podcast, the

Cliff: I’m on pins and needles myself.

Kyle: the top YouTube comment on the live version that was captured for their Under Blackpool Lights concert recording.

This guy Jack Evans said, “I’ve always felt that Dolly Parton’s original song, the message is that there’s still a possibility she could keep her man from Jolene,” which is an interesting take. I think you asked 10 people, you’re going to get five different opinions. “Jack White performs the song as if it’s already too late. And that chills me.” 

It’s like, it’s the pain. Like, we just talked about the Allman brothers, right? It’s the pain. It’s the howling. It’s the remorse. It’s the blues thing. My favorite thing about the song “Jolene” is at the end of the third verse, it ends unresolved, you don’t know how the story ends, and it’s interesting that this person interpreted that as potentially hopeful? 

Just because of the vibe of the song, I don’t… even if somebody “wins” air quotes, nobody really wins. Cause it’s one of those like weird, sordid love stories. But on the other side of that with the White Stripes cover and it’s like, it’s already got the pain baked in of, it’s a foregone conclusion… is an interesting new approach. So vocally, I don’t, I don’t love it at all, but I get it and I respect it.

Cliff: So you come rippin’ out of “Jolene”, is going to leave you feeling a little off balance anyway, especially if you weren’t expecting it on a first listen. And then one of the things I really love about this record kind of taken as a whole is the way it like kind of jumps between, Oh, look at Dolly doing something that really hasn’t been done before.

Country standard. Oh, look at something like, you know, and it kind of goes back and forth. Almost to kind of remind you she’s got everything in the pocket, this, this is easy. But it also provides us interesting contrast. So moving into “When Someone Wants to Leave”, uh, structurally, the way the song is written the way it sounds, its key. All pretty common. Not anything unusual, but what it starts to bring out at that point is the way that Dolly can drop something really heavy on you, explicitly in the lyrics without really changing anything about the tone or the feel of the song so that it creates its own sense of tension.

And like, to me, one of the things that always gets me about this record as a whole is making it to the second song. When you get to the song, and she drops ” when someone wants to leave as much as you want them to stay” it’s, uh, that’s one of those feelings that we’ve all had some form of. And it’s, it’s almost like auto-repressed. Like that’s such a terrible, awful sensation to know with clarity and the light of day, I want this for someone just as much as they want the opposite of it. And I see it for what it is and I can call it and label it and it hurts.

Kyle: Yeah. Yeah. It’s too raw to name for most people, which is why they’ll try to address it artfully, but her ability to be plaintive about really tough things. And you talked about the “sad ass songs” era, the early stuff, is like, it’s all that. It’s like Southern Gothic. And it’s just cause she’s lived too raw a life to beat around the bush, right? But, in spite of that, like, it’s one thing to make that kind of candor and vulnerability your thing. But to be able to do it artfully in a way that is like, Whoa, and it’s not immediately like, Oh my God, this is too sad. This is too much, right? Like she finds almost, uh, a beauty in it, in a “there’s no English word for this feeling” type of way, you know?

And also, let’s acknowledge that when she just writes a regular-ass country song, it’s like still immediately a cut above. We can come back to “Living on Memories of You”, but that to me is like, early Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, George Jones, the right on the line of countrypolitan and outlaw country- as killer as anything Tammy Wynette ever did. Just piano, lap steel, a little bit of you know, boogie-woogie bounce. Just, could do it in her sleep, and does, and I love the point that you made about like, it’s either going to be groundbreaking or it’s just going to be a really good version of a regular thing.

Cliff: No. I mean, that’s, that’s a great example. Like ” Living on Memories of You” is an archetype that I would point to myself as like, when I thought of country music, that is still what I thought. Yeah. Just

Kyle: it in a time capsule or like gave it to aliens, ” Living on Memories of You” is a great example, there.

Cliff: And it’s like, we, we were born just at the time were alike and I was exposed to a lot of country music early on, just old enough to where I can make that connection of the artists that you mentioned, and I still kind of hold onto that as like: that’s country in opposition to Garth Brooks, right which like

Kyle: Brooks and Dunn.

Cliff: and I mean, that evolved until it became a caricature of a caricature,

I still go back and point to, you know, a song like “Living on Memories of You” as the classic kind of honky-tonk ish sad country song.

And then, you know,

Kyle: either get out and boot scooting boogie to it, or you can sit at the bar and, and drink a Pabst. Yeah. Just depends on what kind of Saturday you’re having.

Cliff: And so like, you’ve got a classic, sad country song. I was telling you before we started recording, like “Highlight of My Life” is like the surprise victor for me from this record. I don’t know why. I didn’t really choose it. But it sticks in my head as a perfect, like, I can picture her in like a little dress with puffy shoulders with like lattice work behind her, singing this song into like a wired microphone, on like public access television or something, you know? This is like classic, deep Southern, small time, “Oh, look, this girl can sing really good!” And there’s like a really catchy song behind it. And it’s all very positive.

Kyle: that feel of like a church song.

Cliff: So to push into that: ” River of Happiness” is like exactly church music to me. There was, uh, some sort of transition eventually in church music where they all went, “instead of playing country music, we will now all sound like U2.” I don’t know why, I don’t know how that happened. That took some shifts in the nineties, all of a sudden to be, uh, ironically I guess, more relevant.

But to me like River of Happiness” is exactly the type of thing that like, “Oh, my daughter’s going to be singing a special up in church this week. She’s going to be singing to Dolly’s ‘River of Happiness’.” And then they look back at the soundboard and the back of the church building and they nod and they put in the cassette tape, which plays the tracking. And then, you know, someone standing up there with their shoulders all tight, just kind of like waiting for their moment to start singing in front of the 13 member audience for the first time. It’s such a picture. 

And so like the very standard songs on this record are this really fascinating, to me, journey into either my very early childhood or like, what I understood to be the times just before I grew up.

Kyle: So anyway, Yankees, that’s what we thought was normal to do with your weekend! Listen, “Highlight of My Life” structurally is so catchy, but the vocal harmonies on that, like the way that the Eagles would stack four voices up and it would get real ribbony and buttery. You know, they talked about the two types of harmonies and the way that voices either blend like the Everly Brothers, or they’re in contrast, but they sound good together, like Porter and Dolly.

Dolly has such an interesting relationship with harmonies because she has such a unique sounding voice that it takes some work to find the right pockets to do harmonies well, and that’s another place where her instincts, I think, suit her really well. And you see that come alive on “Highlight of My Life” because it’s at least a three part harmony. And they blend just enough, but there is some distinction and a little bit of friction in the timbre of their different voices that it hits in that delightful way that you expect when you hear vocal harmonies, but it has a distinctiveness to it that like, again, with Dolly’s voice at the center of that equation makes it sound inherently different than kind of anything else. 

Cliff: Yeah. Her register really spreads out the vocals in a song Actually, if you’re, if you’re really interested in the, the vocal aspect of it and you want to like really draw out thing that you’re mentioning actually just like listening to the way that Porter Wagoner used to harmonize with Norma Jean, and then listen to the way he had to change to work with Dolly. Yeah. Really draws it out. Right. Because again, with Norma Jean, she was, she was in a similar register. So they’re, you know, they’re kind of like creating thickness with their harmony. Whereas with Dolly, like, I mean, she’s, she’s in another world vocally. And so you’ve got to change the way that you work with her in order to make it sound good.

Which again, these are all like concentric circles back to you, “how is this record so good” coming from Dolly herself. Yeah. And then, um,

Kyle: only like 24 minutes, right? 

Cliff: another one that’s practically a punk because it’s so short

Kyle: Um Super, again, Dolly’s super punk.

Cliff: And all the songs themselves were, obviously to add up to a small amount of time, each song would need to be a small amount of time.

Kyle: It’s not in a way that you notice, right? Like each thing, normally with short songs, they feel short on purpose, but there are some that clock in at like a minute 40, a minute 50, and you’re like, that was exactly what it needed to be. And again, that’s a songwriting instinct that is so easy to make that feel contrived.

We did a really long song cause we repeated a bunch of parts a bunch of times, or we did a really short song to make a point or it’s three minutes because the system is the system is the system. Everything kind of lands exactly where it needs to be; nothing overstays its welcome, and nothing under stays its welcome either.

Cliff: So then diving into the recesses or the peaks, depending on how you look at it, like we kind of hopped across the standards, but, you know, Jolene is one of the ones that, stand up in kind of stark stylistic contrast. The next one, I think that kind of stands out like that is definitely “Early Morning Breeze”.

This is another place to really I just, I’m almost annoying myself at this point, but like, if you just really haven’t given Dolly Parton a chance, musically, here’s another song and just like put on the headphones, turn it up, and be blown away. The guitar intro to the song is just wild. They’re going really hard the studio, actually. There’s like weird panning. They’re doing weird stuff with harmonics. This was, uh, it was unnecessary. In a sense

Kyle: “You ain’t have to flex on ’em that hard!”

Cliff: They’re flexing on a record where they could have just done, just go in, go out, record the record and be done and, you know, provide a base for Dolly Parton.

And instead you-

Kyle: And that makes it sound like Drake and Future, like sonically. There’s a lot. It’s, it’s weird. Cause this is like the most minimal song on the record in a lot of ways. But when you really sink your teeth into it, you’re like, “daaaaaaamn.”

Cliff: The way that the chords change when she sings “in the morning breeze,” it’s like they’re taking unexpected diversions here that they, again, they don’t have to take, but it adds so much depth to what they’re doing. And like the guitar work on this song in specific is some fascinating guitar work to listen to.

Kyle: My favorite aspect of the song… I’m a sucker for lap steel. All my favorite country has really killer lap steel. And there’s a kind of long time avant garde-ish type artist, Chuck Johnson, who does this sort of pastoral, almost ambient approach to lap steel where it feels like waking up early in the morning in the South, in the country, that kind of feeling of a little bit of humidity. You hear some cicadas and all that. The way that good lap steel, not overdriven lap steel, just kind of like bleeds in from the margins of your senses. This is as good a. Piece of lap steel as I’ve ever heard the song, just …the playing is really muted and sublime. It’s mixed in perfectly. It’s super, super tasteful. And all the elements of the song and the mix like are really suspended in the ether. And prior to really listening to this record closely, when people were like, if I need a close listening record, where I’m just trying to figure out something that sounds really, really, really good… I know I talked about Hotel California, but it was The Folk Singer by Muddy Waters, where, like, on a really good analog sound system, it feels like you’re in the room with them. And it’s good, like close miking and good space in the mix. But this song, again, all the elements feel like they’re suspended in air, which reflects the song perfectly. And then you have this punchy drum kind of anchoring it, but it’s waaaay back in the mix. Everything was tastefully done in a way that it’s like, belies the time in which it was recorded or, or at least totally ran counter to the way that records were being mixed in that style.

Cliff: Yeah, the complexity is wildly out of place for the time. And I love it.

Kyle: In a way that you won’t notice though, unless you’re really paying close attention to it. It’s super subversive in the way that it sounds. And it’s so subtle, which I think is so perfectly reflective- the sonics of this record are so perfectly reflective of Dolly, again, in her politics and kind of her ideology, because… 

I think a lot of that Tom Waits quote that I cite often, you know: “What is a gentleman? Someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.” That’s Dolly’s whole deal, right? It’s like I could flex constantly and show you how great I am, but how’s that going to make progress? You know, I just want everybody under this big tent. And the sonics are so reflective of that. 

Cliff: So the next peak that I think it would be illegal not to talk about would be “I Will Always Love You”. I would like to think… this is a music podcast, most of the people listening to this have like a cursory interest in music. I would guess you don’t need a huge introduction

Kyle: “on The Voice.”

Cliff: You can’t see me, but I just turned around dramatically in my chair. And was 

Christina yeah,

Kyle: They got a Jonas brother on there now.

Cliff: I wouldn’t know.

Kyle: That’s fine.

Cliff: One time that came on my TV and that was the last time I had a TV.

Kyle: Clarkson

Cliff: So in classic Dolly fashion, “I Will Always Love You” was written about the piece of trash that she separated herself from to make this solo record. So it was a reportedly written to express, you know, some sense of remorse and gratitude back to Porter Wagoner for 

right? Yeah. Yeah. Uh, she, she is able to hold truths in her head that I can’t hold one of so apparently this was, this was a well-intentioned and, and she worked with him some on it as well.

And apparently at the time, he, he felt good about having had the song written about him. Apparently not enough to not be a piece of trash afterwards, but, uh, he appreciated it, I guess. But it’s, I think even,

Kyle: Let’s note that specifically, though, the context in which he first heard it: as a means of breaking up with him. Okay. And, you know, I want to keep using that in air quotes, right? Like that infantilizes the whole situation,

Cliff: It’s like John Cusack, but with the, with the, like, we can’t, we can’t be together anymore. It’s like,

Kyle: The end of Love, Actually with the poster boards. Yeah. You are the worst. I am great, but I will always love you. She walked into his office and sang him the song. He started crying and he said, “That’s the best song you ever wrote. You can go if I can produce it.” Which, eat shit, Porter Wagoner, but I almost didn’t want- it like, again, it should absolutely be illegal to talk about Dolly Parton and not talk about this song, but I almost didn’t want to talk about it because this is one of the only songs in the known universe that like makes me cry on command. It’s that raw and real and deep.

Cliff: I mean, when she says we both know that you’re not

Kyle: skip it on the record. It’s too good.

Cliff: W- when she says, “we both know that I’m not what you need,” like, I. Sometimes I just gotta pause, like, Oh, it hurts. That’s another, just like the moment we were talking about, in a, “When Someone Wants to Leave” where she just kind of drops this line, that’s like, Oh, Oh man. Oh, that’s a, that’s a, a feeling, a specific feeling that I’ve had. Like, I can feel that feeling on command because you said it that way and it’s… it’s rough. And it’s also, because of the history of this song, it’s so interesting to listen to her sing it the way that she does, because it’s almost like she allows the song and the words themselves to be the statement. She doesn’t put a ton, in my opinion, at least compared to Whitney Houston, she doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on certain parts of it, or even make it dramatic. She just kind of lets the song be, as it is, and it, in and of itself, is sad… is so sad.

Kyle: When you compare the Dolly version to the Whitney version it’s like … you and your wife who, I’ve known both of you separately and together for 15 plus years, are comical opposites in the way that you move through the world and process your feelings and situations, to the point that we like laugh about it and make fun of it all the time. You are the Dolly Parton version and she is absolutely the Whitney Houston version. Maximal, out, expressive, loud.

Cliff: Doing drugs in a bathtub.

Kyle: Love you, April. April doesn’t listen to this podcast, right? I hope not.

Cliff: Definitively does not, but also I’m describing her life as having taken drugs in a bathtub. Okay. But yeah.

Kyle: It’s amazing that you can take the same skeleton of a thing, and based on your own chemistry, can interpret it two totally different ways. Like, these are starkly different songs and there’s no wrong answer with either of them, right? They’re both perfect for what they are.

Cliff: Don’t at me. Definitely don’t. Perfect.

Kyle: Pitch. Perfect. And both have equal right to exist. Because again, this has been described accurately as the love song of the century. The raw material is so potent and so right that whatever part of yourself you bring to it is the right thing. I read a review online. Somebody said, “Dolly’s original version is still my favorite.” This is after a long acknowledgement of the greatness of Whitney’s version. ” The delicately understated interpretation and the fragile vocals, focusing on the the intimacy of the emotion as Dolly dwells on the words “bittersweet memories.” 

So the, the more deep listening that we do, which I think has been like the great joy of this podcast for me, just paying more attention to the things that I claim to love so much. I will continue to cite the ” you are tired” moment from Otis Redding in “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” where you can pack thousands of frames of a montage into one word and the way that you bend it and the way that you exhale it from your mouth… exact same thing with “bittersweet memories” for Dolly. It hangs like a piece of glass. And if you touch it, it’ll shatter, which is, you don’t find anything like that in the Whitney version. There’s a sense of resolve and power in that one. There’s just such a sweetness in there. Like I don’t want to leave, but I have to in this version and damn if it ain’t as good as it gets musically. Full-stop.

Cliff: Oh. And Dolly wrote this song and “Jolene” on the same day.

Kyle: Yeah. I

Cliff: Well, just effortless. And then Dolly’s version, like some things that I think are worth paying attention to in this version specifically. First of all, that third verse that exists, that’s kind of like spoken words. Also when she says, “Oh, I hope life treats you kind.”

Like, I really feel a warmness in my heart. Her voice and the way that she has kind of like this whistle to it. Sometimes there are things that she says are so comforting. “I hope life treats ya kind.” But on top of that spoken word third verse being an interesting choice to begin with… like, again, the production here, there are these kind of chimes behind it and it just it’s perfect. It sets the mood perfectly. It’s executed in an incredible way. The instrumentation behind it is perfectly tasteful.

Kyle: Another thing that I just noticed in the song is there’s the slightest- not even in complete and playing for a full measure when it plays- a banjo arpeggio. To the point that you can’t necessarily even tell what it is. And I’m pretty sure that it’s banjo. Ever so slightly, like nobody’s playing a hundred percent on the song because there’s so much mourning and they’re just kind of calling out when it feels appropriate to say something, like at a wake, a little bit. Again, all of these sonic choices, arrangement choices, that play so perfectly into the story that she’s trying to tell… that’s Scorsesean, you know, where you have controlled every detail. The framing, the lighting, the cuts, the everything, like all is in service of the feeling that you’re trying to offer up to people.

can’t think of anyone who does that better, who can… manipulate… I’d say “manipulate” in an extremely positive way… who can manipulate all the aspects of a feeling to get you to hone in on the exact thing that she’s trying to get you to. that’s PhD level shit.

Cliff: And she was relatively bombarded with immediate desires to cover this song, obviously. I mean, you can’t hear it and not recognize its greatness pretty quickly, but one of my favorite things about it that builds into the Whitney Houston version of it is like, this is a thing that Elvis wanted to cover. And that in most cases, book sorta be a slam dunk for Elvis. That’s sort of like secret service guy, like, “the president would like to speak to you,” or it would have been cool, like, you know, five years ago. Um,

Kyle: Drake now. “Drake wants to hop on your song.”

Cliff: Yeah. Come backstage, right? Yeah. So she refuses to let Elvis cover it in a classic Dolly way, without making a huge deal about it. Because part of letting Elvis cover it means that you give him half your publishing rights.

Kyle: Shout out to Colonel Tom, the mafia man, if ever there were one.

Cliff: Yeah. So she was like, no, and

Kyle: “Yeah, no, sugar. It’s, uh, it’s going to be a no for me.”

Cliff: “Thanks for asking though, 

Kyle: “You take care of yourself. And uh, don’t, don’t go dying on the toilet or nothing like that.”

Cliff: So certainly it seems like at the time, through some implication, you know, they tried to communicate to her that’s probably a poor monetary decision to not let Elvis record your song, you’re going to make more money. So it’s great that after she lets Whitney Houston record it. For The Bodyguard soundtrack in ’97. Dolly received over $6 million in royalty and quote, “then Whitney’s version came out and I made enough money to buy Graceland.” And I’m like, Oh, that’s so good.

And then just to make sure it’s stated explicitly, like that went on to become the best-selling single by a woman in music history uh, Whitney Houston’s interpretation of Dolly’s song, which also Whitney’s version is itself another masterclass entirely and certainly worth hearing. But I think most of us at this point have heard that version enough times there where it’s, it’s, it’s pretty deep in there already. So yeah, I’m done talking

Kyle: Dolly Parton’s America about the boom and I moment really like Dolly’s version doesn’t have that where it’s it’s, uh, it has the equivalent of the “In the Air Tonight” do do, do, do, do, do, do, do it just has the one. And you see it again and again, when anybody’s really going for it. It’s the vocalist equivalent of playing “Freebird” where it’s like, I’m going to maximalize, to show you, to do the flex. There’s none of that present in the Dolly version. So it’s an interesting interpretation, but one that played totally to Whitney Houston’s strengths as a vocalist.

Cliff: Yeah. And in the, those choices, like your mentioning of like doing that powerful key change, right. To your, to your point gives Whitney’s version of sense of strength and resolve, right? I’m doing this. I’m going to be fine, but I’ll love you anyway. And like Dolly’s drawing out something really different from the exact same song, and that should speak to Dolly’s prowess and ability. And not necessarily just like, as a palette for Whitney Houston to then go on and do something great. Because even the way that that song came to be recorded on that soundtrack was, apparently, Kevin Costner being like, you have not figured out what song needs to be at the apex of this movie, and I know what song it should be. And made that whole thing happen. And so it became a, no, this song by Dolly Parton is incredible and we need Whitney Houston to do it. And so like, just… 

Kyle: And it’s so reflective of the moment in that film when they know that they can’t be together, but they have all of this history that they’ve shared. I think that was a tasteful choice that took into account the context of the song, and the, the complex myriad of feelings that went into it.

Cliff: Followed immediately by “Randy”.

Kyle: Like dude with a mustache and a bowl cut. And when I said earlier that this is the Dolly Parton stages of grief record, ” Randy” is like the moving on song. Like I got boring stepdad guy now, but he takes me to the Mexican restaurant every Friday. And like, it’s great. It’s fine. It’s safe. He’s not an absolute dirt bag, like Porter. He does not fulfill my needs as a person in any way, but he’s there and he’s sweet, you know, he’s, he’s real sweet, y’all. Don’t knock on Randy and his silly little mustache and the fact that he tucks his t-shirts into his jean shorts, but Randy’s, he’s a kind man, he’s a sweet man, he’s a God-fearing man, and we’re all going to be real nice about him because he’s been so good to me. He’s done everything that I needed him to do. Yeah, that song’s a little confounding to me on the record, but I appreciate its place in comparison to the quote, “sad ass songs.”

Cliff: Even your caricature of Dolly in this song… the fact that you can draw out versions of Dolly Parton to be your kind of cartoonish version of her. And all of them are some very nuanced way of being sweet about who’s ignorant is wildly indicative of what she would eventually be able to become as a public persona because to this day, even and again,

Kyle: And what’s more punk than having a core idea to everything are as a person and sticking to it in the times when it seems hardest to do? That’s rad. That’s one of the things that, outside of the music stuff, really deepens my respect for

Cliff: Punk ethos is probably a good way to put it because as she says in, uh, in her interview in Dolly Parton’s America about that whole Porter Wagner thing, I mean, they talk about like, ” it seems like you had a lot of forgiveness available for him,” and she just says, “Forgiveness is all there is.” 

Kyle: And then just lets it hang.

Cliff: That’s it. Yeah. And it’s like, that ethos has been pervasive in her entire life and has come out in incredible ways that makes it worth learning more and appreciating Dolly as a… not just a public persona, but also just like, as a human being, who’s been able to figure out some balance of things that brings people together.

I mean, historically she’s been able to respond to the changing times having come from, you know, I mean, we’re talking about an album. She leaves in the early seventies, you know, coming out of some, uh, wildly different times as it were coming out of some different situations. And. being able to exist in a modern world where people are like, Hey, these things that you appreciated as being a person from the Smoky Mountains, uhhhh, some of them not so great as much anymore. A small microcosm of that example is just like again, another, another thing that I feel like Southern people are going to take for granted that other people are not aware of, but like listening to people discover that there was a thing called Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede it’s like, Oh yeah, no, I remember that. I had my little, uh, cowboy boot mug.

Kyle: Wait ’til I tell you about Monster Plantation at Six Flags.

Cliff: Yeah, that’s, that’s also changed a bit now. Not enough. But like, even that is such a good example of that sort of existed for a while. Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede was essentially, again, a cartoonized version of the Civil War, where, in the context of when it was created-

Kyle: For those people who love racism in their park rides, it’s “It’s a Small World” just about one region of the world. Again, not limited to the South. Walt Disney was an asshole, too.

Cliff: Yeah. And in absolutely no defense of this, culturally speaking: the South, as a defense mechanism, I think culturally, tried to smooth over the Civil War into a football rivalry, right? Just the North versus the South baby. Yeah, that’s right.

Kyle: Blue versus gray

Cliff: Pick your side stars and bars, right? So well

Kyle: Man, it’s just man, dang ol’, dang ol’ Iron Bowl, big ol’ Iron Bowl across Mason Dixon

Cliff: You know Tommy Tuberville’s gonna … he got elected to office. is

Kyle: What a time to be alive. War Eagle.

Cliff: Okay. So all of that well-deserved ire to say, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede was, was essentially a version of that cartoonized, uh, “the Civil War was just a friendly rivalry” type of thing for awhile. And so there are naturally some problematic things, but here’s the thing, right? And here’s a thing that’ll help you understand Dolly, I think throughout her history: it’s probably relatively safe bet to assume that, at the time that that notion was conceived for her event, that was probably, in the context of the South, not seeming to be too off-kilter. It took some time for people to go, “Mmmmm, we don’t really talk about things like that anymore. Do you see how you’re making a thing about the Civil War, but you’re not mentioning slavery? That’s probably contributing to that thing where people think the Civil War isn’t about slavery.” And so, to take the actual story, like the way Dolly tells it at the very least, the first time she heard directly from somebody like, “Hey, calling it the Dixie Stampede and making it about the civil war.

Um, yeah, not, but, Dolly talks about it as, she found out it hurt someone and she was like, “I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Yeah. That’s her bar. And so it wasn’t a conceptual thing. It was a, Oh no, I don’t live my life hurting people. That’s not what this is about. And so they made changes. And again, because Dolly is such a good microcosm, for a number of reasons, of both Southern hospitality and progressivism, she was also able to tie all this together with the fact that like she’s a business woman. So she was like, well, I mean, this thing really shouldn’t just be about the South anyway. We want more people to see this show. It’s a great show. It’s about more than the Civil War; it’s about essentially like horse choreography, which is is some Southern shit. But like, I mean, even, 

Kyle: Dolly Parton as a horse girl is an insanely topical thing that somebody else can tackle on a podcast.

Cliff: But it’s, it’s a real good example of the way that she’s able to address things and shift them. Like we’re not going to just make a quick response to fix this problem. We’re going to think about this holistically and figure out, well, I have a cool business. We can take away the offensive things because they actually don’t matter that much. 

Kyle: So I think a business example to contextualize it is, if you remember, when the Dan Cathy comments around the biblical definition of marriage came out and you immediately had two camps of people polarized, right? You had the LGBTQ community who was alienated by his comments, even and especially if they’d grown up in the South where Chick-fil-As are true community centers in these small towns with this great fast food that you love because you eat it as many times a week as you can. And then you had the people that started “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” as like doubling down on anti LGBTQ rhetoric. Imagine if in that moment, Dan Cathy had been able to bridge the gap between those two groups and made both feel equally validated and who they were and welcomed to break bread at the same table. As unfathomable and as insane as it sounds to pull something like that off. Obviously no one else could do it, right? When you try to do the logical exercise in your mind, that is what Dolly not only did with the Dixie Stampede thing, but does again and again, every instance that she brings people together who are otherwise ideologically, fundamentally at odds, she creates a space where they can co-exist. And that was the premise of the Dolly Parton’s America podcast.

But coming at it from the Southern angle, I think has been really interesting because we’ve seen other people try and fail or not try. And it seems so, again, natural to Dolly’s instincts to be able to find the exact right place to split the uprights and just nail it time and time again.

Cliff: It’s really hard to express how impossible it is for her to have been a vocal LGBTQ+ supporter and have the history that she has had in the South and have the fan base that she has. Like, it is a true anomaly to go to a Dolly Parton show and see drag culture alongside Southern Baptist culture. It literally does not exist anywhere else. There’s no reverse engineering, whatever. Like, Dolly has been called the great unifier, but no one knows how to break that back down and 

Kyle: build that in a lab. Yeah.

Cliff: and so, but like it it’s so natural coming from her that that’s why she herself is a person where, I mean, she’s no perfect human being like everyone else isn’t a perfect human being, but she’s such a great example of someone to look towards and aspire towards being like, because she can say things like, At times where again, uh, supporting gay marriage, which somehow it was okay to not support it or to even have an opinion about what other people do at some point, but at a time where that was nearly impossible to have, she’s saying things like, “Sure, why can’t they get married? They should suffer like the rest of us.” Like, being able to turn something like that into not only that’s not a joke that made other people feel lesser than, right, like over and over, you see the queer community, the gay community, the drag communities talking about Dolly in a positive way. Not just like she accidentally gave birth to this thing that’s opposite her, but she is our idol. She supports us, we feel safe around her personages, her concerts, like the ability to create a physical space like that is unique in the world still today.

Kyle: It’s the inverse of what pop music and “poptimism,” quote unquote, try to be where like they intentionally try to engineer universality. Dolly, again, can thread the needle is like the Tom Brady or Peyton Manning of throwing into triple coverage of feelings and hitting it in the exact spot where only the receiver can receive it. That ability to find common humanity and specific, nuanced feelings. I know I’ve used a lot of athletic metaphors to talk about Dolly, but it is truly like one of those LeBron James, it is obviously a gift type of things. And all the evidence you need is that nobody else can do it, and that speaks to the caliber with which Dolly should be regarded as a musician, a songwriter, and a storyteller.

Cliff: And it’s even in the slowest, molasses-like places in the South where it feels like nothing will ever change and nothing will ever evolve… still, her decades of influence and ability to engage in being thoughtful and loving of other people does pull people, even if slowly, in the right direction. And like, to me, like a great indicator of that was a Republican politician in Tennessee taking note of the clearly and patently absurd fact that there are basically KKK grand wizards sitting in government buildings as idols. Like their bust is sitting up there as if they are people that we should be looking up to.

Kyle: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.”

Cliff: Oh, we’re from here. So, the fact that when a Republican politician realizes this and makes the turn to say one, this is wrong, it should be fixed when the very next statement is like, okay, like now I need to make the turn. What replaces this? When statues come down, which they should, what goes up in their place? And when one of the very first things he thinks of is, okay, I got a daughter. What is a better way to turn and influence someone like my daughter in the right direction, where she can still be proud of where she comes from, but be looking towards how to be a better human being. When the first thing that comes up is like, How about we stick a bust of Dolly Parton in here, because she’s such a great example of what you should strive to be towards as a person who comes from the South. I

Kyle: His other suggestion was a women’s suffrage activist in Anne Dallas Dudley. Right. He said, “What if we get a lady in there?!” Which, the wording’s not so noble, but, but the intent is, and he said women’s suffrage and Dolly. That speaks to, I think that is a perfect distillation of the way in which she’s regarded.

Cliff: There are a lot of people that I grew up around and am even related to that have trouble or would have trouble figuring out how to implement, for instance, even just a woman suffering activists in their life.

Kyle: and suffrage.

Cliff: What did I say suffering? Always

Kyle: men are, are women’s suffering activists.

Cliff: There are people I know, and I know a lot of people from the South, would identify with this. A lot of people who would have trouble bringing down the thoughts and the actions and the perspectives of a women’s suffrage activist and applying that to their life because a lot of people grew up in a Southern context in which it is it’s hard to express how wildly inappropriate it would be to be rude to somebody. Right. Right.

Kyle: Yeah. Let’s get along and go along. Southern hospitality.

Cliff: And without excusing for a moment that that is a waste of time and energy while you’re alive. At the same time, Dolly is an opportunity to put someone back in front of those people and say, you can. You can actually do it. It’s hard. Sometimes you might get it wrong. Sometimes people might not get your nuance sometimes. And Dolly finds a lot of pleasure in this: they’ll look at you like a dumb blonde with big boobs who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And as Dolly would say over and over again, let them look. I don’t care. It’s fine. I know what I’m talking about.

Kyle: I put my boobs out for a reason. Yeah. talking, aren’tcha? 

Cliff: So funny. She talks, she talks about her own breast augmentation as if it’s a, like an idiot filter. Like, well, I’ll get the first 30% of people who won’t be able to focus on anything else except my boobs. And they’ll be taken care of. And then I can talk to everybody else after that.

Kyle: I appreciate her brand of feminism where it’s like, what could be more free than objectifying yourself? You know, am I not entitled to the same freedom that a man is, to be whatever shade of whatever I want to be? But yeah, the funny thing that I, I tend to forget about Dolly Parton is how trivialized she was. And, I think why we are like instinctively trying to defend her honor is because the, the discourse around her was so trivial, like high pitched voice, cutesy, like, “Aw, ain’t she cute. Aw, look at them big boobs and that big ol’ blonde hair.” and she’s a novelty. It seemed like for a while people talked about her like we talk about the Kardashians, which is staggering to think about. And I hope that, you know, by the time that she’s gone, hopefully I’m gone before Dolly’s gone. Jesus Christ. Hopefully by the time she’s gone, there is a statue of her in the Tennessee state Capitol, and we have properly revered her like a Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder or somebody on that level where they changed the fabric of everything forever, just by being themselves.

Cliff: I like that visual as a takeaway. As opposed to maybe the society she grew up in and the perspective they would have taken, instead we flip it. She possibly belongs in the deserved space of being alongside great Black musicians from the South. And maybe earned her place in music as someone who not only showed what songwriting can be and how you can take the simple and turn it into something deep and complex and turn into a decades long career of excellence, but also be again, a person, an individual that is worth admiring. And that you don’t have to stand up and give up on a bunch of caveats to, to enjoy, because it feels like the 50s, 60s, and 70s are that, right. Just people over and over, like, yeahyeahyeah. Forget that thing that they did for their entire life and who they were and what they said. This song was great. Instead with Dolly, like it’s…

Kyle: Good. Good to insert here that Dolly has a great cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Ball of Fire”, apropos of nothing. 

Cliff: Yeah. She stands on her own. And I, I love that, therefore, we don’t really need to come to a conclusion about anything. Her mere existence is worth following, learning more about, and learning from. But specifically this record as a genesis of the Dolly that would come culturally later on, but also as a moment in time of absolute songwriting perfection. Southern folk, Appalachia, bluegrass, church music, all of those things kind of coming together into a series of excellent songs, some of which will take you to unexpected places and give you details and gems you would never have imagined existed… here are all contained within this record. And as a person who has been listening to this end over end for weeks now, it doesn’t get old. It keeps going. And it’s it’s truly a classic in one of the best ways we can say that.

Kyle: Hopefully the arc of this episode feels a lot like the arc of “Jolene” the song itself, where the end of that third verse is left unresolved, and you have this hanging suspending feeling in your gut where you just kind of go, whoa. I hope when you turn off this episode and you reflect on Dolly Parton, who she is and what she’s meant and continues to mean, you just take a deep breath and just say, whoa.

SEASON 5 EPISODES

TuneDig Episode 36: Son House’s “Father of Folk Blues”

All American music traces back to the blues, and deep at the root sits Son House. That the recordings on "Father of Folk Blues" even exist is something of a gray area that cuts to the heart of the great American myth, but wherever you land after hearing these stories, you’ll find that what matters most is what the great Muddy Waters once said of House: “That man was the king.”

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TuneDig Episode 35: Melvins’s “Stoner Witch”

The futility of describing the Melvins has stretched critics in the direction of absurd words like “Dadaist” for nearly 40 years now. They’ve belligerently flogged any attempt to pinpoint their essence simply by being themselves, but "Stoner Witch" remains a reliable mall directory for the Melvins’ vast and wild discography. Grab yourself some pretzel bites.

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TuneDig Episode 34: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

We should talk about Dolly the way we talk about Prince. Her extraordinary kindness and unique kitsch both make her universally loved, but what gets left out of the conversation is the very thing that made her famous: the music. Join in as we focus attention on the sonics and songwriting of the low-key masterpiece "Jolene".

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After stepping away from talking about albums in 2020, we took time to regroup and reground in why we started this thing in the first place.

Join us as we share our renewed perspective on music coming out of Hell Year and tee up the special group of albums we’ll be diving into over the next few months. There’s a little something for everyone.

RADIO EPISODES

SEASON 4 EPISODES

SEASON 3 EPISODES

SEASON 2 EPISODES

SEASON 1 EPISODES

BONUS TRACK EPISODES

Kyle and Cliff

BONUS TRACK: How We Got Here

We got a bunch of interesting listener feedback in our off-season, and it encouraged us to shed some light on why we do things the way we do ‘em. Also, we reflect on our first writeup, which was ... interesting.

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ABOUT US

We're Cliff (left) and Kyle (right). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and entertainment, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.