Dolly Parton was country pop when country pop wasn't cool. Back when Nashville still seemed like hicksville to a lot of radio listeners, Parton proved that a country singer could easily top the pop charts -- provided she had the right material. And thanks to crossover classics like "Here You Come Again," "Islands in the Stream" and "9 to 5," Parton had it in spades.
Yet in some ways, Parton's pop success has done her more harm than good. Parton met the mainstream on its own terms, playing down the Tennessee mountain spunk that marked her work with Porter Waggoner, and while that helped make her a superstar, it also cost her some of her credibility with the country crowd.
"Slow Dancing with the Moon" (Columbia 53199, arriving in record stores today) tries to change all that, and make her matter again. But rather than a return to roots, what we get is an attempt at relevance, as Parton plays catch-up with the current crop of country crossovers.
She plays hard, too. Her first single, "Romeo," boasts a marketing ploy worthy of Madonna, combining controversial lyrics (women panting over "the cutest guy at the honky-tonk"), celebrity cameos (Tanya Tucker, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis, plus Billy Ray Cyrus as Romeo), and a video that has already become one of the most talked-about country clips -- thanks to those panting women -- since Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls."
"Romeo" is a terrific attention-getter, but not much else. Its chorus is catchy enough, and there's a certain what's-good-for-the-goose justice in hearing honky-tonk women talking trash the way their menfolk do. But that's only enough to make it a good jeans commercial -- what Parton needs at this point in her career is a good song.
Fortunately for her, the rest of "Slow Dancing with the Moon" delivers where the first single doesn't. Although there's little here that's likely to satisfy the purists (many of whom will settle for nothing less than another "Coat of Many Colors"), the album does an admirable job of translating her stylistic strengths into contemporary commercial terms.
So even when the songs themselves seem slight, her singing shines through. Just look how much she pulls from a trifle like "I'll Make Your Bed." Sure, the nudge-wink innuendo of the lyric is a bit banal, butthe words only seem silly when disconnected from Parton's voice; in context, Parton's breezy delivery makes it easy enough for the listener to imagine her humming the song as she cheerfully fusses around her lover.
Likewise, the Ann Landers morality of "What Will Baby Be" sits comfortably in the Celtic cadences of Parton's hill-country singing, while the subtle break in her soprano eloquently expresses the adolescent ache at the heart of the title tune. Even the corny Cajun touches on "More Where That Came From" are handled with consummate grace and good humor.
"Slow Dancing with the Moon" is not without faults, of course. Parton's take on "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" has a higher saccharine content than most diet desserts, and there are so many celebrity duets that the listener is left wondering if she was afraid to be left alone in the studio.
But overall, it's Parton's strongest album in years. Whether that's enough to put Parton back on top -- or at least on par with Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Wynonna Judd -- remains to be seen, but it definitely shows she's on the right track.