East Preston, February, 2001
To say we were excited would be an understatement. We had tickets to see Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers! It was 1987, I was 24 and a card carrying country music fan. In an era when country was definitely not cool. Who cares, this was a big deal. It was great that Dolly was on the bill but we were going to see Kenny Rogers. The Gambler, Lucile and Coward of the County. By the end of the night we had a new favourite. Kenny was good, Dolly was sensational. Stand-up comic, accomplished musician, incredible song-list and that voice. I had liked Dolly but after that concert I was infatuated.
Dolly is a consummate performer. It helps if you have an impressive catalogue to lean into which she surely does. To be fair, it hasn’t been five decades of rolled gold hits and five star albums. She’s had her verdant periods (early 70s) and her lean years.
So wouldn’t it be my good fortune to start getting more deeply into the Smoky Mountain Songbird’s music in her lean years of the 1990s. After a half a dozen so what albums Dolly refocussed by going back to her roots, bluegrass. This was an inspired creative turn for the good. Then, as we entered the new millennium Dolly released what is still one of my favourite albums, Little Sparrow. There is so much to like on this album with its exploration of a range of older country music styles. The title track is Dolly at her finest.
I may have been a Dolly fan but that doesn’t mean I knew all her old records. I certainly couldn’t go on Mastermind, let alone Hard Quiz with Dolly as my specialist subject. So when I first played Little Sparrow I was met with a delightful surprise as I listened to song three. Let me set the scene.
You’re Dolly fans, yes? Then you well know how well she tells a story in a song. Coat of Many Colours, Jolene, Working 9 to 5. You get the point. There are many ways in which she controls the story but her magic is her voice. And so I was led into the song, I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby by her beautiful, beguiling, tender, fragile, wistful and melodious voice.
I know now that this is an old Louvin Brothers song. I also know that Dolly recorded a version of the song in 1969, when she was in a duo with Porter Wagoner. But on that first listen (well, first twenty plays), as I slipped it into the car CD player, driving home from JB this was a brand new Dolly tune. Man, what a gem.
Fiddle introduces the song before Dolly sings the first ominous lines, “last night my tears they were falling, I went to bed so sad and blue” and I’m hooked. What has happened? What. The. Hell. Happened. She falls into a dream where she meets her potential new beau but “another was there too”. He says, I don’t believe you’ve met my baby but Dolly doesn’t know who he is referring to. A steel guitar break creates a pause in the drama while the listener (let alone Dolly!!) takes in this impending catastrophe.
It doesn’t calm the nerves finding out in the next verse as Dolly is trying to make sense of this scene and his arm is resting on his female friend’s shoulder that her eyes, “were filled with victory”. Oh, come on. No one is allowed to mess with Dolly’s heart (which is our heart).
It is only in the final verse when his female friend exclaims, “my brother wants to marry” that Dolly and all her friends (I mean fans … no, I mean friends) finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that she is his baby.
I literally punched the air as I drove home down Cramer St, hearing those last lines.
In little more than two minutes Dolly had brought me into her intimacy to consider her crisis of confidence, aligned me with the bitterness she felt for this brazen stranger, had me choking with fear and then flushed with relief and excitement for her good fortune. All this backed by a wonderful tune played by banjo, fiddle and steel. This song took my love and appreciation of Dolly to the next level. And sent me deep into her recording history searching for more gems.