Shania Twain gives the most arresting performance of her career when she sings Dolly Parton's autobiographical classic "Coat of Many Colors" on this tribute album. Pared down, acoustic and hook-free, Twain is barely recognizable. She reaches back to her childhood to deliver the most heartfelt tribute to the legendary Parton, who has been a life-long idol of hers.
Twain proves she can do traditional country and is more than just a sexy pop stylist. Backed by Alison Krauss and her band Union Station, and with harmonies by Parton herself, it's the centerpiece of the project. Surely a definitive recording in Twain's career and a must-hear for her fans, as much as it is for Parton's.
"Dolly has been a huge musical influence and inspiration in my life from a very young age and continues to be to this day," says Twain in the liner notes. "I've always drawn especially from her songwriting. When I was asked to participate on this record, I immediately said yes as long as I was able to sing my favorite song of hers, 'Coat of Many Colors.' I have many Dolly favorites, but this song is special to me because I can relate so well to her story."
The rest of the album includes an impressive list of some of the most celebrated female vocalists of our time: Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Krauss, Melissa Etheridge, Shelby Lynne and Sinead O'Connor. The best vocal performance is contributed by Harris, who covers "To Daddy," although it's not a new recording. It was a #3 country hit for Harris in 1977. To anyone hearing it for the first time it will be a gem, a perfect example of what country music can be.
Me'Shell N'degeOcello delivers a refreshly funky urban re-invention of "Two Doors Down," which wonderfully demonstrates the universality of Parton's work. Norah Jones brings her distinctive jazz-infused style to one of her favorites, "The Grass is Blue," the title track of Parton's 1999 album which launched her critical renaissance in that genre.
Joan Osborne sounds so comfortable on the mid-tempo "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," you can picture her strolling through a meadow pining over some long-lost love. Newcomer Mindy Smith does a haunting version of "Jolene," one of Parton's most famous signatures. Sinead O'Connor, in one of her last recordings before retiring from the music industry, contributes "Dagger Through the Heart" from Parton's 2002 CD "Halos and Horns."
And Parton herself adds a soulful rendition of "Just Because I'm A Woman," the title of her first RCA album in 1968. She gives a passionate performance which sounds more Memphis than Nashville, after producer Steve Buckingham pressed for an R&B flavor.
Those are the highlights. The rest of the disc suffers from the forced alt-country aesthetic which often doesn't suit Parton's accessible writing style. Etheridge just sounds bored on "I'll Will Always Love You," which could have been an intriguing contrast between her raspy vocals and Parton's delicate lyrics.
The worst selection is "9 to 5" by Alison Krauss. Her fragile voice is simply miscast in the role of a frustrated working woman singing: "It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it." She's just not convincing and doesn't capture the anger and militancy that made the original an anthem. And the bluegrass arrangement renders one of Parton's most celebrated works unrecognizable.
Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer give phoned-in performances of "The Seeker" and "Light of a Clear Blue Morning," respectively. The songs are supposed to be inspirational but suffer from sparse productions which just fall flat.
Overall the CD works in an unintended way. Hearing these covers leaves you wanting to listen to Parton's originals which are superior due to her vibrant vocals and always-flamboyant style; demonstrating just how brilliant Parton really is. In the words of O'Connor, "She's a f------ genius."
Writer: Dominic Darrah