Rediscovered (an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite)

aka Speaking of Dolly Parton: Ten or fifteen years ago during a CMA awards show, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette performed a song together. It was mostly forgettable but for a moment about half-way through the song when Loretta Lynn stomped all over Dolly Parton’s lines, taking the lead in a verse that was obviously rehearsed as a Dolly Parton solo. Lynn, mortified by her error, stopped singing entirely for a second when she realized what she’d done and glanced at Dolly with a mixture of sickness and embarrassment. But Dolly just kept tapping her foot and swinging her hips. She winked at Lynn, laughed a little and said something to the effect of “That’s alright, Loretta … if you wanna sing it, let’s just do a duet ….” And on they went. In Dolly’s capable hands, the gaffe (or, more accurately, Dolly’s handling of it) made the performance better by lending it personality, an authenticating moment in which we could glimpse not just one star’s imperfections, but also another master performer at complete ease with her craft and herself (this is the rare ability to be disarmingly self-confident). Aside from being a lesson in stagecraft, that CMA moment points up Dolly’s inimitable complementarity as a performer, a songwriter and, most of all, as a vocalist. The best recording I can think of to illustrate what I mean is “The Pain of Loving You,” the first song on the first Trio project that Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly recorded in 1987. The track is transporting, mostly for Dolly’s high harmony, which floats above the lead and alto – not quite striving against the lower voicing but rising above it, like a balloon floating toward transcendence, tethered to Ronstadt’s and Harris’s earthbound notes by the finest of harmonic essences. It’s no coincidence of course that Dolly wrote the song. A Dolly Parton song, if it’s a good one (and almost all of them are, more or less), bears the marks of her pitch-perfect ear and sensitivity to a song’s dramatic trajectory. In Dolly’s finest songs, of which “The Pain of Loving You” is clearly one, there is a moment of grace (in “The Pain,” this moment comes most purely in the chorus during the phrasing of the word “knowing”) – a carefully calibrated and pristinely delivered convergence of lyric and harmony that dissolves tonal distinctions and merges disparate voices into a unifying experience of beauty and, for me at least, redemption.

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