Dolly Parton has spent the past few years reconnecting with country music's past, putting out albums that illustrate her love of bluegrass, 1960s-style "countrypolitan" ballads and high-lonesome harmony. She had all but conceded the commercial mainstream to a younger generation.
But with Better Day, Parton tries out a different strategy: placing herself very much in the here-and-now, even talking about the bad economy and the country's restlessness, but framing the music with a positive, upbeat attitude. The song that serves as the album's manifesto is its lead-off track, "In the Meantime."
"The greatest days we've ever known are the days we're livin' in," Parton sings. "So drop this doomsday attitude ... these are wonderful times we're living in." Optimism in the service of heightened realism suits Parton. Her voice has always curled up into a giggle of glee, a bubble of bumptiousness. Her high pitch has frequently been a place to find jaunty novelty songs that matched her cartoonish image. But underneath all the glitter and tight dresses, there's always been a skilled songwriter, a technically adept craftsperson who knows how to weave a metaphor throughout the entire fabric of a song. Parton does this most intriguingly in "The Sacrifice," a song about how hard she's worked, rhyming "rhinestones" with "grindstones" without a trace of self-pity.
One of the most lovely songs on Better Day is a deceptively simple love song called "Somebody's Missing You." With harmonies by her friends Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, "Somebody's Missing You" is the lullaby to an absent lover, assuring him that the singer is thinking only of him. Parton sings the verses as almost whispered secrets.
Better Day is the album that takes Dolly Parton's sunny smile and makes sure you understand it's not a Cheshire-cat grin. There's a sincere and earnest quality to this music that enables it to stand apart from so much of the trumped-up emotionalism and cheesy irony of the pop-music world all around it. It may be that, in the words of a song title here, "Country Is As Country Does." But Parton doesn't just follow country fashion; she makes her own garments and wears them well.