TERRY GROSS, host:
Dolly Parton released her first solo album in 1967. Since then she's become a multimedia star in movies and on television. But rock critic Ken Tucker says Parton's new album, "Better Day," returns the focus to Parton's singing and her songwriting, which Ken says has frequently been underestimated.
(Soundbite of song, "Better Day")
Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Musician): (Singing) Now we dont know what heaven looks like, but we've seen enough hell right here, and right now. But when the road is the roughest, and the problems are the toughest, or when the times are the hardest or that old sky turns the darkest, you gotta keep the faith. Because I believe theres a better day. And those ole blues, why, they're going to just roll right on away. I know they are. Listen to me.
All this blue (unintelligible) sky and sea some of that blue is bound to get on me. But the blues don't come to stay, they'll move away on a better day. Troubles and woes...
KEN TUCKER: Dolly Parton has spent the past few years reconnecting with country music's past, putting out albums that illustrate her love for 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" she's trying 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 manifesto for this is its lead-off track, "In the Meantime."
(Soundbite of song, "In the Meantime")
Ms. PARTON: (Singing) You know, people been talking about the end of time ever since time began. We've been living in the last days ever since the first day, ever since the dawn of man. Well, nobody knows when the end is coming, but some people tell you they do. Well, it might be today. It might be tomorrow. Or in million years or two.
In the meantime, in between time, let us make time to make it right. And let us not fear what is not clear. Faith should be your guide. Just follow this advice. And think about life. Think about living. Think about love, sharing and giving. Drop this doomsday attitude. (Unintelligible) these are wonderful times we're living in. God still walks in the hearts of men and Eden's garden waits within so let the flowers grow.
TUCKER: The greatest days we've ever known are the days we're livin' in, sings Parton on that song. 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 match 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. She 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.
(Soundbite of song, "The Sacrifice")
Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Well, I think of my time with family and friends. Gave up vacations for work without end. Twenty-four/seven, 365, I was willing to make the sacrifice. It's your (unintelligible). I carried my pail. You don't drink the water if you don't dig your well. Through blood sweat and tears I have felt it in life. But it didn't come without sacrifice.
I was going to be rich no matter how much it cost. I'm going to win no matter how much I lost. All through the years I kept my eye on the prize. You ask if it's worth the sacrifice. The sacrifice.
TUCKER: 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.
(Soundbite of song, "Somebody's Missing You")
Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Somebody's missing you, longs to be kissing you. You had better listen, you mean all the world to me. You're on somebody's mind just almost all the time. That you already knew, somebody's missing you. The days go slowly by...
TUCKER: "Better Day" is the album that takes Dolly Parton's sunny smile and makes sure you understand that it's not a Cheshire-cat grin. There's a sincerity 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.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Dolly Parton's new album, called "Better Day."