At this stage — after 40-plus studio albums, several of them stone classics, and countless hits written both for herself and numerous others — Dolly Parton should be at the top of most lists of the greatest country artists of all time. But over these past 50 years, so much (too much!) has been made of her hillbilly chic outfits, her big hair and cosmetic surgery and "backwoods Barbie" stage persona that, while deeply respected and reliably beloved by Red State music fans, Parton can be frequently overlooked and even dismissed as a trifle by other music fans. They should know better, and it's time to kick that junk to the curb. Dolly Parton is a living legend, on a level with Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn.
It's a shame, then, that this record, her 43rd, won't be the one to help listeners rediscover her brilliance. A mostly stripped down set (hence the title) featuring eight new songs and two re-treads of old numbers she used to perform with Porter Wagoner back in the 1970s, Pure & Simple is at best a middle shelf release in Parton's discography. Placing her focus on tales of love, family and faith — she recently renewed her vows with husband of 50 years, Carl Dean, which may have something to do with it — Parton is in a celebratory mood. Songs like "Say Forever You'll Be Mine," the sweet title track, and the unfortunately mawkish "Forever Love" all confront questions of absolute devotion without much consideration of the pitfalls and struggles along the way.
Still, on songs like album highlight "Head Over High Heels," Parton finds that old sweet spot between earnest sentimentality and irreverent humour that defines her best work. More of this, please. (Sony)