"I think of country radio like a great lover. You were great to me. You bought me a lot of nice things, and then you dumped my ass for younger women."--Dolly Parton, at the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame dinner, held March 1 in Nashville.
"Lost generation, fast paced nation/World population confront they frustration/The principles of true hip hop have been forsaken/It's all contractual and about money makin'..."--The Roots, "What They Do"
When hip-hop pinup and abs-master Nelly recruited country music heartthrob Tim McGraw to be on "Over and Over," a track from the rapper's 2004 album Suit, it was a contrived but shrewd marketing gimmick that would eventually result in a genre-crossing hit single. Black rap stars, even the most confectionary and useless of thugs, ache to prove that they're "on some next shit," that they ain't ya average nigga in terms of influences, taste, and aesthetic. But the ambitious pop star's creative wants and needs--and Nelly is a pop star--are already deeply conditioned and insidiously co-opted by external demands and harsh business realities by the time said star is in a position to flex his more calculatedly "outlandish" impulses. They're so deeply owned they don't have to be reigned in.
Nelly may well be a huge country-music fan, casually shuffling Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose and 50 Cent's The Massacre in the CD deck of his Escalade. But what's more important for the industry suits who jizz over new ways to increase market share while pawning off boardroom schemes as personal growth for their artists is the fact that rap and country have been huge-selling, high-profile genres over the last 10 years. That reality, more than anything else, was the catalyst for the pairing. As a result, the hooking up of Nelly and McGraw was about as organic and artistically
fulfilling as a corporate merger, which is all it really was. (And yet it still trumps the recent, curdled testosterone fusion of Jay-Z and Linkin Park.) But there's a genuinely powerful undercurrent to the Nelly/McGraw duet, to the commingling of respective genres that their pairing aspires to. It's just that you have to go beyond what you've been spoon-fed to really get to it.
In the last two months, both the Roots and Dolly Parton have released concert DVDs, The Roots Present... (Image Entertainment) and Dolly Parton: Live and Well (Sugar Hill Records). Both performances capture the artists at the top of their game, at turning points in their careers. Despite the critical acclaim, assorted Grammies, and (at least in Parton's case) huge personal fortune they've amassed between them, both acts are underdogs of sorts. They've been redlined to the margins in terms of both mainstream and genre-niche visibility. Parton committed the unforgivable act of aging. That led to decreased radio airplay, slumping sales, and being dumped by her longtime label RCA before signing with the smaller Sugar Hill Records, then releasing a trio of sublime bluegrass CDs: Halos & Horns, Little Sparrow, and The Grass Is Blue. The Roots have built an almost rabid cross-colors audience on the strength of years of touring. They've also created some classic discs (Do You Want More?!!!??!, Illadelph Halflife, and Things Fall Apart) as well as more experimental fare (Phrenology) that left the devoted divided. But their label (MCA/Geffen/Interscope) has been unable to break them beyond cult status. So while their real-instruments-and-hybrid-influences impact has been significant, they don't get nearly the props they deserve.
Of the two DVDs, Parton's is the more effective showcase of her talents. Armed with a voice that can swell to arena-filling dimensions and then fall to a plaintive hush, Parton is a paradox: a beloved icon and a hugely underrated talent--top-notch musician, peerless songwriter, energetic and engaging live performer--and it's all on display here. From the tear-jerking classics ("Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors") to a jaw-dropping cover of "Stairway to Heaven," she performs with both efficiency and sincerity. There is the most gorgeous ache in her voice, cutting right through the sequins, bloodred lips, teetering high heels, and store-bought hair for a brilliant clash and then merging of artifice and authenticity.
Parton has been quoted as saying that her image (once so scandalous, now the foundation of her own family-friendly amusement park) was inspired by the ladies of the evening who took hold of her imagination when she was a young girl. Their exaggerated sexuality seemed, to her, the very definition of glamour and femininity. The harlot-as-blueprint has, of course, been the dominant model of womanhood through contemporary pop culture (rock, rap, and pop songs and videos; fashion spreads and movies) for a long while now. But few of the practitioners have had Parton's extraordinary gifts, or humor, to balance the caricatured femininity being sold. And while country music hasn't been quite as ho-fied as other musical boroughs, it's worth noting that the genre's biggest selling woman of the past decade--Shania Twain--achieved her success largely on the kind of sexually charged imagery and revealing clothing whose roots can be traced back to Parton, or even Wanda Jackson. (Twain, of course, ain't nowhere near Parton in terms of art or craft.)