The Album Study: Dolly Parton's 'Coat of Many Colors' (1971)
On 21 October 2022, Taylor Swift released her latest album Midnights. The aftermath, as we have always predicted, was incredible. Swift has swept the top charts, with the album selling over a million copies in the first week of its release. For the first time in history, one artist occupied all top ten spots on the Billboard Hot 100 List. With tracks like ‘Anti-Hero’, ‘Lavender Haze’, and, my personal favorite, ‘You’re On Your Own Kid’, the album secures its reputation as yet another Swift success. I have seen the album on countless phone screens and heard it blaring out of earbuds at the library. The more albums the artist releases, the more she influences new producing artists, particularly the recent pop star Olivia Rodrigo and her album Sour.
But as much as I am a die-hard “Swiftie” and an advocate of her uniquely personal and candid lyricism, it is easy to get carried away with our love for the now-pop star and lose sight of the people who inspired her, not just those Swift inspires herself. That’s where Dolly Parton comes in.
Swift has consistently cited Dolly as an influence on her musical work, especially Swift’s earlier more country albums Taylor Swift and Fearless, and her grit as a woman in the music industry. Dolly has also jumped to Swift’s defence as Gorillaz frontman Damon Albran said Swift did not write her own songs. Dolly commended Swift’s work and claimed she found it particularly difficult when people accuse women like Swift of falsifying their work.
For a country songwriter, a compliment from Dolly is often the ultimate praise.
I’ll admit, I don’t know all too much about Dolly, given her status as an icon of country music and a powerful businesswoman, but I have recently spent some time with her 1971 Coat of Many Colors album.
The ten-track album marked Dolly’s separation from former duet partner Porter Wagoner. Dolly wrote almost the entire album, which seemingly gave her a stronger sense of self and the type of music she alone wanted to create for her audience.
“Early Morning Breeze”, with an opening bass sequence I particularly enjoy, is a sweet ode to the beginning hours of the day when Dolly most appreciates the landscape surrounding her home. She describes the setting carefully: “Rainbow-colored flowers, kissed with early morning sun / the aster and the dahlia and the wild geranium / Drops of morning dew still linger on the iris leaves / In the meadow where I’m walking in the early morning breeze”. As the artist explains later in the track, Dolly uses this moment as a time for prayer and speaking to God.
“Here I Am” is a song of promise and commitment. Dolly proudly claims a void in her life and offers a reliable embrace to her love interest. The message and lyrics are powerful, but it is more the track’s gospel undertones and repetitive nature that warms the listener’s spirit.
The album’s opener “Coat of Many Colors” is the most iconic on the album. It’s fun to love songs that artists particularly love themselves. And that’s certainly the case with this track. Dolly reminisces of her childhood in rural Tennessee and sings sweetly of her mother’s gift of a “Coat of Many Colors”, alluding to the commonly referenced biblical story of Jacob gifting Joseph a coat. Her mother, Dolly explains, made the coat with love and honest work and consistently claimed that what Dolly’s family lacked in monetary wealth, they made up with something miles more valuable: a close family bond. The coat symbolises Dolly’s pride in her family’s struggle, but gratitude for their consequent commitment to one another.
When I put on a Swift album, I hear Dolly underneath. Here, I pay my respects to Dolly as a legendary singer-songwriter who, in her Coat of Many Colors album and elsewhere, inspired the lyricism, sound, and courage of Swift. Fully appreciating Midnights means tipping our hats to Dolly.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons