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Country Music, Emotion, and Storytelling: Dolly Parton’s ‘These Old Bones’ and ‘Coat of Many Colours’

I’ve not written much on my blog lately as I’ve been wedding planning. I’ve now reached the stage where I’m thinking about what music I’d like to have played, and I don’t even know where to begin. My taste in music is vast, and it changes on a weekly basis. I remember in my mid-teens being an indie kid and particularly fond of bands like Skunk Anansie, Space, and Metallica. It was all about identity then, defining yourself through the music you listened to. While these bands will always hold a special place in my musical library, my taste has changed somewhat, or to put it more bluntly I have become less concerned about the impact the music I listen to has on my image and identity.

I was about 16 when I discovered Country Music, a genre not listened to much in UK and regularly mocked because of its emotionally open lyrics. (Perhaps we British are still not comfortable with expressing our emotions so overtly?). I remember watching the annual CMA awards and watching a live performance of Wide Open Spaces by the then newly-formed Dixie Chicks. I was immediately gripped by the country music style and began to expand my knowledge of the repertoire. I think I was particularly fond of the sounds of the banjo, mandolin, and violin – the musical texture of country music providing a start contrast to the electric guitar driving sounds of the UK indie music scene. I knew if I was to announce myself as a country music fan, I’d lose what little streetcred I had, but I didn’t care. Since then and despite the criticism country music still faces in the UK for being “cheesy” and “ tacky”, I’ve found country music not only be one of my favourite genres of music, but to be an interesting art form. Indeed, the allure of country music to me is the fact that it revels in storytelling and in exploring everyday situations and emotions.

Dolly Parton – an artist that many misunderstand because of her appearance and show(wo)manship – is both a particularly fascinating songwriter and business woman. Her songs for me quite cleverly fuse a fairytale-like narrative structure with raw emotion and literary metaphor, many of her songs drawing on clichés and turn of phrases, placing them in a new contexts and in a new light. A particular favourite of mine is Parton’s These Old Bones, an engaging song that tells a story of an old woman with clairvoyant abilities. The song explores a variety of different emotions, from those of an outcast or outsider to those of maternal love.

Parton’s musical accompaniment provides the song with an almost nostalgic feel, which I think is a result of the clear-cut, rural and folkish style employed. A particularly nice effect, unusual for pop songs, is the use of Parton’s two “voices”, which help with the unfolding of the story and distinguish between character and narrator, between quotation and comment. What I like about this song is the way the story unravels and, in particular, the revelatory moment when it is announced that the narrator is the daughter of the old clairvoyant woman. The narrative importance of this moment is emphasised by the musical accompaniment which becomes “stripped down”, with only a simple guitar accompaniment keeping the song moving. The stripped-down accompaniment draws the listener’s attention to the words at this important narrative juncture, a striking effect the is emphasised by Parton’s use of sprechstimme technique – Parton half-singing and half-speaking the words, an effect that she has used to good effect in a number of her other works.

Another favourite of mine, and perhaps one of her most famous songs, is Parton’s Coat of Many Colours, a song that again tells a story, and one that mingles biblical and biographical references. A nice feature of this song is that as the biblical references are made in the second verse, an organ is added to the musical texture, nicely underscoring the religious element of the text.

The narrative techniques in Parton’s songs accomplished through the intertwining of metaphor and reference with an intimate and personal story-telling experience is one of the reasons why I find Parton to be a particularly great songwriter, and I think is one of the reasons why I like country music. Indeed, I like stories and the way country artists attempt to explore everyday emotions. While Country music might not put forward new philosophies or attempt to communicate the sublime, it is music that attempts to explore the world around us and the relationships that exist between us. Country Music will no doubt play a role at my wedding, although I’m not sure whether D.I.V.O.R.C.E really will go down so well as a first dance…

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2 thoughts on “Country Music, Emotion, and Storytelling: Dolly Parton’s ‘These Old Bones’ and ‘Coat of Many Colours’”

    1. Thanks for this – will look into it. The o2 has sold out a number of country gigs now, which is interesting when speaking to o2 staff as many haven’t heard of any of the acts. It seems that while there is certainly an audience, it isn’t a genre covered much by broadcast media bar a couple of shows on BBC Radio 2.

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