Ultimate Dolly Parton (BMG Heritage)

Ultimate Dolly Parton (BMG Heritage)
Ultimate Dolly Parton (BMG Heritage)

If some folks underestimate Dolly Parton, it's probably because Dolly herself gets in the way. The hair, the glitter, the heels, the theme park, not to mention her other, um ... assets -- all distract attention from her talent.

Ultimate Dolly Parton should help fix that problem, by offering a reminder of her unbound creativity, eager versatility and effortless endurance. It manages to be both wide-ranging -- tracking her career from 1970's "Joshua" to 1989's "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That" -- and compact, with 20 tracks clocking in at a tidy 63 minutes.

The most remarkable thing about all these songs isn't their proven success – even though all of them went to No. 1 except the beloved "Coat of Many Colors," which topped out at No. 4. And it isn't just that she sings them perfectly, as forcefully or as delicately as they demand.

No, it's realizing that nearly all these tunes came from the same pen, the same fertile imagination: Dolly's own. It's nearly alarming how often she has spun lyrical gold from her memories ("Tennessee Homesick Blues"), keen observations ("9 to 5") and affairs of the heart ("I Will Always Love You"). The eye for detail evident in songs like "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors" seems all the more remarkable when these songs are laid end to end.

Ultimate certainly isn't the first Dolly Parton compilation, and it isn't perfect (several of her No. 1 songs are still missing, and it trails off before her '90s bluegrass renaissance), but it's the best single-disc passport to Dolly heaven yet assembled.

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