While most of the world knows Dolly Parton as a glitzy bundle of multimedia entertainment who is a near-unavoidable presence on television, movies, and CD racks, displaying her big smile, big hair, and big -- well, you know -- what sadly few people acknowledge is that Parton, when she puts her mind to it, is one of the best singer/songwriters in country music. The fact that artists as diverse as Whitney Houston, Emmylou Harris, and the White Stripes have all discovered remarkable things in Parton's songs says a lot about the beauty, honesty, and grace of her best work, and Just Because I'm a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton features 12 noted female artists offering their own interpretations of Parton's compositions. If there's anyone in Nashville whose work merits such treatment, it's Parton, and thankfully practically everyone on Just Because I'm a Woman delivers the goods; "9 to 5" may not be remembered as one of Parton's more stellar tunes, but Alison Krauss discovers a bittersweet working-class anthem lurking beneath its cheery surface, while Melissa Etheridge keeps her sub-Joplin vocal histrionics in check for a fine version of "I Will Always Love You," Me'Shell NdegéOcello transforms "Two Doors Down" into a potent and sensual slice of late-night funk, and Nash Vegas interloper Shania Twain surprisingly hits just the right emotional spot on "Coat of Many Colors." Elsewhere, Norah Jones, Kasey Chambers, Allison Moorer, Sinéad O'Connor, and Mindy Smith all offer powerful and idiosyncratic performances that add their own personalities to Parton's songs without losing sight of the plain-spoken eloquence that makes them so effective. About the only true disappointment here is Emmylou Harris' take on "To Daddy," which is brilliant but was recycled from her 1978 album, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town; one wonders why Harris didn't opt to cut a new track for this album, but the presence of Dolly herself, offering a new version of "Just Because I'm a Woman," certainly compensates. In the movie Norma Rae, there's a great scene where Norma's boyfriend treats her to a night out at the roadhouse, and she beams when a Dolly Parton single comes up on the jukebox, saying she loves her songs "because the words are so true." As glorious as Parton's crystal-clear soprano may be, it's the stories she's used her voice to tell that truly set her apart, and Just Because I'm a Woman offers a worthy tribute to the woman Joan Osborne describes as "a gifted artist cleverly disguised as a media superstar and sex bomb." A second volume is certainly in order.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming