On a recent edition of American Idol, a contestant with rural roots was urged to express her inner country girl, only to have the experiment - Lennon and McCartney with a fiddle - earn the judges' scorn. She might have listened first to the original Appalachian sweetheart, Dolly Parton, who does Smokey Robinson ("Tracks of My Tears") on her new album, her first country album in 17 years. It is a credible reading, but on the title track, Parton expresses her inner Willa Cather. This is a song that lays out the whole Parton dynamic so eloquently, with such self-deprecating humor ("I'm just a backwoods Barbie in a push-up bra and heels/I might look artificial, but where it counts I'm real") that it's hard to believe she never did it till now.
While hardly Parton's crowning achievement, the album bespeaks professional polish, satisfying assorted constituencies. The opening track, "Better Get to Livin'," fulfills commercial obligations, while also shoehorning Parton's sunny philosophy into a dense frenetic arrangement in which her voice is all but lost. "Backwoods Barbie," a shuffle, sounds like part of a wholly different album. So does the uplifting "Jesus & Gravity" and the bluesy "The Lonesomes." Maybe it's just 2 albums, but the second is good enough to advance Parton to the top 10.