She really is the gift that keeps on giving. In November, news emerged that Dolly Parton had donated $1m towards research supporting the development of the Moderna Coronavirus vaccine. The 74-year-old singer, already known for her philanthropic work — including a programme that gives free books to children — donated the money to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, her home state, where it was used to fund vaccine research.
And here she is with the third Christmas album in her long career, a stylistically wide-ranging collection of old and new songs that celebrate Christmas temporal and Christmas spiritual. It’s mostly upbeat, cockle-warming, uncomplicated stuff: Christmas is a time for giving, sharing, family, friends. It sounds cheesy. Often it is extremely cheesy — cheesier, indeed, than a truckle of Christmas Stilton — but the thing about Dolly Parton is that she really means it. In an age of rampant disinformation, deep cynicism and routine insincerity, she is genuine.
The album title is a pun on the old Christmas favourite, “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, which kicks things off in rambunctious western swing style: backing singers chirrup “Ding, dong, ding” and Parton implores, “As you walk down the street, say hello to friends you know, and everyone you meet.”
Miley Cyrus is the first of a string of star guests, though her contribution to the schmaltzy duet “Christmas Is” sounds perfunctory. A more authentically engaging cameo comes from Michael Bublé, who pops on the old-style swing of “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas”; in response to his sultry entreaties, Parton says “Ohhh my” in a husky croak that resembles Marge Simpson’s.
“Christmas on the Square”, one of several Parton originals, is a bluegrass hoedown with fiddle, banjo and tight harmonies, depicting an almost absurdly idyllic-sounding small-town scene: “Streets alive with snowball fights, you’d better duck — beware!”
“Circle of Love” is one of a couple of devotional songs, telling the story of the nativity in straightforward language. The elegance of the music at the start — voice and gently picked acoustic guitar — becomes unfortunately swamped by syrupy strings and overwrought backing vocals. “Mary, Did You Know?”, a 1984 song that has become something of a Christmas standard, follows a similar pattern, from understated to overblown.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” has become a Christmas classic since Mariah Carey had a hit with it in 1994; here, Parton and TV talk-show host Jimmy Fallon give it the knockabout treatment.
“Comin’ Home for Christmas” strays far, far, far into the realm of schmaltz: a ballad about a Christmas homecoming that’s more likely to have listeners reaching for the “skip” button than a tissue.
The highlight by far is “Pretty Paper”, a song of the highest quality written in 1963 by Willie Nelson, who duets here with Parton. Departing from comforting seasonal certainties, it tells of a man who sits on the pavement selling pencils, paper and ribbon as Christmas crowds bustle past him. It’s a touching, sweet tune whose melodic simplicity contrasts with the vivid, troubling word-picture it paints.
‘A Holly Dolly Christmas’ is released by Butterfly Records/12 Tone Music
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