Rarely is the title of an album so aptly named as Dolly Parton’s 18th album New Harvest – First Gathering is. This album, despite coming from an already established country music great, is an album of many firsts. It’s the first album that Parton produced herself. It’s her first album in which she blends pop with country. And finally, it’s the first of her albums recorded outside of Nashville. These firsts, particularly the move away from Nashville, shed insight on several concerns of Parton’s life and the country music scene in general.
Detroit means hip hop, New Orleans means jazz, and Nashville means country. The Nashville Sound has come to define country music as it revived and expanded the genre into a treasured part of Americana. “Nashville fought tooth and nail to be the center of country music,” says Diane Pecknold, author of The Selling Sound: Country Music, Commercialism, and the Politics of Popular Culture. The producers that wanted to put Nashville on the country map chose to use a polished country sound using clean vocals and string backing.Considering this context, Parton’s decision to record New Harvest, First Gathering outside of Nashville is an interesting one. The album was recorded in L.A. after Parton uprooted her life and moved to the city of stars. Her movement away from Nashville serves as a perfect metaphor for Parton’s overall mission with the album: her transition from a more traditional, niche sound to a more universally appealing sound.
One song in particular stands out as the perfect example of this transition. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” is what All Music critic calls “a sophisticated piece of adult contemporary songcraft that suggests practically zero Nashville influence.” The energetic ballad is definitive of Parton’s keen understanding of how to combine lyrics and music to tell the compelling narrative that she wants. Parton’s decision to change the direction of her music was not an easy one. It meant a separation from her musical and business partner Porter Wagoner. The break between them became bitter and even turned to legal action. Parton has said that the opening track on New Harvest, First Gathering came out of this difficult time and represents the optimism of a step in the right direction. “Cause I am strong and I can prove it / And I got my dreams to see me through,” she sings, her voice soaring over upbeat electric guitar and perfectly harmonized choral voices. The sound is a conscious shift away from the banjos and twang that is so ingrained in country music. Parton’s voice is confident and brash. The song, regardless if you’re a diehard country fan or maybe even hate country, instantly uplifts you. Parton’s charm shines through in an irresistible way.