In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

~William Faulkner

I was reminded of the Faulkner line from Requiem for a Nun when re-reading David Cantwell & Bill Friskics-Warren’s romp through the country music’s greatest 500 singles in their book Heartaches by the Number. The book remains an inspiration as well as a nuisance, a thorn, antagonist and validater. I love it. Oh, and I hate it.

Coming in at #356 on their list is Dolly Parton’s 1968 ode to the home place In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad). Originally it was the title cut of her third solo album which, released in 1969, was filled mostly with covers and a handful of self-penned songs. Dolly recorded the song again for 1973s In My Tennessee Mountain Home. That ’73 album remains one of her most traditional records and even starts with an old fashioned recitation.  The recitation has long held a dubious place in country music. It’s easy to think of it as a popular thing of a bygone era and to specific portions of audience they were – think playing to the base, but even as early as the 1940s Hank Williams’ producer Fred Rose bristled when Hank wanted to record them. It was only Hank’s desire and star powered that made the Luke the Drifter recordings happen. Country music recitations have strict rules: they are serious and sincere recordings, not in the least bit ironic. They should have something to do with a man’s remorse over drunkenness or other such shames, an innocent child’s untimely and tragic passing or a letter home to the family left behind. The best ones, no matter how poorly they have aged and how much we snicker as they begin, can still get to you by their end. Red Sovine’s classic Teddy Bear immediately comes to mind or Hank’s Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals. Dolly’s recitation isn’t anything close to resembling a hit, but its sweet hearing that unmistakable voice talk comfortably over Charlie McCoy’s harmonica as he channels old silver screen prairie westerns at sunset.

It is the end too as the album then jumps back through the years to a young girl’s country childhood. Dolly Rebecca Parton was born today in 19__ in a one-room cabin in Sevier County, Tennessee. The portion of the Appalachians that run through Sevier, County are some of the roughest of the chain. Also home to the Great Smoky Mountains the sometimes overused hardship stories of hillbilly life was often all too real up in those mountains. The cabin she was born in, a birth paid for with a sack of cornmeal, had no running water, no plumbing and no electricity. In the winter time ice would form inside on the floor. Her father was a farmer and a moonshiner. Her mother was a ballad singer and Dolly grew up hearing the old songs like Barbara Allen, Little Rosewood Casket and Letter to Heaven. It’s her parents who she remember most of all on the album. The baking her mother did, the handmade toys from her father.

The first half of the album is simply about those early memories of home. Dolly basically gives a how to class in memoir song writing as she picks an object, her mother’s old black kettle (rhymes with little), or her daddy’s working boots or even the doctor that delivered her and her eleven brothers and sisters. A man who was still riding horseback to patients houses in the 1940s due to lack of roads to drive on. If the album were a Broadway show she’d leave you with the big number My Tennessee Mountain Home before intermission.


Side two kicks off with the greatest song John Denver never wrote and continues as a reunion of sorts. Rather than the sad and sweet nostalgia of a young girl recently gone from the hills these songs come from greater distance and less emotional impact. The best of the second side is Down On Music Row even with it’s slightly cloying chorus. It has the same pumping urgency of side one though, memory not so long forgotten of eating mustard and waiting for “Chet and Bob” to discover her. Discover her they did.

If there is a more famous country singer than Dolly Parton, man or woman, I don’t know who it would be. She’s so ubiquitous she’s practically taken for granted, yet remains perhaps the most fully realized country star we have. She’s a raging success as singer, songwriter and business owner. As a songwriter she’s unflinching. She writes, without apology, about love as in I Will Always Love You or death as in Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark or heartbreak as in My Blue Tears. She outcrazied long-time partner Porter Wagoner (not an easy thing to do) with Daddy, Come and Get Me and sang of a mother’s pure love and a child’s innocence lost in Coat of Many Colors. What could I possible add about 9 to 5?

She’s Dolly Parton and it’s quite simple really, just like her very best songs, I love her.


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Pop, Radio, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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