Stories are meant to be shared and passed on through generations. As they’re told and re-told, they transform—details change shape and become less important. It’s no longer just about the narrative—it’s about feeling. This is something Dolly Parton is intimately familiar with, because if a woman of the South understands anything, it’s the art of telling a good story. And the good storytellers—the truly remarkable ones—share a few things in common: they tell you something familiar, they teach you something new, and they surprise you in a way that you weren’t expecting.
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That’s what the soundtrack to Dumplin‘ (due out on December 7) aims to do. The movie tells the story of a plus-size teenager (Danielle Macdonald) entering the beauty pageant circuit that made her mom (Jennifer Aniston) locally famous. And a week before the film debuts in select theaters, RCA Nashville has released its soundtrack: a Dolly Parton-driven collection that hits all the notes of a good story. With six revamped classics and six newly written ones, it’s Dolly’s songbook that serves as the titular character’s inspiration. But it doesn’t feel like a soundtrack per se. The Dumplin‘ album feels like an ode to something bigger.
With the Dumplin‘ soundtrack, the narrative is embedded in a career’s worth of music. The collection of 12 songs feels like a rite of passage—one that celebrates Parton’s five decade career along with the fact that at 72-years-old, she still has wisdom to share. And in this revamped Americana tradition of storytelling, she’s replaced a knowing front porch chat by inviting younger artists and contemporaries into the studio with her.
In the six rerecorded singles, Parton partners with younger voices to help breathe new life into songs recorded 40 years ago. With the likes of Elle King and Sia, Parton willingly takes backseat, often singing harmony to let the all-female lineup shine on their own merits. At times, tracks like the Miranda Lambert duet of “Dumb Blonde” feel more ornamental than anything, but it’s only because other moments on the album carry so much more weight.
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Of those moments, the ballad reimagining of “Here You Come Again” with 14-year-old Willa Amai feels truly exceptional. With only a few singles to her name, the teenage newcomer is given the honor of opening the song, and she doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of the few moments that an accompanying voice is able to keep up with Parton’s. She guides Amai through the song in a way that feels like you’re listening to a whole different story than the 1977 single tells.
But the part of the album where Parton shines most brightly is within the six newly released singles. Written primarily between Parton and songwriter Linda Perry, the songs produced specifically for Dumplin‘ echo the sentiments fans have come to know Dolly for in recent years. Parton clearly no longer needs to prove she isn’t a dumb blonde or victim to the likes of “Jolene.” In these new stories, Parton is a woman who has seen the world and rules over its trivial hurdles from a bedazzled throne. Sharing vocals with icons like Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, Parton’s thoughtful messages are paired with her signature bluegrass infused roots. Though it’s in the song “Wonder Why,” where she trades off verses with blues legend Mavis Staples, that the heart of the album comes out: “Judge not lest ye be judged, let heaven decide, but still we don’t do it, and I wonder why.”
The combination of those tracks—the reimagined old with the thoughtful new—is what makes Dumplin‘ work as well as it does. It lives in this hybrid space between a Greatest Hits album and full-blown new material, but it’s message is clear: do good and pass it on. The collection as a whole may serve as the inspiration for Dumplin‘ but for Parton fans, it feels a bit more like the next iteration in a long line of familiar stories.
Like a lot of country music, Parton’s catalogue often tells an “everyman” kind of story—an underdog story of someone who has climbed her way through the ranks. But these six new songs reveals the wisdom of someone who is sitting on the top of the heap. The new story she tells is less of a story and more of a point of guidance: this is how to make the world better. Dumplin serves as a two fold of Parton’s legacy: revamped songs about her life and the lessons she learned from living it.
Again, like any good story, it maintains all the important parts: a few details we remember from before, a couple verses we haven’t heard until now, and a couple surprises that can only come from time and collaboration.