If Madonna is the Wicked Witch of pop music, Dolly Parton is surely Glenda the Good Witch. Buoyant and glitteringly white, Parton radiates good-heartedness and the conviction that what you really want is not sex but love — a love she, more than any other woman, is equipped to give you. Lately, however, she has seemed a bit tired, as if those much-bandied-about breasts were holding up the weight of the world. Maybe it was just the dramatic weight loss, but after Parton abandoned her crossover dreams and Nashville welcomed back its prodigal daughter with White Limozeen, she seemed to get smaller and smaller.
Ironically, the Nashville that Parton returned to had itself crossed over in the meantime, mixing its new-found "purity" with music-video savvy and an explosion into the mass market. These days, anyone and everyone is doing country, and they all seem to be included on Parton's sixty-first album, Slow Dancing With the Moon. Rodney Crowell, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tanya Tucker, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, Billy Dean, Maura O'Connell, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and the entire Christ Church Choir are among the many on hand to help out their good friend Dolly, who returns the favor with a raft of songs celebrating friendship, understanding, God's love and, on the lilting "What Will Baby Be," the importance of good child-rearing practices. If Parton had wanted to run for president, this album could have been her platform.
The cuts range from gold-plated mediocrity, such as "Romeo," in which Parton and a gang of famous female country singers drool unconvincingly over Billy Ray Cyrus, to the gold-plated splendor of Parton's mighty rendition of "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." On the benevolent planet from which Parton seems to hail, breast size must be indicative of the size of the heart underneath. But more often than not, the strangely suburban, upbeat material on Slow Dancing fails to support Parton's subtlety and skill, leaving her stranded with a lot of expensive guests. Only on the simple and relatively uncrowded "Cross My Heart," partially written by her nephew Randy, does Parton soar into a pure country space of loss and longing big enough to contain her big love, the love it is her genius to convey.