Bill Withers covers “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann” as part of a tribute album dedicated to Little Jimmy Dickens, the famously pint-sized country singer and a Grand Ole Opry stalwart. Withers’ version of the song marks his first solo recording since 1985, when the man behind hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lovely Day” released his album Watching You Watching Me and walked away from the music business.
Dickens’ “(You‘ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann” is a spoken monologue set to weepy music, and Withers’ version hews closely to the original. A tinny drum machine keeps time and a gauzy string section trembles in the background. Withers is front and center, speaking to a doll that once belonged to his daughter who had died from a fever.
It’s a tragic track, with hints that the narrator is next in line to die: “Well I barely made it up the hill today/ Look Raggedy Ann, I can’t even brush the dirt from my knees/ So don’t look for me tomorrow.” But Withers adds a flash of life after these gloomy lines that is not present in Dickens’ original. An energetic bass line emerges suddenly, the drums tap out a double-time shuffle, and a horn section works through a funk vamp, hinting that Withers’ next destination can’t be all bad.
Withers’ “(You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann” is from a Dickens’ tribute album titled The Rhinestone Hillbilly. (Dickens was famous for his rhinestone suits.) Other artists on the record include Charlie McCoy, Tim O’Brien and Connie Smith. The album is available for purchase on Bandcamp.
Like Dickens, Withers was born in West Virginia. But unlike Dickens, who had a relentless appetite for show business, Withers didn’t care for many aspects of the music industry. He stopped recording in 1985, and except for an appearance on Jimmy Buffett’s “Simply Complicated” from 2004’s License to Chill, the singer has stayed quiet. “There’s no rule that says your life has to be one thing,” Withers told Rolling Stone.