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"HERE I AM": TWO SINGULAR WOMEN JOIN FORCES

Holly Gleason offers her perspective on the Dolly Parton & Sia collaboration “Here I Am” from the Dumplin’ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, which is # 1 on the iTunes Country Songs chart and is closing in on the Top 5 of the Top Songs chart. 

Everyone has their Dolly Parton. The high-gloss supernova. The Appalachian poet. The gay icon. The old-school C&W star with her giggle and a wink that says, “I’m smarter than you think.” The movie star Everywoman. The poor girl who seized a dream. The drag-queen fantasy. The tabloid cover girl. The survivor in high heels. The transcendent songwriter whose quavery thank you and goodbye to a former partner became a ubiquitous uber-fidelity powerhouse in the hands of soul diva Whitney Houston.

Dolly Parton, without ever being anything except what she was, deftly was all those things, and so much more. As Sylvester Stallone said in the Parton-co-starring Rhinestone, “Country music? WORSE than liver!” And yet, the girl from Pigeon Forge has always been the epitome of country. Other than perhaps Madonna, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Prince, no other musical force is as globally recognizable or enduring.

Quick with a witty response, there was a bit of East Tennessee innocence to the sometimes-naughty repartee. Yet scrape away the feel-good uptempo and the stunning, stark melodies of her best ballads, and what you heard—long before vulnerability was a brand—was a beating heart filled with truth and a genuine desire to be taken seriously.

Dolly Parton’s humanity was strong, willing, honest about the threadbare and the scary parts. Her contradictions were a calling card, but her steadfastness was her earmark. Whether you liked the percolating “9 To 5,” the aching “Single Women,” the heart-shredding “Me and Little Andy,” the truculent send-up “Dumb Blond,” the lusty “Romeo,” the female-empowering “Eagle When She Flies,” the tender love over shame “Coat of Many Colors” or the steadfast and gone “To Daddy,” Parton ran the gauntlet of emotions with a sense of courage, dignity and real-life impact shown.

So famous, her music almost doesn’t matter; that’s the tragedy of our boldfaced world. To quote Cobain, “We are here now, entertain us” has become the new norm, the scandal and titillation trumping content. But there’s the unspoken bottom line: the hunger we all face remains. The need for love and being touched in the rush of information, the chill of human disconnection through the ease of cyberspace and the sense we matter is tantamount, even if unacknowledged.

Leave it to Parton to once again surprise us. Working with pop force/serious feminist Linda Perry on the soundtrack to Dumplin, a film about a plus-size teenager who enters a beauty pageant to challenge what defines pretty (and spite her pageant queen mom played by producer Jennifer Aniston), Parton reimagines several of her classics with myriad vocalists from Miranda Lambert to Mavis Staples, Elle King to Alison Krauss.  Always breaking ground – from going pop to making a hard bluegrass record, recording Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me fo Fly,” the classic country/folk Trio projects with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and championing Mindy Smith’s raw-boned recording of Parton’s “Jolene” —is what Parton does best.

And now she does it again.

 “Here I Am,” in spite of the swelling string section that rises 45 seconds in and the clouds of gospel singers who lift up the vocals, is naked in its invitation. From the descending small-town gospel chords rendered on what might well be an upright piano, Parton almost wails, “Here I am, here I am,” to the abyss. Is it an invitation? A supplication? A cry for help?

The emotion is primal, spare. As Perry widens the production and the verse reveals itself, the 2019 Music Cares Person of the Year reaches out to support, to say, “I’ve got you.” The language is simple, clear. It speaks to children, old people, the shunned, downtrodden, outcast, alienated, lost and depressed or anxiety-ridden. By virtue of that tone to her still crystal soprano with just enough texture and grit, it almost feels like the unconditional agape love that is in spite of whatever’s wrong inside or about the other.

That alone is profound in a world of synthesized authenticity. But after Dolly’s opening salvo, “If you need a love that’s true, need someone to stand by you,” and three “Here I am’s,” a smoky brick of a voice joins her. Wrenched with emotion, twisted and sailing upward, Sia is a counterbalance suggesting power and community.

Unlikely on the surface, the pairing of two singular women—creative forces who’ve outperformed expectations, stood down adversity, come from unlikely places and risen to the unseen heights of songwriting, producing and being artists—persuades us that we can believe them when they sing, “If you need a helping hand/need someone there to understand,” because they’ve been there too. They know, and they’re willing.

Eleven lean lines of verse make up the entire song. Four even shorter lines supply the bridge. The chorus is merely “Here I am” in varying melodic progressions. What it says is profound, and comforting. But this isn’t just a Valkyrie deciding who lives and dies, impenetrable and unyielding. The final verse concedes that each singer needs the nourishment of reciprocal caring as much as the person she’s throwing a light out to who’s unable to find it.

In many ways, Parton again defines the kindness tempered with strength and acceptance that’s made her a forerunner of Lady Gaga’s Mother Monster figure. Having modeled her looks on the town hooker, with her mettle and determination built upon knowing her own worth and her success sprouting from the sheer will to make it to the top, she realizes it’s in sharing that we become whole.

“Here I Am” is a gospel song as much as anything. A love song, yes, but also a universal salvo of embrace that heals. As talking heads scream, fear rises, Parton and Sia create an anthem of “come to me,” with penitential fervor, a Muscle Shoals Dusty Springfield or Bobbie Gentry wah-wah guitar halfway through and the passion to ignite the darkness so that everyone can find their way home.

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