DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (17)
February 20, 2023
One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of favorite Country singles from the Sixties (1964–1973). Series edited by Josh Glenn. BONUS: Check out the DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM playlist on Spotify.
TANYA TUCKER | “DELTA DAWN” | 1972
I first heard “Delta Dawn” when I was in college, at a time when the phrase “real country” held a lot of meaning for me. As a gay boy who grew up mostly on late ’90s and early aughts crossover, I can’t explain why my college self was so enamored by the concept of “authentic” country — only that I had high standards for what counted as real.
“Delta Dawn” does not fit neatly into this category. Showcasing lush harmonies from the Jordanaires and the Nashville Edition and minimal twang — the lone harmonica in the mix all but disappears after the first (and only) verse — the song is deeply a product of the Nashville of its time. Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” had notched No. 1 country and No. 3 pop a year earlier, and Anderson was far from the only artist to cross over in the years when smooth countrypolitan began to give way to genuine country pop.
Nonetheless, the song gripped me. Of course, the first thing I noticed was the indelible chorus, which appears no fewer than five times throughout the song. Delivered as a series of unanswerable questions, the chorus beguiles with its ambiguity. The ensuing verse offers some clarity, as we learn that Delta Dawn is a 41-year-old woman who was jilted by a “mysterious dark-haired man” decades earlier, cursed to roam the streets of a town whose inhabitants appear to have little sympathy for her. We never get answers to the questions posed in the chorus, even as we begin to suspect that the “mansion in the sky” Delta Dawn seeks might just be a stand-in for religious deliverance.
As with nearly every great country song from that era, numerous artists took a stab at recording “Delta Dawn.” Most notable is the maudlin Helen Reddy rendition, which went No. 1 pop in September 1973, a year after Tucker peaked at No. 5 country. Bette Midler’s somehow-more-maudlin version, which opens not with the chorus but with an interminable first verse, actually predates Tucker’s own recording. Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells each cut their own versions in 1972, to varying degrees of success.
All these years later, what remains extraordinary about then thirteen-year-old Tucker’s performance is the sheer absence of pity in her delivery. Where Reddy, Midler and others fail is by leaning too heavily into the tragedy of the narrative, their excessive pity offering a sort of reproach. Tucker’s voice quivers with emotion, and she’s been known to ham it up onstage, but it never sounds like she feels sorry for Delta Dawn. It sounds like she’s holding out hope that things will turn around, despite the grimness of the situation. I can’t think of anything realer than that.
DOLLY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | David Cantwell on Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s WE FOUND IT | Lucy Sante on Johnny & June Carter Cash’s JACKSON | Mimi Lipson on George Jones’s WALK THROUGH THIS WORLD WITH ME | Steacy Easton on Olivia Newton-John’s LET ME BE THERE | Annie Zaleski on Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E | Carl Wilson on Tom T. Hall’s THAT’S HOW I GOT TO MEMPHIS | Josh Glenn on Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s BACK TO TENNESSEE | Elizabeth Nelson on Skeeter Davis’s I DIDN’T CRY TODAY | Carlo Rotella on Buck Owens’ TOGETHER AGAIN | Lynn Peril on Roger Miller’s THE MOON IS HIGH | Erik Davis on Kris Kristofferson’s SUNDAY MORNIN’ COMIN’ DOWN | Francesca Royster on Linda Martell’s BAD CASE OF THE BLUES | Amanda Martinez on Bobbie Gentry’s FANCY | Erin Osmon on John Prine’s PARADISE | Douglas Wolk on The Byrds’ DRUG STORE TRUCK DRIVIN’ MAN | David Warner on Willie Nelson’s WHISKEY RIVER | Will Groff on Tanya Tucker’s DELTA DAWN | Natalie Weiner on Dolly Parton’s IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD) | Charlie Mitchell on Stonewall Jackson’s I WASHED MY HANDS IN MUDDY WATER | Nadine Hubbs on Dolly Parton’s COAT OF MANY COLORS | Jada Watson on Loretta Lynn’s DON’T COME HOME A DRINKIN’ (WITH LOVIN’ ON YOUR MIND) | Adam McGovern on Johnny Cash’s THE MAN IN BLACK | Stephen Thomas Erlewine on Dick Curless’s A TOMBSTONE EVERY MILE | Alan Scherstuhl on Waylon Jennings’s GOOD HEARTED WOMAN | Alex Brook Lynn on Bobby Bare’s THE WINNER. PLUS: Peter Doyle on Jerry Reed’s GUITAR MAN | Brian Berger on Charley Pride’s IS ANYBODY GOING TO SAN ANTONE.
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