Song Review: Dolly Parton, “When Life Is Good Again”

It’s a Dolly Parton song. What else is there to say?

There aren’t many artists with a legitimate claim to the title of “Queen Of Country Music,” but Parton is one of them, with a discography that spans over sixty years and includes a plethora of monster hits and country standards (many of them self-penned) such as “Jolene,” “Coat Of Many Colors,” “Here You Come Again,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “9 to 5.” She’s one of the few artists left in the genre with the experience and clout to make everyone stand up and pay attention when she speaks, so after the rash of nihilistic Cobronavirus tracks we’ve been bludgeoned with over the last few months, it was nice to hear that Parton was releasing a song that actually addressed the moment. However, for better or worse “When Life Is Good Again” is basically a carbon copy of Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins”: Long on optimism, short on specifics, and overly reliant on the vocalist’s talent and stature to keep it from feeling cheesy. That said, it’s still one of the better tracks I’ve heard in 2020, and one that deserves a bit more attention than it will get.

The production here tries to give the song a spiritual feel while balancing precariously between acknowledging the problems of the present and expressing hope for a better future. The primary instrument here is a soft electric guitar, but the usual power ballad suspects eventually show up as well: The string section, the choir backing vocals, the echoey audio effects that give the mix a more-spacious feel, etc. Other participants include a piano, and acoustic guitar, and a mandolin, which help give the song a warm and welcoming feel. The song leans on minor chords a lot (especially during the verses) to reflect the trying times we now find ourselves in, but generally errs on the side of positivity with its brighter tones and lighter touch (there’s no percussion at all until a drum set steps in on the second verse). The song does a nice job increasing its volume and momentum as it goes along, and even though the former never gets terribly high, the climatic final chorus and outro still make a strong impression on the listener, helping to convince them that things will get better eventually.

The lyrics are okay, but I was honestly hoping for a lot more from an accomplished songwriter like Parton. The narrator acknowledges that we’re not in a great place right now (although the phrase “we’ve been brought to our knees” stands out for all the wrong reasons after the murder of George Floyd), and while they go beyond Underwood’s “love conquers all” message, it isn’t by much:

We need to change our ways
And right our wrongs
Let’s open up our hearts
And let the whole world in
Let’s try to make amends
When life is good again

I can’t argue with the sentiment here, but I also can’t do a whole lot with it either: Exactly what ways do you think we need to change? How do we change our ways? What should we be making amends for? The last few weeks have provided numerous examples of things we should do (address health care disparities, reform policing tactics), but without this context the song offers nothing but prayer as a solution. Additionally:

  • Parton’s best work comes when she injects her own experience into the song, but outside of some throwaway lines on the outro we don’t get any dose of her personality here.
  • If the events of the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that life being good “again” is a statement that smacks of white privilege and depends on your view of the past. People of color could argue that life in America wasn’t that good in the first place.

In other words, the lyrics are little more than vague, fluffy platitudes that struggle to stand on their own, and while that’s better than listening to someone drink themselves to death, it’s still a bit disappointing to see here.

The saving grace for this track is Parton herself: She’s no longer the power vocalist she was in her younger days, but she hasn’t lost the distinctive tone and incredible vocal presence that made her a star back in the day. (The producer gets an assist for their support here, leaving Parton alone on the quieter early parts where her weathered voice will have the most impact, and then backing her with the choir to help her reach the heights needed later in the song.) Where lesser singers wouldn’t feel as believable in this role, there just something warm and comforting in Parton’s voice and delivery that makes the audience a) trust her, b) forgive the shortcomings she admits to, and c) agree that things will get better eventually. There aren’t many vocalists who can take a song this weak and elevate it to something meaningful, but Parton can do it in her sleep, and more than anything it’s her who the listener is drawn to more than the message.

“When Life Is Good Again” is a strong statement of hope of optimism for the future, though that’s mostly because Dolly Parton is behind the mic and the producer backed her with a suitable arrangement. It’s not the strong social statement that Mickey Guyton made, nor is it the “well-executed treatise on priority recalibration” that Tim McGraw offered, but it’s a simple, reassuring statement from one of country music’s all-time greatest performers, and that’s enough to elevate it above much of the careless party tracks we’ve been subjected to in the Cobronavirus era. If you’re worried about where all this 2020 action is heading, put this song on, take a deep breath, and then get back in the game and find a way to make a difference.

Rating: 8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.