The title track off Dolly Parton’s third solo album, 1969’s In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) (RCA Victor), avoids empty nostalgia. That term better applies to a lot of other country music trends and songs. Examples include pretending that people in the Old West sat around singing in snazzy outfits instead of fending for their lives, or, more recently, Hank Williams Jr.’s alt-history about the South winning the Civil War. Instead of longing for an exaggerated take on the past, Parton wrote about looking back realistically while acknowledging a need to move forward.
An Autobiographical Statement
Parton learned to give back to the less needy by growing up dirt poor. The fourth of 12 children, she truly lived the lyrics “anything at all was more than we had” and “we’ve gone to bed hungry many nights in the past.” Beyond making her want to help children and the elderly, Parton’s early-life circumstances made her headstrong enough to see her musical and charitable goals through.
Instead of looking at the past through rose-tinted (and rhinestone-encrusted, considering it’s Dolly) glasses, she realistically weighs the positives and negatives of a wholesome and meager upbringing. Such perspectives fuel her efforts to make East Tennessee a better place for her neighbors. This song’s hook sums up this realistic view of the past as a springboard to a much better present: “No amount of money could buy from me/ The memories I have of then. No amount of money could pay me/ To go back and live through it again.”
Sometimes Covered, Never Duplicated
While it didn’t become a decade-defining it, the song popped up on different artists’ albums over the years. A few months before Parton cut the self-penned song, Merle Haggard and The Strangers recorded it first for the iconic Mama Tried album. A slower tempo version appears on Parton’s 1973 concept album My Tennessee Mountain Home, along with the title song, “Daddy’s Working Boots” and other similarly-themed tracks. Sister Stella Parton, Skeeter Davis and others went on to cover the song–although no one ever sang it with the same conviction as its writer.
A Classic Dolly Solo Album
As for the Bob Ferguson-produced album bearing the song’s title, it’s more than just another case of a classic single paired with a handful of forgettable cover songs. Instead, Parton’s takes on Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman co-write turned Tammy Wynette classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Jeannie C. Riley’s Tom T. Hall-penned hit “Harper Valley PTA” and Porter Wagoner’s “The Carroll County Accident” tease her future greatness. Beyond the covers and a contemporary classic, opening track “Fresh Out of Forgiveness” made enough of a mark to be covered by Rhiannon Giddens for her Tomorrow is My Turn album. Throw in the humor of “He’s a Go Getter,” the underrated honky-tonk vibes of “Mama, Say a Prayer,” John D. Loudermilk composition “It’s My Time” and the sense of wonder captured in “Little Bird,” and you’ve got a classic Parton album.
To sum up the song’s greatness, it serves as an elevator speech for Parton. It tells a true rags to riches story of someone with the generous heart to fight poverty on behalf of the people of Tennessee.