David Mansfield enlists Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur in EP tributes to great country duet teams
The making of "Teddy & Jenni do Porter & Dolly: A Tribute to the Duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton"
Making the most of the pandemic, esteemed producer/multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield is set to release the first of three four-song EPs honoring the great country music duet partnerships with a contemporary pairing uniquely able to do them justice.
The first title is Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & Dolly: A Tribute to the Duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton--Teddy & Jenni being Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur. Initially the EP will be released digitally via TLG/Vydia on May 21, and shortly thereafter in a limited run of vinyl 45s on Mansfield’s own Fallout Shelter Records imprint.
The Porter & Dolly EP will then be followed by a similar four-song set of songs from George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Now in overdubs, this release precedes the recording of a Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn EP, hopefully in June.
Mansfield is widely known for his work with the likes of Bob Dylan, The Alpha Band, Loudon Wainwright and Chris Hillman. The Thompson/Muldaur classic country duets project, he says, grew out of his pandemic-fueled creativity.
“I had to--and wanted to--make my own work when the biz was shut down,” says Mansfield. “And I went down the rabbit hole listening to the NPR podcast Dolly Parton's America.”
Muldaur, he continues, “has always been a Dolly fanatic, and I spent some time playing country music with Teddy back when he recorded Upfront and Down Low, and knew he'd get it. Teddy was also the first guest on the streaming Fallout Shelter concert series I did during the pandemic. It all just seemed perfect. In fact, the Porter & Dolly tracking session was an episode of the concert series. It went so well that expanding it seemed like a great idea.”
Also dubbed The Fallout Shelter Sessions, the concert performances were streamed out of Mansfield’s West Orange, N.J., home—and the Cold War-era underground bomb shelter he discovered under the front yard after moving in several years ago.
“Teddy was the first guest, and [his father] Richard did an episode soon after,” Mansfield recalls. “We’ve done maybe 16 of them now. We’d do them in my living room, then at the end of the show, go down into the fallout shelter and do a bonus track down there. That was the whole genesis of it. The thought of doing some Dolly-Porter country duets started on the streaming show. The idea was to track it live for the show, then make a record out of it.”
Finally, Mansfield notes,“late ’60s-early ’70s country is one of my big wheelhouses.” That said, his three chosen duet teams are central to said wheelhouse.
“I’ve been a big Porter-Dolly fan for years, and this [project] is a combination of knowing that Jenni has always had an affinity for Dolly’s music, and Teddy has a real soft spot for hard country-western. He made a straight country-western album of his own [Up Front and Down Low] and I toured with him on that.”
Digging into Parton's past inevitably led Mansfield to Wagoner, as he mostly knew her post-Porter solo recordings.
“As for doing their original duets justice, I looked at it more like when Rufus did Judy [Garland]," says Mansfield, invoking Rufus Wainwright’s celebrated Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall concert: "It's strictly love/homage. As for the songs, we just listened to everything and picked our favorites together.”
Two songs in the EP--“Just Someone I Used to Know” and “Just Between You and Me”--were written by country songwriter-producer legend “Cowboy Jack” Clement, the latter also a major 1967 hit for Charley Pride. Parton penned “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” with her songwriter-uncle Bill Owens, and the much-covered “Once More,” written by Robert “Dusty” Owens, was a 1958 hit for Roy Acuff.
Mansfield couldn’t have asked for better interpreters of Wagoner and Parton than Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur, who naturally manifest the classic country tone--and enormous sensitivity--of their role models.
Both inherited a love of the genre from musically eclectic parents: Richard and Linda Thompson, and Geoff and Maria Muldaur.
“They each have such a deep musicological education because of their parents,” says Mansfield. “They live and breathe music from this period—country as well as the blues, R&B, gospel and folk.”
As Thompson has recorded many of his favorite country songs in 2007 for his Up Front and Down Low album, Muldaur has long shared her mother’s love for the music of Parton in particular, as well as classic country music in general.
Mansfield played most of the instruments--including steel guitar--on Teddy & Jenni Do Porter & Dolly: A Tribute to the Duets of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, with added support from Thompson and Muldaur.
“It’s something of a ‘preservation mission’ for all concerned,” concludes Mansfield. “I strongly feel this is stuff that is fast receding into the distant past--and it shouldn’t be.”