Dolly Parton: Mountain queen and showbiz icon

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, USAF

Dolly Parton has outgrown country music. In fact, Dolly Parton has outgrown music in general. She no longer is associated with her songs and instead she’s become a ubiquitous figure of American pop culture – immediately recognizable. She’s an Appalachian Mickey Mouse. Most know who she is, even if many do not know a single song lyric she’s written. Her larger-than-life public persona has transformed Dolly Parton into a trademark, or a logo – she’s Coca Cola.

But all that is a shame because underneath the ton of makeup, glitz, gloss, and wigs is a genuine talent – one of the greatest singer-songwriters in country music. She mines her struggles growing up poor in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to write some of the saddest songs in country music. Her plaintive, trembling, pinched soprano sings with a heart-breaking sob, always on the verge of a total breakdown.

As savvy a businesswoman as she is a lyricist, she has also branded herself, most famously with the amusement mark that combines her name with the name of the city that almost every poor girl in America dreams of succeeding in:  Dollywood. With Dollywood, Parton has cemented her status as more than just a musical force, but a cultural and commercial force as well – one who has managed to transcend the extreme poverty of her childhood; one who has managed to upend the oppressive sexism of the music industry; one who has managed to best the condescending, patronizing elite of public to become an icon.

When that other pop diva who gets more attention for what she does than what she sings, Madonna, won one of the first of her many “lifetime achievement” awards – those awards they bestow on legendary acts who may not have gotten the kudos they deserve when they were at their peak – when Madonna was honored by Billboard magazine for an amazing run of hit singles and platinum albums, she approached the microphone and gratefully said, “it’s about the music. It’s always been about the music” and I’m not sure who she was trying to convince – the audience or herself.

But Dolly Parton is an undisputed music giant who allowed her voice to be co-opted by glossy Hollywood and slick Nash Vegas. Her ambitions meant that she had to leave behind what made her a singer in the first place. Education scholar Richard Rodriguez in The Hunger of Memory wrote that once an immigrant child is assimilated to the mainstream culture, that kid must leave his background behind. Dolly Parton had to participate in this sloughing as well.

But outside all of this is a genuine talent. As a singer and song-writer she crafted some of the most important songs in country music. She’s been covered by a host of artists – most notably Whitney Houston – and has earned the reverence of a wide variety of singers who kneel to the author of Parton’s talent. Singers like Reba McEntire, Wynonna Judd, Shania Twain, Faith Hill all mark the influence of Dolly Parton.

Country Star and Opry Queen

Parton’s peak as a singer was the 1970s – the early part of the decade, when despite her success, she was still slightly outside the mainstream, and her sound was untouched by pop radio. Her songs of these years were beautiful in their sparseness and austerity. It was often little more than Parton’s angelic voice and a guitar with some minimal orchestration. The stories she told were of growing up poor, wanting more out of life. She also wrote about heartache and being a loser in love.

“Coat of Many Colors”

Dolly Parton’s best song “Coat of Many Colors” is arguably the most depressing song in pop music. It’s a poignant tale of a little girl who has to go to school wearing a coat pieced together with scraps of material and rags that were donated from charity. Parton’s singing is unadorned with no frills, and she doesn’t oversell the sorry tale. Moving alongside with her voice, is a brisk acoustic guitar strumming, shadowing the details of the sorrow of a little girl who learns for the first time what happens when poor kids are teased at school for being different.

The imagery of the song harkens to the story of Joseph in the Bible – a reference not only to the story of a young man whose coat gives him special powers, but is an allusion to Parton’s devout Christianity – an important theme that carries on throughout most of her career, even at its most corporate.

There is a wisdom to the song about not caring about what others think of you. Hindsight is 20/20 and there are elements of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” with Parton advising that “One is only poor, only if they choose to be.” Now, some will find issue with this sentiment – I did and still do. It’s always a little annoying to hear pop stars and celebrities insist that money doesn’t make one rich, and Parton cannot escape some criticism of a level of hypocrisy, no matter how minor. But she sells it regardless because she’s able to convince her audience of her poor history.

Country-pop superstar Shania Twain covered the song in a tribute to Parton at the Kennedy Centers Honors. Twain’s Canadian background shares a similar poverty with Parton, but adds tragedy with early deaths of her parents, and a truncated adolescence. Twain’s singing is technical competent, but there is a level of artifice – some of this may be due to an alleged use of auto-tune in her singing (there’s a suspicious flat tinniness to her singing of the song – a slight feeling of cannedness). The blank mechanical tone and color to Twain’s performance does little to ruin the shine of the song, but she adds nothing to the song’s legacy.

“I Will Always Love You”

This song is Parton’s signature tune, one that she penned in response to her exit from Porter Wagoner’s show and his Svengali-like influence on the singer. It’s a sad song – Parton’s specialty – with a resignation.

The lyrics are from the point of view of someone who is ending a relationship. This isn’t the Dolly Parton of “Jolene” who is clutching at the remnants of a failed love, this is a Dolly Parton who is wise and willing to leave someone for whom she still has feelings. Despite her lyrics that read “If I should stay, I would only be in the way.” But it’s not Parton who is in the way, it’s Wagoner who is blocking Parton from global superstardom.

Product DetailsPorter Wagoner was a key figure in country music in the 1970s – a prolific and accomplished showman, he was the true inspiration for Parton’s glitzy, sparkly look. And while she credits a particularly flamboyant woman she saw as a child, Wagoner with his teased pompadour and flashy dandified threads was the precursor to Parton’s drag.

On his show, Parton showed off a flair for entertainment as well as performing. It was inevitable that she couldn’t stay confined to the limits of his career (I wonder if either one knew just how far she’ll go).

Parton’s singing on “I Will Always Love You” is aching in its plea to the imaginary lover who may not be taking the news of this break up too well. The song works as a slow dance, and feels like Parton wrote it to be the song played at the end of high school proms.

The success of this song would prompt Parton to record it a few times during her career in various iterations – once even casting it as a duet with Vince Gill in the early 1990s.

Speaking of the early 1990s, Parton had the biggest success of her career when pop mega diva Whitney Houston took the song to number on the pop charts for over three months. Houston’s performance doesn’t even look at the song’s meaning. Instead, she takes the opportunity to try and squeeze in as many belts and sky-scraping notes as she can. The vulnerability and tear-stained sadness of Parton’s original is all but obliterated by Houston’s platinum-plated, steely invulnerability. Houston abandons the country roots to Parton’s song and instead imbues it with her glossy brand of Broadway-influenced pop balladry. The success of Houston’s version cemented it as a pop standard for her as well, and it has become the obligatory song for talent shows and American Idol contestants.

As if to remind the ignorant, Parton has performed the song since Houston’s version smashed chart records. She wisely eschews aping the more successful version, instead maintaining the song’s pure simple directness. It doesn’t need the jaw-stretching belts or ear-piercing, glass-shattering notes.

“Joshua” and “Jolene”

Story songs have been a staple in country music. The tradition of gothic tales of love loss, murder, or village eccentrics is enduring – the most famous case being “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

Though not a militant feminist, Parton’s career has been an agent of change for women in country music. “Just Because I’m a Woman” and “Dumb Blonde” both challenged gender roles in society. But “Jolene” is about as un-feminist as Parton gets. The song is a plea to a more attractive woman to leave Parton’s man alone – the narrator admits she cannot compete with her own looks and merits, so she chooses to throw herself at the mercy of this bewitching minx.

A good amount of the song’s verses are devoted to the beauty of the title character – a scarlet-haired temptress who is so stunning that Parton laments, “And I cannot compete with you, Jolene.” And while this is one of Parton’s most important tunes, it does present a craven Parton who is essentially blames the other woman, instead of turning her ire toward the man in the relationship. One would hope that Parton turns to her man and drops him and sniffs, “You can have this asshat, Jolene.” But instead she bleats, “I had to have this talk with you, my happiness depends on you.”

It makes sense that Parton moved on to acting, as she proved herself quite capable of putting on different personas – from the wronged love in “Jolene,” she moves onto the role as the traveling troubadour with “Joshua.” Like “Jolene,” “Joshua” is about another colorful character in Parton’s imagination – this one a misunderstood hermit who is charmed by her endearing approaches toward friendship and later on, an unconventional marriage. Unlike “Jolene” this is a funny song, with Parton dropping any notes of sadness and vulnerability, and instead adopts a brisk, rowdy voice, full of sass and spunk.

Crossover Queen

By the late 1970s, country radio seemed too small for Dolly Parton. Despite her diminutive stature, her talent was just too overwhelming to stay confined to C&W, and the singer set her sights on the West Coast. Pop radio quickly embraced Parton, as did the gay audience who took on her sporadic musical escapades in disco music, and would remain loyal to her for the rest of her career.

Her sound started to get larger, too. No longer content on just singing with a guitar or banjo, she started embracing electric guitars, keyboards – even synths. The rougher, frayed, homespun tones of her early music was burnished and shined to a highly-polished sound that brought Parton to a broader audience.

This expansion of her music also extended to the rest of her career, and she embarked on a film career. Her film debut, the feminist comedy 9 to 5 showcased Parton as a talented, sunny and natural comedienne and film presence. While she’d never be confused as a Redgrave, she did hold her own against such heavyweights as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman.

She also got confirmation of her full acceptance as a Hollywood mover and shaker with her first Oscar nomination for penning the title tune for 9 to 5. The hit song and the movie finally completed Parton’s entry into the second stage of her career as a professional celebrity. Her music would begin to take a back seat to her career as an actress, TV personality, and late night talk show guest. Throughout the 80s she would make periodic returns to the studio to produce a series of slick albums – though little of her 80s input would prove to be enduring.

“Here You Come Again”

Parton’s biggest hit of the 1970s was a polished pop ballad that was written, produced, and performed by a phalanx of Los Angeles studio professionals – a world away from the rootsy atmosphere of Parton’s origins. There’s little country to the song – with its lush orchestration, electric piano, guitar and bass – there’s a slide guitar to remind us that Dolly Parton is a country song. It’s interesting that “Here You Come Again” sounds like something that Helen Reddy would’ve recorded. The song became Parton’s first million-seller, and while it’s a song that managed to date decently, it does show Parton allowing her sound to be shaped by others.

“Baby I’m Burning”

Dolly Parton has flirted with dance music throughout her whole career. “Baby I’m Burning” is one of the few disco songs Parton recorded through the 70s. It’s trendy with its cheesy sound effects, and the only reason to listen to this song is to listen to the moment that Dolly Parton decided to acknowledge her gay fans.

“Islands in the Stream”

Dolly Parton was matched with her musical kindred spirit, Kenny Rogers, in this Bee Gees written love ballad that sold truckloads of records, and cemented a friendship between the two country giants that would spawn more duets and Christmas special and a Christmas album (she played a busty, cheesecake Mrs. Claus to Rogers’ hirsute Santa).

“9 to 5”

The theme to Parton’s film debut is an anthem to the working class hero, a character she played in the film, a comic caper about a trio of secretaries that exact revenge on a bigoted, sexist boss. The film’s storyline is reflected in the typewriter sound effects and the lyrics that appeal to folks who are chafing underneath the oppressive thumb of the “boss man.”

It’s not one of Parton’s most memorable tunes – it’s too slick, with too much dated instrumentation – the mile-wide, cartoony funk guitar, electric piano, and a group of hallelujah backup singers – but the song does include lyrics that sympathize with the workers she’s depicted in the tune.

And while it’s a very polished, pop product, Parton cannot escape all of her country leanings – there are elements of country music – like “Here You Come Again” there are nods to her roots – the slide guitar, the story-song structure as well as the working class point of view. But because it’s a movie theme, it also works as a Broadway song too – which is why it makes perfect sense that it was used in the Broadway musical version of the film some 30 years after the film’s release.

For a Dolly Parton tribute album, frequent-collaborator Alison Krauss, takes the song and slows it down, baring its poignant roots. Instead of singing it with the cheery, Pollyanna-esque delivery of the original, Krause digs deep into the song’s lyrics to excavate the humane appeal to hard workers who at time feel overwhelmed by professional and financial strains and challenges.

Parton won an Oscar nomination for the song – not wholly deserved – which was the welcome from the Hollywood community.

Product DetailsShe would return to the concerns of working folk in “Everyday Hero” a track off her 1987 album Rainbow – an unsuccessful attempt at Sheena Easton-flavored pop music. Abandoning all traits of her country sound, Parton parlayed her crossover success into a variety show, Dolly – a venture that proved to be a failure because of the genre’s death. Rainbow embodied all that was wrong with Dolly Parton of the 1980s – instead of being a humorous addition to her music, her cartoony Daisy Mae goes to Hollywood image became the sole focus of her career. She descended into the joke, and her music suffered as a result. The sounds of Rainbow are cold, polished and Parton sounds uncomfortable – her beautiful, distinct voice getting lost in the synth-heavy, clattering, disposable pop.

“White Limozeen”

Rainbow represented the lowest Parton’s sound would fall. The failure of that album and its accompany TV show may have made the singer rethink her career strategy, which resulted in the 1989 album White Limozeen. The title track is the kind of self-referential song that country legends often record towards the end of their careers – autobiographical puns on their careers and images. Parton’s career as a country girl done good was a one-joke premise that was sustainable because of her massive talent as a singer-songwriter – if she wasn’t the skilled musician she is, her career would’ve sputtered quickly and she would’ve descended into novelty territory (though at her worst, she approached novelty status very closely).

But “White Limozeen” represents regrets and do-overs for the singer. The character in the song is Daisy May – the girl who left her humble beginnings only to make it big in Hollywood and ride around in the title stretch limousine (the album’s cover has a Parton standing in front of a stretch limo, decked out in her glitzy Hollywood drag, underneath a theater marquee with a group of fans in the background).

The song itself is still pop, but it takes its cues from Nashville and not Los Angeles. There is a respectable amount of guitar-picking and Parton’s subject matter has her sound reinvigorated.

Movie Star

Like Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher, and Bette Midler, Dolly Parton also decided to branch out into film and become an “all-round entertainer” in the mode of the kinds of double and triple-threats that were successful in the 40s and 50s – performers who were able to sing, act, and dance.

Product DetailsProduct DetailsAs proven in 9 to 5, Parton was a natural onscreen. She also proved to be a decent foil for Burt Reynolds (film’s most underrated and talented comic actors) in the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She got to warble “I Will Always Love You” and sashay and do her best Mae West impression. The film was far from a classic, but an enjoyable movie musical – an okay entry late into the genre’s lifespan.

But then there’s Rhinestone Cowboy a movie that mismatched Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone – possibly the world’s most awkward screen comedian. In the film Parton stars as a working musician who is pushed to mentor Stallone’s cab driver into becoming a country singer himself. The premise is stale and the chemistry between the two stars is negligible, and Stallone was woefully miscast.

Product DetailsParton’s best onscreen work was in 1989’s Steel Magnolias, a sappy, gloopy mess of a film that starred Sally Field, Darryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, and Parton. The movie’s plot has the six women play Southern belles who trade quips and one-liners like a stand-up comedy showcase. Despite the roaring scene-chewing of Field, MacLaine, Dukakis and Roberts, Parton manages to make an impression playing a toned-down version of herself (think Dolly Parton dressed down). Director Herbert Ross lets his grande divas loose and doesn’t inhibit them, but somehow manages to extract a close-to-layered performance from Parton (ad a shockingly competent turn by Hannah).

After Steel Magnolias, Parton’s film career faded away. She headlined one film in the early 1990s, an execrable romantic/fish-out-of-water comedy, Straight Talk and a couple years back she starred with Queen Latifah in the musical comedy Joyful Noise.
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Despite her severely-limited acting skills, Parton was a good actress at one point, as long as she remained within her range and persona.  The problem is that Parton has indulged in vast amounts of plastic surgery, molding her face and rendering her visage immobile (fellow diva, Cher, a far more resourceful actress, has encountered the same issue).

Back to the Basics and Back to the Mountains

Product DetailsDolly Parton released Hungry Again after years of indulging in her worst instincts as a recording artist. The album wasn’t a success and her label – Decca – went bankrupt, but she did receive some of the best notices of her career. The modest comeback set the stage for a late-career renaissance when she released a trio of brilliant bluegrass albums. At this point in her career, her legacy and relevance is restored, and she no longer is a joke, and for the first time in her career since the 1970s, her music is just as key to her public persona as is her image.

The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, Halos & Horns

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In 1999 The Grass Is Blue was the first in a series of three albums that explored Parton’s mountain roots. She’s toyed with bluegrass before, but didn’t devote full LPs to the genre of music until this late into her career. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Parton took musical risks that she refused to when she was forging a career in the 80s, and these risks paid off with some of the most consistent and excellent music she’s ever made.

Little Sparrow in 2001 was the tent pole of the series – and its strongest album. She won a Grammy for her cover of Collected Soul’s alt-pop hit “Shine,” which she translated from a sweetly generic adult contemporary tune to a barn-raising blue grass hit with some genius banjo-picking and wonderful vocal performances by Parton. The album also brought Parton some of the best sales she’s enjoyed in over a decade.

Halos & Horns the final album was a response to all the tempestuous changes in the world, including 9/11, of which she wrote the open letter to the Almighty, “Hello God.” While not as fully-embraced as the first two entries, the album contains some of Parton’s best on-vinyl performances. “These Old Bones” recalls Parton’s old story songs, as she plays the part of the narrator and the part of an old fortune teller – most critics felt the song was corny, it has her trademark humor and knack for writing tales of Southern eccentrics. And while she’s a masterful songwriter, she covers Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and turns it into an ecstatic, churchy gospel song.

During this time she won her second Oscar nomination for penning the theme of the comedy/road drama, TransAmerica, a film about a trans woman (played beautifully by Felicity Huffman). The song took cues from her contemporary country sound, marrying it with a light gospel influence as well. The lyrics deal with someone coming to terms with changes in his/her life. “Travelin’ Thru” is one of Parton’s strongest latter-day songs as she translates her expansive love of humanity to song. The release of the song and its critical success also had Parton work the talk show circuit, professing her love for the LGBT community, preaching gay rights to her oft-conservative fan base.

Country Legend

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After the success of her bluegrass excursions, she returned to contemporary country with Backwoods Barbie and Better Day as well as the patriotic collection For God and Country and the all-covers album Those Were the Days (which was misinterpreted as an anti-war album due to its high ratio of protest songs of the 70s) . The albums were successful than most of her late 90s work, mainly due to the goodwill she built up with the bluegrass albums. She also was honored with an all-star tribute album and she was feted by the Kennedy Center Honors. She also embarked on a couple world tours that proved to be sell-outs. She also was tapped to compose the score to the stage version of 9 to 5.

At the Kennedy Center Honors, Parton was honored with Reba McEntire, Jessica Simpson, Shania Twain, and actress Reese Witherspoon (who won an Oscar playing country music legend June Carter Cash). The video montage summed up Parton’s career in some quick soundbites, going over the overly familiar – poor Mountain girl who wrote songs, appeared on Porter Wagoner’s show, struck out on her own, found a Hollywood career and is now a legend. These are just minor points in a complicated and long career of a talented and complex woman.

Product DetailsWhen Michael Jackson died, Parton released a video eulogizing the pop music legend. It wasn’t ignored by many that Parton, like Jackson, transformed herself through plastic surgery – her physical features are almost unrecognizable (this is especially true when looking at her Trio II album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris that featured pics of the country divas as kids). Like most major figures in pop culture, Parton’s physicality lends itself to a lot of the discourse that surrounds her work (she’s been compared to marionettes from The Thunderbirds when reviewed for Joyful Noise). Her hourglass, Mae West figure is actually no longer the main topic of conversation when addressing Dolly Parton. She still trades in the kind of comedy that she popularized as Johnny Carson’s guests. “It’s very expensive to look this cheap” she likes to quip repeatedly when asked about her extravagant image; drag queens cannot seem to outdo her.

But all this distracts listeners from her music. Unlike Madonna, who freely admits that the image, the controversy, sexiness, the persona all is tied with the music, for Parton, her image should merely be an addendum. Her work is attached to her background, as well – the rags to riches story that she exemplifies. Her life story is very American and is justly celebrated by an audience. I once went to a Dolly Parton concert and was struck at the diversity of the crowd: punks, hipsters, country fans, soccer moms, gays and drag queens all congregated at the altar of Dolly Parton.

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