Few people—much less entertainers and celebrities—can bring together blue and red Americans, straight and gay communities, grandmothers and granddaughters, rich and poor.
Dolly Parton bridges those divides, and more.
As Dolly celebrates her 50th anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry this year, NBC will be airing a two-hour celebration of the occasion on November 26th. With a new podcast called “Dolly Parton’s America” and a new Netflix series, Dolly is everywhere.
At a time when the marginalization of women in country music is being called out more and more forcefully, it is important to realize that Dolly’s been in that fight for half a century. And often winning it, always very much on her own terms.
Growing up near Nashville in the 1960s, I was first introduced to Dolly and her exceptional gifts through the Porter Wagoner TV show where she was featured as the “girl singer.” But she had higher aspirations, and over the course of 50 years has earned the affection so many bestow upon her. She is well known as an entertainer, but her songwriting talent is now recognized as among the best in popular music.
Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams has a recent article in Salon on why Dolly is such a force of nature. Williams writes,
“Dolly Parton is, quantifiably, one of the most loved personalities in the world. She’s also a deceptively complex American figure. On a superficial level, she’s a twangy blonde with a wig collection to rival RuPaul, a body that defies the laws of physics and a proudly gaudy sartorial aesthetic. ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,’ she’s famously explained. But you don’t have to look very far under the rhinestones to see that she’s one our greatest American songwriters, a virtuoso musician, an actress, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and what your mom used to refer to as just plain good people. Her larger-than-life persona makes her a great entertainer. Her intelligence and authenticity make her an icon.”
There’s so much of Dolly’s musical catalog to explore, and I definitely recommend what Parton self-describes as her “sad ass songs” from the early years. Here she was often taking traditional murder ballads like Knoxville Girl and recasting them from the woman’s (i.e., the victim’s) point of view. She also has written great songs of empowerment, such as Coat of Many Colors, a fantastic song about not letting poverty, and others’ point of view, change your self perception.
“But they didn’t understand it, and I tried to make them see
One is only poor, only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors my momma made for me”
Dolly has penned some of the best lines in country music, like, “In my Tennessee mountain home, life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh.” One of my favorites is, “You don’t know love from Shinola.”
“Your attitude stinks and I hate it
You’re arrogant, cocky and rude
You’re selfish, conceited and jaded
Everything’s all about you
You think that I’m lucky to have you
You think you’re so handsome, so what
I’m callin’ you out cause I don’t need this crap
I’m gettin’ myself outta Dodge
Cause you don’t know love from Shinola”
But being a bluegrass fan from way back, I was thrilled when Dolly turned her attention to her roots in that music with 1999’s The Grass is Blue. Her next two albums, Little Sparrow in 2001 and 2002’s Halos & Horns, carried on a similar vein. The latter included the wonderful “I’m Gone”—one of my favorite Parton tunes because it so clearly captures the “I’m in charge of me” part of Parton’s persona in the humorous way that endears her to so many.
“You can tell the truth or you can lie
You can say I left you or I died
Say I’m in the Himalayas on some spiritual quest
And could spend years lookin’ for the light
Say I’m in the witness program with the F.B.I.,
Say a U.F.O. abducted me from home
You can say what you chose, but I tell you the truth
You can say for sure I’m gone, ’cause I’m gone”
Williams’ article also covers Dolly’s ability to connect with so many, her status as “a full blown hero” cemented by her “supreme grace.”
“When an embittered Porter Wagoner sued his star protégé for breach of contract, she simply settled out of court. When he fell on hard times later, she bought his songwriting catalogue and then gave it back to him, because, as she recalls on Dolly Parton’s America, ‘I wanted his kids to have it. That was one of my gifts thanking him.’
When the scientists behind the world’s first cloned sheep named her Dolly — because she sprang from a mammary gland cell, GET IT? — Parton laughed it off by inviting her woolly namesake to visit Dollywood. And when she wanted to honor her father, who had to quit school to support his family and never learned to read, she started her Imagination Library. Since 1995, it’s given away over 100 million books to children around the world. Those are the actions of a person whose seat of power comes from a place of profound compassion.”
A true treasure. Happy anniversary, Dolly.
More to come.