Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I examine the 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines: songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.
“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me. You know why? It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”
This famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence: Keen self-awareness. Honest humility. Positive attitude. A wonderful sense of humor.
If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.
In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration. Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).
Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version. He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded. While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.
Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night. I mean, it was like the worst thing. You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’ And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’ But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’ And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t. Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”
Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved. It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).
And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said. “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”
Full confession: I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself. Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.
Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention. Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.
It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband. “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts. Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.
No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel. Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”
True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it. “I was one of the first women to burn my bra. It took the fire department four days to put it out!”
Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out. Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.
While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since. Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.
Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.
Still relevant today? Damn right she is.
What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony. She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the
family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore. Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.
Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing. Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.
Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age. “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now. She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business. In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”
When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer. It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.
As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner. To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.
Her hard work paid off. Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!
Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and instruments. Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.
Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success. Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee. “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.
Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write. The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child. The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.
“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said. “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title. It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer. It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”
Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children. “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton. “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”
Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.” She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care. “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”
People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply: “And do what? What does that even mean? I always count my blessings more than I count my money. For me, it’s about the art. I love the job. I love to work.”
Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack). Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her. Including me, apparently.
No doubt about it. The woman is a living legend.