PHOTO CREDIT: Dollywood Foundation
Part Sixteen: Dolly Parton
NOT only does Dolly Parton warrant…
IN THIS PHOTO: Dolly Parton captured in 2019/PHOTO CREDIT: Sean Rice for The Guardian
inclusion in my Female Icons section - not being arrogant; she is very much an icon and music treasure to us all! – but she is in the news right now. I will come to that soon but, right now, it is worth going back to the start. I am not going to cover all of her studio albums – as there have been quite a few! – but I will select some that are worth noting. Such is the breadth and depth of Parton’s work, it would take me a long time to get to the soul of her brilliance. Parton started life writing songs for others and released her debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly, in 1967. A lot of the all-time greats start off rather tentatively – from David Bowie to The Beatles – but Dolly Parton seemed to be in full flight; she created this debut that was instantly her own and had more than its fair share of memorable cuts! Maybe her voice was slightly sweeter and not as powerful as it would become but, with songs like Dumb Blonde in the pack, she proved she had immense power and panache in her arsenal – a song written by Curly Putman but penned by Parton! Whilst a lot of her peers would have been singing covers or having others write for her, Hello, I’m Dolly is full of personality, charisma and wise-crack. That is what Parton brought to the party from the off: that combination of smarts and style; heart and grit all in the same album.
It is amazing to think about the sheer productivity of Parton during the late-1960s. By 1971, she had already put out ten albums (some were collaborations with Porter Wagoner); this is more than a lot of artists achieve in their entire career. It was not until the 1970s when Parton really began to get acclaim and achieve the sort of success that she deserved. Although she was duetting with Wagoner into the 1970s, I think her first breakthrough occurred on 1971’s Coat of Many Colors – an album impossible to ignore. AllMusic, in this review drilled down to the core of Coat of Many Colors:
“Dolly Parton had a number of hits in the late '60s as Porter Wagoner's duet partner, yet solo success eluded her until her 1971 album Coat of Many Colors. The title track was a Top Ten single, and it effectively became her signature song, largely because it was a sweetly autobiographical tune about her childhood. That song, along with its two hit predecessors, "Traveling Man" and "My Blue Tears," were evidence that Parton was a strong songwriter, but the full album reveals the true depth of her talents. She wrote seven of the ten songs (Wagoner wrote the other three), none of which is filler. There isn't really a theme behind Coat of Many Colors, even if its title track suggests otherwise. Instead, it's a remarkably consistent album, in terms of songwriting and performances, but also remarkably diverse, revealing that Dolly can handle ballads, country-rockers, tearjerkers, and country-pop with equal aplomb. And while it is very short, clocking in at under a half-hour, there isn't a wasted moment on the album. It's a lean, trim album that impresses because of succinctness -- with its ten songs, it announced Parton as a major talent in her own right, not merely a duet partner”.
Maybe it was the chemistry and natural understanding between Parton and Wagoner because, through the late-1960s and early-1970s they released album after album gold. The sheer workrate of Parton in the first decade of her career is amazing to behold! She proved herself a unique and rich songwriter from her debut but, as her career developed, so too did her songs and voice. By 1975, her work with Wagoner became rarer. Parton, by the time 1974’s Jolene was released, was embarking solo and was adapting to a new creative life. She had been part of Porter Wagoner’s weekly T.V. series for over seven years and their professional partnership had broken up. I am not sure of the intimate details but I Will Always Love You, one of Parton’s most-famous tracks, was written about Parton’s regret regarding the break-up. The title cut of that amazing album has been covered numerous times and demonstrates the wonder of Parton’s songwriting. A heartbroken tale of this seemingly perfect tale of a woman stealing her man, on the surface, seems routine. The way Parton tells the story; the emotion and conviction in her voice and the words she employs – imploring Jolene not to take her man; not knowing what he means to her – is faultless. Parton and Wagoner would re-join forces and work together through the mid-1970s and 1980s but I think Parton’s strongest moments came when she stepped out alone.
Parton had a few missteps through the 1970s but, on 1980’s 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, she struck a new vein. I will talk about that film but, on the album, Parton explored this concept of working and the day-to-day life. Although Parton wrote only a few of the album’s tracks – including the title cut – she brought life to songs such as The House of the Rising Sun and Detroit City. Whilst the feminist revenge comedy, 9 to 5, might not have received universal acclaim upon its release in 1980, it seems radical and brilliant today; a film that holds up and was re-released recently. Parton shines in the film and brings the full force of her personality to the role. In this review, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw provided his thoughts:
“The sequences showing the three women’s weed-fuelled fantasy sequences of what they’d like to do to their boss (Dabney Coleman) are almost avant garde and their action plan is incidentally pretty radical too. Once they’ve got their horrible manager tied up, they fake his signature on memos decreeing job shares, a creche, an office redesign that accommodates access for wheelchair users. Pretty bold stuff, and not every 2018 workplace has as much, but 9 to 5 finally seems to lose its nerve, just a little bit, on the equal pay issue.
This 1980 feminist revenge comedy, starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three New York office workers who kidnap their misogynist monster of a boss, is rereleased nationally, tagged to the Comedy Genius season at London’s BFI Southbank. Parton’s pumpingly brilliant song over the opening credits declares: “In the same boat / With a lot of your friends / Waiting for the day / Your ship will come in / And the tide’s gonna turn / And it’s all gonna roll your way.” Thirty-eight years on, is Parton’s prophecy being fulfilled?”.
There is no telling how many other musicians-turned-actors Parton inspired. In the 1980s, sure, there were a few artists who were on the big screen, but I think Parton definitely helped pave the way for others. I have not seen 9 to 5 for a long time but Parton and her female co-stars are infectious, bonded and truly memorable. It is a great film but I think Parton is the standout performer. For many established artists, Parton included, the 1980s was a tough decade. Maybe it was the sounds of the time that wrong-footed them; the fact they had to adapt or sounded strange against the music of the time. Parton enjoyed some success during the decade but her music did not sound as striking as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. That is no shot against her songwriting. Tastes were changing and Parton struggled to gain as much critical and commercial love as she hoped for.
With a few blips during that decade, the 1990s was a more fruitful one for Parton. One might argue the 1980s was more diverse and scene-driven than the 1980s but I think Parton got a second wind during that time. 1995’s Something Special and 1996’s Treasures provided a glimpse of Parton’s past glories but 1998’s Hungry Again really saw her return to her roots. Parton was extremely relevant during the 1980s but there was a feeling that she was being side-lined or less important than she was previously. Hungry Again is heart-warming and accomplished work that gained a lot of critical praise. This interesting article from 1998 talked with Parton as she discussed Hungry Again:
“When Dolly Parton decided to record her new album, Hungry Again, she went back to the basics — her Tennessee mountain home.
“This wasn’t something that I needed to do for money,” Dolly says. “This was something I needed to do for me. It was my music that started it all. It’s what means the most to me.”
But when she went back home to write, she took the album’s title literally — Dolly fasted for three weeks in preparation.
“It wasn’t all that different for me,” she says, slipping off her trademark stilettos and curling up in a chair in her Nashville office. “I have fasted off and on all my life, for spiritual reasons and to lose weight when I’ve been heavier.
“So that part was not that hard. I fasted for three weeks. I did a juice-and-fruit fast for the first week, to get myself into it. On the second week, I had nothing but water. Then the third week, I had juices again.
“Hungry Again” was the first song written for the album.
“I didn’t know that I was going to call the album that,” Dolly says. “It wasn’t until after I was over the headaches of fasting and kind of settled into the fact that I wasn’t going to be eating.
“Then it’s almost like you’re high — like you’re on a drug of some kind. I woke up at three o’clock in the morning and couldn’t sleep. I sat down, started singing and it all started coming:
The thrill of desire, the excitement is gone”.
I Believe in You, Parton’s forty-sixth studio album was released in 2017 – it received moderate acclaim but had its fair share of bright moments. It seems there is no slowing Parton and she will be making music for many more years to come. On 8th February, during Grammy week, she was honoured for her accomplishments as an artist and humanitarian; she was named the 2019 MusicCares Person of the Year. Here, in this article, Parton talked about her work, legacy and continued passion:
"I really think it should not matter who you are whether it’s based on race, religion, color or gender," says Parton. "You should be allowed to do a job and do your job. If you do it well, you should be appreciated, respected, and admired. I’m proud that I’ve done well in this business. . . I try to live that as a woman. I try to let it stand in the songs I’ve written through the years long before there was ever a movement I was moving in it and talking about it even my first album was called Just Because I’m A Woman. It was based on that and my mistakes are no worse than yours and just because I’m a woman. I should get the same chance.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Musically, she's been beyond influential as well, with countless artists following in her stead and recording various versions of her songs. When asked to name a favorite rendition of one of her songs, a pretty big one came to Dolly's mind immediately.
"I will always treasure, and should, the big crossover with Whitney [Houston] on ‘I Will Always Love You,' because that really put me in the forefront as a writer and an artist and I think it made a lot of people see me as a writer," says Parton. "I was just a girl with the big hair and big tits and a big personality, but I think that one kind of pointed a finger at me as a serious songwriter and the fact that it did so well and I was so touched by it and so honored by it that. That one will stand out in my mind forever."
Parton's staggering catalog of songs listens like a testament to her earth-shaking ability to change our world, our culture and our future—and in classic Dolly style, she makes it look and sound fun.
“I dreamed it. I wished it. I hoped it and I thought it, that I had what it could take,” she says. "When I saw my name in the Billboards and the Top 10 that I was doing something right and it was going to work".
Parton is a multi-talented and ever-busy artist who has broken boundaries and inspired a wealth of artists. I have alluded to her acting career but think about some of the hits she was involved in. In 1989, she returned to acting in Steel Magnolias; a huge success that grossed millions and received a lot of positive reviews. Parton appeared in T.V. films such as Wild Texas Wind (1991) and Blue Valley Songbird (1999); she launched her own T.V. series, The Dolly Show and appeared in various sitcoms – including a spot on The Simpsons in the 1999 episode, Sunday, Cruddy Sunday. As a philanthropist, Parton has supported many charities and, through her Dollywood Foundation, is a proponent of literacy and helping those who are illiterate. Through her foundation, Parton has brought books to children and helped countless people; she has brought jobs and revenue to deprived areas and continues to donate her time and money to worthy causes. I have just sort of scratched the surface – but it is clear Parton is an icon and someone who is an inspiration to many. Through her charitable work, enduring music and positive words, Dolly Parton is a musical treasure who will continue to the generations. I am not a huge Country music fan but you just need to look at the scene now and so many artists owe their careers to Parton. There is a lot of love out there for a true legend.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
In fact, Dolly Parton is to be the subject of a BBC documentary. This feature explains more:
“Dolly Parton will be the subject of a new documentary for the BBC. “Dolly’s Country,” set to air on BBC Two this fall, seeks to show a different side of the country star, noting one that’s “no less extraordinary, but far more authentic and far more surprising.”
The doc will delve into Dolly’s songwriting, with the legend personally taking viewers through some of her biggest hits. It will also follow the 50th anniversary of her first Grand Ole Opry appearance, and more.
And speaking of that Grand Ole Opry anniversary, a new exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dolly’s first Opry performance is set to open next month. “Dolly: My Opry Memories” will open September 3rd at the Opry House in Nashville, and run through October 31st. It will feature at least 24 of Dolly’s iconic outfits, worn at pivotal moments in her Opry career”.
The sheer stamina of Dolly Parton is incredible! She clearly loves what she does and, as I said, there are no signs of the legend calling time. Parton is restless when it comes to improving the world and spreading love and joy through music. I want to end with an interview Parton gave with The Guardian earlier this year to promote the London run of the 9 to 5 musical.
It is an illuminating and intriguing interview that digs deep and reveals a lot of new sides. Parton talks about politics, feminism and the start of her career. I wanted to quote a section that talked about a rare force: the experience and reality of being Dolly Parton:
“Parton’s work ethic is extraordinary, but the real proof of her stamina is her public persona, which she maintains as indefatigably as her makeup. The night before we meet, a friend at the BBC texted me to say she happened to meet Parton in a corridor, and she got “the full Dolly Parton experience”: southern aphorisms, boob jokes, sunny friendliness. Does she never get tired of having to be “Dolly Parton” for everybody?
“No, I enjoy what I do,” she says firmly. “I enjoy being loved – I love that. I always ask God to let me shine a light and uplift mankind because that is my purpose. I look fake, but my world is real to me”.
Where will Parton go next? I am sure there will be plenty more albums but it seems, when it comes to her, you never know what will come next. She is an influence on artists established and new and the sheer whirlwind of her humour and passion is infectious. Even if, like me, you are not steeped in Parton history and know her albums intimately, one cannot her importance; the fact she is an icon who has helped move music forward and created so much good. It is staggering to think of all the albums she has released and how productivity she has been. It makes me tiring just counting the albums but it is clear Parton does not want to do anything else. Here is someone who, since the 1960s, has added her distinct voice to the musical landscape. Sure, there have been some misses during the way but one feels Parton had a blast recording those albums/T.V. shows that were not lauded. She exudes charm and warmth in everything she does and, for that reason, Parton must be considered an icon! A true force of nature, I am sure we will see Parton reign and shine…
IN THIS PHOTO: Parton shot for 1980’s Dolly Parton: On Tour/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
FOR a good many years to come.