A Listener’s Guide to Dolly Parton
by Paige La Grone Babcock
Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004), accompanying Karin Bolender’s cover feature on Dollywood, “Silly Beasts in Sacred Places.”
Earlier this year, Dolly Parton released her 72nd album. Halos & Horns rounded off her trilogy of back-to-the-roots music with a bluegrass pastiche of story-songs, love-gone- wrong songs, and timely anthems exploring faith and spirit. Too, there are the much nattered about ‘grassed up covers of Bread’s “If,” and most notably, Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” At her prime, the once and future queen of country music, Parton has embarked on her first big tour in over a decade.
A highly accomplished song-writer, singer, actress and performer, Parton has so embedded herself into the American psyche. And that is a very good thing—a veritable five-foot by buxom celebration of womankind, Parton predates (and easily dominates) Madonna in terms of reinvention . And long before the Dixie Chicks were a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Parton was glittering it all up with hicked-up subversive glamour of the blonde, paint-for-filth variety, and playing her own banjo, too. Her enduring legacy is her song-writing: “Jolene,” one of Parton’s earliest hits, has stood the test of time and worn incredibly well, most recently evidenced by hipster-destructo-blues band the White Stripes—their cover, a live-set staple (also available as a rarities track), with Jack White singing the song straight. Some kind of wonderful peculiar beauty, that.
Born in 1946, the 4th of 12 children to sharecropping parents, Dolly Rebecca Parton’s earliest years in the Smoky Mountain foothills of East Tennessee’s Sevier County were marked by extreme poverty, abiding faith (in both God & herself) and determination to make the most of her gifts. Parton’s uncle, Bill Owens, himself an aspiring country song-writer, was the girl’s first musical mentor. He taught her to play guitar and took her to the city of Knoxville to meet grocery store magnate and radio show sponsor Cas Walker. By the age of 10, Parton was singing on Walker’s radio show, and later, on his television show.
Parton’s first recording session, with Louisiana’s Goldband Records, was arranged by Owens and resulted in the sweetly sing-song single “Puppy Love.” Owens’ persistence on his niece’s behalf was rewarded with Parton’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and a 1962 single for Mercury, though the latter went nowhere and Mercury’s interest in the young talent waned. Determined as ever, Parton graduated high-school in 1964, announcing at the ceremony that she was “going to Nashville to become a star.” Parton’s words elicited laughter from the assembled graduates and their families. She left for Nashville the day following graduation.
Once in Nashville, Parton babysat to make ends meet. She appeared on the occasional radio show and wrote with fervor–at the date of this writing, Parton has published well over 3000 songs. During the early days in Music City, Parton pitched songs in Nashville to no avail and sang on some demos. While Capitol passed on her, Monument— who’d broken Roy Orbison earlier in the decade, and gave a pre-Austinized Willie Nelson a shot— took Parton on. As Monument founder Fred Foster recounts in the liner notes to the double disc set, The Monument Story, he took a meeting with Parton on recommendation of Billy Graves, one of Capitol’s A&R men, himself a retired artist. Auditioning live with a handful of original numbers, Parton’s raw talent wooed and won Foster.
The first Monument recordings were marketed to pop audiences, though a listen to this early material from sides and the recording Hello, I’m Dolly–later piece-meal chronicled on both the Monument Records Story and The World of Dolly Parton, Volumes 1 & 2–show the young Parton to be thoroughly adept at harder edged twang and tune. Two Monument singles, “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy,” both penned by Parton, were hits. They show Parton as a young woman to be reckoned with: simple though strong melody, a thin mountain inflected soprano gracefully quivering and pure; ability to put across clever and thoughtful lyrics with emotion and a charismatic innocence underpinned with subversive strength and actualized sensuality–qualities which continue to ripen and mark the artist’s work throughout her decades-long career.
The World of Dolly Parton, Vol. 1
Some of Parton’s hardest country sound. Volume 1 contains the crucial Monument recordings including “Dumb Blonde” & “Something Fishy,” the former of which illustrates her willingness to take on perception, and engage the juxtaposition of image versus truth.
The hits for Monument brought Parton to the attention of country singer Porter Wagoner, the Thin Man from West Plains, Mo. A fifties hit-maker with his hard hitting country, Wagoner came to embody the look and sound of country music to much of America as he entered their living rooms on the little box throughout the 60’s as the star of his Nashville based syndicated television show. When Norma Jean, the show’s popular girl-singer and Wagoner’s duet partner departed the program, Wagoner invited Parton, just out of her teens, to fill the void. She accepted and the pair embarked on what would be a heady, fruitful span of years, though hardly stress-free. To many, Wagoner is remembered as the Svengalian mentor who tried to keep Parton from pop cross-over success and with whom the artist was embroiled in a rather nasty lawsuit over publishing rights after their split in the mid-70s. (The suit was settled outside of the courtroom; Parton regained rights to her Owepar published material). For a time, however, the pair sparked one another creatively. Wagoner, who hadn’t written in years, was inspired by the prolific Parton and began to write again, all the while encouraging her free flowing pen and wide open persona. For her part, all Parton needed was a venue, an audience and a little time to make it her own way. Long a recording artist for RCA, Wagoner brought Parton into the label’s fold and with her made some of the finest duets of country music; their voices twinned themselves in song, making the two voices sound as though they sung four parts. Too, the partnership gave Parton an outlet for her original material to be put to wax. The young rural-edged sound and complimentary bespangled look of Parton gave a lift to her boss’ complacent comfort as king of his own parade. As much as he offered his protege, Parton took Wagoner for a ride he’d not have made without her. Their first single, “The Last Thing On My Mind,” made the country Top Ten during 1968. There they stayed, as a pair, song after song for the better part of the next six years.
The pair was named Vocal Group of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1968. Her solo debut for RCA, Just Because I’m A Woman (a pretty damned good record, but like most in her career, holistically inconsistent) was modestly successful in sales and charting. Yet it was as Wagoner’s duet partner that Parton was best known & loved. A vibrantly hokum version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)” was what broke it for Parton. Encouraged to record the song by her duet partner, Parton played it up to the hilt and the country music public, fans of Hee Haw-style vaudeville-holdover big fun, rewarded her with a No. 3 charting hit. Parton continued to write and record in quick succession, both for the Wagoner paired duets, and for her solo efforts, and the solo No. 1 hit “Joshua” came right behind the Rodgers cover. It was during this period that the stellar Coat of Many Colors was recorded, both the album and its title cut, a moving autobiographical number which reframed her poverty ridden childhood and wove in Biblical metaphor.
Parton’s big break came in 1974 with “Jolene,” a woman’s paean to a rival for her lover’s affections. Featuring a strangely wonderful staggering repeat intro to each verse and Parton’s quick-tongued quavery emotive vocals spinning off into it’s highest and most vulnerable register, she sold the simple song so believably it was plausible to imagine the unimaginable: that the bodaciously bosomed and glamour-puss Parton as narrator became comparatively homely, almost pitiable, yet brave for the asking.
The Best of Dolly Parton (RCA)
One of the most under-served major artists, Parton has yet to be collected on a true box set; The two disc RCA retrospective skimps on her strongest earliest material in favor of her latter day crossover material. A fantastic interpreter and a fine songwriter, Parton’s albums are spotty on the whole, therefore, this short 1970 Best of collection is critical. “Down From Dover” is an under recognized gem, and perhaps Parton’s saddest song. Also included: “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Ghetto,” “Just Because I’m a Woman,” and “In
the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad).”
The Best of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton (RCA)
Short. Sweet. Best collection to hit the high points of the duo’s shared catalogue. Includes “The Last Thing on My Mind” and the oft-requested Parton original, “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark.” The faux sun bronzed pair staring out from the cover are the shade of Nashville establishment Prince’s medium hot chicken.
Coat of Many Colors (RCA)
Both girlish & womanly, containing the best of Parton’s autobiographical canon (the title cut) alongside such lusty numbers as “She Never Met A Man (She Didn’t Like),” “Traveling Man,” and “The Way I See You.”
Parton’s ascent on the wings of “Jolene” freed her up to pursue more of the same; no longer was the tether of Wagoner’s leash so very necessary or utile. Though she continued for another two years to appear on the box with him, and to cut records with him, Parton ceased to accompany Wagoner on the road for the live shows. With heart, grace and artistry, Parton severed the cord with completeness by writing and recording perhaps her most enduring song, “I Will Always Love You,” her gift to Wagoner. Heads and shoulders over both her own remake (for the Burt Reynolds vehicle: a Hollywood-ized Best Little Whorehouse In Texas) and the over-blown blockbuster hit version by Whitney Houston nearly 20 years later, Parton’s original take with its sob-in-the-voice recitation of wishes, is stunning and tear inducing. Coming from elsewhere (Houston, we have a problem!), the truth of the sentiment could easily become suspect and cheesy.
Best of Dolly Parton, (RCA)
RCA’s second collection of its solo artist. The original vinyl, out of print but worth searching through the bins for, features Parton in a sequined banana color jumpsuit on the back and as a wholesomely sensual kerchief-wearing artist in the bonus poster. Hits the high spots of this period: “Jolene,” “The Bargain Store,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Love Is Like A Butterfly,” “Touch Your Woman,” and a cover of Porter Wagoner’s hymn-like, “When I Sing For Him.”
My Tennessee Mountain Home, (RCA)
All Parton originals, My Tennessee Mountain Home is her rootsiest, most autobiographical recording. Warm, idyllic, un-fussed & mussed Americana.
As the distance grew between Parton and her days with Wagoner, so did the distance between proven formula and the road to critical-mass appeal. “The Bargain Store,” likening the protagonist’s body (and broken heart) to a discount shop, is downright erotic. Dolly hit the airwaves of primetime television on her own in 1976, and produced her album New Harvest, First Gathering. The monstrously infectious Barry Mann / Cynthia Weill penned “Here You Come Again” hit microwave rotation on pop stations in 1977, and was followed inevitable if ill-advised flirtations with disco. By 1980, Parton made her acting debut in 9 to 5 alongside Lily Tomlin & Jane Fonda and her theme song for the film became her first number one hit on the pop charts. The album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, an entity separate from the film’s soundtrack, is dated by the heavy-handed production and arrangements of the era, yet remains a vital cog in the machine of not just Parton’s catalogue, but of social commentary and feminism. Women and work, their relationships to it and to the ones they love, is the through-line and here Parton marries her originals with well chosen covers including a surprising (and quite beautiful) take on Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.”
With household name recognition (and plenty of boob jokes abounding), the ’80s saw Parton’s star blazing through the mainstream— “Islands In the Stream,” a duet with Kenny Rogers was a massive hit and by the mid-eighties, her fans of yore saw her as no longer dancing with the one that brung her. RCA chose not to renew her contract in 1986; Parton rebounded with Bela Fleck setting a fast picking pace on White Limozeen for Columbia records. Parton’s finest hour, however, for a decade to come, came in the form of Trio: a back to the roots project with musical sistren Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt.
9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, (RCA)
The wildly popular title cut, Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” the radio-friendly “But You Know I Love You,” and the womanist anthem “Working Girl.” A hauntingly spot-on take of “The House of the Rising Sun” inverts the gender of the original, with Dolly singing from a prostitute’s point of view. The material is unassailable.
Trio, (with Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt), (Warner Brothers)
Traditional country, its leading female voices smack at the center. Gorgeous harmony. Song centered.
A radio artist from the start, the late 80s & 90s found Parton, alongside her peers, pushed from play-lists dominated by cookie-cutter hot new country Garth Brooks & his ilk. Parton continued to record and play out; there was another brief stint at television and there were two more films, though nothing that rates as essential until 1999’s transcendent The Grass Is Blue, which pre-figured by a year the onset on the ongoing O Brother hoo-ha.
The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill)
Dead on. Soulful bluegrass Dolly style; a critic’s darling of a record. Some of her best honed writing in years; a formidable cover of traditional, “Silver Dagger.” The first in Parton’s bluegrass trilogy, The Grass is Blue is Dolly moving forward into the past: straight ahead mountain music, a perfect bridge from one century into the next.