A Listener’s Guide to Dolly Parton by Paige La Grone Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

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.  

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KARIN BOLENDER: “In a time of great need—starvation, privation, aggravation, a broken heart and a broken head—I found succor at Dollywood.” (Arthur, 2004)

Karin Bolender on the secret truths that Dollywood reveals

As published in Arthur No. 8 (January 2004), with illustrations by Emily Ryan and art direction by W.T. Nelson

. . . And me astride a mighty rooster, with a raging red crown and swelled breast and silver claws, and it running, running: but suspended, rising and falling slow like tides, like a horse in a dream who gallops without going anywhere-rising and falling with hydraulic and dreamlike monotony, round and round, the same dim motion ascribing its circumference of colored lights and warped music round and again like a lathe into the world’s great big empty bowl. The next time around, it was a goat I rode. (1)

Oh it may have all started way back, when I was nine and saw a unicorn while on a honeymoon in Mexico. It was 1984: the beginning of the end for so many of us, God’s children. Of course nobody believed me. We also saw the Love Boat on that honeymoon, docked in Puerta Vallarta. It was my mother’s second marriage, the real one. But what does it matter now, anyway? That was another age, a virgin country.

And I can tell you, because you already know, how the paths that bring us from childhood to this are crooked and fraught with pitfalls. And this is what we get for our troubles: a soul full of rusty fish hooks and bullet holes, eyes that squint, hands that shake. But there are certain little comforts of adulthood. Whatever your poison happens to be, you seek succor where you can. In a time of great need—starvation, privation, aggravation, a broken heart and a broken head—I found succor at Dollywood.

I suppose I should thank the Bearded Menace, because I never would have discovered Dollywood if he had not smashed up a dream and sent me packing. So it was a fine gift he gave me, in the end. This hotblood from sweethome Georgia who said, “Come on baby, let’s go down south where I am from: I’ll build a mansion in your name, we’ll swim in the black creeks, lay down in the weeds, anywhere we want, lay back on the front porch or on piles of old tires and rock and rock until we are old and wise and ugly to everyone but each other, ourselves. And we’ll hold hands and murmur this dreaming talk with dogs at our feet licking and scratching, rolling in play with our naked children, who will cackle in raucous joy and swing from the scuppernong vines-wild flesh, dying light, faint music wafting in from somewhere. Ripe peaches and pokeberries’ll be washed clean and brought to the porch steps for us by possums and coons. Fruits of the land collected and carried to us by the crows and ants and snakes, who will all gather round in the evening to hear us speak in tongues and sing tales of these very days we are living now and the glory days to come, full of moon-age romance and steamy concupiscence, and don’t forget adventuring, on the sea, in the air, by camelback and purple Triumph: come on baby, let’s go down. Go down with me.”

Back in 1984, when I saw the unicorn in the month of November, I knew that you only have to believe in something enough to make it come true. I knew this because my mama told me, and it was confirmed by Robert Vavra’s 1984 “Unicorns I Have Known” calendar, which advised the following “to the pure of heart: watch carefully entering each forest glade as though you were the first human to set foot there; take time to sample pollen carried on a golden breeze; do not use deodorants or insect repellents or wear leather shoes or belts; and believe. Yes, above all, believe, and you will surely meet as lovely and noble and snow-white a single-horned creature as any who pirouette upon these pages.”

And so I did. All over 1984, I scrawled with the new calligraphy pen that was also a Christmas present that year: “I BeLIeVe! UnICorNS arE ReAl! UniCoRNs LiVe in 83! I [HEART] UNicOrnS!” And almost a year later, on the honeymoon, it came true. Nobody saw it but me. Not even my mother, who was wrapped up in her own love dream in the Mexican jungle, brighter and more free and happy than she had ever been before, or has been ever since.

* * *

“Women are so wise. They have learned how to live unconfused by reality. Impervious to it.” (2)

This comes from William Faulkner. But it might just as easily come from the pages of Dolly Parton’s autobiography, Dolly, if you read between the lines. Or it could be painted like a motto in twenty-foot letters, alongside a gigantic pink butterfly and an even more gigantic image of Dolly herself, all a-sparkle with sequins and high nest of golden hair, on one of the billboards along the highway in northeast Tennessee, advertising how many miles are still to go before the pilgrim shores up at Dollywood.

But of course, that couldn’t be. Because what lies under the however-many square acres of the Dollywood park is not the glitterful attractions and family entertainments that lure people in, but an old organic thing buried beneath. A mighty powerful secret. Primeval, even.

But oh, the unicorn: it’s not that I ever really forgot it, it’s just that after a while, in time, that quarry was overrun with the dream of other beasts-boys and men, but mostly boys. And with pubescence, I began a metamorphosis into a new and strange kind of being myself: some kind of rootless hairy hallucinating mushroom with linguistic and motor skills.

As if the hormones of pubescence themselves are this bewitching and infinitely powerful kind of hallucinogen, the effects of which never quite wear off, and make you hear and see, and more so believe, all sorts of beautiful monstrosities and warped miracles that fall under the rubric of sexlove. Wild imaginings like “I saw a unicorn” get replaced by wilder ones, like “I will love you forever.”

And somewhere along the seam between childhood and this circus that is sexlove, we are supposed to weed out illusions and fantasies and find out what reality is. A dark time is had by all, for a while anyway. But most of us make it out of adolescence somehow, and emerge as more mature human beings with hopes and desires and even, heaven help us, beliefs. Beliefs are great and all, until they stray toward the sayings and doings of other people. Then, we are all screwed. Yes, that’s exactly what we are.

Well, that’s how I got screwed by the Bearded Menace anyway. Hell, you heard what he said! Let’s see you try to not fall in love with somebody who vows, with an avowal disturbingly familiar to the last letter-every pitch and note and rhythmic twang-to work to construct the world newly every moment, build it with words and woods and other raw materials into what he believes it should be, all the forms and lights and glories, that seem to be exactly what you have been longing and working for all this time, and trying to build, alone. Just see if that doesn’t get all your electrical juices flowing. Silly beast, you believed in this—that the words and deeds building up between the two of you were plank-for-plank making something real and solid of a dream, and not just playing around in funhouse mirrors.

Well, when the blue lightning was over down in Georgia, the darkness that followed was profound. I was thinking all this over one evening, lying there alone in twisted sheets, in the fall, in his parent’s attic, when it was dead. That is when it came to me like a startling burst, hovering over the dark filthy futon, in the sheets full of our scabs and little bloodstains left over from the plague of seedticks we had suffered together with our mutts. And the last kiss—a desperate end-kiss. I will tell you. It was something I had never thought of before, but suddenly there it was. DOLLYWOOD. That’s how it came, a vision, like Jim Morrison’s Indian. Except it was not a figure but a booming sourceless voice that came into my head, out of nowhere, and commanded, “YOU MUST GO TO DOLLYWOOD.”

What? You mean Dolly Parton’s theme park? What the hell?


And how can you argue with a booming sourceless voice that commands you to go somewhere, especially when you are no longer welcome where you are, and you have nowhere else in mind to go?

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