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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June Carter Cash, 1929-2003

by Paige La Grone Babcock

Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)

She died on Thursday May 15. Complications from heart valve replacement  surgery were the cause; that, and being without oxygen too long, whereby her loved ones were forced to take her off life support. My adopted hometown went into deep mourning. The following Sunday, I sat beside my new husband on our beat-up sofa in Nashville, watching Channel 5 broadcast the funeral of June Carter Cash from the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, just up Gallatin Road and through two townships from where we sat holding hands at home. 

The place was packed with fans, friends and the famous–from Sheryl Crow to Jane Seymour to Larry Gatlin, all of whom spoke or performed during the sometimes moving, sometimes bizarre open mic portions of the service. A mad crush of flowers dressed the altars, the backdrop to the speaker’s podium, and flanked the blue coffin wherein lay the 73-year-old body of June Carter Cash. After the funeral, I read that her children asked that flowers be sent in lieu of donations, for their mother had loved them so. I wondered if the coffin color was what the family knew as “June-blue,” self named for her favorite shade. 

Johnny sat in the front row, in a wheelchair, not walking the line, but kinda broke-down, untethered; an American icon wholly human before us. Seeing him so made me squeeze my own husband’s hand harder. June and Johnny, married to one another for 35 years, found each in the other a soul mate in mid-life. Theirs is neither fable nor fiction, but fated love story for the ages. And that love first fettered then unfurled, became June’s greatest art, midwifing her most enduring and exponentially regenerative acts of faith; faith in God, faith in man, faith in big beautiful bittersweet Life, and in the salvation that comes from belonging. 

Well practiced in the womanly art of community building,  June Carter Cash was one of the faces of radical feminism in my book. Not unlike choices made by women the world over–from my mother to my best girlfriend, to Patti Smith post-Mapelthorpe and prior to her husband’s untimely departure from this world– June mindfully feathered her nest, made welcome what came, and enlarged the circle by choosing home and family, (both blood and chosen) as the focus for her spotlight. Not the choice for all, but a valid and deeply beautiful choice for her, June Carter Cash lived in a way that inspires women to follow their hearts, making choices that suit them and their get, rather than buying into received opinion of shoulds and should nots. June had the strength and the intelligence, the warmth and the gumption to go on ahead and embrace her greatest gift–that of being the glue, that of being the magic. 

She was a female familial icon of continually shifting status: born into the First Family of Country Music as daughter of Maybelle, sister of Anita and Helen; married into Legend as wife of Johnny and mother to seven children, a family of both fame and of infamy. (That next generation is smattering of yours, mine and ours, including musicians Carlene Carter, John Carter Cash and Rosanne Cash, the latter of whom told all in her elegantly gracious eulogy for June, that while the elder Cash–who refused to preface daughter with “step”–hadn’t given her physical birth, she’d nonetheless helped to birth her future). None of these is the lead role; all are defined by their interrelationships. In this web of interdependence that revolved and spun near and around her, June played an integral supporting role. The sum of the parts she played are enough to populate that proverbial village we hear so much about–the one it takes to raise a child, or a rock star (same difference…), or anchor a Family Fold.  She played each role with gusto, with grace, with joy.

None of which is to deny her individuality; it is in fact to her credit that she found her own voice and self at all–surrounded as she was, June could easily have gotten by standing on the shoulders of giants. She was always a unique figure, an attention-getter. If one Carter Sister had the looks and one had the voice, June had the personality. She was the fun one. She threw off enough sparks to catch the attention of Elvis–never at a loss for female attentions–in their tent-show days. She was a good actress, a protege of Elia Kazan; her talent flowed from her strong sense of self, her confidence. Latter day appearances in fare like Robert Duvall’s The Apostle more than testify to this. Her comic timing was flawless— from her first bit as a kid walking on stage with a plank (looking for her room; she had her board) to her send up of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Homer and Jethro, to her deliciously kooky warble and pointed delivery of “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe” on the Grammy-winning solo album Press On

A critical success in 1999, Press On is the musical autobiography of a remarkable woman spanning a remarkable set of circumstances for the better part of the last century, a remarkable time in and of itself. Reissued only last month by Dualtone, setting the stage for a September follow-up, Press On bookends itself with Carter tunes and carries within its grooves June’s take on her very own “Ring Of Fire.” One of the most enduring and affecting country songs ever (even if it was most likely the afterthought conqueso horns that boosted it up the charts for the Man In Black), “Ring of Fire” is a nugget of gut-wrenching poetry on the allure of dangerous love. The fact that Johnny was its inspiration, and that the songwriter not only married him but saved him from himself in the process, is a twist of sweet justice.

As June always told it, and was oft recorded saying, for her there were only two kinds of people in the world: the ones she knew and loved, and the ones she didn’t know. And loved.

When at the funeral, Rosanne stood to read her beautiful words, she spoke what everyone had on their minds— that her father, Johnny Cash, had lost his anchor, his dearest companion. To my mind, had we never known June’s radio shows, films, records or books, we’d have known of the love she’d shared with this man, and that in and of itself would have been more than enough. It’d been salvation, in some small way, to all who witnessed it. What greater gift, than to be the glue, to be the magic?

Thank you, Valerie June Carter Cash. Thank you for giving us artful aspiration of kith and kin. We should all be so blessed,  to be somebody’s glue, somebody’s magic. 

You will be remembered fondly and often, as we all press on. 

Paige La Grone Babcock lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Eric.