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.Continue reading