Dolly Parton

The artist with one of the greatest country voices of all time says that throughout her life she's been driven by three passions: God, music and sex.

Published October 31, 2000 11:02AM (EST)

It would be so convenient if there were two Dolly Partons: the Top-40, "Two Doors Down" and "9 to 5" Dolly, the Dolly of the platinum-floss wigs and fake fingernails; and the Dolly of "Coat of Many Colors" and "Down From Dover," the guitar-picking Dolly with the mountains in her blood and the quivering teardrops in her voice.

That way, the hipster country fans who have no qualms about revering the likes of Hank Williams or Patsy Cline or Johnny Cash could ignore the "bad" Dolly and embrace the pure one, with no fear of ridicule from their peers. And the longtime, hardcore but perhaps less discriminating country fans those hipsters look down on -- the ones who might wear their hair a little too high or snap their gum a little too loud, the ones who at one time might have lovingly made quilts or collages for the likes of Randy Travis -- could have the other Dolly, the tacky one, the one who doesn't have a problem hopping into bed with a schmaltzy pop arrangement now and then. The purists would have their patron saint, the so-called rubes would have their good-time gal and everyone would be happy.

But there's only one Dolly Parton, and she's not divisible. You can pick and choose your favorite songs from the broad range of her music, but denying the pop Dolly Parton in favor of the homespun one only diminishes her mystery -- and denigrates her greatness. It would be handy if we could create our own versions of the artists we most adore -- take the "Sun Sessions"-era Elvis and skip the fat one, for example. But the artists we love best almost always confound us. As for Parton: She's a genuine rhinestone diamond.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born in January 1946 in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. Dolly's mother, Avie Lee Parton, married at 15 and had given birth to 12 children (one child, Larry, died as an infant) by the age of 35; Dolly was the fourth. Dolly's father, Robert, struggled to support the ever-growing family. In that sense, Dolly Parton's story is a textbook case of a young woman yearning for fame and riches as a way of escaping, and helping her family to escape, extreme poverty. Parton has been candid about her fondness for wigs, flashy clothes and all kinds of artifice: those trappings represent glamour and prosperity to her, and she's not completely wrong. As she notes in her highly entertaining (if sometimes maddeningly New-Agey) 1994 autobiography, "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business," "It costs a lot to make a person look this cheap."

There are times when "My Life and Other Unfinished Business" almost reads like a parody of rags-to-riches biographies -- the part, for instance, where Parton recollects how she and her playmates would tie strings to June bugs and fly them around like toys. But Parton's childhood poverty informs much of her adult work, not so much because all of her songs are about being poor (most of them are not), but because she seems to be possessed of a certain brand of compassion that often comes from having to do without. Part of her sensibility, of course, comes from the type of music she grew up with: church music as well as ballads that had made their way across an ocean decades before she was born, songs about love and death and other mysteries, pieces of music that have been subtly changed over the years as they've been handed down.

Parton developed a love, and a knack, for songs that told stories: Songs that spoke of dutiful restraint between potential lovers ("Chas," off the superb and, unfortunately, out-of-print 1970 LP "The Fairest of Them All"), of man-stealing temptresses ("Jolene"), of women who are weary from making mistakes in love but always willing to try again ("The Bargain Store") and of forbidden love that lasts till the grave ("Silver Dagger"). Her songs, even many of the blatantly pop-country ones, are pure Appalachia in spirit, retooled for the late 20th century; they often have a haunting quality that's just a few quiet footsteps away from the ancient tales of girls dying on the moor with their babes in their arms or dead lovers who haunt the living.

As a girl, Parton had always loved singing, and with the help and encouragement of her uncle, Bill Owens, she landed a spot on a Knoxville, Tenn., television show at the age of 10. She made her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry at 13. Immediately after graduating from high school, in 1964, she moved to Nashville, intent on becoming a country star; within her first few days there, she met her husband, Carl Dean, a shy fellow who to this day prefers to stay out of the spotlight that seems to hover almost perpetually over his wife.

In the mid-'60s Parton cut several singles for Monument Records, among them her first Top-40 country hit, "Dumb Blonde," a sly sendup of her own evolving persona. (Years later, she'd quip, "I'm not offended by all the dumb blond jokes because I know I'm not dumb, and I also know that I'm not blond.") In 1967 she landed her biggest break yet: She was invited to join Porter Wagoner's already-successful television show, and the records she cut between that year and 1974, both alone and with Wagoner, helped establish her as a true country-and-western star.

Parton's work with Wagoner was hugely popular with audiences, but after the fact, listening to their recordings together (you can find a representative sampling on RCA's "The Essential Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton"), you can hear how Parton stays well within the margins of the material. Wagoner's voice, while pleasant enough, had limitations; Parton's seemed as if it was aching to soar.

In 1974, feeling constrained by her professional partnership with Wagoner, she left his show, and the breakup was bitter. Several years later, Wagoner sued Parton over certain contractual obligations, making the rift between the two even deeper. In her book and elsewhere, Parton has freely admitted that she wrote her 1974 hit "I Will Always Love You" as an elegy for her broken relationship with Wagoner, a relationship that was always platonic, but at times stormily passionate. (Parton has always been amusingly wry about the rumors of her romantic liaison with Wagoner. When Tammy Wynette, who'd also sung with Wagoner, fretted that Wagoner might claim he'd slept with her, as he had about most of his other singing partners, Parton quipped, "Don't worry, Tammy, half of the people will think he's lying and the other half will just think we had bad taste.")

Parton's country career flourished in the '70s, and she briefly had her own TV show in the mid-'70s (as well as a second series in the late '80s). The earlier part of the '70s was undoubtedly the golden age of her own songwriting, the era of "Coat of Many Colors," "Jolene" and countless others. But she had her sights set on being more than a country star: Her great ambition was to crack the pop Top 40, to make hits that would be embraced by more than just her loyal country audience. In late 1977 she got her wish, when "Here You Come Again" hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts.

Parton takes credit (some of us would prefer to call it blame) for laying the groundwork for the country boom of the 1990s, a period when country suddenly chomped down on a huge segment of the pop-music market. But she's also acutely aware of how that boom ultimately hurt her. The country-music machine of the past decade -- and the country recording industry has been nothing if not a machine, cranking out "stars" whose prefab country is mostly an insult to the genre -- had little use for "old-timers" like Parton. She and her peers (among them luminaries like George Jones, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, the latter two of whom found respect in their later careers only in the rock recording world) were shut out of country radio in favor of singers who were allegedly more modern. "The 'normalization' of country music and the Top-40 kind of thinking that goes with it have made it hard for an over-40 hillbilly to get radio airplay anymore," she noted ruefully in her book, adding, "Hey, DJs, I'm forever 39, so please play my records!" In 1996 Parton closed her Nashville office; in 1997 she dissolved her loyal fan club. She seemed to be distancing herself not so much from country music itself as from the monster it had become, and who could blame her?

But Parton has never complained about her mainstream success. Actually, she's milked it. Parton's sweet, sexy demeanor (not to mention her boldness in showing off her bodaciously rounded figure) shouldn't fool anyone into thinking she's anything but an intense and incredibly smart businesswoman. Her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, is a popular tourist attraction. And although her movies, with the exception of the 1980 "9 to 5," haven't been huge hits, you can't blame her for trying to translate her particular brand of sparkle to the big screen. "9 to 5" is nothing more than an inane revenge fantasy masquerading as a feminist statement, but Parton stands apart from her costars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as the movie's most memorable personality. She's a charmer, and her speaking voice alone is gently musical. But there's also a no-nonsense crispness about her (particularly in a scene where she goes to the trunk of a car to get a crowbar and calmly assesses the dead body that's stashed there). That seems to be a real-life trait, a characteristic that helps her get things done, rather than just hanging around dreaming about them.

But Parton's career as a star does have one major drawback: It may have drained too much attention (and perhaps some of her own energy) from Dolly Parton the singer. Anyone who's ever flicked on a radio knows the hits, glossy gumdrops like "Two Doors Down," "9 to 5" and "Here You Come Again."

But I think there are still too many potential fans who hold those hits against her -- and before I go any further, I should note that the reason I've been so tough on hip country fans who haven't caught on to Dolly is that, until 10 years ago, I was pretty clueless myself. A friend of mine at the time, one of the truest country fans I've ever known, casually mentioned what a great singer she was. (He also noted her skill as a guitarist, which seemed doubly unbelievable to me, given those devilish fingernails.) I resisted even further -- until I heard "Coat of Many Colors," Parton's autobiographical song about the ridicule she experienced as a young schoolgirl when she wore the patchwork coat her mother had lovingly made for her.

You might hear "Coat of Many Colors" and call it a tearjerker. I call it a heartbreaker, a song that has the power to change you, subtly, forever, maybe not so much for the subject matter as for the way Parton sings it. The song's lyrics are simply written, a straightforward narrative: "Although we had no money/I was rich as I could be/in my coat of many colors that my mama made for me." It's the quaver in Parton's voice, a steel-forged mix of fragility and determination, that make the song so affecting. Parton's voice stands alone among living country singers, but it also stands as one of the greatest country voices of all time. Her plaintive, shivering phrases come straight from the mountains, though not from the earth: She skims through a song the way a brook trips and trickles over little stones -- there's both merriment and stately beauty in it.

You can get a sense of the fineness of Parton's vocal texture by listening to her own recording of "I Will Always Love You," playing it against Whitney Houston's megahuge, bloated version of the song. (No need to actually put the Houston version on the turntable; simply playing it in your head is torture enough.) A guitar motif washed with mournful sunset colors opens Parton's version; when she steps in, she handles the lyrics with the cautious tenderness of a farm girl carrying a jumble of newly hatched chicks in her apron. She's aware of the fragility of what she's holding, and of its fleetingness: Unlike a passel of chicks, it's destined to soon fly away from her forever. Houston's version, on the other hand, is an overbearing monstrosity, nothing but a vehicle for her windup-toy melisma. She works the inherent wistfulness of the song as if it were pie dough, rolling and patting it until it's thick and heavy and tough. Parton's reading packs boundless, if restrained, passion into phrases that barely rise above a whisper.

I'd say that of all her country contemporaries, living or dead, Parton is the most sensuous. Her voice has so much shimmering life to it, as well as a kind of voluptuousness -- it's the voice of someone who's eager to take everything in. Even if Parton sometimes sings of restraint, her music is never about repression. That's confirmed by the way she writes about sex in her autobiography: "All my life ... I have been driven by three things; three mysteries I wanted to know more about; three passions. They are God, music and sex. I would like to say that I have listed them in the order of their importance to me, but their pecking order is subject to change without warning."

Even if Parton tends to revel in melodrama (and melodrama is, after all, essential to country music), she never quite succumbs to the self-pitying victimization that so many female country singers slip into. She claims she wrote "Just Because I'm a Woman" as the result of her husband's asking her if he was the first man she'd ever slept with; the honesty of her answer hurt him deeply. But Parton couldn't change the truth, and she didn't feel she should apologize for it. The song addresses the hypocrisy of a certain kind of man who'll sleep with one type of woman but look for "an angel to wear his wedding band." It's not so much that Parton's statement was ahead of its time in the way it addressed the notion of women's sexual freedom (the song was released in 1968), but it represents a sensibility that wouldn't have been common among her peers, professional or otherwise. Parton, who considers herself a Christian as well as a deeply spiritual person, is unfettered by the Bible Belt notion (still extant today and not just in the Bible Belt) that sex should never be spoken of, let alone enjoyed.

The hardest part of being a Dolly Parton fan is navigating her currently available catalog. The state of her RCA releases is, quite frankly, a mess, a jumble of greatest-hits packages that repeat one another endlessly. Many of her most significant LPs, among them "My Tennessee Mountain Home" (1973), remain unavailable on CD. If I were starting from scratch, I'd pick up RCA's "The Best of Dolly Parton" and move on from there to the recently remastered "Coat of Many Colors" and "Jolene" (both on Buddha). Parton's work on the 1987 "Trio," her first recording with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris (a second followed in 1998), is lovely, particularly her rendering of the traditional "Rosewood Casket." And Parton's most recent release, "The Grass Is Blue," stands as one of the greatest albums of her career, an LP of bluegrass songs that showcases the graceful, unvarnished beauty of her voice.

If purity is what we demand of our country singers -- even our complex and sometimes puzzling ones -- then Parton, no matter how many pop-crossover successes she's had, is the consummate country singer. If I had to choose one song that crystallizes Parton's supremacy as both a singer and songwriter, it would be "Down From Dover." (The song is available on the CD set "The RCA Years, 1967-1986"; it originally appeared on the 1970 LP "The Fairest of Them All," and if the record gods have any sense of justice, they'll release this one on CD next.) The song tells the story of a young girl who's been left waiting, pregnant, for a boy who's clearly never going to come back.

As it begins, "Down From Dover" sounds much like a regular pop song, with its curlicued guitars -- by 1970 the lines between pop and country were already fairly blurred. And its story is told so straightforwardly that it's almost a miniature novel. But the mood of "Down From Dover" springs directly from the most tragic ballads of Scotland and Wales, songs that, even with centuries of mourning and keening poured into them, manage to hold tight like a corset. In these songs, emotions don't spill forth in a cathartic outpouring; they tremble inside the meter and musical phrases, concentrated, distilled and devastating.

Parton's voice tears your heart in two, not because it's sad but because it's so relentlessly hopeful, through the very end. The tiny baby dies in the woman's arms, and she explains it this way in the song's final lines, ones that hit with an anvil's force and a butterfly's delicacy: "In some strange way she must have known she'd never have a father's arms to hold her/and dying was her way of telling me he wasn't coming down from Dover."

The dying babe is, of course, the song's most highly melodramatic image. But its purpose is actually quite subtle: It exists to deflect our attention from the song's true center, the mother's pain as it's reflected in Parton's voice, because to look too directly at that would be too much to bear. The song's gracefulness may seem at odds with Parton's spun-sugar hair and glossy fingernails, and certainly it's at odds with her chirpily cheerful radio hits. But the devastating song and the desire for the glamorous trappings both spring from the same heart. And both the song and the desire are older, perhaps, than we want to allow: At least as old as the idea of a woman asking a traveling lover to bring new hair ribbons with him when he returns.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------