“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
Dolly Parton has perfected the persona of the dumb, busty blonde, and she’s done it while establishing a career for herself as a multi-platinum singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, a box office star and a savvy businesswoman. She's had it both ways – cashing in on the silly bombshell character people want her to be while earning a tremendous amount of respect for her talent, business acumen and sense of humor. She’s a reminder that women in show business can be taken seriously without taking themselves too seriously, and that’s pretty cool.
Dolly represents that rags to riches story everyone loves so well, born to a family of fourteen living in a one-room cabin in a poor town in Tennessee. She grew up in poverty-stricken Appalachia, belting out Pentecostal hymns with her family very early in life. Her grandfather, a “holy roller preacher,” has said, “She started singing as soon as she quit crying,” and she learned the guitar almost as young. She composed her first song at the age of five and had her mother write it down for her, a tune titled “Life Doesn’t Mean Much To Me,” which Dolly concedes was “a pretty deep song for a kid.”
Before she was 10 she was singing on the radio and on public television, and she began recording songs by the time she was 13. One of Dolly’s biggest hits, her song “Coat of Many Colors,” is about the pride she felt in the midst of her poverty.
Dolly always knew what she wanted and what she was capable of: after gaining some small notoriety singing at church functions and through local channels, she headed to Nashville on a Greyhound bus the day after she graduated from high school. She was terrified but determined, writing a letter to her parents a few weeks later that said, “I cried almost all the way to Nashville. I wanted to turn around a few times and come back. But you know how bad I’ve always wanted to go to Nashville and be a singer and songwriter.”
She’d visited Nashville and guest-starred on the Grand Ole Opry several times by that point, and despite producers trying to shoehorn her into bubblegum pop, Dolly’s heart was always set on country music. “Coming from the backwoods there was no other way for me to start out except in country and folk music. I was very, very country.”
She was a huge fan of Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline, and when she was seventeen she made $240 recording six songs on the album Hits Made Famous By Country Queens – Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells. One of the songs wasn’t really made famous by either of those two queens; Dolly wrote the Appalachian ballad “Letter To Heaven” herself.
Her very first day in Nashville she met Carl Dean, the man she later married and to whom she’s still married 46 years later. Dean’s stayed largely out of the public eye, only attending a few of Dolly’s performances and never accompanying her to awards shows or red carpet events, representing the sort of small town, straightforward ideals Dolly admired in her father.
Dolly’s first success was as a songwriter, paying her dues by penning chart singles for other musicians like Bill Phillips. But in 1967 her first big break came when she was invited to join The Porter Wagoner Show, a television program and road show. Her first performance on the show was of the Curly Putman song she recorded, unsubtly titled “Dumb Blonde.”
After some growing pains (Dolly replaced Norma Jean Beasler on the show to fans’ dismay), Dolly’s success seemed assured. Over the next seven years, she recorded several hugely popular duets with Wagoner, who also became her manager. In 1974, she made the brave choice to break with Wagoner so she could promote herself as an independent act, a risk that paid off big time. The two were arguing about the direction of Dolly’s career and about her inadequate compensation, and Dolly found Porter possessive and narrow-minded. She wrote the song “I Will Always Love You” about their professional schism. The song later grew in fame after being included in her film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
“I Will Always Love You” caught the attention of Elvis Presley, who wanted to record the song. It would have been a huge get for Dolly, but here she showed signs of the shrewdness that has served her throughout her career. Elvis would only agree to record the song if he could share publishing royalties with Dolly, and Dolly flat-out refused. Later, of course, the song was recorded by Whitney Houston for The Bodyguard, one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time, and Dolly’s refusal to share publishing rights has earned her dozens of millions of dollars.
1974 was a big year for Dolly – she recorded two other #1 hits, including “Jolene” (the idea for which she got when a red-haired, green-eyed fan named Jolene signed a photo and asked Dolly to give it to Wagoner) and “Love Is Like A Butterfly.”
At this point in her music career, Dolly’s momentum was unstoppable, and after recording a couple of platinum albums and traveling on enormously successful tours, Dolly set her sights on the silver screen. Her first role was as put-upon secretary Doralee Rhodes in the women-in-the-office comedy 9 to 5, starring alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. She also wrote and recorded the title song, which became one of Dolly’s hugest hits and won her a bucketload of awards.
(This fan video’s the only one I could find. But it’s not bad!)
Dolly’s a natural in the film, funny and spunky and full of ease. Doralee’s the first role of many in which Dolly plays a strong-willed, intelligent working class woman. Her next role was as madam Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and while that may not seem like a particularly forward-thinking role, Mona’s a lot like Dolly in that she’s more sharp-witted and self-assured than she appears. She followed that up with roles in Rhinestone (with Sylvester Stallone), A Smoky Mountain Christmas and, my personal favorite, as provincial hairdresser Truvy in Steel Magnolias.
In between filming, Dolly continued touring and recording albums, and she began a series of shows in Las Vegas earning $350,000 a week. In 1986, Dolly took another worthy risk, investing most of her earnings in a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, only six miles from where she grew up in Sevierville. Previously called Silver Dollar City, the theme park was struggling when Dolly took it under her wing, redubbing it Dollywood. In one year under Dolly’s leadership, the theme park increased its attendance by 75 percent, and the park (with rides, concerts, restaurants and a train through the Smoky Mountain foothills) is now home to over two million visitors a year. The proceeds from the concerts benefit her Dollywood Foundation, an institution that supports good works in Tennessee, particularly the furthering of literacy through The Imagination Library.
Dolly Parton has only grown more successful in the years since she took Hollywood and Dollywood by storm. On the 19th of this month, she turned 67, and she hasn’t slowed down in the slightest. Last year she embarked on a world tour, released the album Better Day and starred in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah. Here she is kicking ass and looking like a stone cold fox at the Grand Ole Opry in September 2011.
She’s married sex appeal with country sweetness without ever compromising herself. “All my life I have walked a fine line. I’m too bad to be good and too good to be bad…My spirituality and my sensuality seem to be intertwined.” Dolly’s old-fashioned but not small-minded, having long argued for marriage equality and donating funds for HIV and AIDS research. She’s a Christian who decries frequently and plainly the judgment inherent in much of Christianity. She’s been married to the same man for 46 years, but they never had kids, something of a marvel for a woman who’s one of twelve siblings. She’s said that never having children gave her the freedom to throw herself into her career, and she instead uses her fortune to support her huge family in Tennessee.
Perhaps most impressively, Dolly’s also maintained a down-to-earth modesty despite her massive success. “In my kind of business, it is very easy to get too big for your britches. An inflated ego is dangerous, because it seduces you into thinking you know everything about everything. I know there is a lot I don’t know and there are lots of folks who are much more talented than I am.”
The woman’s enormously quotable, brilliant in interviews, winning over the press and the public through decades of unpretentious bon mots. I leave you with the best Dollyisms, the homespun words that have made her beloved beyond country music and ‘80s comedies.
“You’d be surprised how much it costs to make a person look this cheap.”
“My feet are small for the same reason my waist is small – things don’t grow in the shade.”
“I think of country radio like a great lover. You were great to me, you bought me a lot of nice things and then you dumped my ass for younger women.”
“I have no taste and no style and nobody cares. I love it!”
“I can tell you where to put it if I don’t like where you’ve got it.”
“I look at myself like a show dog. I’ve got to keep her clipped and trimmed and in good shape.”
“I’m just the girl next door, provided you live next door to a circus.”
“I like to buy clothes that are two sizes too small and then take them in a little.”
“Home is where I hang my hair.”
“It’s funny; people always talk about me coming back. But I never really go anywhere.”
And we hope you never do, Dolly.