Parton, Dolly (1946—)

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Parton, Dolly (1946—)

Dolly Parton is a country singer, songwriter, movie actress, businesswoman, children's author, and media image, and yet none of these labels, neither singly nor collectively, capture the paradox that is Dolly. Her public image is near caricature, big blonde hair, little-girl voice, and a bust measurement that defies belief. But both her autobiographical lyrics and her multi-million-dollar empire, Dolly Parton Enterprises, testify to the substance beneath the image.

Dolly's life story is the stuff of which American legends are made. Born the third of twelve children in a log cabin in Sevier County, Tennessee, she was delivered by a doctor who was paid with a sack of corn meal milled from corn grown by her then tenant father. The country cliche of humble beginnings where material things were scarce but love and faith were plentiful has been captured in some of her best known songs, including "My Tennessee Mountain Home." But in the skilled hands of this talented songwriter the cliche acquired an unexpected freshness and power. "Coat of Many Colors," the title cut from her 1971 album (RCA Victor), for example, recalls an actual incident from Parton's life. The coat her mother made her from scraps of material becomes an object of ridicule when she wears it to school; her mother assuages her pain by reminding her that the coat was made with love. Parton revealed in interviews that the episode, which she still found hurtful, fired her ambition to become a star. It also gave her a country classic and the material for her first children's book, Coat of Many Colors.

Musical ability was not rare in the family of Avie Lee and Lee Parton. Seven of their twelve children would someday work as professional musicians, but Dolly's talent was exceptional even among so talented a group. She began singing before she was two years old and was writing songs on her homemade guitar before she was seven. By the age of twelve, she was singing on a Knoxville radio station, and a year later she recorded "Puppy Love," a song she had written on Gold Band, a small label. A local celebrity by the time she reached high school, Dolly dreamed of Grand Ole Opry stardom. She left for Nashville the day after her high school graduation.

Three years later she had her first charting record, "Dumb Blonde" (Monument); that same year she became Porter Wagoner's "girl singer," appearing regularly on his syndicated television show. Enormously successful as duet partners, Parton and Wagoner during the next thirteen years had fourteen top ten hits and were twice named the Country Music Association's duo of the year. Parton, however, wanted more than being known as Wagoner's duet partner. She signed with RCA in 1968 and became a Grand Ole Opry member in 1969. Successes like "Joshua," number one on country charts in 1970, gave her the courage to strike out on her own, and she left Wagoner in 1974, although she recorded duets with him through 1980.

Recognition as a solo artist was immediate and impressive. The awards began to stack up: the Country Music Association named her Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975 and 1976, and in 1978 she received a Grammy as Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Entertainer of the Year awards from both CMA and the Association of Country Music. As she began appearing on television specials and talk shows, her fan base increased. Dolly's dreams were growing larger.

Parton came under attack within the country music community when it became clear that her plans were not limited to success in a single field. She was not the first country music star to explore different avenues of entertainment, but her independence and ambition were viewed as ingratitude by many in the industry, which was still a man's world. Her switch to Los Angeles management and the firing of her family band made it clear that Parton would ignore critics and chart her own course. Her film debut in 9 to 5 (1980) proved that Dolly could succeed in other media. The million-selling Trio album, a 1987 collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, offered further evidence of Parton's range. The irony was that whatever the medium or the message, Dolly remained her inimitable self. Roger Ebert praised her natural acting ability, but Parton perhaps came nearer the truth when she explained that she only played herself. Both Doralee Rhodes (9 to 5) and Truvy Jones (Steel Magnolias), her two most acclaimed characterizations are essentially Dolly, warm, vulnerable, strong, funny, and as Southern as grits and barbecue.

The best metaphor for Dolly Parton may be found in the history of one of her songs. Parton admitted that she wrote "I Will Always Love You" for Porter Wagoner in an effort to express her reasons for leaving him. She first recorded the song in 1973; a year later it was number one on the country charts. She recorded it again in 1982 and repeated her success. When Whitney Houston recorded it a decade later for the soundtrack of her first film, The Bodyguard, it was number one on the pop charts for fourteen weeks. Dolly recorded it once again, this time as a duet with Vince Gill, and again it was a hit. Like "I Will Always Love You," Dolly Parton continued to appear in new guises even as she remained unmistakably Dolly. "I enjoy making fun of myself and join in when other people are making jokes. I don't ever take that personal because I know exactly who I am," Parton provided in a 1998 Country Music Television interview

She became fodder again for clever comics when in 1986 she signed on as a partner in a Smokey Mountain theme park to which she gave her name, but today Dollywood is a flourishing multi-million-dollar business. Dolly's business empire continued to expand, as did her creative efforts during the 1990s. Her 1998 album, self-penned and self-produced, was appropriately entitled Hungry Again. Beyond the glitzy image and tabloid headlines and the larger than life public personality lies the mountain child from Sevier County, Dolly Rebecca Parton—always hungry and always pursuing another dream.

—Wylene Rholetter

Further Reading:

Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music. New York, Crown, 1993.

James, Otis. Dolly Parton. New York, QuickFox, 1978.

Nash, Alanna. Dolly. Los Angeles, Reed, 1978.

Parton, Dolly. Coat of Many Colors. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

——. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.