[6 July 2009]
“Dr. Dolly.” Sounds pretty good, huh? As the newly degreed Dolly Parton said during the commencement speech at the University of Tennessee recently, “[Now] when people say something about ‘Double D,’ they will be thinking of something entirely different.”
Aside from nearly five decades of country music stardom, countless awards, crossover pop success, developing a successful movie career, heading up various charities, and writing a Tony-nominated musical, Dolly is now the holder of a doctorate of humane and musical letters from UT Knoxville, one of only two people to have received an honorary doctorate from the university. The other: Former United States Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., former majority leader and White House Chief of Staff during the Reagan administration.
Her accomplishments properly recognized with this honor aside, I’m hard pressed to think of a single person who doesn’t simply adore this woman. Seriously, who could hate Dolly Parton? Someone who probably hates puppies and sunshine, too.
Hillbillies recognize her as one of their own who’s done well, but hasn’t forgotten where she came from; she’s a patron saint of the GLBT community (despite receiving death threats for contributing the Oscar nominated “Travelin’ Thru” to the Transamerica soundtrack, she refuses to turn her back on her diverse fanbase or become less vocal in her support); and her most famous charitable project, the Imagination Library, which sends a book to each child in Sevier County, Tennessee from birth to age five, has distributed over 20 million books since its inception, and has recently gone international with a sister city in England.
With all that she’s accomplished in her 63-years, it’s pretty clear that Dolly needs to lend her considerable assets to other challenging tasks, as well. Brokering peace in the Middle East? Repairing the economy? Explaining the twisted plotlines of Lost? No problem for the woman who made the execrable Rhinestone—starring Sly Stallone as a New York City cabbie turned country singer—almost watchable.
Why is it that Dolly has captured the hearts and the music libraries of so many, even those who may not otherwise self-identify as country music fans? For the answer to that question, we’ll be looking at some Dolly-centric DVDs. In 2006 filmmaker Tai Uhlmann released a fascinating documentary, For the Love of Dolly. Instead of focusing on the singer, Uhlmann chose to film five of Parton’s superfans and the reasons behind their devotion.
Alternately sweet and poignant, For the Love of Dolly never demeans its subjects, even when some of their actions could easily be played for cheap laughs. For example, Jeanette wears costumes to the Dollywood Opening Day Parade, and has built a miniature replica of Parton’s “Tennessee Mountain Home” in her backyard, complete with the tin can on a stick that young Dolly would sing into as a child, fantasizing about stardom.
Perhaps the film’s most fascinating subject is Melisa, who is the kind of woman Parton herself might write a song about. While suffering from an abusive childhood, Melisa prayed every night that Dolly would come to her house and tuck her in at night so she would feel safe. As an adult, Melisa would wait outside Parton’s trailer on various movie sets every evening in order to briefly speak to her idol.
The documentary’s other subjects are equally fascinating, such as David, a handicapped young man, and Patric and Harrel, a gay couple who craft handmade Parton porcelain dolls in their house full of Dollybilia. (Did you know there is such a thing as a Dolly Parton pinball machine? These men have one.)
But before she was an international celebrity with an eponymous theme park and legions of devoted and diverse followers, Dolly Parton was a television star. Everyone knows how she got her start on Porter Wagoner’s television program, but less known is the short lived musical variety show appropriately entitled Dolly!.
The recent three-disc set Queens of Country includes the Dolly and Friends DVD, which features several Dolly! episodes (the other two discs in the set are rare performance footage from fellow country queens Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline; country music enthusiasts might want to add this to the ol’ Netflix queue…if not for the music, then to see what is very possibly the high watermark for country music fashion).
The show only aired for one season (1976-1977), but during its short run boasted such guest stars as Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Rod McKuen and KC & The Sunshine Band (Bob Dylan was slated to guest star, but later backed out, making him the only man alive who’s voluntarily declined to be in Dolly’s presence).
Though the high-rated Dolly! could possibly have made Parton a very rich woman, she declined to continue after the first season. In addition to the strain on her voice, Parton felt that she was not being true to herself. During an interview with her biographer, Alanna Nash, Parton stated, “It was really bad for me, that TV show. It was worse for me than good, because the people who didn’t know me who liked the show thought that’s how I was…I still come through as myself…but not really like I should. Not my real, natural way. And the people who did know me thought I was crazy. They knew that wasn’t me. Including me. I didn’t know that woman on TV!” If only other artists could be so self-aware.
Somehow Dolly Parton has managed to become all things to all people: an immensely talented songwriter, a commensurate entertainer, and for a number of Tennessee youths, “The Book Lady”. Yet she’s always managed to stay true to who she is with a wink and a self-deprecating quip, despite the jokes, the death threats, the shoddy treatment from commercial country radio and television, who’ve long since dropped her for younger artists who don’t even have half of Dolly’s singing or writing abilities.
When other celebrities deny undergoing plastic surgery, Parton gleefully admits it, quipping “If I see something saggin’, baggin’, or draggin’, I’m going to get it nipped, tucked, or sucked.” Her hair and boobs might be fake, but once you look past the rhinestones and the makeup, she’s as real as it gets. And after watching the monstrosity that was the recent CMA awards show, “real” seems to pretty hard to come by in country music these days.
At her acceptance speech, when honored with a Career Achievement Award from Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc., Dolly said, “I think of radio like a great lover. You were good to me. You bought me nice things, and then you dumped my ass for a younger woman.” Ditching Dolly for Faith, Shania, and now Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler, all of whom may have something akin to Parton’s beauty, but nothing even close to her substance? The country music industry should be ashamed.