That Dolly Parton’s first hit, in 1967, was called “Dumb Blonde” seems appropriate in retrospect, because she spent her career defying that image while visually embodying it. The song was a slight but feisty rejoinder at an ex-lover: “just because I’m blonde / don’t think I’m dumb / ‘cause this ‘dumb blonde’ ain’t nobody’s fool”. The song proved her point. It and subsequent hits caught Porter Wagoner’s ear, which took her to the Grand Ole Opry, to a successful career as a singer, and beyond. Way beyond, to a career as one of country music’s legendary performers and best songwriters, to the status of larger-than-life pop-culture icon.
The four-CD set Dolly starts even before that beginning. “Dumb Blonde” is the 11th track in what amounts to a comprehensive musical biography of Parton’s career. The earliest songs were recorded in 1959, when she was just 13. Dolly starts this early in Parton’s life because it is the music-product equivalent of the bio-pic (or auto-bio-pic, truly), taking us from the humblest of beginnings to the highest of heights. Like the young Michael Jackson she sounds the natural talent in these early songs, singing beyond her years. She carries her personality in her voice even as it sounds immature, a work in progress. The songs are less country than generic ‘50s pop: a silly love song about silly love called “Puppy Love”; a prom ballad with the appropriate glow and echo, even in demo form (“Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can)”, one of seven previously unreleased songs in the set). Here is your reminder that country singers are pop singers too, that pop stars ‘went country’ long before Jessica Simpson and Darius Rucker.
The history of Dolly Parton’s life and career is well-documented. She was born one of 12 children in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains. She had a successful performing/recording relationship with Porter Wagoner which eventually dissolved and gave way to a successful solo career. Her first #1 hit was “Joshua” in 1970. Songs like “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors”, and the albums of the same names, were commercially successful and remain hugely influential on musicians across genre. In the ‘80s she became an actress and all-around celebrity personality while continuing to have hit records. And so on … the story is long, interesting, and often-told.
More than just biography, Dolly gives us a chance to listen to the story her music tells, whatever that is for each listener. As the most comprehensive portrait of her significant body of work yet, it’s the perfect opportunity to listen closer to the whole picture, to see what overarching stories Parton’s music offers, to think about the rich bounty of stories and ideas that live in her songs.
Of course Dolly tells more than one story, just as her music would be ill-served by us just looking at it as a series of phases, as is often done. There are the Porter Wagoner years, the solo years, the ‘80s ‘pop’ years, etc. That compartmentalization misses the ways the various eras of Parton’s career speak to each other. When it comes to an icon with a discography as large and rich as Parton’s, declaring one time period as the worthiest is more about music critics than the music. What box sets have over film or book retellings of a life is that they don’t have to be experienced in a linear way. Hit shuffle, forget about preconceptions, and listen.
Dolly Parton has sung her share of heartbreak songs and cheatin’ songs, typical country material but she can sing even a simple one well. Many of her best, though, distinctly tap into currents of guilt and defiance, wrapped in familial shame and devotion. In the celebrity-quoting liner notes, Dwight Yoakam singles out “Daddy”, from 1968, as one example. In it, Parton sings the part of a daughter pleading with her daddy not to leave her mama. It’s a divorce song with its own family-centered angle that makes it all the more heartbreaking. What makes it especially so is how completely Parton inhabits the character and how precise her lyrics are, like in the daughter’s dissection of her father’s decision to take up with a younger woman: “She’s young / She’s pretty / Her hands soft as dew / While Mama’s are withered / From working for you”. That’s similar to some of Parton’s lyrics for “Just Because I’m a Woman” (1967), where she explains how men ‘ruin’ women and then walk away from them, always looking for an immaculate ‘angel’. In “Daddy” that same observation is embodied through the voice of a young girl, in her direct, tear-stained plea. As Yoakam accurately puts it, “Daddy” is “a succinctly elegant commentary on life’s disappointment and unfulfilled promise in love and family”.
The promise of love and family is a great theme on Dolly, one that motivates her songs and characters again and again. Family always matters, in Parton’s songs, one way or another. Parton will sing of a child finding support and wisdom from her parents (in the classic “The Coat of Many Colors”, for example), but then also of children disappointing their parents, as in “I’m Not Worth the Tears” (1967), where a rejected and pregnant teenager blames herself for disgracing her parents. Then there’s a wealth of songs, often variations on the classic country break-up song format, where it’s the parents failing to live up to their responsibility of beings parents, the essential one being love. In the didactic, previously unreleased “What Will Baby Be” (1972, redone in 1993 for Slow Dancing With the Moon), she pins a child’s future on the demeanor at home and the strength of the parents’ love.
In Parton’s music, all of this familial failure and love is wrapped up in individual paths away from or back to the home. The story of Dolly is one of independence and growth, but also of those unbreakable links back to family and home. Her autobiographical 1973 album My Tennessee Mountain Home, represented here by the title track and two unreleased songs from the same session, is Parton’s definitive statement about the goodness of home and the meaning it gains the farther away you get. All across Dolly are songs of leaving and returning. In 1967’s “False Eyelashes”, a singer is ashamed to return home because her family and town may realize she’s not the big star she claims to be. Throughout her career she references the geography of her childhood home or circumstances of her upbringing. Even in 1983, for the soundtrack to the Parton-Sylvester Stallone flick Rhinestone, she was still yodeling the “Tennessee Homesick Blues”.
Parton also often connects ‘home’ to her spiritual upbringing, to the Bible. Dolly contains two great Parton-penned hymns from the early ‘70s, “Comin’ For to Carry Me Home” and “The Golden Streets of Glory”, along with her classic “Sacred Memories”, a look back to childhood through the lens of church songs. Even some of her love songs have a strong spiritual bent, like 1971’s “Here I Am”, from The Coat of Many Colors. One previously unreleased song on Dolly, from those same sessions, finds her comparing the world to “God’s Coloring Book” for all its beauty.
That faith-based optimism is central to Parton’s music, but it’s also always a tear-stained optimism, never ignorant of the reality that life is hard and things don’t go as planned. In other words it’s optimism with empathy for people, a trait key to Parton’s songwriting. Similar in its central observations to “God’s Coloring Book”, “Everything Is Beautiful (In Its Own Way)” (1969) better expresses the way her vision of the world maintains a space for darkness and sorrow. Along with the beauty of the natural world, she sings of seeing a destructive storm wreak havoc: “the storm’s even beautiful in its own way”.
The most dire situations are central to some of Parton’s best songs, story-songs where she swiftly encapsulated so many human quandaries and conflicts within one narrative. 1967’s “The Bridge” is a stunner, where our protagonist stands, ready to jump, on the bridge where a doomed relationship began. “Here is where it started / and here is where I’ll end it”, she sings and then the song ends, abruptly as death. 1969’s “Down From Dover” is less musically drastic but in many ways more extreme and powerful in its drama. Its strength lies in how plainly stated the tragedy is, and how that plays against the moody, sensitive tone of the music. After the pregnant protagonist is left by her lover, the baby dies stillborn: “I guess in some strange way / She knew / She’d never have a father’s arms to hold her”.
Cooler-than-thou hipsters approaching Parton’s music may need to abandon their fear of melodrama and sentimentality. Both are central to her music. The tragic stories told in “The Bridge” and “Down From Dover” are only the beginning. There is “Daddy Come and Get Me” (1970), where sadness is mistaken for insanity and a spurned lover is institutionalized; “Evening Shade” (1969), where mistreated orphans burn down their orphanage; and “Gypsy, Joe and Me” (1969), where a homeless couple and their dog struggle to survive. And then there are the songs where the melodrama gets so strong that it tilts into the truly bizarre. In the child-death tale “Jeanie’s Afraid of the Dark”, a couple can never understand why their sole child is afraid of the dark, until she dies. Her fear, they realize, was really one of death, which came from her awareness that she was always “destined to die”. They don’t want her to be afraid, even in death, so they put a light at her grave. Wagoner speaks the last half of the song over music, heightening the melodrama, the Halloween effect, the sentimentality; all of it. “Me and Little Andy”, from 1978’s Here You Come Again, even more of a sentimental ghost story, and gets even stranger when Parton starts emulating the voice of the child Sandy, the one who shows up at our narrator’s door with her little dog Andy, asking only to be taken care of. Note the fixation in these story-songs, and in Parton’s music overall, on parents rejecting their children and the children yearning, for the rest of their lives, to receive the love they were robbed of.
As sentimental and strange as “Me and Little Andy” is, the go-for-broke courage of it is typical of Parton as an artist. In a certain way that boldness comes to a head in her more pop-leaning music of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s not her best music—fewer of the songs were written by her, for one, and it shows—but in many ways it is her boldest. This the era of Rhinestone and 9 to 5, of “Islands in the Stream” and Dollywood: when she became even larger-than-life as a celebrity. The same thing happened in her music itself. She took her favorite themes and pushed them out in brassy, confident ways that gel with the big-ness of the ‘80s. Catchy soft-pop songs like “Don’t Call It Love” and “Think About Love”, both off 1984’s Real Love, foreground the synthesizers big-time while Parton sings of the highs and lows of love, in generic terms but still effective. “Heartbreaker” and “Baby I’m Burnin’”, both off 1978’s Heartbreaker, are giddy embodiments of young love. “Single Women” (1981) tells of the struggles of young women, but in a moving-up show tune. “Sweet Summer Lovin’” (1979) is an optimistic mood piece with the same level of musical detail as “Early Morning Breeze” and “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, if certainly not the same quality of lyrics (Parton didn’t write it).
Optimism is the overriding tone of this period, embodied by buoyant covers of unlikely songs like REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly” (off 1989’s White Limozeen, her best album of the period) and by the way a worker’s anthem like the megahit “9 to 5” (1980) comes out sounding mostly fun and energetic.
The giddiness of the 1980s material sort of brings Dolly full circle, back to the innocence of youth. She sounds like the pop star she always was. And still the cycles of time push beyond the boundaries of Dolly. Parton didn’t stop making music in 1993, when Dolly ends. She’s gone through at least a couple more creative periods since then: a trio of bluegrass albums and then fun country-pop album Backwoods Barbie. She keeps moving and changing, without really changing. The future is still bright. To quote another of Parton’s many great songs: “yesterday is gone gone / but tomorrow is forever”.