Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton, by Stephen Miller

Everybody loves Dolly Parton. She’s one of a handful of figures in the music world whose audiences cross all boundaries. Everybody from punk rockers to traditional country artists have sung her praises, not to mention covered her songs. Critics, fans, and her peers have feted Parton for her singing, songwriting, and guitar playing as well as for her buoyant personality and cheerful goodwill.

Parton’s outlandish physical appearance has made her a distinctive and recognizable celebrity. In Stephen Miller’s biography of the Tennessee songbird, he notes that during the 1980s Parton “was rated the third most photographed person in the world behind the Pope and Madonna”. Perhaps the strangest and most notable tribute to Parton’s physicality was when a group of Scottish geneticists named the first cloned sheep after her because the tissue came from another sheep’s mammary glands. Parton’s oversized breasts have long been a part of her comedic, self-effacing image.

The frisson between the dual natures of Parton’s appeal, that of a serious musician versus that of a dumb blonde, have made her an enigma. She’s recognized for the purity of her voice, the nimbleness of open tuned acoustic guitar picking, and the depth and sensitivity of her compositions. Among her best-known self-penned songs are such classics as “I Will Always Love You”, “Jolene”, and “Coat of Many Colors”. But Parton’s figure and flashy, trashy outfits have made her the butt of jokes, many of her own making. Parton’s stage persona has always employed a big streak of corny humor, which sometimes makes it hard for people to take her seriously despite the numerous Grammy and Country Music Awards she has won.

While Parton professes to be an open person who has probably given at least 1,000 interviews during her five decade spanning career and written an autobiography, she has always managed to maintain her privacy. Everyone knows the charming, folksy Dolly. Her dark secrets remain hidden. For example, Parton’s married Carl Thomas Dean in 1966 when she was just 23 years old. Dean has been content to remain in the background and little is known about their private life. As Parton is a sex symbol, inquiring minds want to know more.

This frustrates journalists like Miller, who tries to get the scoop on Parton. What makes things worse for him is that Parton, and no one close to her, will speak to him. Parton’s longtime personal assistant, Judy Ogle, Parton’s husband Carl, her various managers, and with few exceptions, other musicians and family members, declined to assist Miller in his endeavor. That leaves this book, billed as “the first entirely new major biography of Dolly Parton for over 15 years” fairly flat.

Miller retells in detail the story of Parton’s childhood life in rural poverty, her precocious musical growth and development, her early success and professional relationship with Porter Wagoner, her striking out on her own and crossing over to pop, television, and movie roles, etc. He offers particulars about every record she made and how it did on the charts. He describes Parton’s various undertakings into other fields, such as her theme park, Dollywood, and promoting a line of cosmetics. He discusses the importance of her charity work and educational initiatives. He even offers prognoses of Parton’s health and weight problems over the years.

However, Miller doesn’t say much that is new. He gleans various newspaper, magazine, and Web articles and combines the information in chronological order, but there are no revelations in this book. The Dolly Parton that he presents is the same one she offers in her own words, without her country humor.

There are a few fresh tidbits. Miller interviewed Parton’s younger sister Stella who sometimes contradicts Dolly’s remembrance of family events. Stella criticizes Dolly for sugar-coating her recollections, but Stella never really gets down on her famous sibling. Certainly Dolly is no saint and has made mistakes in judgment in her life. She probably has acted badly against certain people and allowed others to take advantage of her. But if Stella’s mild rebukes are all that one can hold against Dolly, well than Dolly has committed fewer blunders than most people. Her lapses do not seem of a major nature.

Miller also does manage to get a few musicians to speak on the record about her, but they are all unfailingly generous with their praise of Parton’s abilities and her generosity to other artists. Suzy Bogguss in particular points out how helpful Parton was to her career, but that may be the biggest name to speak with Miller. He uses previous articles that cite musicians like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and the others Parton has collaborated with to flesh out his accounts of her life and work.

Smart Blonde documents Parton’s many accomplishments. Those unfamiliar with her history may find the book a useful compendium of information. However, old fans are better off waiting for Parton’s promise of a new autobiography that is said to be in the works.

RATING 4 / 10