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Week 11: Dolly Parton blows up and goes pop


A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After one year of country (dated from the column’s introduction on March 3, 2009), Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

Dolly Parton embodies a venerable American archetype: the secretly sly country girl whose hillbilly demeanor masks a treasure trove of common sense and homespun wisdom, the misunderestimated idiot-savant who ends up outsmarting fancified city slickers with their book-learning, highfalutin ways. At this point, it’s hard to delineate where Dolly Parton ends and her immaculately sculpted image begins. An enormous amount of calculation and guile has gone into making Parton seem uncalculated and guileless. 

In an artful act of pop-culture judo, Parton has preemptively deflated any conceivable criticism by turning it into a self-deprecating joke. You think she looks like a trashy drag queen? Gosh dang it, so does she. You suspect that she’s a three-foot-tall sentient skeleton behind all that makeup, padding, and wigs? So does Dolly. Think she’s a blatantly artificial construct whose contours have been carved by a small army of cosmetic surgeons? In her 1994 autobiography, Dolly: My Life And Other Unfinished Business, Parton not only cops to having had extensive work done, she thanks her surgeons by name and offers resources to fans considering cosmetic surgery. 

No matter the joke, Parton is already in on it. Heck, she’s probably already made it herself. That goes double if the joke involves boobs. Parton is a newfangled feminist; her outsized sexuality is constantly being exploited and marketed, but she’s the one doing the exploitation. By transforming herself into a broad cartoon of over-the-top sexuality, Parton has preempted and disarmed people who might otherwise be threatened by a strong-willed singer-songwriter with a dirty mouth, a rapacious libido, and a will to power equaled by only a smattering of Eastern European dictators. Parton is a small-time dreamer who became a theme park. There was nothing accidental about her ascent to pop superstardom. Like every other aspect of her career, it was the product of hard work, savvy management, calculation, and voluminous talent. And giant boobs. Can’t forget about the giant boobs.

Parton has infiltrated the mainstream like few country artists before or since. She’s seemingly always been there. She was one of the only country artists I was aware of as a child. Listening to “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” while preparing for this entry instantly took me back decades, to when I was a kid tape-recording Casey Kasem’s Top 40 off the radio every Sunday morning and making up my own intros and dedication.

Dolly is everywhere. She is the Alpha and the Omega. On Saturday afternoon, I finished up her autobiography while having brunch at M. Henry’s in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Four different members of the waitstaff came up to me to profess their love for its author. One said she’d just finished the book and found it inspirational. Two stopped by to ask if I knew Parton had just received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in recognition of her contributions to education. Since I do not, alas, receive a regular e-mail blast alerting me to Parton’s achievements of the day, that information somehow eluded me. The proprietor of M. Henry’s was so blown away by what he presumed to be my Dolly Parton superfandom that he actually rejected a tip I’d left, apparently reckoning that any friend of Dolly’s was a friend of his. (I probably don’t have to mention that Andersonville is a very gay neighborhood.)

Not bad for a country gal from the Smoky Mountains. Parton’s childhood looms large in her mythology and her songs as an unspoiled Eden of simple pleasures, family, and faith. 1973’s My Tennessee Mountain Home is a concept album about Parton’s rustic childhood, and the purest manifestation of the nostalgia for simpler times and simpler places that courses through her work. It’s a very good album, as long as it’s approached without cynicism or sneering irony. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Pitchfork gave it a 2.2. I think they gave the audiobook of Hitler reading Mein Kampf a higher rating.) That’s true of a lot of Parton’s work. After reading her autobiography, I thought about getting a cornball-ectomy to purge myself of its near-fatal doses of hokey one-liners, country wisdom, and references to angels. Parton’s abuse of homespun metaphors at times made me madder than a rattlesnake at a Thai wedding. 

My Tennessee Mountain Home begins and ends with Parton’s arrival in Nashville. It opens with “The Letter,” a spoken-word recitation of her first letter home to her parents after she struck out on her own to make it in Music City, and it closes with “Down On Music Row,” a song about the embryonic beginnings of her career.

Its songs pay homage to sugar cane, the swimmin’ hole, the country doctor who delivered her (“Dr. Robert F. Thomas”), and the footwear of her hard-working pa (“Daddy’s Working Boots”). “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” briefly punctures the album’s thick fog of nostalgia and John Denver-like nature porn with a chorus that reflects:

No amount of money could buy from me
The memories that I have of then
No amount of money could pay me
To go back and live through it again.

That’s a line I’ve always found resonant, both in Parton’s original and Merle Haggard’s cover. The best thing about painful memories is that they’re memories. 

Though Parton achieved some minor success on her own, her career didn’t really take off until Porter Wagoner tapped her to replace Norma Jean as his foil on his syndicated TV series, The Porter Wagoner Show. Parton entered into a sort of working apprenticeship with Wagoner; he taught her all he knew about subtlety, understatement in garb—like Parton, he favored giant hair and outfits so gaudy they can be seen from outer space—and showmanship. About a decade ago, I visited the Grand Ole Opry while in Nashville for a cousin’s wedding, and Porter Wagoner shook my father’s hand. It was the thrill of Wagoner’s life. I hear that he didn’t wash said hand until two years ago, much to the irritation of those around him.

During her seven years with Wagoner, Parton evolved dramatically as a writer and performer, yet her solo albums consistently sold worse than her duet albums. Though Wagoner was cold and controlling, according to an Entertainment Weekly article on the new 9 To 5 Broadway musical Parton masterminded, she was tied to him with the proverbial golden handcuffs. 

Parton’s solo breakthrough came with the title song of 1974’s Jolene. It’s a song of quiet, obsessive intensity about a woman terrified that her man will leave her for another woman. Parton sings with a quiver in her voice and a desperation that grows with each note. “Barbara On Your Mind” revisits the theme of a woman worried her man will leave her for another, with a similar sense of aching vulnerability. For one of pop’s preeminent sex symbols, Parton seemed to spend a lot of time worrying about losing her lovers. “Traveling Man” takes this fear to comic extremes, when the narrator’s mother ends up running off with the traveling salesman she has forbidden her daughter to see. 

Those who know “I Will Always Love You” as the most overplayed, overwrought, oversung ballad of all time will find Parton’s original a revelation. Where Whitney Houston’s monster hit punches listeners in the face with bathos until they submit, Parton favors a subtler approach. Her original is slow and sad, a bittersweet song about the mixed emotions that come with letting go of a defining relationship that’s half-sung, half-spoken with trembling sincerity. Like all great country singers, Parton has a voice full of bottomless pain. She has a genius for hooking into the emotion of a song in a visceral yet unforced way. It doesn’t hurt that she wrote many of her signature hits herself.

According to show-biz lore, Elvis Presley wanted to cover “I Will Always Love You,” but Parton flinched at giving him and Colonel Tom Parker half of the song’s publishing rights, as was customary for anyone who wanted Presley to sing one of their songs. Considering the fucking fortune she made off the Bodyguard soundtrack, that was a wise decision. They don’t call Parton the “Iron Butterfly” for nothing.

Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” about her professional breakup with Wagoner, though considering how acrimonious the split became (he sued her for $20 million for breach of contract, and settled for $1 million) she easily could have followed it up with “I Will Always Hate You, Porter Wagoner, You Fucking Asshole.” What Parton doesn’t write about Wagoner says a lot more than what she does, although she does get in the occasional jab. When manager Sandy Gallin mentioned on Dolly’s ill-fated variety show that it’s amazing how Kermit The Frog can sing with a hand up his ass, Dolly quips that that’s nothing; she did the same thing for seven years during her stint on The Porter Wagoner Show. 

In Dolly, Parton mentions that “Jolene” was a number-one country hit, yet it sold a grand total of 60,000 copies. So Parton set her sights firmly on the pop charts with “Here You Come Again.” It worked like gangbusters. It sold a million copies and firmly established its singer as an artist whose reach and audience extended well beyond country. 

It came at a cost. With its jaunty piano, big strings, wimpy electric-guitar solo, and thick sheen of pop gloss, “Here You Come Again” sounds more like a Billy Joel track or a sitcom theme song than like something George Jones would have written. Parton now belonged to the pop world. Pandora’s box had been opened, and out tumbled synthesizers, big sugary strings, funky basslines, duet after duet with Kenny Rogers, and massive pop hooks. 

“Save The Last Dance For Me” is about as far from country as you can get without being Swedish death metal, but it was a top-10 country hit all the same. Parton’s remake of The Drifters’ hit is a chilly slab of horror-movie synthesizers, frisky drum machines, and creepy new-wave backing vocals. 

What’s up with ’80s production? Why was it so goddamned overbearing? Did artists actively ask prospective producers to fuck up their songs with synthesizers, one-size-fits-all backing vocals, and all sorts of extraneous bullshit they didn’t need? Parton’s early-’70s albums are timeless and enduring, but there’s no mistaking what era spawned her ’80s pop material. Still, it wasn’t all bad. In spite of the pop trimmings, Parton put out some damn catchy songs, like “9 To 5” and “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That.” 

Though the song would definitely benefit from less smooth-jazz saxophone, Parton attains a sad majesty on “Single Women,” an almost unbearably sad track about desperate single women looking for “a man they won’t remember for a night they can’t forget.” “Single Women” isn’t just despairing, it’s emotionally apocalyptic. “Single Women” captures the pathos of closing-time hookups with novelistic details like the hastily scrawled number on a matchbook that leads to a phone with a woman answering, and the toothbrush that stays in the purse just in case. Among the many remarkable aspects of “Single Women” is the fact that it was written by Michael O’Donoghue, Saturday Night Live’s longtime prince of darkness. 

Parton had crossed over conclusively, but in 2003, she threw a bone to purists by recording The Grass Is Blue, a back-to-basics bluegrass album. Bluegrass is even countrier than country, a music of virtuosos and obsessives. No matter how Parton’s music strayed from the tenets of traditional country, her voice retained its twang and sass. So she sounds completely in her element covering The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.” Parton even ends the album with an a cappella take on “I Am Ready.” It turns out that sometimes you can go home again. True, Parton released a cover of Collective Soul’s “Shine” as a single in 2001, but hey, nobody’s perfect. 

Parton paved the way for the mainstreaming of country. She forever blurred the line between country and pop, and racked up a personal fortune in the reported half-billion-dollar range in the process. She was a humble, unassuming country girl from the mountains who changed the whole goddamned music business. Her legacy is profoundly mixed, but it benefits from some perspective. She shouldn’t be held accountable for the musical sins of those who followed in her wake, and nothing can take away from the potency and power of the albums she created in her early-’70s heyday.

Up Next on Nashville or Bust: 

Hank Williams

Tom T. Hall

The Louvin Brothers

Jimmie Rodgers