Of all musical genres, country music is the one that seems most willing to accommodate female stars. The greatest of them are the stuff that country dreams are made of: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Reba McEntire. Though a case could be made for any of these ladies, in my opinion Dolly Parton is the greatest of them all.
“Dolly Parton is the most famous, most universally beloved, and most widely respected woman who has ever emerged from country music, a role model not only for other singers and songwriters, but for working women everywhere,” wrote Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann in “Finding Her Voice,” the definitive study of women in country music.
“Hers is a true Horatio Alger, up-by-your-bootstraps success story - Daisy Mae Yokum of Dogpatch who turned into Mae West of Hollywood, a mountain butterfly who soared with eagles.”
Like country music itself, Parton’s career is a balancing act between her down-home roots and her mainstream aspirations, between Daisy Mae Yokum and Mae West. Bufwack and Oermann described her public image as ‘possum-stew-and-Dom-Perignon,” while Parton herself called it “burlap and satin.” Her famous looks, which influenced her career as much as her music did, was a deliberate ploy to win attention from a general public that viewed country singers as illiterate hillbillies.
Dolly wants to be heard, and if it takes a big blond wig and big tits to do it so be it: “It costs a lot to make a person look this cheap,” she famously said. Parton’s Southern floozy look also satisfies a deep-seated need to be wildly extravagant, born perhaps of the singer’s childhood poverty. “If I were a man I would have been a drag queen,” she added.
Still, there’s more to Dolly Parton than meets the eye. “Parton’s appeal came through a fortuitous combination of physical attractiveness, singing talent, and a genius for song composition,” wrote Bill C. Malone in his classic text “Country Music U.S.A.” Her distinctive, “clear as a bell” soprano combines with a unique gift for writing songs to make Parton a musical force to be reckoned with. And while Parton’s busty blonde looks are definitely pre-feminist, she rightly became a role model for women during the early days of the women’s movement.
“In contrast to the often tragic and always exhausting lives of so many female country singers, Dolly Parton somehow always retained an impression of being mistress of her own destiny, adapting, but never compromising, her style and material to suit the demands made of her,” Charlie Gillett wrote in “The Sound of the City.” Cline, Lynn and Wynette all had to endure drunk, abusive and unfaithful husbands. Parton’s husband, on the other hand, is Carl Dean, who keeps to himself and lets his wife lead her own life.
No matter how far away she gets, Parton always returns to her “Tennessee mountain home.” She was born on January 19, 1946, in a proverbial log cabin near Sevierville, the fourth of twelve children. While still a child, Parton began singing in churches and local theaters and (in 1959) on Knoxville radio. In 1964 she graduated from high school - the first in her family to do so - and moved to Nashville. By 1966 she had married Carl Dean, signed with Monument Records, and had her first hit (the ironically-titled “Dumb Blonde”). She also caught the eye of established country singer Porter Wagoner, who hired her to replace Norma Jean as the “girl singer” on his syndicated TV show. As part of her partnership with Wagoner, Parton signed with his record label, RCA, in 1967. In 1969 she joined the Grand Ole Opry.
The years of the Wagoner-Parton partnership, which she insists was platonic but which he claims had a sexual dimension, were also her most productive. In addition to a string of duets with Porter, Dolly ruled the country charts with a series of songs she wrote that pushed the boundaries of country music: “Just Because I’m a Woman” (1967), ”Joshua” (1971), “Coat of Many Colors” (1972), “Jolene” (1973) and, most famously, “I Will Always Love You” (1974).
By 1977, Parton was ready to take off. She dropped Wagoner like a hot potato, hired the openly-gay Sandy Gallin as her personal manager, and “went Hollywood” with the pop tune “Here You Come Again.” Though Parton protested that “I am not leaving country music. All I want is a chance to do everything I want to do in life,” her down-home country fans found it hard to forgive. Though Parton had two number one pop hits in the 1980's – “9 to 5” in 1981 and “Islands in the Stream” (a duet with Kenny Rogers) in 1983, never again would she dominate the country charts the way she did during the 1970's.
In spite of her blowzy public persona, Parton is reticent about her private life. Though she is still married to the reclusive Carl Dean, the two lived apart for most of their union, and they have no children. When Parton moved to Hollywood in 1977 she left Dean in Tennessee and took her “best friend” Judy Ogle, which started rumors of lesbianism. Though Parton denies that she is a lesbian, she is very gay friendly. Last year, in an interview for Britain’s Event magazine, Parton expressed her support for marriage equality: “I think everyone should be with who they love. I don’t want to be controversial or stir up a bunch of trouble but people are going to love who they are going to love. I think gay couples should be allowed to marry. They should suffer just like us heterosexuals.”
Later last year, she spoke to Billboard about her gay followers: “They know that I completely love and accept them, as I do all people. I’ve struggled enough in my life to be appreciated and understood. I’ve had to go against all kinds of people through the years just to be myself. I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love.” At Dollywood, Parton’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, same-sex couples and Southern fundamentalists come together in their mutual love for the country star.
“Once upon a time and far, far away, back in the hollers at the foothills of the great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee there lived a little girl with yellow hair, blue-green eyes, fair skin, and freckles. She loved to read almost as much as she loved to dream. She read everything she could get her hands on, but mostly she loved fairy tales. So I grew up to be a fairy princess of a sort, more of a Cinderella story, the rags to riches kind.” Though she no longer rules the country charts, Parton has retained the public’s love and respect. In 1999 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and continues to please fans and critics alike with her music, concerts, television and movie appearances. Whatever her ups and downs, Parton’s career is not over yet.