In hindsight, Dolly Parton’s emergence was based on a slightly dated reference. Louis Armstrong had taken the song ‘Hello, Dolly!’ to number one back in 1964, and the musical that originally contained the song, also called Hello, Dolly!, debuted in 1963. For an emerging artist, it probably wasn’t the smartest direction to lean towards considering it was a debut album, but evidently, record executives just couldn’t help but feel that Dolly Parton needed a little bit of help. They were woefully mistaken.
Parton wasn’t a stranger on the country music scene in 1967. She was already a seasoned professional, having recorded a number of singles, written hits for other artists, and performed at the Grand Ole Opry before ever getting the green light to record her debut LP. Her label owner thought she would be better suited for pop music over county, and unsuccessfully tried to mould her into that style on her first releases. Parton stood firm, and it wouldn’t be the first or the last time that Parton was misjudged.
Just to emphasise that Parton knew exactly what kind of artist she was from day one, the lead-off track to Hello, I’m Dolly is ‘Dumb Blonde’. Two-and-a-half minutes of spit and snarl disguised in Parton’s signature easy-going style, but the song’s chorus has an unmistakable message: “Just because I’m blonde / Don’t think I’m dumb / Cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool”. For whatever reason, record executives, film industry figures, writers, and interviewers didn’t take this to heart.
For eleven more tracks, Parton stands her ground as one of the toughest and most self-sufficient women in country music. If Loretta Lynn threatened to take you to ‘Fist City’, Parton could cut you down just by doing household chores, as she does on ‘Your Ole Handy Man’, or by seeing right through a “fishing trip” on ‘Something Fishy’. The “woman scorned” trope was already established in country music by this time, but Parton put a completely new spin on it – she would do her hair, make sure her nails were perfect, put on her makeup, choose a nice outfit, and then kick your ass.
There’s no fat on Hello, I’m Dolly: each song is under three minutes and tells its story without frills. As the primary songwriter, Parton sold every last word she sang, whether it was heartbreak on ‘I Don’t Want to Throw Rice’, exhaustion on ‘Put It Off Until Tomorrow’, or discontent on ‘The Giving and the Taking’. Storytelling was the greatest asset that country music had, and no one was more versatile or quietly clever than Parton.
She surrounds herself with a classic Bakersfield sound, complete with pedal steel guitars, fiddles, and twangy guitars. The only exception is the album closer ‘The Little Things’, which is noticeably less indebted to the traditional country sound than the rest of the album. But Parton’s southern drawl is unmistakable, even if her surroundings are trying to make her into something she’s not.
So haphazard was Parton’s handling that there doesn’t even seem to be a solid consensus on when Hello, I’m Dolly was released. Parton claims in her autobiography that it was in February of 1967, but other sources point to both June and September of that year. By that time, Parton effectively had put a hold on her solo career to become Porter Wagoner’s duet partner. Parton kept putting out solo singles, but it would take another four years for her to finally land a solo number one singles on the country charts with ‘Joshua’.
Parton continued to work hard, releasing at least three albums a year every year through to 1975. She knew that if she was going to succeed, she was going to have to work twice as hard, for twice as long, as anyone else. Even as she established herself as a solo hit maker, a movie star, and a cultural ambassador for the best of what a white southern lady can be, it still took decades for Parton to gain the unequivocal respect that she deserved. But that’s on everyone else, because Parton firmly established her legendary status on her very first album. It just took a while for the rest of the world to catch up.