“Everybody’s life is a soap opera. Everybody’s life is a country western song, depends on who’s writing it.” — Dolly Parton
The iconic country singer Dolly Parton’s life has indeed been full of dramatic twists and turns like a dusty hill road. But being in charge of her own life, she makes sure that the journey is smooth. With a firm clasp on the steering wheel and a foot on the brakes, she speeded up, slowed down, took a U-turn and came to a halt when and if necessary. At times she even disregarded the flashing red light and ventured into the prohibited alley saying “I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else…”
The starting point of her musical road trip was Tennessee. The one-room cabin located on the Little Pigeon River banks was home to Parton and her twelve siblings along with their parents. Though a “dirt poor” family as per Parton, they were a happy bunch. Their rustic cabin would resonate with the sound of Smoky Mountain folklores and ancient ballads which their mother narrated and sang to them every evening. The country life inspired many of her songs like ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home,’ ‘Coat of Many Colours’ and ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’.
Music’s most remarkable quality is that it defies all kinds of boundaries and gives solace to both rich and poor, male and female, black and white, powerful and powerless and so on. Similarly, music tip-toed into the Parton family cabin and embraced young Dolly with all its warmth. Singing with a homemade guitar within the four walls of their cabin and sometimes the local church, Parton soon found herself on a real stage with a real guitar in her hands.
Her career in music started as a songwriter, often as a partner of her uncle Bill Owens, delivering hit singles of that time, sung by artists like Bill Phillips, Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis and Hank William Jnr. Her success drew Monument Records’ attention who signed her in 1965 when she was only 19-years-old. Signed as a bubble pop artist, it took some time before Parton could convince the label to allow her to record country songs. Her first two country singles ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Something Fishy’ didn’t only climb the charts but also roped in an offer from Port Wagoner for his weekly television show where Parton was offered a regular spot.
The Wagoner-Parton duo was such a hit that it became immensely difficult to part ways to pursue their respective solo careers. A few trials such as Parton’s ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’ and ‘In the Good Old Days’, failed to impress the audience as much as the duets had. Continuing to orbit around duets, she gained more and more momentum with each round, until she broke free from its gravity and established herself as a solo artist with the wild success of ‘Jolene’ in 1973. Needless to say, she became the most popular country musician despite having some strong male contemporaries.
Her illustrious career spanning from the 1960s to the recent years is flooded with countless hits and achievements which are impossible to list. She left the confines of country music to explore the wide field of pop music in 1976 and rocked the genre for a decade delivering albums like All I Can Do, New Harvest…First Gathering, Here You Come Again and singles like ‘9 to 5’, ‘Starting Over Again’ and the re-record of ‘I Will Always Love You’ for the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Dolly Parton delivers both quality and quantity, which generally share an inverse relationship. And the most fascinating thing about it all is that she never seems to be burdened or drained out by the work she does. Despite having such a demanding musical career, she pursued an acting career and somehow made that work as well. From TV shows, films, musicals, series to her most recent 2019 Netflix documentary Here I am, Parton has achieved the impossible and become a master of all trades.
A business tycoon, a skill that Parton thanks her father for, she invested her earnings to form her own label Dolly Records and Dollywood Company that is mainly based in her native Tennessee. The company comprises a theme park, dinner theatre, an entertainment segment known as Dolly Parton’s Stampede, a water park, resort and spa. She also happens to be the owner of the Sandollar Productions, a film and TV productions, along with her former manager Sandy Gills.
Parton has been consciously playing her role as a philanthropist since the middle of 1980s focusing largely on literacy. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which is a part of the non-profit Dollywood Foundation, mails one book per month to the enlisted children from the time of their birth until they start school. The Library Congress honoured Parton in 2018 for “sending out its 100 millionth book.” She has raised money for HIV-AIDS related campaigns, for cancer hospitals and has been noted for bringing jobs in economically depressed regions for years. Among her recent contributions, is the $1 million donation to the Vanderbilt University that encouraged research following the COVID-19 crisis. In November 2020 it was announced that the donation helped to conduct research and produce Moderna’s Vaccine. “A very proud girl today to know I had anything at all to do with something that’s going to help us through this crazy pandemic,” said Parton on hearing the news.
A discussion about Parton’s life will be incomplete without talking about her image and personality. Her extremely feminine physical appearance is an identity marker. Famous for her pearls of wisdom that are also known as “Dollyisms” she has often commented on her own body and appearance in a humorous way. Like the time she said, “People say how you stay looking so young? I say, well, good lighting, good doctors, and good makeup” in a BBC interview or when she said, “I’m flashy, and I’m flamboyant. Had I not been a girl, I definitely would have been a drag queen.” When asked about plastic surgeries, she added: “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked” and that “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Though the fashion icon turned down Playboy’s repeated offers to pose nude for the magazine, she did appear on the cover in 1978 issue, wearing the Playboy Bunny outfit.
Married to Carl Thomas Dean, who is exactly Parton opposite and hates publicity, the two share a strong bond that has gracefully aged for an astonishing 54 years. Talking about her decision to not have any children, she told the CNB in a Sunday Morning interview: “You make your choices, you make your sacrifices and I never looked back… I knew early on that I was going to walk that road until God told me to stop.” Parton is, however, the godmother of Miley Cyrus, having been an old friend of the country singer and Miley’s father Billy Ray Cyrus. Miley has often referred Parton as her source of inspiration and has performed with her quite a few times.
From demanding to re-create her Playboy look on the occasion of her 75th birthday to starting a social media trend #DollyPartonChallenge, Parton has never let age dominate her. Rather, the young at heart icon has successfully dominated age. One could go on about her, fangirling over every facet that she represents. But that still wouldn’t capture her magnitude both within music and in society as a whole.