Dolly Parton [n.d.] Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Born on January 19, 1946, in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, Dolly Rebecca Parton has traveled far beyond her roots. As one of twelve children born to a sharecropper in a one-room cabin in the Tennessee mountains, Parton was raised in relative poverty, but surrounded by music. With a musical career that launched at the age of ten, Parton has been performing publicly for nearly fifty of her fifty-eight years, becoming one of the most celebrated and most successful country music stars. Parton's superstardom, and the various genres in which she has excelled, are attested to by her many awards--more than two dozen albums gone gold, platinum or double platinum, an Academy Award nomination, Emmy and Golden Globe award nominations, countless Grammy nominations, and eight Grammy Awards, as well as dozens of People's Choice and Country Music Association awards.
Parton's image as a dynamic pop-culture icon goes beyond that of a popular music star--she is known as a country music star with deep roots in the early Nashville country music scene, as an actress in Hollywood films, as a business woman with a theme park to her credit, and as a female giving voice to the experiences of women in the second half of the twentieth century. Parton's shift from her early Nashville roots to a more mainstream country style helped to broaden the audience for country music and to pave the way for other country music performers who have followed her.
Parton's career took inspiration from earlier female pioneers in country music, such as Rose Maddox and Molly O'Day of the 1940s, Kitty Wells of the 1950s, and Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline of the 1960s. Parton, like these women, significantly contributed to the country music scene, largely dominated by men until the 1950s, simply by creating a female identity and giving voice to female perspectives. When Parton emerged in the late 1960s, women in rural and working-class southern America were the primary audience for country music. These women were restricted to relatively subordinate roles, so that even the initially mild, but nevertheless empowering, statements found in the lyrics of these female country singers had a real impact. Parton's progressive lyrics and her willingness to speak out despite potentially adverse consequences made her stand out among female performers.
Speaking her mind and her heart has been one of the strongest characteristics of Parton's work and has won her fans, both male and female, internationally. A recent article in the Journal of Popular Culture explores why Zimbabweans have such a strong attachment to Parton and her music. The conclusion is that her tendency to give voice to working-class values and to be open regarding her own underprivileged past, allows Zimbabweans to identify strongly with her character and her music.
Parton's exceptional musical talent reveals itself in her lyrics, as well as her vocal ability. Her lyrics are often in the vein of the Appalachian ballads that surrounded her as a child--she tells stories with succinctly developed narratives and a sense of humor, translating country tragedies into song. And her voice, a shimmering and lilting soprano softened with a breathy trill and vibrato, is widely acknowledged to be among the most expressive in country music.
Even as a student, Parton worked hard on her music career, making recordings for three different labels before graduating from high school. Her earliest recorded song, "Puppy Love," made when she was around twelve years old, already shows her mastery of the Hank Williams and Kitty Wells honky-tonk style. Her rendition of six songs "made famous by Kitty Wells" (appearing on one side of Hits Made Famous by Country Queens), recorded for the Somerset company in 1962, was actually only three songs made famous by Wells. Two of the other three were traditional ballads, and the last, written in modern ballad style, was by Parton herself.
After graduating from high school in 1964, Parton moved to Nashville, where she pursued her music career full time. She soon signed with the Monument label, which was more interested in marketing her as a pop singer than as a country singer, as is evident in many of her early recordings for them. But Parton was up to the challenge, and penned several catchy pop songs. During this time, she also sold her songs around Nashville. Her big break came in 1966 when country singer Bill Phillips heard Parton's demo for her song "Put it Off Until Tomorrow," which she had written and copyrighted the previous year. Not only did Phillips want to record the song, he wanted to record it using the "girl singer on the demo." The Decca recording turned into one of the biggest country hits of 1966 (and BMI Song of the Year), and brought Parton to the attention of DJs all over the country, both for her beautiful back-up vocal work, and also for her heartbreaking song, which still stands as one of her best. After the success of this song, Parton started recording more country material for Monument, including her first solo hit, "Dumb Blonde," which made it to the charts in 1967.
All of a sudden, Parton was a big name in the music business. Porter Wagoner invited her to be his new "girl singer" on his TV show after her predecessor, Norma Jean, left to get married. (As a supplement to Parton's solo career, Wagoner and Parton would make records as a duo for the next eight years.) In 1967, Monument put out her first solo LP, Hello, I'm Dolly. Shortly afterwards, RCA Victor--at the time one of the biggest of the big record labels--signed her, thus beginning a collaboration that lasted nearly 20 years. From being a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, and singing crossover hits that increased her popularity both as a country music and as a pop music star, to enjoying a syndicated television show and roles in several box-office hits (such as 9 to 5), as well as collaborations with numerous major music stars and innumerable awards, Parton climbed from local star to regional, then national, and finally international star. Her discography alone, especially during the early and mid-'70s, is evidence of her prolific talent and success. In the late '60s and early '70s, she usually released three or more LPs of new material each year.
Parton's Musical Influences
Though sometimes overshadowed by the more glamorous aspects of Parton's popular image, traditional Appalachian folk, country, and bluegrass music have played an important role in her life, to a much greater extent than one might imagine from looking at the bulk of her career. In an interview in 1999, Parton explained: "As a child, I was always around music, and all of my people played fiddles, mandolins, banjos and guitars. So every kid in my family was used to having those just laying around. I was especially in love with the banjo . . . And actually, if I don't have these artificial fingernails on, I can play the banjo, that old clawhammer style. When I was little, I could really get a move on it." But even with this rich mix of musical ingredients in her youth, it was not until the late 1990s that Parton would really begin to explore and pay tribute to these musical roots by producing three albums in bluegrass style: The Grass Is Blue, Little Sparrow, and Halos & Horns.
Still, traces of her roots can be seen in her earlier work. On one of her earliest recordings, Hits made famous by Country Queens (1963), two songs ("Two Little Orphans" and "Little Blossoms") are traditional Appalachian ballads, while another ("Letter to Heaven") is written by Parton in a similar ballad style. In her Victor recording years, she wrote several songs reflecting her Appalachian roots and her love of traditional music. These included "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy"(1969), "Down from Dover" (1970, re-recorded in 2001 for her album Little Sparrow), "Coat of Many Colors" (1971, which she wrote about her childhood), and several songs on her LP My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973).
Whether the release is an album of straightforward country-pop or an album paying direct homage to her roots, the various musical experiences of Parton's formative years shine through: early country, honky tonk, Appalachian music, gospel and bluegrass, and even jazz and blues. Music critics and scholars recognize the extraordinary mix of influences heard in Parton's songs, often finding numerous genres layered into the construction of a single verse or chorus. Her childhood foundation in Appalachian music, the spirituals she heard in church, the experiences as a youth in country-music radio, and her years steeped in the Nashville tradition have culminated in the diverse and eclectic sounds that make Dolly Parton's music so unique and satisfying today.
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Santelli, Robert; Holly George-Warren; and Jim Brown, eds. American Roots Music. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Weisberger, Jon. "Dolly Goes Bluegrass." Bluegrass Now Magazine 9, no. 12 (1999).
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Zilberg, Jonathan. "Yes, It's True: Zimbabweans Love Dolly Parton." Journal of Popular Culture 29 (Summer 1995): 111-26.