THE QUEEN OF COUNTRY MUSIC HAS BUILT AN EMPIRE ON HER MUSIC, HER MOVES, AND HER ONE-OF-A-KIND MOXIE
Dolly Parton has written so many songs in her six-decade career that she alleges she can’t count them all. When asked if she has a favorite, however, she doesn’t hesitate to respond: “Coat of Many Colors,” the title track from her eighth studio album, which debuted on the country charts in 1971. The song tells the simple autobiographical story of her mother finding a box of colored rags when Dolly was a child, which was all she could afford to whip into a winter coat for her. When young Dolly goes to school in her coat of rags she is teased, but finds resilience in the love of her family. In the song Parton sings, “Now I know we had no money / But I was rich as I could be / In my coat of many colors / My momma made for me.”
“It’s still my favorite,” the music icon says. “I believe it helped me and has helped a lot of people around the world. It shares a powerful message.” Dolly’s compelling message of faith and pride has been her professional hallmark and the backbone of a career that began when she was a preteen growing up in backwoods Locust Ridge, Tennessee, the fourth of twelve children. Childhood was, by her own account, “dirt poor” and tough growing up in a log cabin deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. As a young girl, she performed on local radio shows, and at 13 she performed at the Grand Ole Opry. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school and embarked on what has become one of the most decorated, prolific, and respected careers in the history of music. Parton’s list of achievements includes Grammys, American Music Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a place in the Grand Ole Opry, and a Kennedy Center Honor. Throughout, she’s done it with her own unique blend of pluck, moxie, wigs, short skirts, and rhinestones.
Parton represents a unique paradox: she’s a country girl, but she’s in-your-face glamorous; familiar, but also a real-life cartoon, possessing a physically augmented figure that resembles the ultimate ageless pinup. “I’m a Backwoods Barbie,” she proudly says, invoking the name of her fortieth studio album, which was released in 2008. Even in her comical nicknames for herself, she seamlessly embodies both the coquettish charms men love and a unique brand of fabulous feminism women want to believe in. In all her performances—onstage, in the studio, and on-screen—she proves she’s not afraid to use her false nails as claws if she needs to. Anyone else remember when she went from a sexy secretary to a gun-toting girl-gone-wild who hogtied her boss to a garage-door opener in the hit film Nine to Five?
This is perhaps her most endearing quality: resilience. She may be blonde with an oversized bust, but she’s hardly a pushover. Beneath the shimmery ditz, there’s always been a business blitz. Famously, in 1974, Elvis asked to record her song “I Will Always Love You,” which Parton had written and recorded (and Whitney Houston would famously turn into one of the most-played songs of the ’90s when she sang it for the soundtrack of her hit film The Bodyguard). Presley’s management told Parton that Elvis didn’t sing songs he didn’t own, and it was standard procedure for the songwriter to sign over half of the publishing rights to any song he recorded. Parton balked at the King, and kept her millions in future royalties.
Since recording her first album, Hello, I’m Dolly, in 1967, Parton has not slowed down. She is still acting in films, making records, and writing as often as she can. “I’m inspired by everyday life, my friends, and my family,” she says. “I can write anywhere and I try to write as often as I can.” She is currently starring alongside Queen Latifah in the filmJoyful Noise, the story of a local choir, lead by Parton and Latifah, out to win a national singing competition. “I’m always being sent scripts, but I really liked this one because I would be working with Latifah and it has some of the greatest gospel music I’ve ever heard. I also got to write a few songs that will be featured in the movie,” Dolly smiles.
Her biggest full-time job, however, might be maintaining her trademark look. On her appearance, Dolly is notoriously self-effacing. Some of her best one-liners? “It costs a lot to look this cheap!” and “I never leave a rhinestone unturned.” She is particularly fond of a piece of dialogue she says in Joyful Noise: “Who cares if I’ve had a few little nips and tucks? God didn’t make plastic surgeons so they could starve!”
There’s a formula to Parton’s silhouette: something fitted with a short skirt; opaque and/or shimmery tights; a peep toe high heel; a wig; lots of makeup; and a neckline that hints at her well-maintained décolletage. (Dolly trivia: the opening acoustic sequence on her hit “Nine to Five” is actually the sound of her tapping her acrylic fingernails together.) It’s been this way for decades, and it doesn’t look like she’s going to change anytime soon. “I’ve never tried to keep up with the trends and I’ve always just had my own style. I like everything overdone and I’m comfortable with that,” Parton laughs. “People always say less is more, but I say no, more is more.”
Parton has come a long way since her rag coat of many colors in the Smoky Mountains, and even though she has closets and tour buses full of her own costume creations, she hasn’t forgotten where her roots are. In fact, she ended up thanking her mother for that coat of many colors with an upgrade of her own. Asked what was the first thing she splurged her money on when she started to make it in the business, Dolly proudly says, “A mink coat for Mama.”
Image courtesy Dolly Records